A sermon for new member Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on March 19, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. You can hear this sermon here.
New members: My admiration for you is unending. It’s vulnerable and brave to join a church. It takes guts just to walk in the front doors the first time. Almost every time I meet with a new person, when I ask them why they came, tears almost immediately begin to flow. The journey here is always different, but it almost always involves pain, rejection, loss and no small amount of mourning. It is brave to trust your tender hearts and your stories to these admittedly imperfect fellow humans who you are only just beginning to know.
Also, I admire you because people will look at you a little funny when you say you joined a church. (I was single for a little while there in between husbands, and let me tell you, telling men at the bar what I did for a living was a surefire way not to get a free drink, much less a date.) Your atheist cousin, your Crossfit enthusiast brother in law, your best friend who yogas on Sunday, your teenaged kids …they all maybe secretly think you’re weird.
And you’ll say to them, “Oh, it’s not that kind of church. And, I promise, it’s not a cult.” And truthfully, they’ll wonder.
Anyway, we delight in your presence here. We welcome you and everything that makes you weird, because we’re weird too. Don’t stop inviting your friends, not in a creepy way to win more hearts for Jesus, but because you’re certainly not the only one who needs a place like this.
Today’s scripture reading so beautifully reenacted by Drew, Janice and Xan, the Woman at the Well, is thought to be both the lengthiest and most theological text in the entire New Testament.
So let me say that the most remarkable thing about this text is not the content of their conversation, but the fact that Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman at all. Jesus, who was a very pious Jew at the time, should not have been talking to a woman in public. Public conversation between the sexes was forbidden by religious and cultural laws. He also should not have been talking to a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
It’s also important to know that women at the time, and in this area of the world would have gone to the well very early in the morning to fetch water before the sun rose, together as a group. The Samaritan woman in our story comes to the well midday at the hottest time of the day. This is a sign both that she is desperately thirsty, and that she is an outcast in the Samaritan community. If she had not been, she would have been allowed to travel to the well with the other women, before the sun made it hard to travel, and exacerbated her thirst. It is thought that her outcast status is the result of her “many husbands.” And still, despite the rather extreme difference in status, the Samaritan woman is not scared to talk to the Rabbi Jesus, to tell him about her thirst, to question him, even. (Jesus likes bold women. He listens to them. He sees them.)
So despite the fact that she is of a different religious persuasion, gender and social status than he is, Jesus meets her as conversation partner. Despite the fact that she is a different race, Jesus sees her as kin. Despite the fact that he clearly knows her story, Jesus offers to share God’s love with her. In fact, he asks to share her drinking vessel, an action that makes him unclean according to Jewish law. Jesus was crossing every boundary.
In God’s family, there are no lines drawn between people, and the well of God’s mercy is deep and unending.
Like the disciples, every time we turn around, we find Jesus is talking to a person who you and I would rather not befriend. We happen upon Jesus at the well again on our way home from work, and he’s hanging out with that smelly homeless person who kinda scares us, or the boss who we despise, or a Fox News commentator, or our ex-mother in law, or a member of a gang, or a flamboyant drag queen, or a guy with the red #MAGA hat, or whoever we are referring to these days as a “snowflake.” Jesus always seems to see the people no one else notices. He hangs out with the people you and I have de-friended on Facebook because of their political memes. He offers them mercy, depth and belonging. He offers them living water, a font of the spirit that never runs dry.
And as such, he messes with our institutions, and the boundaries we have drawn around them.
Jesus tells the woman at the well that a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here--
when the importance will not be placed on the time and place of worship
but on the truthful hearts of worshipers.
He says, in essence, it doesn’t matter whether you fit the mold of what other people think a faithful person should look like. What matters is your authenticity. What is in your heart matters far more than what you have done, who you voted for, where you came from, or what the label affixed to your outside is.
New members, with truthful hearts and from many different places, you are joining this congregation in a glorious new day for the Church. If you have been cast out, we welcome you back in. If you have been a stranger in a strange land, or de-friended on Facebook, or made to walk to the well alone, here may you find citizenship and love in the kin-dom of God.
You are here at the exact right time. This is the best time in our nation’s history to join a religious community, the year 2017.
These are hot mess times of unprecedented disunity, divisiveness, instability and a crazy-making war on Truth. These are hot mess times defined by the crumbling of our storied American institutions, including healthcare, schools, the press, democracy itself. And so we need Jesus the boundary-crosser; the truth-teller; the healer. And yet, if you listen to pew reports and academics and sociologists--the institution of the church is crumbling before our eyes, as well. You will hear from people who study religious institutions and nostalgic friends say that the hey-day of the Christian church in America was back in the 1950s when America was great, the pews and Sunday School classrooms were full, and the (white) women stayed home from work and kept the church’s ministries running.
So maybe you think I’m crazy when I say that today is the hey day of the Christian church. But it is.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
Here’s why: the statistics say most people don’t go to church in New England at all, much less regularly. This is because nobody has to be here. Nobody pressures you to go, except maybe your grandma. The malls are open on Sundays now, and so are delicious brunch restaurants selling mimosas. I can smell the hot coffee brewing from here. Our jobs are requiring more and more hours out of us, and Sunday is sometimes our only family day; our only day to sleep in or ski. Soccer practice happens during church services, and truthfully, most parents choose sports as the priority for their kids. Church is a choice among many.
And church is seen as boring, outdated, a thing of the past. Worse, the Christian Church is associated with hypocrisy, discrimination and hate, largely due to its own….well, hypocrisy, discrimination and hate. (The church has to get better at being the church, or it will deserve its own death.)
We who sit here in these pews with our questions and our tender hearts: we are here despite all of that. In other words, we’re here for no other reason than because we choose to be. We are here because we still thirst for water from a deeper well, and our thirst is not satisfied by consumer culture, surface-level friendships, buying more stuff, winning soccer games or elections, and mindless entertainment.
We are here only because of a yearning for God and each other. We are here because we choose to be a part of the love revolution, starting with ourselves and one another, and radiating out into the world.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
It’s already here because there is unity in the family of God, and we crave unity despite difference. At our path to membership class, 90-year-old Charlie said despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
A new day is coming—in fact it’s already here!
This new day is already here at First Church in Sterling because we are proud to be theologically and ideologically diverse. Atheists sit next to Theists. Conservatives sit next to Liberals. Gay people sit next to straight people. Young people learn from elders, and elders learn from young people. We serve our community together, regardless of our differences. We reach out to our Muslim and Jewish and immigrant neighbors. We hug each other. We even like it.
That’s because our thirst is consistently quenched by the living water of a shared faith in Love—something deeper than the arbitrary lines that divide us.
Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from a place of an authentic love, not tribalism. Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from an authentic experience of God, not rote practice, or habit, or compulsion. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its prayer.
A new day is coming for the church—in fact it’s already here.
Rachel Held Evans says that "For much of my life, being a Christian was all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life. My faith had, in many ways, been reduced to intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It took watching that faith completely unravel in the midst of the doubts, questions, and frustrations of my young adulthood to realize that you never really arrive at "right." Right is not the point. What I longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time. What I longed for was sanctuary -- a place to breathe, to be myself, to wrestle with the mystery, to confess my sins and explore my doubts, to experience God rather than simply believe in God.”
Broken and beloved people: Let us tell the truth to one another, taking it one day at a time. Let us experience this God that brings inside those who’ve been cast out. Let us long for Jesus to continually challenge our assumptions about who should be included in our circle. We thirst, like the woman at the well, to be part of one human family, united in Love. So for all of us who have spent our lives seeking after things that do not satisfy, a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
May Love’s living water that quenches thirst forever.
become a fresh, bubbling spring within you,
giving life throughout eternity.
May you never be thirsty again.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
based on John 3: 1-17, and "Born Again, and Again, and Again" by Kerry Egan
preached March 12, 2017 at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/heard.
