preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on February 3, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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I call this “churches gone wild week” in the lectionary.
Congregations are capable of great love, and great destruction. That’s the uncomfortable lesson both Jesus and Paul have to teach us this week.
In our scriptures from Luke for the last two weeks, we have followed Jesus to his hometown congregation, where he preaches his first sermon.
I recently had a similar experience, for the sake of field research.
On October 7, 2018, more than 24 years after I graduated from Concord High School, I stood in the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire. This is the church where I was born and came of age in. My mother was the music director for 18 years. My father is still on the buildings and grounds committee. My stepmother chairs the stewardship drive. I know about every fight the church has had in the past 40 years, every minister they ever ran out of town, and who was on which side. I also know them to be capable of loving me into the person I am.
I hadn’t been back on a Sunday morning in at least 20 years, maybe more.
I swallowed hard, my mouth suddenly dry. I looked out into the congregation to see my father, my brother, my niece, my sixth grade teacher, my high school English teacher, my grade school piano teacher, my Sunday School teacher, my childhood friend, my friend’s parents and my parent’s friends. “These people will never take me seriously,” I thought.
(How many of you grew up in this church? Show of hands. I started to realize what you all feel every Sunday.)
The elder of blessed memory who scolded me after I played an angel in the Christmas pageant telling me I “acted more like a devil than an angel up there,” had long since gone to live with God. I’m not saying I’m relieved that she died, only that her absence that morning took some pressure off.
I had never been so scared to preach a sermon in my life.
At the risk of comparing myself to Jesus, I preached the good news Jesus preached to his own hometown congregation, from the scripture you heard Megan preach last week:
The spirit of Love is upon me because I have been anointed to bring good news to you who are brokenhearted. All of you who are held captive will soon be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will receive justice. And I am proclaiming this—2018--the year of Love’s blessing—the year of the Love Revolution.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Tears streamed down my face as we sang the closing hymn. I was home.
In the receiving line, person after sweet person held my hands and told me how proud they were of me. “That was the best sermon I have ever heard.” “You are so beautiful.” “I can’t believe it’s you.” “Who knew you had this in you?” “Aren’t you Beth’s daughter? Please tell her how much we miss her.” It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I just couldn’t believe they remembered me—just one of the church kids—24 years later. And that they came just to see how I’d turned out.
The congregants were also quick to point out to me that my theology was now so different than theirs that I could never be their minister. “You’re a Christian now? How does *that* work?” The subtext was "Thanks for visiting, but that would never fly here.”
You can never go home again.
“Isn’t he Joseph’s son? He is so gracious,” Jesus’ hometown congregation praises him when the service he preaches at is over. But Jesus knows long before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem that groups of humans can turn on a dime. He knows that humans can close each other off to heaven just as quickly as they rain down grace.
He knows you can never go home again.
So Jesus goes ahead and ruins all those good vibes in the receiving line. He predicts that they will reject him before they do, so he heads them off at the pass: “I’m sure you want me to heal you. But I know from scripture that prophets are rejected in their hometowns.”
When the congregation heard Jesus say this, they turn on him. His prediction comes true after he says it out loud, which kinda sounds to me like the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy, no? The congregation flies into a rage, drives him out of the synagogue, and out of the town. They don’t just stop there, they try to hurl him off a cliff!
Jesus passes right through them, which is such a beautiful image of non-anxious leadership. He just kind of rises above their anger and perseveres, and goes on his way. May we all be like “chill Jesus,” amen? When someone is so angry they want to hurl you off a cliff, it’s not you, it’s them. Just take a deep breath, pass through the midst of them and go on your way, my friends.
Our reading from first Corinthians is one of the most famous readings from the scriptures. It is most often read at weddings, and people cross stitch it onto wall hangings. We are tempted to think that this reading is trite, romantic or lacks nuance.
But this reading is not at all Hallmark sentimentalism. It comes from a pointed letter Saint Paul wrote to the church in Corinth rebuking them for becoming a petty, nasty brood of vipers.
The people of the church were in the midst of being total jerks to one another. They were passive aggressive, or just aggressive. They were giving each other the silent treatment, making dramatic threats to leave, and threatening to lower their pledges if they didn’t get what they wanted. They were talking about each other behind each other’s backs in the church parking lot. They were undermining leadership with petty gossip. In short, they were behaving badly. They couldn’t figure out how to live with one another, much less how to love one another. They didn’t even like one another!
And so Paul says “Look: we can say we are all for creating heaven on earth and gathering in the spirit of Jesus, but if we don’t have love, that means absolutely nothing. We can study scripture and pray and generally know a lot about God, but if we don’t have love, that’s all a worthless endeavor. Might as well go bowling. Even if we give all of our possessions away to the poor and don’t have love, we gain nothing. Meaningless.”
And then Paul tells them what Love really is when you are no longer a swooning teenager, or a princess on your wedding day. When you are an adult, Paul says, Love is not a feeling, but a way of being. Love is patient. Love is kind, he says. Mostly he tells the church in Corinth how NOT to be in Love:
Don’t be envious
Don’t be boastful
Don’t be arrogant
Don’t be rude
Don’t insist on getting your own way
Don’t be irritable
Don’t rejoice in wrong doing.
“There’s no room for any of that nonsense when you are adulting,” Paul says. “Stop trying to throw one another off the cliff.”
He’s not talking about LOVERS, he’s talking to the church.
Now this church is blessedly not particularly oriented toward petty fights at all. Mostly, we are a beloved community with a sincere focus on our mission. And we can still get outraged about the small things every now and then. We are only human and doing the best that we can, amen?
In August of 2016, I came home from vacation and my thoughts were turning to homecoming and getting the church ready, I sent an email out to the operations team leadership saying, “Hi all! When is our new sign going to be installed on the front lawn?”And Doug wrote a “reply to all message” that said, “I saw the sign! It is amazing. Probably installed Wednesday.”
This was in the evening and I was in my house which as most of you know is quite close to the church. I swear to you I was fully sober. And I was so excited to see it, that I ran immediately over to the church to witness with my own eyes the newly installed church sign Doug was talking about.
What I saw looked exactly like our old sign. Forest green, with just the words “The First Church in Sterling”, barely visible, and back from the road, fading into the green bush behind it like camouflage.
At first I was confused, and then I was just mad. In fact, I had never been so furious with this church. My belly was in KNOTS. I considered going back to therapy.
“We spent all this money on the sign, one that was supposed to stand out and SAY WHO WE WERE, and the new sign we made is exactly the same as the last one!” I yelled at my husband.
I wrote to my best collegial friends: “They changed the sign plans without telling me. And it fades into the bushes and doesn’t have our denominations on it, and doesn’t have my name on it, and it was supposedly going to! What do you think this MEANS?!”
My colleague friends said, “maybe they are trying to tell you that they don’t want too much change too fast. Maybe they figure they are the town church, and they should go for small and tasteful. You got too much press last year! They didn’t like it. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity for conversation about communication and mission and change.”
For a full hour, I was enraged. “I’m just curious,” I wrote in an email to the church leadership who worked on the sign. “Did something change with our sign plans? This new sign looks just like our old one. Did I miss something?”
Chris Roy finally wrote back, after I had slipped further into the abyss until there was practically no return. “You missed something alright. The sign is not going to be installed until this Wednesday.”
And Jon Guild replied, “in case folks don’t know, Doug saw the new church sign yesterday…on a smartphone. If the “new” sign is green, has peeling paint, and looks very similar to our existing sign…that’s probably not the new sign.”
“Whoops,” I said to my colleagues. “It turns out that was the old sign I was looking at.”
And they died. “Thanks to your nervous breakdown, Robin, we have sermon fodder for WEEKS,” they said. We will call our sermons, “I saw the sign,” “signs and wonders,” “Signs, signs, everywhere are signs”.
Sometimes we are a little too quick to hurl each other off cliffs without having all the facts, without assuming good intent, without offering abundant grace instead. We jump to wild conclusions without asking our friends directly, trusting their intentions, or waiting for an answer. We are only humans, and doing the best that we can.
In the spirit of doing the best that we can, three years ago your church leadership did some really good work. In January of 2016, several of your congregation’s leaders got together to create what they called a behavioral covenant, after multiple afternoon workshops and work sessions on “Walking in the Way of Peace.” They learned skills like active listening, speaking the truth in love directly to people you have a concern with in a timely fashion, and assuming good intent. They learned about avoiding “parking lot” conversations, triangulation, Facebook comments section debates, and “reply to all” emails, or emails with emotional content when a face to face meeting is called for.
This is how to treat love not as a feeling, but as a way of BEING, they told us. It’s not easy, which is why we have one another to keep us accountable.
Here is the covenant we made, articulated beautifully by Janet Baker and Vicki Gaw:
As a congregation, we gather in the spirit of Jesus to create heaven on earth. To succeed in our mission, we must practice open and honest communication among ourselves and with others:
We will speak from our hearts and without judging; seeking facts, ideas and inspirations.
We may disagree, and we will do so with respect.
When we have concerns or questions, we will bring them directly to the person or group with the responsibility.
