A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached Sunday, December 10, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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This advent, we are listening for the messengers among us in this hot mess time saying “do not be afraid.” We are looking for light in the dark.
So sing with me.
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing there in front of me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
“Let it be” Mary says, when given the news that she will carry God in her womb, incubating the light of the world inside of her body. “For nothing is impossible with God.” From age to age, to all who fear, such mercy love imparts.
This was Mary’s hour of darkness, though we rarely remember it that way.
Now, we look at Mary as the picture of virtuous living. She is portrayed that way: as a pious virgin; pure and holy; clean and wholesome; a vaunted saint among women.
What we forget is that in her time, she would have been seen as the opposite. A poor unwed teenager who by all appearances betrayed her soon-to-be husband, Joseph. Mary would have been called a whore for her assumed crime, and punished for it.
In this story of a birth foretold, the messenger who shows up in her house says she is favored by God; blessed among women. Then Mary is told that she will become pregnant out of wedlock, with a baby that is not her fiance’s, but God’s. The scripture says she “was much perplexed and pondered this in her heart,” which, in polite Bible speak, must mean she had a total panic attack and wigged out.
Mary would have known that she would be both a target for violence and abandonment by Joseph, who would have seen her as his property, now damaged goods.
The punishment for women who committed adultery was being stoned to death by mobs of angry men. This “Good News” the angel brought would have meant living the rest of her life in deep shame, if not an immediate death sentence by execution.
But Mary screwed up her courage. “Let it be so according to your word, for nothing is impossible with God” was her response to the angel.
Peace doesn’t come only when the conditions are perfect for it: like at the spa during a full body massage with the sound machine turned on to the beach sounds setting. True peace is the ability to center oneself, especially in our hour of darkness. True peace is not knowing the outcome or the end of the story, and saying, “let it be” anyway.
That kind of peace is not passive. It takes courage; guts; grit. And we need this kind of peace in this hour of darkness. I want to encourage us to see Mary’s “let it be,” not as weak-willed surrender, but as defiance.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, in this moment Mary chooses to “take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.” She agrees “to smuggle God into the world inside her own body.”
Mary chooses defiant peace. She stares shame in the face and doesn’t allow it to pierce her heart.
You and I cannot have the courage to live wholehearted lives without staring shame in the face, and refusing to allow it to pierce our hearts.
But first we need to define shame.
Sometimes used synonymously, guilt and shame are different.
Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad.”
Shame says, “I am bad.”
Guilt is a useful emotion, propelling us toward the Good. Shame is a toxic liar.
Since God created us in her image; since God created the universe and called it good; since Jesus died rather than be in the sin accounting business anymore; defying shame is Godly. It is the work of Love.
Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher who has written a few books, the first of which is called “Daring Greatly.”
Brown consistently finds in her research that the only way to defy toxic shame is to acknowledge and be at peace with our human vulnerability.
I know I have shared this list with you in a sermon before, but it bears repeating.
In her research, Brown asked people to finish this sentence stem: “vulnerability is________”
Here’s how some people finished the sentence:
• Sharing an unpopular opinion
• Standing up for myself
• Asking for help
• Saying no
• Starting my own business
• Helping my thirty seven year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
• Calling a friend whose child just died
• Signing up my mom for hospice care
• The first date after my divorce
• Saying “I love you” first
• Getting fired
• Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
• Waiting for the biopsy to come back
• Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
• Admitting I’m afraid
• Being accountable
• Asking for forgiveness
• Having faith.
Do those things sound like weakness to you? Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Brown says “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Do not be afraid.
Mary’s pregnancy might have made her vulnerable, but it didn’t make her weak.
At pub theology this week, I asked our folks to discuss a time they witnessed someone being “intentionally vulnerable” in a way that was courageous.
One of the groups talked about the #metoo movement: the women (and a few men) who have recently come forward to report sexual harassment and sexual assault by more powerful men in the past months.
We have all watched in some shock as many of these men have faced firings, or forced resignations, one by one: Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, my favorite comedian Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Senator Al Franken stepping down this week, to name a few. And the one that really just wrecked me yesterday: Tom Ashbrook was just put on leave from On Point on NPR pending an investigation. I adore Tom Ashbrook; he is my voice of sanity; a light in the dark.
The news is so relentless at this point, we are sitting not with the dreaded question “whose next?” but the cynical one: “who hasn’t?” We have all started praying that Tom Hanks, Mr. Rogers and the Pope don’t one day make the list.
The folks at pub theology asked me what the church’s response should be to this kind of public witness. How do we protect victims? they asked. How do we hold people accountable? They asked. What is the Christian response? Where does forgiveness fit in?
These are all important questions. Like many of you, I have very mixed feelings about what sometimes feels like a witch hunt that has no end, since human frailty has no end.
And yet, me too. The first time I was sexually harassed by adult men, I was ten years old. I was tall for my age, it was the eighties, it was Halloween and I was proudly dressed like Elvira. I learned far too early that even young pre-pubescent girls have to be careful about what they wear.