What was it like? The day you were saved?
I wonder if you’ve ever been asked that question.
In our scripture text from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, Nicodemus is a religious leader genuinely puzzled by the question of salvation. Jesus tells him that he needs to be “born from above” in order to see the kingdom of God. “How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “I am old. I can’t be born again. I can’t squeeze myself back into the womb of my mother, and come out anew.”
“Yes, true, but you can start your life over in the spirit,” Jesus suggests. A spiritual re-birth is possible. The spirit is not like the flesh, it’s like the wind. And the wind is powerful. You can’t see it, but it rustles the trees and knocks out power lines, and you hear the loud howling sound of it wooshing through the wind tunnels the sky scrapers create in the cities. You can feel the impact of the wind when it touches ground in a tornado. And the spirit is also like water. It cleanses you, like a newborn baby bathed in amniotic fluid, as yet untouched by the world.
The passage we heard today contains John 3:16, perhaps the most famous scripture from the New Testament, the one often used as a purity test and a cudgel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Here’s what I want you to remember from these sometimes weaponized words. Here is what I want you to teach the children:
1. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD.
2. God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.
Love changes us like a tornado: indeed it reorders our lives; it turns things upside down, and we are never the same. Love washes over us like a cleansing: We are reborn in it again and again. And yes, Love saves us, and we don’t have to earn our salvation. (God is not a monster, and love is not a lie.)
So what was it like? The day you were saved?
Truthfully, this is a question that I don’t get asked that often, even as a pastor. It’s kind of a thing that people usually don’t talk about in polite company, at least in Massachusetts anyway.
And yet, I remember so clearly last year one of you came to me distressed. You were having a conversation with someone in a professional capacity, and you happened to mention how much you loved your church; this church.
And the question posed to you by this associate was, “Are you saved?”
And you panicked. You had no idea how to answer. You were sure that the question didn’t come from a place of love, but from a place of judgment. You were hurt, confused and angry that someone would question your faith; your Christianity.
You wanted to know how you should answer the next time you are asked this question. Maybe you could turn the question back on the asker like Kerry Egan did, from a place of genuine, loving curiosity and say:
“What was it like? The day you were saved?”
A few months ago, I was hosting some evangelical clergy colleagues here at First Church. They were from a Pentecostal church in Worcester. I happened to be wearing a clerical collar (which I hardly ever wear) that evening. One of them introduced himself to me and said, “are you a Catholic?”
Puzzled, I said with a wink, “I don’t think the Catholic Church is ordaining girls like me into the priesthood these days. Yet.”
Then I realized he was referring to my collar, which he said he’d never seen a “Christian” pastor wear. (Much less a lady pastor, though he didn’t say that.)
“Oh, you’re referring to my collar. I’m the pastor here,” I said with a smile.
“Is this a Christian church?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Protestant Christian church.”
“What denomination?” He asked.
“It’s multi-denominational,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, looking skeptical. “Do you believe in Christ? Is your church Bible based?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Christian church associated with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Bible is our foundational text.”
“Oh,” he said, eye-ing me a little sideways. “Good.”
The people I was standing next to were puzzled by these questions. “Aren’t we kind of obviously a Christian church? We’ve been here on the town green since Christianity was, like, invented.”
But I knew that these were coded questions. He was gauging our purity. “Are you saved? Is your congregation saved?” He was asking me. This is the way some Christians parse believers from un-believers, based on the scripture text from John that we read today. Are you born again? Are you John 3:16 Christians? Which is another way of saying “true”, “saved” Christians?
I want you to know that in preparation for this sermon, I googled yesterday morning the question “am I saved?” Because when Jesus said to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, I felt sure that Google was one tool Jesus placed in my tool box. I found a quiz online called “Am I Saved?” It asked me the following questions:
1. What is your age?
2. What is your gender?
3. Are you born again?
4. How do you feel after you've become born again
I’m born again and a new creature in Christ
I’m born again but the same person
I’m not sure
I’m not born again
5. Do you love your children, parents, or your own life more than Jesus?
I have to think about that
6. How do you feel about your sins?
I hate sin and I flee from sin
I don’t want to sin but I cant stop
I love my sins
7. Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
8. Do you forgive others who have sinned against you?
I forgive and forget
I forgive, but don’t forget
I only forgive those I love
I don’t forgive
9. Could you die for Christ? ie...decapitation
I don’t know
No, I cant
10. Do you believe the bible to be 100% true?
11. How often do you pray and read scriptures
Whenever I have time
12. Who is Jesus?
A good man
God in the flesh
One of many gods
My result was, in a nutshell, that I am only 33% saved. (Which I suppose is better than 0%, but still seemed kind of low for a pastor).The internet doesn’t always have all the answers, because it is wrong, at least in this case. I am 100% saved. So are you. Every single one of us is 100% saved by virtue only of our birth.
For God so loved the world that God came not to condemn, but to save it.
My colleague Rev. Chris Buice, in his meditation manual, "Rollerskating as a Spiritual Practice" (Skinnerhouse Books) writes:
Occasionally I am stopped on the street and asked the question, “Are you saved?” Even though I am a minister, I am never sure how to reply. Then I remember a story from my own childhood. When I was a child, four or five years old, I took my brother’s pocket knife and began carving some words into the wooden headboard of my bed. When my mother discovered my creative work, she was justifiably angry.
I think normally vandalism of furniture would have gotten me into deep trouble. But my mother was a minister’s wife, and the words I had carved into the bed were “Jesus Loves Me.” In this kind of situation it is true that “Jesus saves.”
Of course I was saved not only by Jesus. I was saved by a mom who knew who to balance accountability with forgiveness. I imagine that it is difficult to know how to discipline your children when their religious expression does damage to the furniture. But through a gentle talk, my mom was able to help me see the error of my ways and I changed my behavior for the better.
Another time I was saved when I was swimming in the ocean. I went out into water way over my head and was caught in the undertow. Fortunately my brother Sam noticed that I was struggling. He jumped into the water and came out to get me. He hauled me in to shore.
Once again I was saved by a grace, both human and divine.
When I hear the word saved, I think of being rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm. And in many ways I have been saved. Sometimes this experience of salvation has a human hand and a person’s face. At other times I encounter it when I am alone in the woods and there is no sound except the whispering of the wind playing in the leaves or water flowing over rocks in a stream.
And as I remember these things I know the answer to the question, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” I reply, “I am definitely saved.”
So what was it like? The day you were saved? The day you were rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm?
What was it like the day you got sober, the day you left the abusive marriage, the day your babies were born, the day you got your health back, the day you survived that car accident, the day you were told your cancer was in remission, the day you realized you survived--bruised and battered, but alive--the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship? What was it like, the day you were given a new chance at love? What was it like the day you were welcomed—truly welcomed—for all of who you are for the first time? What was it like, the day you forgave a friend or enemy, the day you yourself were forgiven, the day you lost your old life, and found a new one?
If you ask me if I’m saved, I would say: “Yes, I’m saved. I’m saved every day that I’m alive. I’m born again every time the sun rises again in the east, every time the shadow of death turns to the light of morning. I am born again every time I am given the opportunity to see Christ’s face in another human being. I am saved by grace, which has nothing to do with what I have done or have failed to do. Every day I am alive is my salvation day, every person I meet who has a lesson to teach me, a savior.”
If the colleagues visiting our church asked me outright if my congregation is saved, I would have said “Oh yes, my congregation is saved. We are saved by each other, by our children and each other’s children, and by the love of God which is so powerful and so extravagant, that this love doesn’t parse who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. No bible based purity test or internet quiz can measure it. And what’s more, my congregation is responding to the wasteful love of God by saving others, and that salvation is reverberating throughout the community and the world.”