We will do so with the expectation of being heard and understood and the possibility of deepening our own understandings.
In all this, we will speak with love and nourish our connections by sharing our laughter, our prayers, our lives, and ourselves.
These promises are how we practice being Love, here in this place.
Beloved, be patient. Be kind. Rejoice in the truth. If you incite rage in others, remember it’s not about you. Don’t let anyone throw you off a cliff…big breath, and go on. Be humble enough to say you’re wrong. Offer forgiveness like it is water for the thirsty. Begin again and again. Open up the heavens by remaining open to one another. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on January 13, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Jesus' Baptism Sunday
I read a story in the Manchester Union Leader this week about a New Hampshire hiker named Pam Bales who followed a sneaker trail up Mount Washington in October to rescue a hiker in distress. In near blizzard conditions, she found a hypothermic man who had hiked up that morning before her, shivering in his shorts and t-shirt. She found him just sitting there in the snow above tree line. He was unresponsive to her questions, so she gave him a name (John). She gave him warm clothes and a hat and covered his body with hand warmers and foot warmers—everything she had in her pack. Despite his protests for her to leave him, and at great physical risk to herself, she put her micro-spikes on his sneakers and force marched him for 8 hours in freezing cold temperatures and deep snow all the way down the mountain and into his car. He mumbled a few words to her before he drove away and she never saw him again.
Pam Bales risked her life to save this man. She didn’t want to die herself, but she refused to give up on him. Though she could not fathom why he would put himself and other hikers at risk by not checking the weather and bringing the proper gear, she gave him a name. She gave his life particularity. She regarded him as worthy of saving.
Remember that Mr. Rogers song?
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
That’s how The Reverend Mr. Rogers spread the Gospel of Love on TV…with the power of the word “you.” He was a televangelist, but he didn’t suggest that if you believed the right things about Jesus you’d get a new car or house like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did. Mr. Rogers didn’t even mention Jesus or God at all. He simply sang that song to children every week. It’s you I like. Every part of you. And children loved him for it. He gave their lives particularity. He regarded them as worthy of saving.
Fred Rogers was criticized widely for this approach to child development. He still is. Everyone from parents to preachers to teachers to politicians fret that this theology has led to the downfall of society. It’s dangerous to tell kids they are loved the way they are. Our children think they are special snowflakes. This “everybody gets a trophy” nonsense is what’s wrong with kids today.
Many of my more Conservative colleagues worry that focusing on God’s extravagant love for us in absence of God’s wrath and judgment has led to a whole generation of unrepentant, self-obsessed sinners…the “me generation.” The “selfie generation.” Many of my liberal colleagues suggest that focusing solely on God’s grace makes people too comfortable with their own complacency with injustice in an unjust world.
Maybe they are all right. Who knows.
But if the goal of “me-culture” is supposed to be sky rocketing self-regard, it doesn’t seem to be working. The way I see it, we are more self-loathing than ever before. In an increasingly individualistic world where self-reliance, choice and freedom are the highest values, consumerism becomes the main mechanism for self-fulfillment.
We aren’t told we are loved enough, if you ask me.
Our value no longer comes from our status as Beloved children of God, but from our status as consumers in the marketplace. The result is that we feel as though we are never enough. The result is that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
The Gospel tells us a different story. Our scriptures say “You are precious and beloved in God’s sight. YOU. You, you and you. You are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.” No mistake or sin or injustice or face lift or range rover will change who you are to God.
“You” is a more powerful word than “me.” Like the word “me”, “you” is particular. It is specific. It is personal. But to hear the word “you” is to be regarded by another. You matter. The word “you” gives us particularity to someone else. It makes us worthy of saving.
Love makes you a you.
Human babies are the only offspring in the mammal species that need love to stay alive. In fact, we know from studies done in orphanages that if human babies—even if they are fed and dressed and bathed properly—if they are not held regularly they can experience both psychic and physical death. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
We are loved into existence. We need to be held in order to experience healthy psychological development. When we are born, we do not know that we are separate from our caregiver. Newborns believe their mothers are just an extension of themselves. This is why it is so critical that we respond to their every need in the first weeks and months.
It is only through the process of being held and regarded by another that we begin to know ourselves to be separate entities. Caregivers mirror back to us our smiles and sounds, and we realize we are a self. We become not just a ”me” but a “you.”
You are loved into your you-ness. Love is what makes you a you. Love is what makes you not just part of another person, but your own person.
Once you realize that you are a separate entity, the next stage of development is to realize that you are part of a larger “we.” That your circle of love extends beyond you and your mama and into your family and your community and the world.
Baptism is simply an outward sign of an inward grace—an affirmation that you are part of a larger “we.”
In our scripture from Luke, John admits that though he has the power to baptize with water, someone far more powerful is coming after him. He’s not even fit to untie the sandals of Jesus, John says. And yet, Jesus waits until all the people have been dunked into the River Jordan, and then presents himself to be baptized. I wonder what John was thinking in that moment. I wonder if he was shaking in his sandals. “Why would God himself want me to baptize him? I’m not even remotely worthy to do this, and here he is bringing up the rear.”
The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove in this moment, and the heavens open up. God’s voice booms down, “YOU are my son, the beloved. With YOU, I am well pleased.”
Baptism confirms Jesus’ status as beloved with the power of the word “you.” An outward sign that he, too, was part of the larger “we.” Karoline Lewis says that maybe “Jesus needed to hear “you” so as to recognize who he needed to see. It’s hard to pay attention to another when you have never had another pay attention to you.”
Imagine for a moment that we paid attention to other people the way we are paid attention to by God. Hear these words from Isaiah again:
Do not fear, for I have created you, I have formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.
Pam Bales treated John, the unprepared hiker, this way. “Do not fear, for I am with you,” she said. She called him by name. She gave him particularity. She told him he was worthy of saving.
She had no idea what happened to “John” after he left the parking lot at base trail. She had no idea why he was on that mountain without proper gear, or whether or not he got treatment for hypothermia and got home. She never so much as found out what his real name was.
Ty Gagne writes:
(Pam) Bales would not get an answer until a week later, when the president of her rescue group, Allan Clark, received a letter in the mail, and a donation tucked between the folds.
I hope this reaches the right group of rescuers. This is hard to do but must try, part of my therapy. I want to remain anonymous, but I was called John. On Sunday Oct. 17 I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, talking to me, giving me food, talking to me, making me warmer, and she just kept talking and calling me John and I let her. Finally learned her name was Pam.
Conditions were horrible and I said to leave me and get going, but she wouldn’t. Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to find me.
The entire time she treated me with care, compassion, authority, confidence and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way — chewed out yes — in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I somehow still mattered in life.
I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly. If she is an example of your organization/professionalism, you must be the best group around. Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety. NO did not seem in her mind.
I am getting help with my mental needs, they will also help me find a job and I have temporary housing. I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves. I got your name from her pack patch and bumper sticker.
My deepest thanks,
Bales was deeply moved by the man’s gesture and his reference to the fact that she made him feel that he mattered. She said, “Some people have asked me if I tried to find John. The thought of searching for him felt wrong. As I’ve reflected more on this story and its relation to the issue of mental health, my response to the question about finding John has evolved. I have in fact found John, and he is very close by me. John is my neighbor, he is my good friend, a close colleague, a family member. John could be me.”
Beloved, You matter to God. You matter to me. Every part of you. You, in the particular. You are worthy of saving. On this day when we remember our baptisms, let us remember to use the extravagant, wasteful Love we are given to show other people that they matter, too.
An Epiphany Sermon
preached on January 6, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Arise, shine, your light has come!
Yes, it is winter.
Yes, it is dark.
Yes, we suffer. Every day we are alive we must mourn all that we have lost: our innocence, our dignity; our loved one; the life we carefully chose for ourselves somehow turned asunder. It is always darkest before the dawn…
And your light has come.
Yes, there is hate.
Yes, there is debilitating illness and death and starving children.
Yes, there is rage and outrage.
Yes, there is division and dehumanization. Yes, there is war. And mass shootings. And climate change. And racism and ethnocentricism. And greed. And poverty.
And still out of this darkness, your light has come.
Look around this room! God’s light has come in the form of human flesh. Beautiful beloved human flesh of all shapes and all sizes, of all colors and ages and walks of life. God’s light is in YOU: in all races and classes and ethnicities and genders and sexualities and political and religious beliefs.
Arise and shine! Your light has come.
The light has come from those who feed hundreds of people at community lunches in the parish hall on Saturdays. The light has come from the hugs offered during the passing of the peace. The light has come from those quietly knitting prayer shawls for our folks who need to feel God’s arms wrapped around their shoulders. The light has come from the La Romana mission team planning once again to visit a remote village in the Dominican Republic to offer medical care and clean water to Haitian workers there. The light is baked into the cookies lovingly made each week for coffee hour. The light has come in the hands and feet and eyes and heart of the person in the pew next to you. The light has come in the heart of every stranger who is just a piece of us we do not yet know.
Our advent scriptures promised us that all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord TOGETHER. Look around! We can’t see God’s glory if we can’t see one another. This is our epiphany. Your light has come.