There have been countless #metoo stories since, in just about every year of my life—as a teenager, as a young adult, in my middle age. On the street, in the bar, in the workplace, by colleagues and community members. Yes, as a pastor, too. All varying in severity from harassment to assault.
As a child, I watched the Anita Hill hearings and then I watched Clarence Thomas sworn in to the supreme court. As a teenager, I watched Bill Clinton lie about taking advantage of a young intern half his age, and I watched Monica Lewinski shamed and blamed for it as a result.
My 10-year-old daughter came home last year from school having expressed worry to a friend on the bus that the president of the United States “brags about grabbing women without asking,” and her peer said that it was OK because “all men do that.”
I had to assure my Cecilia this wasn’t true, and use her grandfathers, her father, her stepfather, the many wonderful men in her church as examples. No, not all men grab women without asking, nor do they brag about it.
This culture terrifies me for my young daughters, yes, but also for my son. The normalization of sexual assault hurts all men almost as much as it victimizes all women. I fear for my son, and the limited definition of “masculinity” he’s inheriting.
I know the statistic for women who have been sexually assaulted is 1 in 4, but in my experience in my peer group and as a pastor, as far as I can tell the statistic is just about 4 in 4.
Time Magazine just named the women who have come forward this year to expose sexual harassment and assault in all levels of industry as “Persons of the Year”, calling them the “The silence breakers.” The silence breakers are black, white, Asian, Latino, women, men, conservative pundits, liberal congressional aides, hotel industry maids and Hollywood actors.
They have been criticized; they have been shamed and blamed. But they would not and will not be silenced. They knew what was at stake, and they spoke anyway.
So what should be the church’s response?
Well, the church doesn’t exist as a court of law, it exists as a silence breaker.
The church exists to proclaim this Good News: Do not be afraid, for the Lord is with you.
The church exists to defy shame.
The church exists to forgive sin, yes, but the church also exists to protect all bodies and all parts of the body as sacred and belonging to God; to lift up the lowly and scatter the proud; to put down the mighty from their seat.
Too often instead the church has been a source of sexual shame, at the same time famously complicit in the sexual abuse of innocents. From the priest scandal in the Catholic church to the support for Roy Moore in the evangelical church.
But the church was made by Jesus to teach us a different way.
His way is The Way of the messengers. His way is the way of the truth tellers. His way is the way of the silence breakers; those who hold us accountable to God’s Love even when it is uncomfortable.
So in this hour of darkness, I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, full of grace, who raised a son to honor women; to call them blessed. I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, who stared shame in the face and said “let it be with me according to your word.”
I imagine her saying:
Me, too. I am scared, and I have no idea what is going to happen to me. But, I have finally found my purpose, and I refuse to live in fear of it. Let it be so, for nothing is impossible with God
Because I hear Mary singing:
My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices that God is my savior.
For it is He who truly sees me:
The poverty, the oppression of my gender, the quiet strength it takes to live my life, my bravery in the face of overwhelming darkness and fear,
And yet, behold, from now on: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he is God and he has magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And he loves us all, throughout all generations.
He is strong: he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent away empty.
Remembering his mercy, he has helped his servant Israel :
As he promised to our forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy of Holies;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow
Let it be
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Speaking words of wisdom let it be.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Sermons are meant to be seen.
“Do not be afraid.” That is what the angels say before they deliver a message from God. The word angel, derived from the Greek, simply means messenger. Angels are God’s messengers in our scriptures. God’s messages are often not messages of comfort and peace, but of change and growth. There are angels among us. God’s message sometimes comes from a person we least expect to deliver it, and the message isn’t always a welcome one.
When we picture angels, we often picture beautiful feathery winged creatures with harps lounging on clouds above us and singing “alleluia” beatifically. We picture our five-year-old in her acting debut wearing a halo in the Christmas pageant.
But the angels in our scriptures aren’t like that at all. I mean, people are always “terrified” or “sore afraid” when angels arrive in our gospel texts, and who would be afraid of a beautiful five-year-old with wings and a harp?
Angels in the scriptures were scary beings, often unwanted visitors.
“Do not be afraid,” angels call out first. “Because this message probably won’t feel good to you. Nevertheless, I bring you tidings of great joy!” Good news from God doesn’t often sound “good” to our human ears.
Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
In our reading from Luke, it was just another day at the temple for Zechariah. It was his priestly turn to make sure everything was done properly and in good order. But it turned into something quite different when an angel showed up in the balcony to surprise him with the news that his wife was pregnant. I’m sure that it would shock Vern if Vicki turned up pregnant this week! And I’m not sure the two of them would celebrate that pregnancy, at least not right away. After all, they are trying to enjoy retirement, and their grandchildren, who they can send back to their parents after spoiling them rotten. There’s a reason why I cast Vern and Vicki in these roles.