I got an anonymous card this week with $25 in cash sent to the church office. Here is what the card says:
"Dear Reverend Bartlett,
In today's Item, I read with interest the article about your parish and the reverse offering. One of the stories was of particular interest to me. One member donated her offering to the lunch account of a needy child he knew at Clinton Elementary School. I taught school at the elementary level for 25 years and I am retired. I am hoping that you will be kind enough to find that teacher and ask them to use my enclosed donation to add to that child's lunch fund."
Salvation spreads, like grass in the wind; like the spirit of God that blows upon it. For God so loves the world that God came to save it through flesh and blood humanity. We are born again of the spirit with every act of this salvific love; creating a heaven here on earth.
Anne Lamott says “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Beloved, be a beacon bringing light to the dark places. You are the light of the world. Stand there shining.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on March 5, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard.
I know a lot of you audibly gasped when I changed my profile picture to say that I was giving up Facebook for Lent. Several people called to ask if I was OK.
Lent is a season in which we attempt to rid ourselves of a habit or behavior or crutch that separates ourselves from each other and from God. The traditional practices of Lent are prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, fasting, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Lenten disciplines provide a spiritual housecleaning to provide more space for God.
And I noticed that Facebook feeds my anxiety about the fate of our country and planet, my fear, my insatiable hunger for connection, my desire to numb and avoid, my petty competitiveness, my work-aholism and my failure to observe Sabbath, and most of all, my sinful tendency to see the world as “us and them,” when I know there is only “us.” It kinda crowds God out. So I am currently stumbling around in a Facebook-free wilderness. I have taken up reading books, and, you know, interacting occasionally with my husband and children. I am trying to pray more.
It’s my wilderness. You have one, too.
As we know from our Bible, Jesus was led by God into the wilderness where he stays for forty days and forty nights. Afterwards, it says, he is famished. That is when the devil tempts him.
Jesus is in a state, I am sure, both mentally and physically, of utter desperation. He hasn’t eaten for weeks. He is likely hallucinating. He is probably thirsty and tired, and feeling empty and powerless. I imagine he feels as though he is about to die; vulnerable and alone, gaunt and weak. He’s probably even scared.
First he is tempted with food after all that time without, and Jesus says, “one does not live by bread alone.” Then Jesus is tempted with power over all of the kingdoms of the world: “And Jesus answers, essentially, “I worship God, not power.” And then the devil tempts him to prove who he is by throwing himself down, and Jesus refuses saying that we should not be in the business of trying to test God, or make God prove anything to us.
You and I are not Jesus, and so we are far more vulnerable to the devil’s temptation when we are weak and tired and hungry and alone and most of all--scared.
I remind us of this a lot, because it is important to in these hot mess times. Studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like fear of terrorism or war—we are less likely to love the stranger. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics.
We are most vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance; when we see people in the world as objects to be feared and despised rather than as God’s beloved.
And yet Jesus reminds us: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Which, as we know, means simply this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
And beloved, like everyone else in this country, we have been tempted by the devil to hate and despise our neighbor, based on their political persuasion, religion, immigration status, skin color, gender and sexuality, especially this year. And we have refused to take the bait. We have consistently said “no” to the devil, and yes to love.
Again and again, we have chosen love.
And together, we are practicing the Lenten discipline of giving that love away. A few weeks ago, we were given a reverse offering: I gave you $5,000 and told you to use it for Good; to share the love; to come back and tell the story. Some of my leaders and colleagues were surprised that I was willing to trust all of you without any kind of direction other than that. It was an act of faith; in you and in God. And I didn’t question for a moment that this money would be used well, and for God’s glory. Raise your hand if you participated in this challenge.
Turn to your neighbor and tell them the story of what you did with it.
There will be ways to hear each other’s stories—on our website, in a video Dee Wells is making for us right now. At coffee hour, I’m going to ask that you walk around and ask each other 1) how you spent the money, 2) whether this was an easy or hard assignment for you, and why, and 3) how it felt. You need to hear as many stories as possible.
Here are just some of the ways I know the money has been spent so far:
Jennifer shared her family’s money with one of her coworkers who frequently uses her own money to buy clothing and other needed items for the patients in our program. “Kim does this all the time only because she wants to help others in need. She helps others, and I wanted to help her out this time!”
Jon decided that his $25 would be loaned, via Kiva.org, to Tautua, an unmarried woman with two children living in Samoa who is looking for a loan of $400 to stock her local canteen, in order to make money to pay her weekly living expenses. He committed to add to it by loaning more every month. The quote he saw on Kiva spoke to him: "Dreams are universal. Opportunity is not.”
When I went to the young adult gathering two weeks ago, Dave said that if he had been at church that Sunday, he would have found someone there with the opposite political views as him and taken him or her out to lunch to really listen and hear. Don’t you love that? Talk about making room for God.
You reported feelings of amazement, gratitude, excitement. You reported that this gift was freeing, burdensome, joyful. Some of you gave it away impulsively as soon as you got it, and some of you agonized over the decision for weeks. One of you said that it was the “hardest I have ever thought about how to spend a small amount of cash.” Many of you said that the challenge was meaningful for your children. Many of you said it created in you a desire to do more. Many of you matched, doubling or tripling your gifts. Some of you pooled money with family and friends.
This money, this love has been shared and spread all over the community; all over the country; all over the world. Lives have been changed by this money, most especially the givers’.
I told you after the election that we were made for such a hot mess time as this. And this is why. We choose instead of fear and hate, to infect the world with love. To give it away. Away with you Satan! At First Church, when we are faced with the devil’s temptation to dehumanize and destroy, our response is this:
Hope, not cynicism
Abundance, not scarcity.
Sharing, not hoarding.
Understanding, not demonizing.
Love, not fear.
Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord, our psalmist says. Giving away this money was an act of trust that Love would guide it; that love would work magic on the giver and the receiver. Choose that kind of trust…in each other, and in God. This Lent, let us continue to deny the devil a foothold in our hearts. Let this giving be only the beginning of something far more big and beautiful. Love the hell out of this world.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling on February 26, 2017, Transfiguration Sunday.
Sermons are meant to be seen/heard. You can watch this sermon here.
It’s transfiguration Sunday. We tell this strange, miraculous story every year of Jesus’ transfiguration, on the Sunday right before Ash Wednesday, which is this week; right before the season of Lent begins. In it, Jesus goes up onto a high mountaintop with his friends. And suddenly his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white. And a bright cloud overshadows them. A voice from the cloud (presumably God) booms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” He is transfigured before them.
To transfigure means to transform in appearance into something more beautiful, or elevated. Transfiguration refers to an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change from the inside that shows on the outside.
An exalting, glorifying, spiritual change can occur when we know and see ourselves beloved. And I am not just talking about how when you first fall in love and kind of float around thinking you are pretty hot. Like when Maria sings, “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. I’m talking about the kind of love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The kind of love that God has for all. That’s the transfiguring kind of Love.
My six year old daughter Eloisa asked me last night: what are you preaching on tomorrow?
I said “transfiguration.”
Eloisa said, “what's that?”
I said, “it's when Jesus goes to the top of a mountain and is bathed in a warm white light and God says "this is my son the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased."
And Eloisa said, “sorry I'm just asking you this now, since you preach on him every week, but who the heck is "Beloved"?
That “Beloved” guy I talk about in every week is all of you.
I want you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are on a mountaintop with God. Picture in your mind’s eye what or who God looks like to you: a father, a mother, a friend, a feeling, your dog’s warm nose, a gust of wind, a light parting the clouds, Love incarnated somehow.
And then I want you to imagine God’s voice booming down with his clear and kindly authority, or gently whispering in your ear, or winking and cracking her gum like a diner waitress while she talks….
Listen, for a moment to God with your eyes closed.