The story of Epiphany is a story about the light of Love emanating from human flesh in a time of impossible darkness:
King Herod—a puppet leader inserted by the Roman empire—heard about a baby born in Bethlehem who was to become king of the Jews. And he erupted into a vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! He raged and he sputtered. He ruminated and he intimidated. Too gutless and powerless to do anything on his own, Herod looked around for those loyal to him and fearful of his power to do his dirty work. He called on some gentile scientists--Wise Men and astrologers--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these men to reveal the powerful baby’s location, just so that Herod could destroy him.
The wise men set out to follow the brightest star they had ever seen out of the darkness, journeying for days with no map or direction, not knowing the final destination. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they are filled with joy. They offer him gifts of gold fit for royalty, frankincense in honor of religious leadership and myrrh, foreshadowing his death on the cross and his resurrection. There’s a joke that goes if wise women were the ones going to visit Mary and the baby, they’d bring a casserole, diapers and a mess of chocolate, Lanisoh cream, and wine for Mary.
After visiting the baby Jesus and bowing down before him, the wise astrologers intuitively knew that the gifts he would give the world were far more precious than the gifts they had brought. The light of his truth invaded their consciousness so much that they dreamt about it.
And the next day, they chose another path home. Rather than give up the location of the baby to Herod as they were ordered to do, they went another way. They knew he was a dangerously narcissistic King Baby who feared being unseated by this lowly and humble baby King.
An epiphany is often described as a moment of great realization that causes you to change in some way. The magi became wise in this encounter with God’s light. They chose the path of Love over their orders to comply. They chose the path of Love over following a dangerously unfit ruler. They chose the path of Love over the Law of the land.
And so it is with you and I. We can notice the light encased in human flesh all around us. We can choose to be dazzled by it. The light, if we let it, can permeate our consciousness and change who we are. And we, too, can choose a different path. We too, can choose Love over power. Love over division and cruelty. We, too, can choose Love even over the law of this land.
Richard Rohr says that Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love.
We can choose Christ.
This is our epiphany. Arise, shine, the light of all true love has come down to earth. Love has come to live among us! Love has MOVED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD. The word made flesh. Love made flesh. LIGHT made flesh. We gather in the spirit of a child who would unseat corrupt, hateful, murderous human rulers with a LOVE so profound, so pure, so penetrating, that the whole world lit up with it. We have followed the light to this place, and found God encased in human flesh.
We have no choice but to bow down.
My interfaith colleagues were heartened about the fact that the new congress was sworn in this week on a plethora of sacred texts, from the Bible to the Buddhist sutras to the Koran to the Torah, to the constitution of the United States. It was indicative that the diversity of this country had finally coalesced together into the halls of power. God speaks through so many mediums. God’s truth is written into so many books.
Someone asked this of my colleagues: What text would you be sworn in on?
And one of them answered this: I would be sworn in on a newborn baby.
At first I rolled my eyes and was like, “man, my UU colleagues say some weird stuff.” But then I thought, wait. That’s the Gospel.
I mean, imagine that. Imagine congress putting their hands upon the fragrant head of a squirming, wide eyed, impossibly soft and fragile young human, to make their promises to uphold all that is true and good.
Imagine if every member of our government was sworn in not on a book full of words and laws—but on the hope of the whole world. A newborn baby. The word of God made flesh.
Perhaps the powerful would choose a different path.
Perhaps the government wouldn’t shut down, but build up.
Perhaps our country would be re-built on the Good News of the Gospel and our laws would be shaped by the interests of the poor and marginalized rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.
Imagine if we were all made to swear an oath before God and each other, on human flesh. Imagine if our words had to be backed up by putting some skin in the game.
If before we swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we placed our hand on our own children’s flesh.
If before we pledged to serve this country faithfully, we put our hands on the flesh of an American soldier.
If before we swore to serve God before all else, we put our hands on the flesh of a refugee child.
If before we swore to love God, we put our hands in each other’s hands.
Perhaps we would make haste to Love our neighbor.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to use our words as weapons.
Perhaps we would be less cavalier about sending soldiers off to war.
Perhaps we would be more willing to welcome the stranger, to re-humanize those we have cast aside.
Perhaps we would choose a different path home.
Perhaps we would become the light of the world.
This comes from the writings of the desert fathers:
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?'
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.”
As William Blake said, “We are here but a little while to learn to bear the beams of love.” Beloved, this is epiphany. There is a burning bush in each one of us—a bush that burns but is not consumed. The light of God is ENFLESHED in us. That’s the truth of the Gospel. That’s the truth of Christ. We can use our bodies, our flesh, to do the work of Love in the here and now. We can become all flame.
This year, like the wise men, let us resolve to choose new paths. Let us resolve to choose the path of love rather than the well-worn paths of divisiveness found in internet comment sections and twitter feeds. Let us choose God over Law. Let us choose Love over empire. Let us choose Jesus over petulant, raging politics and hate-inciting rhetoric that harms those on the margins.
And then, let us light the path for others. You, beloved, are the word made flesh, love made flesh, light made flesh. So learn to bear the beams of love. That is the only gift we can offer to the Christ child worthy of his kingdom. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other. Become all flame. Arise and shine!
Some of us are drowning in our to-do lists right now. We are writing down the things we need to do to prepare for Christmas and then crossing them off one by one. Some of us write things that we have already done, just to have the satisfaction of crossing something off our list.
What’s on your to do list for this week, 8 days until Christmas Eve?
If it’s like mine, it looks as long as Santa’s naughty list.
I’m getting anxious just saying all of this out loud.
The crowd that gathers around John the Baptist is anxious too. But they are preparing for the end of the world, not the in-laws coming over (which for some of us might feel like the end of the world).
They are going to get baptized in the river Jordan quick…figuring better safe than sorry in the terrifying days to come. They ask John “What should we DO” to prepare for God’s arrival? And John is just a little harsh in his response.
YOU BROOD OF VIPERS, he says. (Isn’t it amazing that he can keep a congregation enraptured while at the same time calling them a bunch of “snakes?”)
He doesn’t stop there.
“Here’s what should be on your to do list: Bear fruits worthy of repentance, or be thrown in the fire. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. Stop charging interest. Be satisfied with what you have and don’t ask for more.”
The scripture calls this “good news.”
And John the Baptist wasn’t messing around. He subsisted in the wilderness on locusts and honey, and had a wild look in his eye. Whenever he preached it was fire and brimstone like a preacher wildly gesticulating on a street corner with a “repent or die” sign. If we encountered him now, it would be in a subway station with people walking quickly by assuming he was homeless and crazy.
But his followers believed he was onto something. In fact, some people thought he was Elijah come back from the grave, and some thought he was the Messiah. But John says “No, fools. I’m just a voice crying in the wilderness! I am the broom sweeping the house to help you prepare for his coming. I’m unfit to untie the Messiah’s sandals.” In other words, he has the humility to say, “hey, I’m not the guy you should listen to. He’s on his way.” He had the good sense to point his followers to God.
“John apparently had second thoughts about (Jesus) later on, however, and it's no great wonder.” Fred Buechner says. “Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party or a father who can't bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the Prodigal Son, it still wasn't too late. Where John ate locusts and honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what he felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find. Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw any sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred their company to (the diaconate), the Stewardship Committee, and the World Council of Churches rolled into one. Where John baptized, Jesus healed.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m more motivated to bear good fruit in service to a Loving God of forgiveness and healing than I am by the terrifying threats of a man who wants to convince me of God’s great wrath and vengeance.
However, the invitation to repentance still stands. Jesus convinces us that we should be motivated to repent simply because God loves us so extravagantly. There’s nothing else to do in response to that Love but name why we’re not always worthy of it. So, if we’re trying to get our spiritual houses in order to prepare for his coming, we might as well do it on our knees.
“Repent” translates from the Greek metanoia to “change of thought.” We are called by God to change our minds in response to Love. The only way to bear fruit worthy of repentance is to change our minds.
Have you changed your mind lately?
We are told it is impossible to change people’s minds….that “once a ‘fill in the blank,’ always ‘a fill in the blank.” We are told that people who change their minds are weak-minded, or at least weak-willed.
I wouldn’t be in this business if I believed that were true.
These days, I think the thing that humbles and impresses me most about ministry is the sheer amount of stories I get to hear about people changing their minds.
My favorite compliment I’ve ever gotten was confessed publicly by one of our beloved conservatives at a church dinner last spring as we were introducing ourselves to each other: “I’ve come to this church for forty years,” he said. And then, pointing to me almost accusingly he said, “and she turned me into a liberal.”
Another one of the conservatives at the table replied to him, “What? NO! I’ll talk to you after dinner.”
Lest you think he was kidding, the other day, I saw that same guy share a post on Facebook about climate change from Bernie Sanders. God’s miracles never cease.
But in all seriousness, imagine being humble enough to take in new information, examine it in the light of Love, and change your ideology as a response.