Because good news doesn’t always sound like good news. Hope doesn’t always sound hopeful. Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
I know that all of you have had a moment in your life after which you knew nothing would ever be the same. The moment you took the pregnancy test, the moment you discovered your spouse cheated, the moment you lost something like your home or your dignity, the moment you were laid off, put the bottle down, received the diagnosis, heard the news, shut the door behind you, went to court, got the call.
The moment was often unexpected. The messenger was often not the one you would have chosen. And the message wasn’t always welcome. But it did change the course of your life. And in these moments, the light of hope is both hard to find, and the most important thing in all of the world.
We are called to be the light of hope in the darkest of times for one another. But we cannot be hope bringers if we are waiting to be the perfect vessels for the message. That day will never come.
When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son is the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God, Zechariah says, “I am old. I don’t believe you.” To Zechariah's incredulous "but I am old" comes Gabriel's "but I am Gabriel!” Perhaps Zechariah’s “but...” is an analogy to what must be God's frustration with our cynical responses to God's call. Our response often comes in the form of “I’m not good enough. I don’t believe it.”
I felt called to be a minister from when I was about 20, and still in college. And then, as a young woman of 23, I began working for the department of ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Association. I firmly decided in those three years that I would never be a minister. I was not good enough, and I knew it. When I say “good,” I don’t mean “talented.” I mean, I felt I was not a moral enough person, or a role model for pious, holy living. I had too many skeletons in the closet, swore too much, screwed up too much, hurt people too often, prayed too little.
I learned in the work I did with the ministerial credentialing committee how easily I could mess other people up with my own inadequacies, and I didn’t want to inflict my imperfection on some sweet innocent, unsuspecting congregation like this one. And so I became a therapist for children, which is hilariously ironic since imperfect folks like myself can do just as much damage there, if not more. But there was something about failing regularly in public that terrified me far more.
Incidentally, I didn’t answer the call to the ministry at age 33 because I had become a better person. If anything, I had gotten worse. I simply realized that my problem was not that I was imperfect. My problem was that I couldn’t allow myself to be. That’s what inflicts harm on other people. Not our imperfections, but our inability to honestly embrace them, name them, and do the work we are called to do anyway.
Perfect truly is the enemy of the good.
There is a description of the perfect pastor that has been floating around for decades in the form of a chain letter email:
The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes.
He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings..
The perfect pastor makes $90 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car,
buys good books, and donates $80 a week to the church.
He works from 8 am until midnight and is also the church janitor.
He is 40 years old and has 30 years experience.
Above all, he is handsome.
The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers,
and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens.
He makes 15 home visits a day
and is always in his office to be handy when needed.
The perfect pastor never misses any church committee meeting
and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.
The perfect pastor is always in the next church over!
If your pastor does not measure up,
simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor, too.
Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list.
If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors.
One of them should be perfect!
I’ll never be perfect according to this criteria, rest assured. I am quite sure I have already gone over ten minutes in THIS sermon, and my inability to grow a beard makes me a bad candidate for ministry right off the bat!
I’m sure you have your own similarly impossible list of how to be a perfect farmer, computer programmer, plumber, teacher, lawyer, doctor, spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, sister, friend…etc. We all have impossible expectations for perfection placed on us by ourselves and others.
And like most of you, I am given a lot of feedback on a daily basis reflecting back to me both my gifts and my deficits. A lot of the feedback I’ve had as a public figure I’ve had to sift for truth. I bet this is true of you, also, no matter your role. Your list will be different, but as a minister, I get everything from you’re “too young, too old, too loud, too tall, too girly, too immodestly dressed, too serious, too comical, too political, not political enough, too liberal, too conservative, too Christian, not Christian enough, too involved in everything, not involved enough, you talk about money too much, you’re not raising enough money, you work too much, you work too little...” the list goes on.
It’s all information, it often contradicts, and somewhere in there, there’s a message. We have to become great sifters of information to find the God bits, like shaking those sifts found in your kid’s sand toys for gold. You have to know how to find Truth in a world of too much information.
So I start here: do not be afraid. Take what’s yours’. Leave what’s not. Be honest about your mistakes. Mine for the gold: find God’s message amid the noise of information.
This week, I started a conversation on the internet in a manner that was more snarky than my public voice usually is, and more unkind than the way I try to be. A poet calls cynicism “that other sadness.” If I am being honest, cynicism is my greatest vice, and the strongest armor in my arsenal protecting the core of shame and inadequacy that rests inside of me.
What I said struck a chord with people, and I got literally hundreds of supportive messages from beloved supporters and colleagues, and lots of “atta Pastors!” However, there were three people from this congregation, one friend from divinity school, and my best friend from college brave enough to buck the tide and deliver me an alternative message, one they knew I surely didn’t want to hear. “You are better than this,” or “You should be better than this,” was what the message was.
They broke through the armor. Those five lone messengers helped God to reach into my chest, pull out my heart of stone, and replace it with a beating heart of flesh again. I took down the post, and made a humble attempt at a public apology, because when you fail in public, there is no other way.