You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. You are beautiful shades of white, black, red, yellow, and brown. You are gay or straight or not sure. You are male or female or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. You are temporarily-abled and disabled. You are rich, you are poor, you are somewhere in the middle. And you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. It doesn’t matter to me what you’ve done or who you’ve hurt or who you love or where you’ve been or where you are going, you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased. I knit you in your mother’s womb. I rejoiced on the day you were born. I created you in my image, and every hair on your head is counted. Your life matters. Your love matters. You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased.
And now, I want you to keep your eyes closed and imagine that God is holding up a mirror. I want you to see yourself the way God sees you. Gaze into that mirror, and look at how beautiful you are. Look at how you’ve been transformed by love. See those lines around your eyes and mouth? They tell the story of your life in joy and laughter. See that comfortable tummy? You have been nourished by the rich food and drink of family barbeques and church turkey dinners and senior center pancake breakfasts. See those silvery stretch marks? They are reminders of the blessed life you have created in your womb. See that bald dome of a head? It shines. That gray hair reflects well and hard-won wisdom. Those not-so-sculpted arms you are quick to criticize have held lovers and babies and friends as they cry. Those wrinkled hands have created art and meals and have hammered nails and changed tires and fixed so many things. They have held together what they can’t fix, too. Your hands are imprinted with the finger prints of the many hands they have held.
Look in that mirror again. Your appearance has changed; transformed by love.
OK. So now that we’ve established that, you can open your eyes. Wow! You have all been given a God makeover and you’re even more beautiful than when you first got here! Someone take a picture.
But we don’t just stop here, basking in our beauty, and shining it on one another in our pews. We leave these walls, and let our light shine on the world, everywhere we go. On Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday, on Saturday on Sunday.
Because the most important part of the transfiguration story is not the mountaintop moment, but what Jesus did afterward. He didn’t stay up on the mountain, basking in his transfigured state to commune with God forever. He went back down the mountain to be with the people. He healed. He helped. His response to God’s transformative love was to transform others with that love. Ours’ is too. Our job is to come down off of our mountains transformed by love, to transform others.
Two weeks ago, I surprised you all by passing out $5,000 in cash to the gathered congregation in worship during the offering. (Yeah, that’ll teach you to not miss church!) I did this through a generous grant I wrote from the Lily Foundation and Duke Divinity School. I asked you simply to do good with that money, and to come back and tell your story. I knew about this project for months and months, since it was my idea. So, you would think that I would have been wracking my brain all this time about how I would spend my money! I wasn’t. And I found this challenge hard.
So, I called a family meeting. Together, the five people in my family decided to pool our money. Together, we had $140. “What should we do with the money? Who does your heart break for?” We asked the kids. Cecilia wanted to go to a movie, the tickets of which went toward saving endangered animals. Isaac wanted to buy chocolate. Eloisa wanted to give the money to immigrants and refugees. We finally agreed with Eloisa to give all of our money to one refugee family, so it would go as far as possible. We called our friend, Mona, at the Worcester Islamic Center, who works with Muslim refugees, to ask about how we could help. And we got far more than we thought we would in the bargain.
In fact, all five of us got to visit with a Syrian refugee family in Worcester on a Saturday, with translators from the Worcester Islamic Center. Mona set this up for us. We were very nervous. Andy didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to make the family uncomfortable, or feel like they had to thank us, like some family of American saviors. I thought he had a good point. In addition, we were worried about going into someone else’s home, in a strange part of Worcester. We were worried about imposing. “What would we say to them?” We asked each other. We encouraged our kids to be curious, to ask questions. “That’s how you show love for people,” I said.
We were escorted upstairs to a small apartment. We took our shoes off and sat down in their small living room with the two parents, their 6 children, the five of us, and four interpreters from the Worcester Islamic Center. We asked a lot of questions, like, “How do you get the food that you love here? What do you miss the most about home? What is school like? Is learning English hard?” They answered with grace and honesty. Tomatoes taste different here. They miss lemon salt. There are other Arabic speaking refugees at school. Learning English is hard, but they have to learn fast so they can get jobs.
We said to them, "We are Christians who are worried every day, and so angry and scared and sad about what is happening in Syria and to Muslims, and we feel so helpless. We just want you to know that you are loved and welcome here in Massachusetts, and that we will stand up for you, your safety, and your right to be here.” We gave them our reverse offering money. The adults all cried together, especially me and Andy. They told us that in the Muslim faith, they believe that God makes us all brothers and sisters. Turns out that they, too, believe what is written above my head. One God, Father of All.
We gave them chocolate, too, which our interpreters told us is the universal language.
Truthfully, they gave us more than we could ever give to them. They served us Syrian coffee, which is super strong like espresso, flavored with cardamom. They shared themselves with us. They told us the story of a bomb that went off in their kitchen, killing two nephews. Their six-year-old has to be treated for the effects of smoke inhalation, including brain damage. The bomb burned their ten year old over half of her body. They named her Sidra, which they told us means “the light before the dawn on the horizon.” When the folks from the Worcester Islamic Center first encountered Sidra lying in a hospital bed, covered with burns and worrying about what she looked like, they knick-named her “Jameel”, the Arabic word for beauty. Transformed by Love.
Her parents delight in simple things, like the fact that Sidra can now lift her arms above her head. The father talked about how thankful he was to take multiple forms of public transportation with Sidra to get her burns treated in Boston because his family is all together, and he doesn't have to worry about his kids because they are finally safe. Before I left, I kissed her goodbye and called her “beauty,” too. Transformed by Love.
They told us that we are some of their first friends in America, and in their country only family checks in on people, which means we are their family now. They agreed to come over to dinner at our house next. It was a sacred moment we will never forget. Transformed by Love.
Sometimes, we go into a place to “help”, and we realize that our hosts are actually helping us to feel our humanity again. This is what slowly becoming real looks like. We were transformed by Love.
My family wouldn’t have been able to do this without the church’s challenge.
Beloved: you are beautiful. You have been to the mountaintop with God, who has lavished you with the gift of wasteful, extravagant Love. When you and I come down the mountain, we see this: EVERYONE transfigured. We see this: everyone we encounter bathed with that warm white light, which is God. When we come down, we see all people as more than just bodies. As more than just black, or brown or white, trans or gay, male or female, old or young, Muslim, Christian, or Jew--but as people called by their God-given name, which is Beloved. When we come down the mountain we see all people as opportunities to see and touch Christ. These are my sons and daughters, the Beloved. Listen to them.
They will know we are Christians by our Love. Share the Love.
Preached on February 12, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard, not read. You can listen to this sermon here.
When I think of home, I think of a place where there is love overflowin’. This sanctuary is a home of overflowing love for so many. Welcome home.
Please won’t you pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together find their way into the heart of God this morning. Amen.
My friend Chuck gave all of his money away.
Chuck Collins was 16 when his dad sat him down and told him that he was about to inherit so much money, he’d never have to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to. Chuck was the heir to the Oscar Mayer wiener fortune, and at sixteen, a trust fund was to be set up in his name. The trust would grow to be several million dollars by the time Chuck was middle aged. His father encouraged Chuck to work anyway, as he had, and to not give up who he was or what he wanted to do.
Chuck refers to this experience as “being born on third base.” The money weighed heavily in his pocket, and on his young soul. It felt like both a responsibility and a curse. He knew he didn’t earn it, didn’t deserve it, and that others needed it far more than he did.
And so at age 26, he took his father’s advice of not giving up on who he was, and gave every penny of his inheritance away. He gave away every last cent to foundations and groups that he knew needed funding—organizations working for the environment, peace, racial equality, and indigenous people and gay rights.
(That’s the crazy kind of thing we do when we are idealistic and 26, right? His father asked him if he was becoming a Communist. Chuck answered, “No, a Christian.”)
“Wealth that just creates more wealth seemed wrong,” said my friend Chuck. “The decision to give away my wealth felt like the first real decision I’d ever made,” he wrote in We Gave Away a Fortune. “Life presents only a few crystal-clear opportunities to take risks for what you believe, and this was one.”