When I came to First Church in 2014 for my candidating week, I was surprised to find that the thing everyone wanted to talk to me about was the process to become open and affirming to the LGBTQ community, which you all had yet to complete. I didn’t know that it was a long and painful story in the congregation’s history, and you all wanted to know if I was going to help you write the final chapter.
I remember sitting with one of our 90 year olds at a “meet the minister” coffee. He told me a story about how he left his last church because of an open and affirming process. “I didn’t think it was biblical,” he said, “to affirm same gender relationships.” And he didn’t like the fact that the minister was heavy-handed about it, and that the process seemed rushed, and “pushed through.”
“Oh,” I said. “So I take it you are concerned that I might do the same thing?”
“Oh, I’ve since changed my mind,” he said, with an off-handed gesture, as if it was no big deal. “I think it’s long past time for the church to become open and affirming. We need to be welcoming to all of God’s children. I hope you’re going to help us get there” he said.
“How did you change your mind?” I asked him, amazed. I was far more entrenched in my own ideological leanings at 38 than he was at 90, and couldn’t imagine changing my position on such a deeply held moral intuition.
“I listened to my grandchildren, and prayed about it.”
Such a simple and profound act of humility: I listened, I prayed, I changed my mind.
With God’s help, we have the power to develop new habits of mind. Even me.
I wrote a sermon early on in my ministry here for Advent about Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson. I was pretty proud of it. It even got chosen to be on the UUA’s worship web as an example of how one should preach about racism.
Not everyone appreciated it, though. I was lucky enough to have two beloved parishioners in my office the very next week because they trusted me enough to tell me the truth with grace. “Our son is a police officer. His life matters. We want our pastor to love him, too,” was the general content of our conversation.
We talked about their fears every time he leaves the house. We talked about racism, and their thoughts on police corruption and the split second decisions police officers have to make that are a matter of life and death. They agreed that some of the cases of the deaths of unarmed black folks we heard about in the news could be because of racism. We disagreed in some ways, but there were many points of connection and a ton of empathy for one another. We hugged and we told each other how much we cared about each other at the end of the conversation.
Still, they left my office, and I immediately burst into tears. I wasn’t sure I could minister outside my bubble. It was too hard. I liked preaching to the choir better. I texted my clergy friends, “I don’t belong here,” I said.
One of my colleagues called me immediately. “Robin,” she said, “you’re not supposed to belong there. You can’t do good ministry among people to whom you think you ‘belong.’ What would you learn? What would they learn?”
I thought the only way to do ministry was to be among those I perceived to be like-minded. I had so little faith in the God who calls me to re-think so that I might prepare him room. I had so little faith in the God who creates us like-hearted, not like-minded.
Maybe that’s what John means by separating the wheat from the chaff: we must burn what no longer serves us in the fire of truth, and return over and over again, to Love.
My friend Jake Morrill says that “the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we're at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
The best way to prepare for the coming reign of Love is to learn how to re-think everything we are sure we know. If we’re going to be ready for the One who comes in the form of a poor, brown, middle-eastern, Jewish, helpless baby migrant boy, born to an unwed mother and a stepfather in a cattle stall with only poor shepherds as witnesses….we better let beauty tug us out of our stupor. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on December 9, 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent
Our worlds can grow dark so suddenly. We had a certain plan for our lives, and just like that, a new reality we didn’t plan for takes hold.
Your beloved walks out of your home for the last time. The doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.” You drop your last kid off in her dorm room and the house is quieter than you expected. A policeman arrives at your door. A verdict is read. Something comes out of your mouth that you can’t take back. Your boss calls you into the office to inform you of the restructuring. You lose a dreamed-about baby to infertility or miscarriage. You had the much-wanted baby, and suddenly you are too sad and numb to imagine your child’s future or your’s. You say your final goodbye to the wife you promised to love till death do you part. You never thought she’d go first.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the darkness a time in which you can’t see where you are going. In some way, you are given “The News,” and it changes everything you were sure of. The dark slows us down. It even stops us. Our old tools we brought with us are rendered useless there. You brought your map, but you can’t see it. You have a compass, but you can’t see it. You have a plan sketched out, but you can’t see it. The dark can be disorienting at best, and terrifying at worst.
No wonder we are too quick to flip on the light switch.
Mary Oliver says, “someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” There is much to be learned in the dark, and much growth that can happen there, if we are brave enough to accept it as a gift.
I met with our Ranny the other day, and she told me that she wouldn’t tell her story from up here because she hates public speaking, but that I could. Ranny has been sick with cancer for about a year, and she almost died three weeks ago when she had a bad reaction to the medicine. In fact, she thinks she died and came back. She was at the cancer clinic getting her chemo, and was suddenly plunged into the dark. Doctors and nurses and EMTs rushed around her trying to revive her. Somehow her heart went on, and she returned to us. “Dying is easy,” she said. “Living is what’s hard. And I want to live. I’m a stubborn old broad and I’m far too stubborn to die.”
For the first time, though, she wasn’t afraid of death. She felt God’s presence there in that dark place. God guided her feet into the way of peace that day.
The scriptures are full of the word “will”…a word that we associate with “not yet.” A word that we associate with promises, like the ones we make on our wedding day. In the Hebrew scriptures, God is the promise-maker. Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem: God WILL show you splendor everywhere under heaven. God WILL give you the name “righteous peace.” God WILL bring your children back to you. God WILL lead Jerusalem with joy in the light of his glory. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high WILL break upon us.”
GOD has, God can and God WILL.
The biblical writers were living in a time of great darkness. They needed the reminder of who God was, the promise that God was still with them, and the assurance that their hearts would go on.
It’s unfortunate that the darkness is so often used in our scriptures as a metaphor for sadness, evil, ignorance and fear. Because darkness is also where the whole world is created. God spoke light into the darkness. Darkness is where seeds are planted and regenerate new growth deep in the earth. God buried Jesus deep into the dark womb of his mother Mary, where he emerged 9 months later to save the whole world. God resurrected Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb.
Life is created and re-created in darkness. And darkness is where all of us begin, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knitted in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. It is also where we will all return: back into the dark earth where we will become part of All That Is once again.
I was introduced to Kate Bowler through her writing when I read her essay in the New York Times a few months ago. I immediately picked up her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” and read it in a day.
Kate is married to the childhood love of her life, who still makes her laugh and swoon. After living off of ramen noodles with her husband for years as a perpetual student, she got a professorship at Duke Divinity School; her dream job. After a long period of infertility and a devastating miscarriage, she finally had a baby boy who is their sun, moon and stars. They bought a house, and filled their days doing work they love, anticipating waking up to the giggles of their small boy. All of Kate’s dreams had come true. She and her husband were fond of taking long walks, planning a seemingly endless future, which could only get brighter. #blessed.
And then at 35, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and was given a matter of months to live. Suddenly her world grew very small. Kate would leave everything she loved about her life far sooner than she had planned. Kate won’t see her toddler grow up. He won’t remember what she smelled like, or what her voice sounded like. Her husband’s bright future will no longer have her in it. Her interests and studies will die with her.
Kate still describes herself as an incurable optimist on her website. She is a professor in Christian history. She has written the only book on the history of the American Prosperity Gospel. Ironically, she studies the group of folks who believe that the more faith you have, the more God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness.
Prosperity religion is a heresy and a toxic lie that poisons our country. And yet we are all susceptible to its allure, whether we go to a church that preaches it or not. We so badly want to believe that if things are going well, we are somehow blessed by God.
That’s why our faith is so easily the first tool to go when we are lost in the dark. We forget that we worship a God who doesn’t protect us from suffering, and who also doesn’t leave us alone in it. A God who promises that when we’ve lost sight of the path ahead, only love is what remains. This, too, is a gift.
Two months after her diagnosis, Kate Bowler writes:
“CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
I remember Shelly Kennedy-Leonard looking up at the walls of cards she hung around her before she died: “Look how much love there is out there for me! I wouldn’t know about all this love if I hadn’t gotten sick!” She brought me to Drumlin Hill and described it to me in every season. “It never stops being beautiful. It is always peaceful. You can see deer here, in the meadow, and the calliope of fall colors in the fall, and the kids sledding down the hill in the winter, and if you come here early in the morning, the mist rises off of the hill, and it is like a magical heaven, and all of creation is in concert with God. When I pray here, I just feel deep in my bones that all will be well. I am sure of God’s love just because of all of this beauty….”
God’s love was the only thing she was sure of. She knew she wasn’t alone in the dark.
There is a line from Isaiah that says “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, all flesh shall see it together.” God doesn’t promise us health, wealth and happiness. God promises us to show up in the flesh. God promises all flesh shall see God’s glory TOGETHER.
Kate Bowler says that what saves her every day is the ability to touch and be touched. Since she got sick, she just craves hands to hold, back rubs, hugs. “The weight of people‘s hands on my shoulders and head feels like I’m being put back together,” she says.
Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. When the old tools we carry no longer work, touch. Grab a hand, give a hug, use your hands to knit or make a meal for someone else, or your feet to march. Put skin in the game. Don’t leave anyone alone in the dark. We shall see God’s glory if we are willing to wait there, together.