The truth is, the thing I most feared about being a public messenger of God—failing to live up to the message itself—comes true for me every day I do this job. And there is no better gift. God helps me to learn from my imperfections whenever I have ears to hear. We need to be good listeners if we are going to be messengers for hope. Do not be afraid of what you’ll hear.
We can also aspire to become better messengers. “Preach the gospel at all times,” a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, “if necessary, use words.”
When we do use our words, we own them and take responsibility for them. We stop first. We must evaluate our words before we deliver the message, especially one we know will be hard to hear. This is an acronym you may have heard before, because I definitely didn’t make it up: T.H.I.N.K before you speak.
Before you deliver a message, evaluate it with this method:
T – is it True?
H – is it Helpful?
I – is it Inspiring?
N – is it Necessary?
K – is it Kind?
If one or more of the criteria is missing, maybe it is time to re-evaluate whether the message is worthy of God.
And remember that all of US are worthy of God, and everyone you meet is known and named Beloved. As sure as you and I were born, there are angels among us. Messengers of God bringing the light of hope in the darkness. The message isn’t always the one we are wanting or expecting, so listen humbly and sift for gold. Your deeds do more to send a message than any words you speak. But when words are needed, let the truth of hope resound through them. Do not be afraid. An aching world needs our voice.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett on
November 26, 2017, Christ the King Sunday at
The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard.
You survived Thanksgiving! Congratulations! It’s time to switch our life speeds from “busy mode” into “CRAZY busy mode.” We will now commence shopping and partying and cooking and squeezing in every family tradition we have between now and December 25th. We will now commence dysfunctional family gatherings, forced merriment, conspicuous consumption, thwarted expectations and going into debt.
But we do it for the children, right? We are so selfless.
My son is at that age when he is far more theologically profound than anyone in our family. The magic of this season is uniquely alive in Isaac, and like many children his age he asks the questions that theologians have been asking for thousands of years.
So, these days I get nervous when the four-year-old philosopher climbs into bed before I’ve had my coffee to ask me what I want to think about. These days the thing that he wants to think about every morning, is “Christmas.”
And so the questions begin. They are often along the lines of “what is Santa doing right now? Why do the elves have to help him make the toys? How do the reindeer fly? Why does he need them to pull the sleigh? How does he get down the chimney? Where on the roof does the sleigh go? Can Santa make Spider man toys?”
One day I asked him rather righteously, “Do you know whose birthday Christmas is?”
“No,” he said. (Whoops).
“It’s not yours. It’s Jesus’s!” I said.
“Will Jesus be coming to our house for his birthday party?” he asks.
“Jesus is always with us. He’s in our hearts,” I answer.
“Where?” Isaac asks, and looks down his shirt.
“You can find him in the part of you that feels sad when other people feel sad, and the part of you that feels happy when other people feel happy. And you can find him in other people,” I say.
Four year olds are far more concrete than that. “Where? I don’t see him. What does Jesus look like? Does he look like Daddy?”
“Yes,” I say. “Except more brown.”
“What does his stomach look like?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “In pictures he has six pack abs.”
“Can I see a picture? Is Jesus God? Is Jesus still alive or did he die? Was God born on Christmas, too? Where is God now? Is God invisible? What does Santa Claus make for Jesus in the toy workshop? Does Jesus play with toys? Is Santa Claus God?”
You can see why I look forward to these conversations with a mix of anticipation and dread.
It’s hard to relay to my son that worshipping Jesus might mean giving the gift of ourselves away, rather than waiting impatiently for Santa Claus to bring us a Spider Man toy made in his workshop of jolly elves who are in all actuality probably child slave laborers in a third world country making a few cents an hour in a factory with deplorable conditions.
The fact that it’s hard is because of the lie we tell ourselves and our children every year that there is any sort of piety in celebrating a month of American greed and gluttony and calling it a celebration of Christ’s reign on earth.
So my sermon inspiration this week comes from my son’s good questions, known to stymie theologians who haven’t had their coffee; from Jesus, known for saving the world; and--I never thought I’d say this, but—from Russell Brand, who is a Hollywood actor and comedian known for being married, briefly, to Katy Perry.
Russell Brand was being interviewed on some British TV show recently. He talks about how he got sober--stopped doing drugs, drinking and watching pornography. He detailed how he spends his days now—praying religiously every morning, doing good things for others and listening to other people’s stories. He does this, he says, not because he is particularly pious, but because drugs no longer work. This new way of life fills the void drugs no longer fill for him—helping others makes him feel good. The interviewer asks him if this new way is more time consuming. And he answers truthfully, “yes. It is time consuming. But the alternative is unthinkable. if I don’t spend my time this way, I will slip into a sort of prison…. Look, you get to a point where individual and collective needs align and marry perfectly because we are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. So when you treat other people with grace and with kindness, you are enforcing something that is very powerfully true.”
And Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life says this: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’
We are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. That is what Jesus and Russell Brand tell us. So yes, Isaac, Jesus is invited into our homes on his birthday, and every time we invite other people into our hearts. Especially those who we don’t understand, or we don’t want to invite. That’s because in order to inherit the kin-dom of God, we live for others. We feed, we give, we welcome the stranger, we clothe, we heal, we visit. Even though it is time consuming. Because the alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is the eternal punishment of separation from one another, God and ourselves—in other words, the alternative is death.
This is Christ the King Sunday, or reign of Christ Sunday. Some folks in the church don’t give this day much credence as it is a rather new feast day in the liturgical year: the last Sunday of ordinary time before advent begins. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius the XI in response to growing secularism after World War I. It is only 90 years old, in other words…not exactly ancient. And it was created because the Pope began to fear that people were worshipping worldly heroes more than Christ: the Kaisers, Kings and Czars on golden thrones and in ivory towers, politicians and presidents, celebrities, and the false prophets of snake oil sales religion. Conquest and power began to be the recognizable markers of the coming Kingdom rather than the blessing of the least of these.
We need Christ the King Sunday now more than ever. We need Christ the King Sunday because our definition of a “powerful person” is too often someone who has made a lot of money, who won’t back down, who’s done well in business, who owns property and rules with a back bone and an iron fist. We worship those who threaten to use the biggest weapons in the arsenal, who use other people for their own gain, who harm and exploit others’ bodies all the while preaching moral righteousness. Our definition of a powerful person is “someone willing to smite our enemies, to defend ‘our’ land, to kill in ‘our’ name.”
But that’s not our God’s definition of Kingly rule.
So we need Christ the King Sunday now. We need to be reminded that the king we worship was born homeless in a manger to an unwed teenaged mother. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who was poor and lowly; who was humble, meek and mild. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who did not wear a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns. We need to be reminded that we worship a king whose throne was not a golden spectacle, but a wooden cross. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who died for all, rather than judge people worthy or unworthy of saving.
We need Christ the King Sunday because frankly, it is hard for us with our poor vision and vengeful hearts to see Christ as a figure worthy of worship. If we are being honest, Jesus is our worldly idea of a wimpy, weak-willed loser. Instead of disavowing the poor as lazy and unworthy, he got to know them. Instead of condemning those sentenced to death row as disposable, he visited them. Instead of letting those without health insurance die, he healed them. Instead of building walls, he built bridges. Instead of letting the poor and hungry starve, he fed them. Instead of fighting back when threatened, he turned the other cheek. Instead of smiting his enemies, he gave up his life for them.
And the kicker is that the king we worship expects the same of the rest of us.
Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” our true king says.
In the upside down kin-dom of heaven where Christ reigns, to become rich, you give your money away. In the upside down kin-dom where Christ reigns, to get back at your enemies, you love them. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to become a leader, you become a servant. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to truly find life, you die to self. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, all people are called beloved children of God, and treated as though that is true.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"
We need Christ the King Sunday because worshipping this humble king might actually mean changing the way we live our lives.
About 10 years ago, a group called “Advent Conspiracy” formed in order to take back Advent from the Doorbuster black Friday sales at Target of this Thanksgiving weekend, and the ensuing consumer spending spree. They function on four principles I have shared with you before, and will share with you again now.
Number 1. Worship Fully
Worshipping fully is noticing the in-breaking of Love into a brutal and awaiting world. We need to slow down to notice; to take time out of our busy weeks of shopping and cooking and parties to be still and wait. This advent, commit to come to church every Sunday to practice noticing this Love and to bow down before it. This is how we worship our king.
Number 2. Spend Less
Americans spend 600 billion dollars during the Christmas season, mostly charged on their credit cards. So we go deep into debt to buy gifts that will be forgotten by New Year’s Eve. Imagine what we could do with 600 billion dollars to feed people, or to house refugees, or to ensure that the whole world had clean water to drink. What if we were to spend less at Christmas, by making our gifts like we did as kids, by writing letters to loved ones about what they mean to us, by spending time with our families instead of money…which is all our kids really want from us anyway. This advent, commit to spending less money, and spend more time. This is how we worship our king.
Number 3. Give More
I know that I just said that you and I need to stop spending so much money and going into debt to buy presents, and now I’m telling you to give more, and that seems like a contradiction. Give more of yourself away. Give more to your loved ones, to your church, to the community. When we spend less on our loved ones, our excess is available to lift up the poor and the needy. This advent, give more of yourself to God. This is how we worship our king.
Number 4. Love All
Fear is the enemy of faith. Other people aren’t the enemy. Fear is. And the opposition to fear is love. So this Advent, find the ones that you fear the most, and get to know them. Maybe invite someone that you disagree with religiously or politically out for coffee. Maybe really make eye contact and smile at someone you would normally over-look or avoid. Maybe visit someone in prison, or give your money away to someone you think doesn’t deserve it. Maybe encountering the darkest part of your own heart is the thing you fear the most. This Advent, Love what you fear, especially yourselves. That’s true bravery. This is how we worship our king.
Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Committing to these four practices is how we to inherit the kin-dom of God. Live for each other, because we are not separate from one another in anyway that is meaningful. Give yourself away in service to Love.
And he shall reign forever and ever.
Preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
November 19, 2017
Thanksgiving Sunday at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by William Stafford
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown.
Any morning can be an occasion for frowning. There is so much trouble busying itself elsewhere; it has so much to do in the world. Any morning can also be an occasion for gratitude. Little pieces of Heaven left lying around can be picked up and saved.
It is not one or the other: trouble or heaven. As always, it’s both. Frowning and joy; grief and gratitude; the desire to save the world and savor it. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to pick between two things. The world is both brutal and beautiful, and anyone who notices the beauty in the world must want to save it from brutality.
In our reading from the Epistles this morning, St. Paul in his letter to the people of Thessalonica gives instructions to prepare them for Christ’s second coming with instructions for their holiness. He says to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
Rejoice always, Paul, really? Even at the DMV, the traffic on the mass pike, the hospital, the funeral home? I am still mourning the death of people I love. I am worried about the uncertainty of the future and my children’s future. We have been plunged into the darkness of the winter this month and the seasonal depression that is sure to come along with it. People are dying every day, and the world is violent and mean. Rejoice always, Paul? Seriously?
Pray without ceasing, Paul, how? Sometimes I have to, like, sleep, bathe and read InStyle magazine. And sometimes it’s hard just to put one foot in front of the other, get my grocery shopping done, get my kids to all of their appointments and pay the bills. I should be praying that whole time? Really?
Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul? Even when I have heard countless stories of assaultive men I once admired in the news this week? This congregation readies itself to celebrate Thanksgiving again this year, and there will be newly empty chairs at our Thanksgiving tables. There will be anger, grieving and loneliness. Some of us are so ill we have lost hope. Some of us won’t be able to afford a turkey. Some of us won’t be able to stay sober or sane. Give thanks in ALL circumstances? These ones, too?
These are seemingly impossible feats Paul is requiring of the followers of Jesus. But he may just be reminding us that there is no other choice but to rejoice, pray unceasingly, and yes, to be thankful in all circumstances though we’ve considered all the facts.
When I was studying to be a minister, I did a summer long chaplaincy internship at Mass General Hospital on the neurological floors. I remember going to my supervisor in a panic before being on call for the first time. I could be beeped to go into any part of the hospital during the overnight shift. I had a 9 month old baby and a four year old at the time. I said to my supervisor: “I don’t think I can go to the NICU or the PICU. I can’t handle it. I’m a mother.”
And she said to me, rather harshly (she was a rather harsh person): “Robin, this is not about you. That’s not your kid in the hospital bed. That’s not your baby. That’s someone else’s. It could be your kid, and it may be your kid one day, but its not today. So today the right response is gratitude. The second response is to suck it up and show up.”
Ann Lamott says, “Sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” I have been thinking about my need for a new prescription as I reflect on my regular failure to be grateful.
A few weeks ago, I awoke to a leak in my ceiling dripping dirty water onto the foot of my bed from the attic floor boards. I got up, walked downstairs and stepped on legos with bare feet as I crossed the kitchen floor, swearing as I realized there was still a sink full of dirty dinner dishes left over from the night before. No one seems to know that there is a dishwasher in my house except me. My head is aching, it’s too early in the morning, I stayed up too late last night, I have to go to the dentist, I am so busy, it is so hard, I have too much work to do and not enough time to do it in, I want to go back to bed. “Ugh. When will I get peace and quiet and time for me and a vacation and a maid!”
And truthfully, too often I say that instead of: “thank you, God, for my life and breath, for the fact of my rising from a warm bed, for the two strong legs that carried me to the bathroom to splash water on my face like a baptism. Thank you for the dawn of a new day, for the healthy, funny, loving children that leave their toys on the floor for me to step on. Thank you for clean water flowing from my sink that I can wash my dishes with. Thank you for the food I have to scrape into the trash before I do. It is a ridiculous blessing that I have so much food I am scraping some of it into the trash.
Thank you for the shower I took this morning, in clean drinking water. An embarrassment of riches, I think, after reading about the people all over the world, and even in Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean drinking water; the children who are poisoned, the cholera epidemics. And I am literally bathing in drinking water.
Which reminds me to thank you for excellent medical care, and a mouth full of teeth that chew. Thank you, God, for the floor on which those legos were laid, and the roof over my head that will be patched and then fixed and paid for by people other than me.
Thank you, God, for the husband who gives me his whole heart, for the boy who wakes me up too early to ask me what I want to think about. Thank you for a mind that thinks, and for people who encourage that mind to think differently. Thank you for the girls who are fighting over the television remote right now. Thank you, God, for the gumption they inherited to fight for what they believe to be right…they’ll need it. And thank you for the coffee maker, which makes it all more bearable.
Thank you for meaningful work serving people I love. I am blessed to have too much work. I am blessed to have the best and most loving boss, You.