Since that day in 1985, Chuck has had a child who is now a beautiful young adult, bought a home in Jamaica Plain in Boston, worked tirelessly at the organization he founded in Boston called “United for a Fair Economy” to create economic justice in the world, served as one of those indispensable pillars at two churches, (one of which I was the intern of), and written several books, including one he co-authored with Bill Gates, Sr. about preserving the estate tax. He has worked with communities on creating financial sustainability for his entire career, promoting the religious value of “Commonwealth.” He has never once regretted his decision to give away his inheritance.
Chuck took the abundance of what was given to him, and has spent his whole life sharing it. He has spent his whole life teaching others how to share it, too.
I’d like to think I’d make the same choice as Chuck, but if I’m being honest, I think I’d keep some of that money. Maybe, just like half a million of it. I’d buy an expensive bag, and some shoes (maybe Fluevogs), and maybe you know, a vacation home in Bali, and college for my kids, of course. Then, maybe, I hope, I’d give the rest away. He was 26 when he gave his money away, so maybe he hadn’t thought about what it would be like to have kids and a mortgage. And maybe he never dreamed of a vacation home in Bali. I know he doesn’t really care about shoes.
What would you do? It’s an interesting thought experiment, anyway. But its one that we can easily remove ourselves from, or distance ourselves from. I think most of us don’t associate ourselves with wealth, or think of ourselves as particularly wealthy. Most of us aren’t in the 1%. Maybe none of us are. And if we are like most Americans, we have a complex relationship to wealth.
Chuck says, in his book “Born on Third Base”,
The relationship status between US people and our super-wealthy is complicated.
At one talk I gave, I asked the audience: “How many of you feel rage toward the wealthiest 1 percent?”
Almost everyone in a room of 350 people raised a hand. There was nervous laughter.
“How many of you have admiration for some of the things wealthy people have done to make our society better?”
About two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands.
“How many of you wish you were in the wealthiest 1 percent?”
Again almost everyone raised a hand, laughing.
“So you feel enraged, admiring, and wish to be the object of your own anger?” I observed. See, I told you it was complicated.
Most of us are not rich. And many of us approach those we associate with wealth with a mix of rage, admiration, and a covetous desire to be in their shoes. In their Fluevogs.
And so perhaps we approach today’s scripture about the rich young man feeling like we can’t relate to the man in the story, or wishing we could.
Here’s how the story goes.
A rich, very pious and earnest young man says to to Jesus, “what deed do I have to do to receive eternal life?”
And Jesus says, essentially, “why are you asking me this?!” (Jesus is sometimes so cranky). Basically, only God is good, he says. And then Jesus says, but if you wish to enter into life, you should keep the commandments. And the young man said to him, ‘Which ones?’
And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’
(Which just seems to me like asking for trouble. But this young man is maybe idealistic in that 26 year old kind of way.)
And Jesus says this thing that is so demoralizing because it feels so totally impossible. He says “IF YOU WISH TO BE PERFECT, sell all of your possessions, give it all to the poor and follow me.”
And the young rich man walks away completely dejected and grieving because he has so much. He has a mortgage, and children to feed and send to college, and a time share in the Barbados that he quite likes, and a season pass to Davis Farmland. (Those things are expensive! And totally worth it!) He’s going to Disney in April because his 8-year-old has been begging for it for years. And he has a boat out on Lake Winnipesaukee and a Prius. He doesn’t feel like he can give any of that up, much less all of it.
Jesus doesn’t just tell him to sell all his possessions, he also tells him to redistribute his wealth among the poor, to identify with a segment of the population he has probably worked very hard to separate himself from. Perhaps this contributes to the man’s grief. The social costs are just too great.
“It is hard,” Jesus says, “for a rich man to get to heaven.” Like squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle.
The disciples are notably and perhaps rightfully upset by this interaction.
“Then who is saved?” they demand.
Here’s a guy who is doing everything he can to be good. He’s showing up to church every Sunday, he’s volunteering to help in the kitchen at the Caribbean dinner AND the turkey supper, he’s reading his Bible, he’s going to the Dominican Republic to build a hospital with the medical mission team, he is kind to all even before he’s had his coffee in the morning, he’s good to his wife and kids, he takes care of his aging parents and he works hard at his job, and he tithes ten percent of his salary to his church, he gives to NPR or the Goodwill or the Salvation Army or whatever causes he supports, to boot. He’s forgoing buying that home in Bali so he can do all of these things.
And Jesus says “sorry, that’s not enough. You have to give it all away.”
Let’s be honest, Jesus, none of us are going to sell our houses and live in a tent with our kids. And I think we’ve earned that vacation. I know I have. And man, what are we going to do with our toddlers in the summer if we can’t go to Davis Farmland every weekend?
And so we are saying with the disciples, exasperated, “WHO CAN BE SAVED, Jesus?”
“For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says, infuriatingly. “But with God all things are possible.”
Here’s the point. We cannot save ourselves…that’s impossible. You and I are rich by Jesus standards, regardless of the size of our bank accounts. We live in the wealthiest country in the world. Our disconnect with real poverty is staggering. And on top of that, some of us have quite a lot. And yet, we are not going to sell all of our possessions and redistribute them to the poor.
Most of us wouldn’t, in other words, make the choice that Chuck Collins did, much less go 100% with Jesus.
Jesus, in his hyperbole, just wants us to acknowledge that. He wants to show us that we are rich. He wants to show us that we cannot be perfect; that goodness is reserved for God. He wants us to feel the disconnect between our values of building heaven on earth, and where and what we spend our money on. Perhaps Jesus simply wants us to recognize that we are loved despite the fact that we are miserly, despite the fact that perfection is not a possibility. Perhaps Jesus simply wants us to recognize the hold our possessions have on us, and respond.
Perhaps our response to this disconnect is to loosen our white knuckled grip on our wallets a little bit. Or perhaps it is to loosen our white knuckled grip on our Love.
“Stop being stingy,” Jesus is saying. “With God, everything is possible. With God, the last are first. With God, you are rich in abundance. Give it away. Share the Love.”
Beloved, you and I don’t have to be perfect. Only God is perfect. You and I don’t have to even be Good. Only God is good. You and I are loved anyway. You and I are cherished anyway. Every hair on our heads is counted. You and I do not have to do anything or be anything to earn that love because with God, all things are possible.
But a natural response to this unearned abundance is to give it away. SHARE THE LOVE.
My friend Chuck felt like his unearned wealth was burning a hole in his pocket, so he gave it all away. Not begrudgingly, but to express his gratitude. It set him free. God’s Love is similarly unearned. God’s Love is similarly wasteful: it is extravagant; it is abundant; it is ours’ to keep, no strings attached. Our response should be to love wastefully and extravagantly in return; wherever and whenever we see the need—with our wallets, and with our bodies, and with every bit of our hearts, in every broken and forgotten part of this empire. That love will set us free.
SO GIVE IT AWAY. Share the Love.
If you want to give your love away effectively, pledge a portion of your money to this church—here your money goes directly toward the things you most deeply value. Practice giving your love away without strings or expectations, especially with people you find most unlovable. Come to Eat, Pray, Learn on Wednesday night to learn skills for how to love your neighbor, and especially your enemies. Be part of the Love revolution. Go all in.
Life only creates a few opportunities to take risks for what you believe. So take every opportunity you have. This home is a place where there is love overflowin’. Give it away. Share the Love.
 UU World Magazine, March, 2003
preached on February 5, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on Bible Sunday at First Church in Sterling, MA
with gratitude to my Facebook friends for their assistance.
Sermons are better heard, not read. Here is a video of this sermon.