SERMON “Love is the Boss of Us”
My favorite meme from this week’s Romaine lettuce recall seemed appropriate for Christ the King Sunday. It said:
The Romaine empire is fallen. Caesar is dead. Lettuce pray.
This year at Thanksgiving, pie was better for us than salad. Don’t tell me that’s not evidence that God loves us and wants to be happy.
Please 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.
Today on this last day before the church year ends and begins again with Advent, we celebrate the reign of Christ. Hallelujah, Christ is King! Though some of us might have spent Thanksgiving gritting our teeth and smiling, your mother-in-law is not king, and neither is your sullen teenager….Christ is King! Though we spent all of Friday starting at 1 am trying to find black Friday deals, the marketplace is not King. Christ is King! Though some of us have an internal self critic that we cannot turn off, beating ourselves up from the inside, that voice is not King…Christ is King! Though we live in a country that is increasingly more divided and cruel, the president is not King; Wall Street is not King; the 24 hour news cycle is not King…Christ is King!
Here’s what we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday:
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us.
When Christ is the one in charge, when his Kingdom of Equals is established, when Love is the boss, the world looks completely upside down.
Witness it with me:
Before the sun comes up, the can collector gets to his work. His toe pokes through the hole at the top of his worn left shoe. He pulls on a moth eaten wool sweater and sighs, tired from his fitful sleep interrupted by the noise of the street. He grabs his shopping cart with a bum wheel, and slowly ambles down my block. He is the hardest working person in my Boston neighborhood.
I don’t want him to see me looking at him through the window of my warm apartment. I don’t know if I’m ashamed for him, or for me. The can collector carefully picks through the cardboard and paper digging for gold: the silver gleam of a soda or beer can in my recycling bins and my trash cans. When he finds some, he piles them high into his mounded shopping cart, black garbage bags over-flowing with cans and hung on either side of the hulking metal contraption. On the streets of Boston one can find hundreds and thousands of cans and bottles that can be turned into recycling centers for 5-10 cents a piece if you can brave the weather: digging through snow, withstanding high humidity, waterlogged in the pouring rain.
I lived in several neighborhoods in my seventeen years in Boston, and in each one there was an early morning collector of cans. The can collector was always small, old, weathered, and slow moving; invariably an immigrant of Asian descent.
Perhaps the can collector brings his earnings back to his apartment in Chinatown, that he shares with multiple generations of his family, crammed into small beds and tight corners like the family that lived upstairs from me in my early years in Jamaica Plain. Or perhaps he uses the money he earns to bring cigarettes and food back to the shelter under the bridge where he lays his head. I never knew because I never asked. I never even said “hello.” All I know is that this quiet and industrious scavenger was often refused by drivers on the city buses because he took up too much room or his cans were too smelly; week-old beer is hard on the noses of the morning commuters bound for the Longwood Medical area.
Mostly he went unnoticed. Alone. Abandoned. Rejected. Unseen, even when people passed him by. He is one of the world’s great losers. But in God’s eyes, he wears a crown.
When I worked in downtown Boston, I got off at the Park Street station every day, and passed Michael on my way to my office building at the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street. Michael was a mainstay of the Boston Common, sitting on the bench or on the stairs that leads up to the statehouse. He was tiny with bird-like bones, his black skin made blacker by the grime of the streets he lived on. He had a leprechaun-like black beard sprinkled with wiry gray. His clothes hung off of him, his pants too big, and his belt wrapped tightly around his hips to hold them up. He was elfin, ageless, and he had a gigantic, white smile.
I have rarely met anyone with more charisma than Michael. He called everyone “uncle” and “auntie.” He was rumored to have a million dollars stored away from panhandling, which I never believed, though I do know he was more successful than some of his less hilarious and cute homeless friends.
Michael told everyone that it was his birthday every day, which was a brilliant marketing ploy. He also knew his perch would fill up with bleeding heart state house employees and liberal religious professionals headed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s office building every morning at a little bit before 9 am from the T. I was one of them.
“Hey auntie!” He’d call out, “it’s my birthday!”
“Here’s five dollars,” one of his hurried customers would say as they dropped it into his wool winter hat on the ground. “Don’t spend it all in one place, Michael.”
One day I asked him when his birthday really was, and he said, “Today! Give me a hug, auntie.”
The pure grace of being called a family member by someone I would likely ignore if he wasn’t so charming woke me up to my own complacency every morning. It also assuaged my guilt for all of the other nameless, faceless people I passed lying on cardboard on the streets of my city. I was grateful Michael didn’t let me look away. So while I didn’t relish the idea of hugging someone so smelly, I’d hold my breath and hug Michael anyway. The stench of urine, body odor and something vaguely medical would creep into my nose and stay on my clothes for the rest of the day.
I was a 24 year old secretary in an office filled with ministers then. One of the stern male minister bosses in my office saw me hug Michael one day. He took me aside to angrily and paternalistically inform me that this practice was dangerous. “Don’t do that again. You could contract diseases, or he could pick pocket you, Robin. You need to be more careful.”
I sensed that I needed to be more careful around people like him, though, not around people like Michael. People like this minister were crowned with many worldly crowns…given secretaries to manage, his own office to make decisions from, high pulpits to preach from, and a hardened heart.
Though Michael greeted everyone like family, rarely was he greeted like family by the lawyers, corporate executives and Beacon Hill residents who passed him on his path. He was alone; abandoned, really. Unseen, even by people who passed him by. He was one of the world’s great losers, ignored on a daily basis by the world’s great winners.
But in God’s eyes, it is Michael who wears a crown.
They took Jesus early in the morning to Pilate’s headquarters. He didn’t wear a robe and a crown, he wore a mantle: a large shawl which had tassels called tallith, and some dusty sandals. He was exhausted from a sleepless night of feeding his friends and washing feet, filled with dread of the fate that awaited him.
He was heralded as a king earlier in the week as he rode into town on a lowly donkey, with coats to ease his seat and palms thrown down on the ground to soften the path. He knew at the time that he would be denied, betrayed and abandoned by the few friends he had left, so even that celebration was mawkish.
Before Jesus is sentenced to death, Pilate asks him if he is a king. Jesus answers “You say that I’m a king, but I came to testify to the truth,” and “my kingdom is not of this world."
“Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.
The soldiers dress him up like royalty with a purple robe and a crown of thorns digging into his forehead, causing blood to pour down from his sweaty brow. And they mock him. He is whipped, beaten. They say “Hail! King of the Jews!” as they strike him in the face. He is hung on a cross with criminals flanking him on either side. “King of the Jews,” the sign above his head reads, menacingly.
Calling Christ “King” is making a sneering mockery of the man who put the least of all first; who proclaimed his kingdom not of this world where royalty and presidents and politicians and billionaires rule from atop high towers.
People who pass avert their eyes. His friends leave. He is the world’s great loser, crucified by the Roman Empire, sentenced to die by the King. He is unseen, abandoned, left to die alone. But in God’s eyes, it is he who wears the crown.
This is our God, the Loser King, who rose again to remind us all that Love is, was and ever shall be the boss of us.
So instead of celebrating Christ the King Sunday, why don’t we celebrate Christ the Can Collector Sunday? Why don’t we celebrate the birthday of Michael the panhandler, born to save us all? Because the Jesus I know would be much more comfortable collecting cans from the trash with his Chinese immigrant friend, or panhandling on the street with Michael proclaiming his birthday a holy day than he would be on some cosmic royal throne.
This is what the Apostle Paul says, writing to his new churches, in the words of Elizabeth Meyer Bolton:
”I never cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.
I pray that you will continue to grow in wisdom and in faith.
I pray that you will know that you are called to hope.
I know you look around the world, and you get discouraged.
I know you look around and see war, and hear rumors of war.
I know you see the violence, and all the loss.
The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.
I know you look around and see all kinds of people getting left behind,
All kinds of people being abandoned...
But have faith!
For the one who was abandoned,
The one who was rejected,
The one who was left alone to die,
That one God raised from the dead,
That one God seated at her right hand side.
That’s the one who had rule and authority and power
and dominion over everything in this world and in the next!”
We declare Christ King because we testify to this truth:
In the end, the losers will win. The last will go first. The least of these inherit the kingdom. Love has dominion over everything in this world and in the next. So happy reign of the can collector Sunday. Happy birthday to Michael, the panhandler King. Hail to all who are forgotten, rejected, ignored, abandoned and left for dead, for Love will rise onto the heavenly throne. Love is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us! And He shall reign forever and ever.
HOMILY by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on November 18, 2018 Thanksgiving Sunday
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
In the Market Basket meat section, a woman is picking over all the frozen turkeys. And she's angry. Just steamed. "I swear," she mutters. "These are the smallest, puniest, tiniest turkeys I ever have seen! No way will any of these feed my family."
Just then, a stockboy shuffles by. He's a gawky lad, pencil-thin.
"You there," snaps the woman. "Stockboy!"
He turns slowly. "Who, me?"
"Young man," says the woman, "I am so frustrated with this selection of turkeys. I mean, really! I've looked over them all, and each and every one is unacceptably small! For Heaven's sakes! Don't they get any bigger?"