Thank you, God, for the good earth that created us, that warms and feeds and sustains us; that astounds us with beauty every day. Thank you, God, for all of the extra: we have so much that we can give some away. Thank you for your Church; for a place where our giving can match our deepest held values.
Thank you, God, for the tears of mourning I have shed. I have loved and been loved so fully that loss feels like a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Thank you, God, for the pain of being fully alive because it cuts through the numbness of depression. It cuts through the empty consumption of mindless consumerism. Thank you for all of the memories I have of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, responsible for both deep wounds and deep wisdom. Thank you, God, for good therapists and for Zoloft.
The only prayer on my lips every morning should be “thank you,” because there is nothing else to say in the face of such abundance.
As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables this week to give thanks for what we have, let us remember that our joy comes from Love; our ceaseless prayer is Love in action; our gratitude is the only response.
Beloved: this holiday season, in the words of First Parish in Concord's weekly benediction:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings, especially yourself.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown. But for now, pick up and savor little pieces of heaven wherever you find them.
For now and in all things, enter God’s courts with Thanksgiving, and God’s gates with praise.
A Sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
November 12, 2017
with thanks to Rev. Sarah Stewart and Wikipedia for the inspiration
Sermons are better seen.
I want us to imagine a world in which weapons of war are transformed into tools for healing and harvesting.
What better day to imagine this world than the Sunday of Veteran’s day weekend; the day we welcome 15 new members into our church. Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifices for our country’s freedom. Thank you, new members, for agreeing to walk hand and hand with us in the interest of bringing about earth as it is in heaven.
Our scripture from Micah talks about that heaven on earth: the day when the people of the world shall beat their swords into ploughshares and beat their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
I had a conversation at dinner a couple of weeks ago with one of our beloved veterans, Paul Jones, who said, “there is no one who desires peace in the world more than a soldier. We understand the cost of war profoundly, and war is the last thing we want.” They have walked in the darkest valley in the shadow of death.
Especially for our veteran’s sake, may we continue to pray for a world without war.
Beat swords into ploughshares.
This concept has literal applications, I found in my very scholarly Wikipedia research.
After World War II, military surplus AFVs were sometimes converted into bulldozers, agricultural, and logging tractors. French farmers sometimes used modified versions of the obsolete FT-17 tank, and similar vehicles, based on the T-34 tank, remain in widespread use in the former USSR.
Weapons of war transformed to harvest new crops. Death transformed to life.
From the 1970s onwards, several anti-war musicians play guitars made from military surplus weapons. Jamaican reggae star Pete Tosh famously owned a Stratocaster built around an M-16 rifle.
Weapons of war transformed into music; to beauty. Death transformed to life.
Nitrogen mustard, developed from the chemical weapon mustard gas developed in World War I, became the basis for the world's first chemotherapy drug, mustine, developed through the 1940s.
Weapons of war transformed to heal. Death transformed to life.
Imagine a world in which all weapons have been turned into tools: for harvesting and building, healing and hope. Imagine a world in which the human tendency to tear down is transcended by a divine commitment to build up.
That’s God’s world, our scriptures remind us. Death transformed to life.
We need this now, O God who makes all things new. We are in this cycle right now in America that disturbs all of us, rocks our sense of safety, elevates our cynicism and apathy, and makes us feel hopeless and without agency.
There have been 382 mass shootings so far in America in 2017. 539 dead, just from mass shootings alone this year. On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns.
We are growing numb, helpless and tired.
We have the mass shooting problem in America down to a melancholy script. Headlines shout something about the latest massacre being the deadliest whatever in that venue’s history. We all nervously check to see the race and religion of the shooter to see if the media and politicians will declare that it was an act of terrorism or a “lone wolf” with a mental health problem. Politicians tweet out thoughts and prayers. Liberals declare, “enough of thoughts and prayers. Do something to fix it.” And conservatives declare, “this is not the time to politicize a tragedy.” Gun sales skyrocket for a little while. People fight about whether we have a mental health crisis or a gun crisis or a domestic violence crisis or a radicalized religion crisis, or a crisis of toxic masculinity or all of the above. Nothing is done to change anything. Then it all disappears into the air until the next mass shooting, which will happen so soon that at it will fail to even register properly on our shock and horror radars.
This latest mass shooting--though it happened in Texas--feels close to home to us, though. Twenty-six people mowed down by a man wearing tactical gear and carrying some sort of semi-automatic machine gun. Twenty-six killed and twenty more injured in a small town church during worship in Texas last Sunday. Twenty-six killed on a Sunday while we, too, gathered for the same humble purpose in a small town church here in Sterling. All of that gathered congregation in Sutherland Springs are either now dead or wounded. 4% of the town of Sutherland Springs died that day.
This one hit home. Our congregation wrote to me, stopped by, called, expressing fear that it could happen here. Is no place safe? They asked, tears in their eyes. I wonder the same thing, though that is not new for me. I spent the week making church safety plans with defense experts in the congregation and the chief of police. I deeply resent that it has come to this: that our sense of security has been threatened in our safest, open, loving, welcoming place.