Kids, some of you got a very important, beautiful, hard, complicated book today. Some of you already have one at home. This is a wild and wonderful story about God and humanity. It seems to have a beginning and an end, but it’s a story that’s not over because God is still living, and so are we.
This book holds the keys to the things that we talk about in this church. This book is why we believe that Love is Lord of heaven and earth. This book is a romantic adventure containing mystery and murder, fear and challenge, tragedy and triumph, suffering and hope, anguish and healing, rules and teachings; Love. This book is the foundation of much of the literature, art, music, theater, culture, even movies and TV shows that you will learn about as you grow up. So, if nothing else, it will help you understand the western world you inhabit.
This book is about different ancient communities of people from places quite foreign to us. It was written in ancient languages you don’t know. It was translated into English, and much of it got lost in the translation. Some of the stories and teachings only make sense for the people who wrote it, back then, and in that place. Many of the stories and teachings got lost or purposely left out. And yet, we have been reading it for thousands of years because it has the power to speak to us in every era and age, and we believe it contains Truth about God. That, in and of itself, makes it a book worthy of awe. This book contains the kind of Truth that you find in poetry and literature and music and art and your relationships with others, and in your life and Love experience. It does not really contain the kind of truth you find in the law, science or even history books. Some people will tell you otherwise. They are robbing this book of its power and its importance if they tell you that this is a law or science or history book. So when people tell you that it is, think hard.
Always remember when you read this book that it’s supposed to be a beautiful mystery, just like God is. You can and should read this book with your parents, but you should know that they don’t fully understand it either. I definitely don’t. It’s one of those books that you have to spend your whole lifetime trying to understand. You have to read this book in a community of people, and not by yourself. This book is one important reason why we all go to church, because it takes all of us together to understand what’s contained inside these pages. We love this book, and listen for God in this book, but we do not worship this book in our church. We worship God which is another name for Love. This is an important thing to remember.
Love is more important than this book.
There is a story about a great Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, who lived not long before the time of Jesus. Rabbi means teacher, and Rabbi Hillel was a great teacher. A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah--the five books of Moses that we read at the beginning of our Bibles--while standing on one foot. Take out your Bibles from your pews. Can you just look at the first five books at the beginning of the Bible for me? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together, they are pretty long, very complicated, and full of rules. Lots and lots and lots of rules. So this man was asking Rabbi Hillel to do a really hard thing…to stand on one foot and teach ALL of those books. I imagine the man thought that Rabbi Hillel would get very tired standing on one foot and trying to recite all of those words. But Hillel took the man up on his offer. He stood on one foot and said this: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That's the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
And so, my friends, I want you to stand on one foot right now and recite the whole of the Bible as the Rabbi Jesus taught; which is the same thing Rabbi Hillel taught about the Torah. Repeat after me:
Love God with all of your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Go and do likewise.
See? You can teach this entire Book, too, while standing on one foot. The rest is commentary.
I told my Facebook friends on Friday that I was writing a sermon for all of you called “The Bible, Simplified,” and I asked them to sum up the Bible for you in fewer than 8 words. I got 130 replies! My facebook friends who answered are ministers and rabbis and people who have studied the Bible, and they are also people who go to church and who don’t go to church, and people who are atheists and Jews and Muslims and Christians and Pagans. As you can imagine, their answers varied A LOT. So I am just going to tell you some of my favorites:
You suffer not alone. Love wins, in time.
Humanity and God’s relationship status: “it’s complicated.”
Love God. Love People. Love Yourself.
God makes, people sin, Jesus saves, love everyone.
Use my word for good, not evil, please
God: lonely, creative, mad, hopeful. Now our turn.
The Never Ending Story (ahhh ahhh ahhh ah ah ah, ah ah ah)
God with us, us with God.
Dangerously and beautifully open to interpretation
I love you just the way you are...
Most things are a blessing AND a curse.
Buncha dudes and Mary do lotsa stuff; God.
God favors the underdog.
Hitchhikers guide to return trip home. Bring everyone!
Like Cloud Atlas, but messier.
We don't read it; it reads us.
God is: creative, strange, just, poor, human.
God, thanks for the undeserved love. Again. Again.
Living the ethic of Love will save us (all.)
But for the grace of God go I
Volume II of III
Jesus died, but came back. Harry Potter rip off.
Go kill each other. Wait. Didn’t mean that.
Good news: everybody’s screwed up; redemption possible
"A person's a person, no matter how small."
A mix: wisdom, inspiration, fascinating history, old prejudices.
The people united through love, grace create heaven.
God and humanity trying to work it out
Blessed are you.
God loves you, so Love each other, no matter what
The truth will set you free
Moving toward Holy Love; little closer every day.
Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God
Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God is faithful. We forget. It'll be OK.
Snake, begat begat begat, Job, Jesus, crazy predictions.
He who dwells in love dwells in God.
With God's help, we are agents of salvation.
"Man, what? I don't even... Ugh, okay, whatever"
think YOUR family has problems? hold my wineskin!
You probably think this book is about you.
Yo bro, your empire can't crush God's people.
I’ve called you by name.
I wonder, who wrote the book of love?
If God can change, you can too.
And my favorite: The word became flesh…and moved into the neighborhood.
Love is a word that shows up again and again in those summaries.
When I was meeting with some of the leaders of this church last weekend, we were talking about things that had been important to us all of our lives. One of our friends, Sam, brought with him his Bible from when he was in Sunday School. Can you imagine that you might keep this book for as long as he has…for maybe 60 years, and still have it when you’re a grandpa or a grandma? He said something that I think was so important. He opened the book and he said, “this book is full of words. So many words. Lots and lots of words. These words have sometimes been made into an idol in my life.” (idol means a substitute for God).
My friend, Sam, then said that there is one line that helps all of the words make sense to him. He said in the book called John, if you open it up to the first chapter, there’s one sentence that guides all the rest.
It says something that probably sounds strange to you. It says “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God….”
And then later it says that the word became flesh.
For Sam, the words in this book aren’t ultimately what matters to God—what matters is human beings, human flesh, human life. Sort of like how all of the words about God and Love you read or speak only really make sense when you hug your mama, or hold your baby for the first time, or kiss your beloved, or look into your friend’s eyes, or hold a hand, or help a stranger who is scared or sad or lost.
That’s why when a lawyer asks Jesus to explain what words in this book matter the most, Jesus SHOWS him what it means to love God and neighbor with a story about a man lying on the side of the road—he SHOWS us that loving God means to help those who suffer. He shows us that loving God means to not look away, or cross to the other side of the street. He shows us that every person in the whole world is our neighbor. And he shows us what it means to love them.
These words in this book don’t mean anything until they become what you do, and how you are, and how you LOVE. So, when you read this dangerous, beautiful story about God and God’s people, I want you to remember this one thing. Make these words flesh.
When you ask the kid who everyone else thinks is weird to sit with you at lunch…this is the word made flesh.
When you serve food at the Wachusett food pantry…this is the word made flesh.
When you look a homeless person in the eye and say good morning the next time you are walking around Worcester or Boston with your parents…this is the word made flesh.
When you help someone who is hurting….this is the word made flesh.
Every time you choose kindness and bravery instead of fear…this is the word made flesh.
Hear, O First Church: "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9)
Don’t just keep these words in your heart, beloved, make them flesh. Move them into your neighborhood. The rest is commentary.
A TIME FOR ALL GOD’S CHILDREN “The Children’s March” Rev. Robin Bartlett
Mahatma Gandhi said once that “if we are to reach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”
In Birmingham Alabama in 1963, black people and white people couldn’t eat at the same lunch counters. They couldn’t drink from the same water fountains. Black children and white children couldn’t go to the same schools.
And The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed this was wrong. He was a minister in a church, and he taught his congregants that God loved every one as God’s children as God’s own, no matter what their skin color. More importantly, he listened to people like Mahatma Ghandi who thought that the best way to change things was to do it peacefully, without violence. He taught the religion of Jesus, who said that we should “love our enemies.”