The stockboy thinks a minute, glances over at the freezer, where they're all piled high. Then says, gently, "No, ma'am. They don't. All these turkeys are dead.”
Like a turkey who isn’t going to grow larger, or a soup that has only a stone for flavoring, we often feel as though we simply don’t have enough to share.
We are on the brink of Thanksgiving. A not so beloved Thanksgiving tradition in my house is for my husband and I sit down to talk about what we don’t have enough of. It’s pretty demoralizing. Our conversation starts like this: “We don’t have enough money to buy the children Christmas presents this year, much less the adults. We won’t have enough saved for vacation this summer. We don’t have enough chairs for Thanksgiving. Our Thanksgiving turkey might not be big enough for 20 people. We don’t have enough room in the refrigerator. We don’t have enough wine, or Zoloft, to survive the dinner conversation. I don’t have enough energy to clean and decorate the house for guests. I don’t have enough time to do all the things we need to do. I certainly don’t have enough patience for pie crusts.
My iPhone app keeps reminding me I’m going to die. I mean, does any of this even matter? Let’s just skip it this year.
This conversation invariably leads to a fight, and my husband and I had the first fight we’ve had in many months on Thursday. This makes sense. When you begin a conversation with “we don’t have enough,” it raises anxiety, fear, and dread. It causes shut down, blaming and shaming.
For religious professionals with divinity school degrees, my husband and I have so little faith.
I see this happening all over the nation right now: conversations about resource scarcity that begin with “We don’t have enough,” and ending with blame, shame, and fear.
The conversation about an unarmed caravan of refugees begins out of a place of scarcity and fear instead of abundance and faith, so it encourages a militarized response. The conversation about immigration in general begins out of a place of never enough, so it encourages wall-building instead of bridge building. The conversation about the poor begins with “they churn out kids on my hard earned dime” which encourages hatred and disdain of the children of God who need our help to survive, especially children. “There’s not enough,” we are told all the time, which scares us, and we are easily scared.
For a religious nation, we have so little faith.
We cannot move toward the mystery of God without first moving toward the mystery of our neighbor. The psalmist says, “I have no good apart from God.” We can have no good apart from each other.
The disciples are having a conversation about scarcity of resources when we find them on top of a mountain with Jesus. Passover was nearing—a time of feasting and festival for the Jews. Word had spread about Jesus’ ministry, so a large crowd of 5,000 was gathering. The crowd had heard that this teacher could heal people. So the crowd contained those who were desperate and sick and disabled and spiritually lost and poor and depressed and refugee and outcast.
And they were hungry.
Jesus’ friends weren’t anticipating this crowd, and they didn’t have enough. They didn’t have enough for themselves to eat, much less enough to feed all of these high needs people. They had just one barley loaf and two fish for the passover meal. So they started to panic and bicker.
“We will never have enough. Our offerings are unacceptably small, and they aren’t going to get any bigger. There are so many hungry people approaching. And I am hungry too. If they come here, they will take my food and my money and my job and my healthcare. There will never be enough for me, much less all of them.”
For followers of Jesus, the disciples had so little faith!
Jesus tests them by asking a rhetorical question: “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”
The disciples fail the test. They answer Jesus’ query with a budget concern. “Not even six months salary will buy us enough,” they say.
They just don’t get the kind of God that they serve.
So Jesus says, “Make them sit down.” Then Jesus takes the loaves, and when he had given thanks to God, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” There was so much food that they had left overs.
Some people just think this is a story about Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, and, well, it is. But I often picture the crowd gathered looking in their coat pockets and saying, “Oh! I have a potato, which isn’t enough for everyone, but it’s something, and I have a celery stalk, and I have a carrot! And I have a little spice, and some garlic,” And I picture the moms fishing in their purse for an old piece of gum, or some peanuts they saved from last month’s airplane ride coming home from Florida. And I picture people shaking hands, and saying “how do you do?” instead of eye-ing each other with suspicion. And I picture that the real miracle that happens here is the realization that together, we have everything.
Jesus teaches us this: If you have less than what you think you need, give thanks to God for it. And invite all those who hunger to dine with you anyway. Build a longer table, not a higher fence. The crowd responds with generosity instead of fear.
We believe in a God who creates this kind of abundance from scarcity; who can build a soup from a rock. A God who says, “not enough is the best place to begin.” A God who reminds us that none of this is ours, and that the correct response when someone’s tummy is rumbling is to say, “I can help!”
This God reminds us that we can’t go it alone. We need one another to make the feast. That’s why there’s more religion at a church potluck than in the worship service. At the church potluck, we start with just our puny offering—a sad bag of scoops Tostito chips from Appletown Market (which is my go to). And like magic, when people bring their potato salads and jello salads and pasta salads and cookies and pies, it expands into a feast of carbs to ruin a thousand people’s Keto diets.
Our offering may be unacceptably small, but together, we have everything.
Alice Walker, in the Color Purple, says, “Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
Beloved, we come here to share God, not find God. if you’re waiting around for God to show up, just look around this room and share. Look at your neighbors, and friends, and the people you haven’t met yet, and the children and their tired parents, and all the grammys and grampys. If all you have to give them is a smile and an encouraging word, that is more than enough. Forget your perfect offering, just share what you have.
This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the ways you share God with me, beloved. Thank you for bringing God’s abundance in with you, because it means my puny, already dead contribution is enough for a feast. I have no good apart from all of you.
Happy Thanksgiving and amen.
A sermon preached on Veteran's Day
November 11, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard/seen.
According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
I’m much more terrified of being in the coffin than doing the eulogy (obviously). Though I spend a lot of my life as witness to death and dying, I also expend a lot of energy in an attempt to forget that I await the same fate.
Many of us spend our lives similarly, buying medication and wrinkle treatments and surgery and eating the “right” foods and compulsively exercising, worshipping at the God of busy-ness…thinking maybe we will be the ones to finally cheat the inevitable.
Our psalmist says “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish."
My plans will one day perish, my breath will depart and I will return to the earth. It’s too bad we work so hard to forget about death, because our mortality has the power to keep us humble, grateful, justice-seeking and right-sized. We desperately need our mortality as a check on our arrogance; a reminder of who is really in charge.
We also need this reminder: Money won’t buy our way out of the grave; power won’t buy our way out of the grave; the right, most ideological purity won’t buy our way out of the grave; religion and right belief won’t buy our way out of the grave…nothing will.
After I read an article in the Christian Century this week by Matt Fitzgerald about an iPhone app called “weCroak,” I immediately downloaded it. WeCroak was inspired by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” “Because we are either unable or unwilling to live a rural life in the picturesque Himalayas where time for contemplation may happen more easily,” an ad for WeCroak explained, the app’s creators had developed the next best thing: a 99-cent app that would “foster happiness” and “cultivate mindfulness” by pestering users with reminders about death. The app sends you a text five times a day to your smartphone at random times to announce that you're going to die.
"Don't forget, you're going to die," my phone now buzzes at me. (As if I needed this. I mean, I live with Andy, who is already a walking/talking existential crisis.)
But on Friday, I was reading a Facebook bickering match between two colleagues, and I was about to jump into the fray with my very important and carefully worded opinion when I was interrupted by my phone. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” it chirped.
I was ignoring my children’s pleas for attention while online shopping about three hours later. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone told me.
The next day I found myself thinking about a friend who I felt had wronged me recently, and the fact that its been a long time since I visited my dad. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone buzzed at me.
My life is probably at least half over, and I waste a lot of time, miss a lot of tender moments with my people, and I still haven’t learned to knit, play the guitar, or reliably send thank you cards.
Matt Fitzgerald says "a microdose of mortality can make the day glow." I know what he means. The fact that I will one day perish from the earth makes the sun shining through my window all the more shimmering; the people I love more precious to my life; the grudges I hold all the more pointless. I can't take any of it with me.
Mostly, I spend my waking hours fretting about the state of the world, my country, my helplessness to effect change. “Don’t forget you’re going to die,” my phone chirps happily.
Only God is eternal.
Hate may be having one of its shining historic moments right now in this hot mess of a world, but in the end, only Love will reign forever.
Since we last met, we have had a tumultuous week in the life of America, which at this point is business as usual. There was an election. Some people won, some people lost. There was no clear mandate from either “side,” though both sides wish there had been.
There was more fear-mongering about the stranger, the demonization of the poor and powerless, and more attempts to pit “us” against “them.” There was corruption and greed. There were wealthy power-brokers on either side of the political spectrum controlling the conversation while the exhausted middle became increasingly more exhausted. There were rich people showing off their riches, expecting to have the best seats in the house and senate, meanwhile devouring the houses of the poor. There were poor people giving everything they have because they have no other choice. In the midst of all of that, another mass shooting in California barely hit our radars. Now California is burning.
Yes, these are hot mess times. Our scriptures remind us that Biblical times were also a hot mess. There were intense political, religious, social, and tribal divides, just like there are for us today. And compounding all of that was the vast economic disparity between the have and the have nots…the ones who get to control the conversation, and the ones who have absolutely no voice at all.
Our psalmist says that the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. There is nothing new happening right now…our eyes are just being opened to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or silenced. These United States, it seems, might have been more aptly named these “divided” states. But that’s just not new. God is just opening our eyes to the truth.
We will perish from the earth, yes, but this doesn’t give us permission to tap out of the fight for justice.
There was a bumper sticker that was popular in the eighties that said “God is coming, and she is pissed.” Our story from the Gospel today about the widow’s mite has a similar message: “Jesus is watching, and he is pissed.”
In our reading from Mark, Jesus plunks himself down across from the treasury in the Temple and simply watches what the people add to it. This is not one of his confounding parables, Jesus is just commenting on what he’s observing. Jesus is restoring sight to the blind…he is showing us. He is showing us those who have no social safety net, who are cast aside by economic systems that prey on them – even as their leaders parade about in rich clothing. Jesus is simply observing, and lifting up the poor widow, who gave everything she had while her oppressors pompously postured.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
Jesus is still watching what we put into the coffers with a noisy clunk, and what our motivations are for showing it off. Whether our addition to the treasury is a virtue-signaling Facebook post share or dumping our excess into the oceans or the trash piles slowly taking over Camden, New Jersey…Jesus is watching; re-focusing our attention on the least of these.
Jesus shows to us the voiceless: the migrant, the refugee, the transperson, the black teenager, the Muslim, the gay couple with kids, the Jew, the homeless vet, the working poor, the battered woman…and Jesus re-humanizes all those who have been de-humanized.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
“They are giving all they have,” he says. “Watch.”
Our psalmist says: I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever.
God is watching us, restoring our sight, and reminding us that we, too, will die. So this morning, just like every morning, I'm grateful that we love and serve the Lord. I'm grateful we do not primarily serve ourselves, or a denomination or a "movement" or a political party or a president or even a church. We serve the Lord, who is Love. Who opens our eyes to see.
People often ask me what holds this church in all of its theological and ideological diversity together. The answer is always Love. One of our folks came up to me after a sermon I preached a few weeks ago to tell me he didn't like a term I used when describing an immigration policy. He had shouted out “no!” during my sermon, so as he approached I said, "are you coming over here to yell at me?" And he said, "of course I wouldn’t yell at you. I love you. But you're wrong."
I was, of course, right. I always am. But here’s what’s important:
Love is much more important than being right. We are mortal, and our righteousness will die with us. We are all so very human. It’s easier to be right than it is to be kind. It’s easy to be hard. It's harder to love. But we do hard things every single day. We disagree, but we preface it with “I love you.”
Psalm 146 tells us this: do not put your trust in mortals. When their breath departs, they return to the earth, on that very day their plans perish. Princes and presidents and politicians and murderers and words made into weapons and weapons made into idols will all perish from the earth. Love stays. So put your trust in Love. It’s only love that never ends.
Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God.
God’s Love will reign forever,
for all generations.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on All Souls Sunday, November 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
43 women from this church were at the women’s retreat last weekend. I’m probably confirming every stereotype that you have in your mind about women’s retreats, but simply saying who we were and what we needed during introductions on Friday night was enough for the tears to start flowing, and they didn’t stop.
Cindy Popp-Hager told us about her mentor who said “God made bodies to carry water.” Ours were just overflowing, that’s all—it’s what we were made for.
We had #metoo conversations and told stories about surviving cancer and abuse and mental illness and the death of so many who we loved. We expressed all the love we had in our hearts for our people and our animals and our earth.
"What does your heart break for?" We asked each generational cohort. The millennial women answered the question with the word “everything.” As our beloved women fell apart one after the other under the weight of everything, it became clear to me that we have been holding our breath for two years.
On Saturday, we got news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh by an anti-semite who declared “death to all Jews.” It came on the same week that pipe bombs were sent to democrat leaders; the week that a gunman tried to enter a black church in Kentucky, failed and murdered two black folks shopping at a Kroger’s instead. A man held up his hands when the gunman approached and said, “stop, don’t shoot.” And the gunman said, “white people don’t shoot white people.” A man who has a long history of misogynistic and anti-immigrant sentiment on-line shot two women in a yoga studio this week, as well.
White Supremacy is rising up, and it is poisoning this land with death. The dehumanization we are immersed in has taken a bitter toll. If we want to become Saints worthy of our ancestors breath, we need to engage the process of re-humanization.
Our scriptures from All Saints day are full of the rising tide of evil:
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
And our scriptures are full of the confidence that God will rise us up higher than that which seeks to destroy us:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
“My head is lifted up above… my Lord will take me up…on the mountain, the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”
Beloved, this is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns death to life. This is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns hate to love, who pierces darkness with light. We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and we will rise.
Some of you remember this story. Two years ago, the War on Christmas came to Sterling. A Facebook post went viral about the Sterling elementary school's principal declaring that students would no longer be writing letters to Santa or using Elf on the Shelf in the classroom, in order to be more inclusive of the children who didn't celebrate Christmas. Parents were outraged. "Political correctness has taken over our school!” Parents cried on Facebook, on a thread that was shared over 100 times, and all over the country.
Comments said things like: “This is America! We celebrate Christmas here! The minority has taken over the majority and we’re not gonna take it anymore. Go Trump! This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, homeschool your kids.” When the debate meandered over to the Fox 25 Facebook page, someone blamed the downfall of America on all those Muslims.
There were hundreds and hundreds of comments. All talking, no listening.
Kate Pietrovito, who had never come to our church before and who I had never met, wrote to me. "A reporter wants to come to Sterling to interview someone about the War on Christmas. Will you talk to him? I want you to nip this story in the bud because this is the last thing we need." I said, “sure."
And so a reporter from Fox 25 came to interview me on the day of a bomb scare at the school, soon after the children were evacuated. And I was interviewed saying that Christmas has not left our little town, that my children did not come home and say that the principal had cancelled Christmas, that we still celebrate Christmas with gusto in our house and church, that the real story is a bomb scare. I invited everyone to church (of course, because I’m always marketing.) I also said that this was a time for measured calm. (An angry parent who thought the “other side” was not well represented called me a “very soft spoken pastor”, which is the first time I have ever been called soft spoken in my life.)
I told all of you that Sunday that the mosque in Wayland, MA received a letter that was sent to mosques all over the country. The letter calls Muslims “vile and filthy people” who face a “day of reckoning . . . there’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump....."The president-elect," it said, will “do to you . . . what Hitler did to the Jews.”
I said to all of you: Make no mistake about it, this letter is part of the real war on Christmas. Because the real war on Christmas is the war on Christ, who taught us that God is Love, and that all are one in God.
And you and I from all over the political and ideological spectrum made a pact to be revolutionary love in the world from that day forward. And we sent our prayers to the mosque, and we wrote cards to the school principal, and we promised to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world whenever we encountered hate.
And the next day, a mother I had never met before named Becky wrote to me. "Dear Rev. Bartlett: This week I saw the clip of you on the news about holidays at Houghton. This beautiful season can be about learning each other's customs and then celebrating with our families at home. I hope that people will take your words to heart and embrace everyone with love. Since they are being raised Jewish...my only hope is for my girls to always feel comfortable at school." She said. “As long as I am a religious leader, I will stand for your daughters,” I said.
Becky is a member of the Congregation Agudat Achim, a Jewish synagogue in Leominster. She invited me to an interfaith service there and we became fast friends.
Last Sunday, Becky was scheduled to come to our church to speak to our children in the "Building Bridges" class, to teach them about Judaism. I was at the women's retreat when she texted me early in the morning. "What a day to build bridges," she said. 11 people were murdered as they prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue, just the day before. What a day to build bridges, indeed.
I told the women at the women's retreat that we stood for Becky's daughters in 2016, and we will stand for them now. We sang "Peace, Salaam, Shalom" which means peace in English, Arabic and Hebrew. We prayed for peace. We prayed that our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and all over this country be held in love as they grieve.
Peace Salaam Shalom…..
On Friday night, 25 of us went to the synagogue in Leominster to be with Becky and her congregation, to pray the prayers of the martyrs, and to call on the name of God together. Megan asked them what we could do to be truly good neighbors and friends to the Jewish people, and one congregant told me that he breathes a sigh of relief every time he sees our “no place for hate” sign when he drives by the church.
Beloved: This place needs to be more than just no place for hate. That’s too low a bar. This church must be the frontline of the Love revolution, now more than ever. There is a war on Jews, a war on Muslims, a war on women, a war on our children, a war on immigrants and refugees, a war on people of color, a war on veterans, a war on our trans siblings, a war on the poor, a war on the press, and so there absolutely is a war on Christ. The frontlines are right outside your doors. Let’s not hide our heads in the sand. Let’s not eat or drink our feelings, or numb them away scrolling through our phones. Let’s feel them all. Let’s go straight to the cross like our God did for us and feel the pain of ALL of our brothers and sisters. And then, like Jesus, let’s rise. On this all saints Sunday, our people are literally dying, and we are called to be the rising while we are still alive. Do not wait until death to become like the saints.