And so he helped black people and white people protest the fact that they had to be separate from one another by going to the restaurants they weren’t supposed go into, and to peacefully sit in them. To go to the front of buses where they weren’t allowed and peacefully sit in the seats. He encouraged black people and white people to march peacefully together for their freedom all over the south.
Birmingham Alabama was a particularly hard place for black people in 1963. The mayor of the town was particularly mean. And Martin Luther King took his people to march on Birmingham in peaceful protest, but the marches weren’t peaceful. The mayor turned fire hoses and dogs on the people at the protests. He put them all in jail. Soon people got very discouraged and stopped marching.
At a church service like this one, Martin Luther King gave one of his inspirational sermons asking people to stand up for justice…asking them to march. Who will march? He said. No one stood up. They were too scared; too sad; too tired. The mayor in Birmingham was too mean.
But finally, one by one, the children of the church stood up until they were all standing. They pledged to march. None of the adults stood; just the children. The children in Birmingham wanted to join the peaceful protests. They felt the sting of injustice just as much as the adults did, if not more, and they wanted to help. The adults said, “no! We will not let you go to jail.” But the children insisted, leaving their schools the next day to march. And the police sprayed them with water hoses, and turned the dogs on them, and sent them to jail until the jails were filled up with children.
As soon as the children were arrested, they broke their silence with song. And the children sang (to the tune of the Old Gray Mare) Ain’t a scared of your jail, ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom. Ain’t a scare of your jail, ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.” They sang the whole time they were in jail.
The jails were so full in Birmingham, that they had no more room to put any more peaceful protestors.
On the evening of May 3rd, King offered encouragement to parents of the young protesters in a speech delivered at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. He said, “Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of humankind.”
Dr. King was right. The children’s march in Birmingham helped pave the way for the Civil Rights act to be passed in 1964. The courage of the children to stand up for freedom helped change the minds and hearts and laws of the whole country.
Dr. King said: “somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say, ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.”
Children, will you stand so we can pray for you? Congregation, hold out your hands to bless:
May our children continue to inspire us with their soul force and courage to love. Amen.
A Martin Luther King Sunday Sermon
by the Reverend Robin Bartlett
preached on January 15, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard than read. You can hear this sermon here.
I love the story of the children’s march, because it is usually the children who are brave enough to give us our marching orders.
One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, talks about a conversation her children had as they were watching old films of the Civil Rights era in their home one night.
One of her daughters said to her: “Mama, we would have marched with them, right?”
And before Glennon could answer in the affirmative, her other daughter said: “I don’t know. I mean, We’re not marching now.”
Glennon’s conversation with her children has haunted me ever since I read about it. This country right now is so far from the dream that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, sat down for, got arrested for. It is so far from the kingdom of God I preach about on Sunday mornings. It is so far from earth as it is in heaven that Jesus taught us to pray about.
And yet, I don’t know. I mean, my children and I are not marching now.
Martin Luther King’s birthday is my favorite un-official high holy day of the church. There is something about this day that gives me hope for the Church’s impact on our broken world, and my own ability as a flawed human to do something to heal it. It is the day that we, together as a nation, remember King’s dream, which is really God’s dream for a world made whole:
…That one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain be made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together……..that we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood (and sisterhood).
We need that hope right now. And so I love Martin Luther King day because it is a festival of audacious, outlandish, nonsensical hope in a hot mess time. We have been given our marching orders by God. The marching orders come through the children, and through the legacy of Dr. King, whose blood is crying out from the ground saying “you are your brother and sister’s keeper.”
Martin Luther King used to quote Theodore Parker when he said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like Jesus, he was killed for his unwavering belief that we humans have a role in bending the arc. King had no proof that this sentiment was true, but he trusted the fidelity of God enough to believe it.
That’s hope. That’s audacious hope.
In our reading from the psalms, it’s author, David, talks about a God whose promises he can trust. David has faith in a God who has pulled him out of the desolate pit, the miry bog, and set his feet on solid ground. Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, he says. Who do not turn to the proud, or to false Gods.
“Here I am,” David calls out in praise. “You have required nothing of me, and I delight to do your will.”
That’s hope. That’s audacious hope.
And then David says: “I have told the glad news of deliverance--I have preached about this audacious hope that I have--in the Great Congregation.” As I read this passage over and over again this week, that’s the phrase that jumped out at me. Who and what is the Great Congregation. “I have a great congregation,” I thought. Is that what David means?
When I close my eyes, I imagine the Great Congregation to be all of humanity in concert with the earth. I imagine the Great Congregation to be what the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community, or what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The Reverend Doctor Jacqui Lewis calls the Great Congregation “A world waiting to see.”
Beloved, we are a fractured world waiting to see. A world fallen short of what we dream for it. And right now I see the Great Congregation divided into tribes of who’s in and who’s out. Those tribes are doing a lot of talking and yelling and lecturing and posturing and not a lot of listening. We have failed to hear our marching orders from God amid the noise of so much division.
Here's an old Emo Phillips joke:
"Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, 'Don't do it!'
He said, 'Nobody loves me.'
I said, 'God loves you. Do you believe in God?'
He said, 'Yes.'
I said, 'Are you a Christian or a Jew?'
He said, 'A Christian.'
I said, 'Me, too!
Protestant or Catholic?'
He said, 'Protestant.'
I said, 'Me, too! What franchise?'
He said, 'Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?'
He said, 'Northern Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.'
I said, 'Die, heretic!' And I pushed him over."
Our job is to preach the news of deliverance to the Great Congregation, not parse who has the right to be in it. Everybody’s in. That’s what God’s kingdom will look like. That’s David’s hope that he clings to. That’s Martin’s dream.
My colleague Jake Morrill says: “It's not a time in our country for wishful thinking and handholding. But neither is it a time for infighting and purity tests. Liberty and justice for all takes a broad coalition.
He says: “The Civil Rights movement took Malcom X on the prophetic edge, Martin Luther King at the negotiating table, Whitney Young going to work every day and leading inside the system, Fannie Lou Hamer in the grassroots, The Highlander Center training people for the fight, Selma school teachers willing to stick their necks out, sluggish white people finally waking up to the horror of Jim Crow, and so many more.”
It took the children marching in Montgomery.
It takes the children, asking us why we’re not marching now.
And it will take all of us—Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Muslim, gay and straight, US citizen and non—to heal the wounds of division we have created. For all are one in God. All are one.
In 1 Corinthians, talking about interdependence in the Body of Christ, Paul says, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!'"
We need one another. And thankfully, we have each other and this community. The church gives us many chances to say, “Here I am.” The church gives us opportunities to march. The church gives us so many chances to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
Last Saturday, we served free lunch to the hungry and the lonely at our first monthly Saturday lunch. Since all of us our hungry and lonely on some level, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Sunday and Wednesday we took part in listening circles, as we prayerfully heard what it meant to each participant to be an open and affirming congregation. Imagine if all of the people of the world sat and listened to each other before speaking. Since listening for God’s voice in each other’s is what is required of us, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Wednesday, we will learn together about what hope looks like in the face of the opioid crisis at Eat, Pray, Learn at 6:00 pm in our parish hall. We will fight fear and disdain for our brothers and sisters with love and understanding of the problem of addiction. Since healing the ill and welcoming the stranger is what Jesus modeled for us, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Thursday, Wendy Campbell will host a sign-making party here at church for the Boston Women’s March. On Friday, there will be an inauguration day interfaith service for unity and love at the synagogue in Leominster that we will attend. On Saturday, members of our church and our community will meet here at 9:00 am to carpool to the Boston Women’s march. Bring your children…they lead the way. We will march for unity despite difference, we will march for each other’s lives. Since we are called to Love one another, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Saturday night, we will participate in a fundraiser for our 20 year long medical mission in La Romana Dominican Republic at our Caribbean dinner. This congregation has been working to provide clean water and medical care in this forgotten part of the empire for decades. Since healing the sick is the ministry of Jesus, supporting this mission is a good way to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
On Sunday, we will vote as a congregation to become officially a sanctuary of radical welcome to ALL people--making it as clear as humanly possible that God is love and love is love. We will do that with our vote to become Open and Affirming to the LGBTQ community and remove that final barrier to welcome. Since each and all are made in God’s image, I can think of no better way to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
Our marching orders are clear this Martin Luther King day weekend, and in the days and months and years ahead. Don’t ask yourselves if you would have marched for Love. March. Become vessels for audacious hope. Proclaim to a broken world that despite fear and division, God is and God can and God will. Become the dream for the Great Congregation that David spoke to. Become the dream for the kingdom of God Jesus called us to. Become the dream for the beloved community Martin Luther King pointed us toward. In the words of Dr. King: “Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved country to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”
Love the hell out of this world.
 From Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”
Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016 at the 9:00 pm candlelight service
by Rev. Robin Bartlett at
The First Church in Sterling, MA.
(I forgot to record this and its just as well you don't hear me butcher the Boston accent. I swear I'm from here.)
This week, I posted a version of this reflection on Facebook, and I got so many inspiring messages of hope and similar actions as a result, that I thought I would share it with you as my Ode to this Christmas, 2016.
I call it: “Kid, I’m like the Mayah of Dunkin’”
One day last fall, I drove up to the Dunkin' Donuts window in the Sterling drive-thru and found that the person in the car ahead of me had paid for my coffee. I had to pull over and cry. I cried because I rarely think to do things like that, and that person didn't know me. I could have been a person she disagreed with politically or religiously, or an ex-con or someone who neglects my kids. She didn't care. She wanted to pay for my coffee. "Humans are good," I thought.
About a half an hour later that same day, I was at the Concord rotary, and a car rear-ended me, flipping me off as he drove by. "Humans are terrible," I thought. I had to pull over and cry again, this time with anger.
If I'm being honest, I have both of those people in me--the generous, thoughtful human paying for the coffee of the person behind her, and the angry impatient jerk who thinks only of herself, inconvenienced and enraged by someone else’s slow driving, unwilling to stop and apologize after hitting someone.
I wish that I was so mystical and at one with my creator that I saw each person I encountered as worthy and having dignity, beloved by God. But the truth is, I have seen the angry, impatient, flipping-the-bird-road-rage jerk winning far too often. in the internal fight we all have between good and evil; which is really a fight between love and fear, too often I see evil and fear win. I have noticed this most especially in myself. As someone who worships the God whose battle cry is “Fear not!” and whose other name is Love, this is demoralizing and dehumanizing.
I have been preaching all advent that like Scrooge, we have forgotten what it means to keep Christmas well. We have succumbed to our anger, our hurt, our greed, our grief, our separation from one another. We have forgotten that we belong to each other and to God.
This is why we are given this sparkling sacred night, and this blessed story about God wearing the vulnerability of human skin. This night of candle light piercing darkness and angels singing. We are given this silent holy night to remind us who we are, and whose we are.
This ancient story helps facilitate our birth and re-birth, every year. For God coming in the flesh in the form of a helpless baby boy gives us all hope that we, too, can become worthy of our birthright as children of God. Like Scrooge did on Christmas Eve, we can begin again. We can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be.
On Christmas day, Scrooge wakes up in the morning to discover that it’s not too late to change the tragic trajectory of the future. There is still time. He hasn’t missed Christmas yet.
And he is not fully redeemed until he knocks on the door of his family’s house, and asks to be let back in. Whether you and I have family relationships that need repairing right now, or we need to repair relationships with other parts of the human family, Christmas is here. There is still time. We haven’t missed it.
The moral revolution this country needs is here. Right here in this room. Those of us who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. Unto us a child is born. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father. The Prince of Peace.
Since November 9th, I have started paying for the person behind me in the Dunkin' Donuts drive thru--middle aged men in pick up trucks, young women driving kids around in mini-vans. I know the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru in a small town in Massachusetts is probably fairly insignificant in the fight for the soul of a nation. But I think it may be significant for my soul, which has to be where this Love revolution we desperately need foments. And Love is the only weapon I have in my arsenal to fight the devil threatening to win my heart. The bottom line is, though it may be naïve and out of style and hard sometimes, I’m not giving up on the Gospel. I hope you will make a pact with me in the waning days of 2016 that you won’t either. (and we’re New Englandahs, so to hell with Stahbucks. Long live Dunkin’s.)
Truly he taught us to love one another. His Law is Love and his Gospel is peace.
Merry Christmas. Amen.
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on Christmas Day, December 25, 2016 at
First Church in Sterling, MA
Carl Seaburg says that a baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.
I remember being abundantly, 8 months pregnant with my first child when I attended the funeral of my best friend from high school’s brother. He had taken his own life, and it was the most senselessly tragic day, with hundreds of mourners pouring in to give their respects. Including gigantically pregnant me. I was so conspicuously, garishly, audaciously full of life on a day of profound death and mourning that I was guilty and embarrassed to be there.
God keeps audaciously, conspicuously, garishly telling us that life must go on in that way. That babies must be born in the midst of tragedy and war and despair, which is exactly the conditions under which Jesus was born. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And his name shall be called Wonderful.
Gifts come in the form of things we didn’t expect; their arrival announced at the worst possible times and places.
Jacob Marley came to bring Scrooge “Good News” of the ghosts that will come to visit him in the beginning of Scrooge’s harrowing, transformative evening. That was what constituted a gift that year….terrifying ghosts to remind him of his excesses and greed.
And I don’t know about you, but my greatest gifts didn’t always seem like gifts at the time.
It’s similar with the Christmas story.
I imagine the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary and saying something like, “Mary, greetings, o favored one, the Lord is with you. Which do you want first, the bad news or the good news?”
And Mary says….hmmm, I guess I’ll take the bad news first.
I imagine Angel Gabriel saying: “Well, the bad news is that you’re poor, you’re a teenager, you’re not yet married to your betrothed, Joseph, whom you haven’t had intercourse with yet, and he may be really, really mad at you when he finds out the good news and not want to marry you.”
And Mary says, “Well, what’s the Good News then?”
And Angel Gabriel says: “You’re pregnant! But do not be afraid, the baby is God’s!”
And Luke goes on to say that Mary was “troubled.” Yeah, I don’t blame her. Good News doesn’t always sound like Good News.
The best gifts I have ever been given all came in the form of a pregnancy followed by a birth. And one of those gifts was a total surprise. I found out I was pregnant with Isaac while I was in the midst of transition. Newly divorced, I lived with my Andy, but we were not married yet. In fact, I was under the illusion that we were “taking things slowly.” And surprise! Good News!
Of course, my little Isaac was born as a healing in my family: a resurrection. A bridge from my daughters to my sweet husband, connecting us all in shared lineage and blood. Isaac brought us all back to life.
“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.”
I have talked to more than one of you who have adult children, who this past month have given up on the idea of bringing children into this uncertain, divided, beautiful and terrible world.
I imagine that is exactly how Mary felt, terrified and great with child, made to register, finding no room at the inn. The child was born anyway, as a bridge and a healing. Jesus was born into this hurting world to bring hope to all people that we might inherit the Kingdom of God. Jesus was born into a world of despair and raging petulant murderous kings to bring us back to life.
A baby can do that. A baby can bring us back to life. Like Tiny Tim brought Scrooge back to life. Born to save us all.
A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on—that hope will be born in the most unlikely places at the worst possible times.
Let that impossible hope be born in all of us this Christmas Day. Let love win. Let life win.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.
|Rev. Robin Bartlett||
Copyright Robin Bartlett, 2013. All rights reserved.