Until there is justice, there is no peace, so be the rising.
We can turn death to life, so be the rising.
The voting booth is a place for grace to sweep over this broken land, so vote on Tuesday to be the rising.
All are one in God for all are God’s, so be the rising.
Faithfulness requires building bridges, not walls, so be the rising.
A broken heart still beats, so be the rising.
Creation is beautiful and shimmering and fragile, so be the rising.
Heaven is here on this earth so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, be the rising!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so be the rising!
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other, so be the rising!
A life with love is a life that’s been lived. If your heart breaks for everything, that’s God reminding you that you still have a heart. Use it. Become saints while we’re still alive.
A sermon preached on 10/21/2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Please pray with me in the words of this poem entitled Dios by Cesar Vallejo
I feel God travel with me,
when the sun sets and on the sea,
together we walk as it grows dark.
We are all together but walk like orphans.
But I feel God and he gives color
to my life. He is kind and sad,
like those who attend the sick and dying;
He whispers like a lover in distress.
His heart must hurt for his creation.
Oh, my God, though I have just come to you,
I love so much as it grows dark,
and in the balance within the heart,
I weigh and weep for frail Creation.
And you, what do you weep for … you who love
with your immense and whirling heart?
I consecrate you, God, because you love so much;
because you never smile; because your heart
must ache as Time continues.
Glennon Doyle says that the world is both beautiful and brutal all that the same time. She calls it “brutiful.” I love so much as it grows dark, the poet says. On this day when the October trees are showing us what the beauty of letting go looks like, we sit also with great suffering.
There are people here still recovering from cancer treatments and heart problems, and broken hearts. There are people sitting among us who are worried where their next meal will come from, or if they will ever stave off this loneliness. We are joined today by the family of Josh Byrne who tragically lost his life on his honeymoon last week in Costa Rica in a flash flood. We grieve at the loss of life and livelihood by hurricane victims in the Florida panhandle.
On this day that we affirm beautiful Knox Leclair’s status as beloved by God and marvel at the miracle of his life, our heart is also at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore with our 19 month old Charlie, paralyzed from the neck down since July 5th from a terrifying disease. We celebrate the beautiful wedding of “our kids”, Lilly Harper to Kevin Pelland yesterday, and we mourn on the one year anniversary of Shelly Kennedy Leonard’s death. I watched the absolute joy on your faces last week as you introduced me to your dogs and cats and guinea pigs; as Pumpkin the bird cat-called me during my sermon. And I saw the tears that rolled down your cheeks as you lit candles for your beloved pets now gone.
Creation gives so much to us, and takes so much from us.
What do you weep for…you who love with your immense and whirling heart?
Our scripture this morning is from one of the most theologically troubling and stunningly written books of the Bible, the book of Job. It’s a story about trying to love God amid the growing darkness of one man's greatest suffering.
Job is a wealthy man living in UZ with a large family. In the text, he is called “blameless” and “upright.” In other words, he does all the “right and good” things. He goes to work, he pays his tithe at church, he always tips the waiters generously at restaurants even if the service was slow, he never flips people off on route 2 when he’s stuck in traffic, he comes home to his adoring family and gives them his full presence, never scrolling through his iPhone when he should be paying attention to the loud and joyful conversation at the dinner table. He is good to his mama, and mows her lawn once a week. He says his prayers at night, giving thanks to God for all of it.
Satan shows up to talk to God about Job. Satan says “this guy Job can’t really be all that good.” Satan and God get into a debate because God strongly disagrees. Job really IS this good and pure, God says. Satan tells God that the only reason Job is so sinless and such a great, upstanding person is because God has blessed him so abundantly with all of the good things—-a great family, a prosperous job, a nice house, stock options, and a good community around him. Satan says that if he’s allowed to relentlessly punish Job, Job will eventually turn and curse God. God disagrees, and for some reason, takes Satan up on this bet. He says to Satan, “OK, you can punish Job relentlessly…just don’t kill him.”
In the course of one day, Job receives four messages, each bearing separate news that his livestock, servants, and ten children have all died due to marauding invaders or natural catastrophes. Job tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers.
I love so much as it grows dark.
Satan appears in heaven again, and God grants him another chance to test Job. This time, Job is afflicted with horrible skin sores. His wife encourages him to curse God and to give up and die, but Job refuses, struggling to accept his circumstances.
I feel God travel with me, when the sun sets and on the sea,
together we walk as it grows dark. We are all together but walk like orphans.
Job has friends that come and visit, which is a good thing for friends to do, but the visit soon turns sour. After sitting with Job in silence for seven days while he mourns, they start bombarding him with long explanations for why these terrible things have happened to him.
Eliphaz tells Job that God must be punishing him for something terrible he has done. Bildad and Zophar agree saying that Job must have committed evil, that his dead children brought this upon themselves, and worse, that he probably deserves greater punishment than what he even received.
They say things like, “everything happens for a reason.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” “Maybe God just needed one more angel.”
Thankfully, Job calls them out. He’s like nope nope nope. First of all, we have done nothing wrong. And second of all, I don’t worship some kind of sadistic God like that. He calls his friends “worthless physicians” who “whitewash their advice with lies.” He refuses to curse God.
Though he believes his friends to be full of it, he continues to lament that bad things can happen to good people. He laments the injustice that allows wicked people to prosper while someone like him who has spent his life loving and serving the Lord could be cursed so terribly.
Out of the whirlwind, God finally speaks, asking a list of rhetorical questions, which is where we enter the story from our scripture today in chapter 38.
God asks Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?
In each instance, God announces that the elements of creation have been positioned exactly as intended. Maybe that’s cold comfort to some, but it is relieving to me.
For those of us who attended Andy’s Eat Pray Learn on Wednesday night, where we talked about Darwin, Creation and God (a small subject for an hour long presentation on a Wednesday night), we left with more Job-like questions than answers. If the elements of creation have been positioned exactly as intended by a loving and all powerful God, why is natural selection all so brutal? Why, over the course of evolution, have 99.3% of species been eradicated from the earth? Why do natural disasters steal so many lives? Why do we suffer? Why would God create beings capable of killing the planet and each other?
Does your heart hurt for your creation, God?
The most relieving and beautiful concept that Andy said to us that night was the thing evolution teaches us: human beings are not the center of the universe. While some of our scriptures certainly suggest otherwise, this is the beautiful and relieving thing God is saying to Job, too.
The universe has order, and its not ordered around you. God assures us that the world contains a certain sense of wisdom that we will never understand. Job’s fear was that the disorder in his own life implied that creation had run amuck or worse yet, that God had abandoned his just rule over the world. But Job 38 is a simple assurance that there is a method to the madness. God doesn’t promise that chaos and disorder won’t break out, only that creation is not greater than its creator. (W. Dennis Tucker)
There’s something terrifying and relieving about being a teeny tiny speck on God’s vast and ordered universe. There’s something profoundly relieving to know that its not all about me because I’m not at the center of it.
But I feel God and he gives color
to my life. He is kind and sad,
like those who attend the sick and dying;
He whispers like a lover in distress.
His heart must hurt for his creation.
I asked blessed, broken-hearted mama Becky Conway if I could share some of her writing about baby Charlotte with you again today and she said yes. She has been asking me questions about God. Why God would steal from her girl. She has been crying out like Job, and I told her that raging to God is a form of faithful prayer we should all participate in far more often. So please hear this as a prayer. She writes:
“I hate to go back to this being “unfair”, my dad always said “life isn’t fair”. i’ve never understood that saying more than I do now. why is it bad things happen to good people? I could ask a million “why” questions but i’ll spare you that novel….
…I think about our “old life” often. if i’m being honest with you it makes me angry. how come we have the greatest surprise of our life, we nurture and care for her and love her more than anything in this world. we do everything “right”, and things like this happen.
….For now I will focus on my purpose. being the best mom i can be and being an advocate for her and others. i want to teach everyone that people with “disabilities” are not different. to allow others to see through appearances that make people look at you or question what is wrong. one day I hope for this world to look past the things that make us who we are in a judgmental way and to just accept each other.”
I said this to Becky, but I want to also say this to all of you, as well:
If I believed that God would steal from Charlie to punish or to teach a lesson, or for some other purpose, I’d be an atheist. God is Love, period. God doesn’t offer protection to those who call God’s name as our psalmist suggests, but is present to us, especially in our deepest suffering. God walks with us in the dark. God’s immense and whirling heart aches when our hearts ache.
God shows up in every prayer others pray for you, in the hands of the nurses and doctors who care for you, in your mama heart that leads you to work for acceptance of difference. God is in your family, who is strong at the broken places; God is there in all of the people willing you to survive with everything they have. You can see God every time you look into the beautiful eyes and still shining smile of your child. I love you. I am with you. I will not leave.
That’s what God says to us out of the whirlwind of this brutiful, ordered universe we are not the center of: “I love you. I am with you. I will not leave.” God tilts the waterskins of heaven, giving us what we thirst for when we cry out God’s name. And God promises us this: Love wins in the end. If love hasn’t won yet, it’s not the end.
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world
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.