This time I decided to flip the mass shooting script. I decided to cross some ideological boundaries to do so. If we are going to do something effective, the words that we use as weapons must be turned into tools of healing and harvesting and hope instead.
We need the humility to start with ourselves.
As many of you can probably guess, my parents are vehemently anti-gun. We weren’t allowed even to have squirt guns at home, or to pull out our “trigger fingers” to pretend to shoot each other. This was harder for my brother than it was for me, since like many boys, he seemed to come out of the womb with the ability to make that machine gun noise I wasn’t biologically programmed for. I lived in New Hampshire, and many of my friends, I’m sure, had guns, but I was blissfully unaware. As an adult, I lived in Boston where all of my friends were liberal professionals. I didn’t know anyone who used a gun there, to hunt or for self-protection or even to shoot skeet. None of that is very practical in the city.
As a result, I know nothing about guns. I have never shot one or even touched one. I have never hunted and killed my own food. I don’t know how to use them as a tool or for self defense. Like so many liberals, I am uneducated about them, naïve about their proliferation, and frankly scared of them. My whole life I have been vehemently for gun control; one of those people who the NRA warns you about.
So this week I sought out my gun-owning beloveds in this congregation. I sought out my conservative beloveds in the congregation. I talked with the police chief, with our veterans, with our defense experts, our second amendment defenders. What I found is that they are just as disturbed, sickened and worried about the proliferation of mass shootings as I am. We described our fears and resignation with tears of rage in our eyes. I learned that they worry that gun control measures might keep us less safe. They listened as I explained my worries that having more guns makes us less safe. One of you even offered to teach me to shoot at the shooting range, and I’m going to take you up on it.
In the course of these conversations, I realized that our desire to keep this congregation and community safe was the primary value we shared in common. We love one another, and we love our children. That’s why. And love is the way forward.
I want us to practice being a people in which the words we have turned into weapons can be transformed into tools of healing and harvesting. Where we listen to understand; where we search for commonalties. Beat swords into ploughshares. Maybe this is what it means to DO SOMETHING.
Nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy and inaction. As if one is either for prayer, or for doing something . As is usual in our country right now, there is no middle way. As a pastor who believes in the power of prayer and who can see that our fervent prayers haven’t stopped the killing, I think we need both. Liberals and conservatives, gun enthusiasts and gun despisers, if I can go shoot guns at a shooting range, you can take one another out for coffee and listen for understanding rather than argument. We can do very hard things.
This week in yesterday’s Keep the Faith column in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, my friend and colleague the Rev. Sarah Stewart told an old joke:
Once upon a time, a man was shipwrecked and flailing around in the sea. He kicked his feet and waved his arms and cried, "O God, save me! I’m going to drown!” And lo and behold, a helicopter spotted the wreckage and flew in low over the man. A ladder uncoiled from the belly of the copter and a rescue worker made his way down. “Grab my hand!” the rescuer shouted.
“No, God will save me!” the man replied. No matter what the rescuer said or did, the man refused to take his hand and be pulled to safety. The rescuer watched in utter dismay as the man slipped beneath the waves.
The man came to his senses in Heaven. Dry, warm, and comfortable, he walked toward God, who was hanging out in God’s favorite chair by the fire. “Hey God!” the man said. “I prayed! I was faithful! Why didn’t you rescue me?!”
“Buddy,” said God, “who did you think sent the flippin’ helicopter?”
And then she wrote this:
This old joke comes to mind when I hear politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence in America. What on earth do they mean? What do they think “prayer” means?
…..Effective prayer is the hallmark of an effective leader. Prayer brings the community together in shared action to contemplate their behavior. Prayer makes open a way that had previously been closed. Prayer is getting up off your knees to settle the differences you have with someone in your community. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul told the church in Thessalonica, and if we are to follow his example, everything we do should be a prayer.”
Hallelujah. Let’s get off our knees and settle differences. Let everything we do be a prayer.
Jesus didn’t pray with his words very much in the Bible. He healed, he sat with, he loved, he fed. He used his hands; his body. He told his disciples to “go and do.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, he tells the lawyer that the one who helps his neighbor is the one who is living God’s commandments. “Go and do likewise,” he says. When he serves communion on the night before he dies, Jesus says “do this in remembrance of me.”
Go and do. Do this. This is how we pray.
So on this Veteran’s Day, on this new member Sunday, I am grateful for this theologically and ideologically diverse congregation where I am pushed to be better every day. I am grateful for our responsible gun owners and our gun-hating lefties, and the middle ground we are capable of finding. That’s where God resides; in the middle.
So when we unite to beat our weaponized words into tools for healing and harvesting love, this is our prayer.
When we listen to those we disagree with for understanding and shared values, this is our prayer.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end violence, this is our prayer.
When we work for peace among nations, this is our prayer.
When we serve our country in war or in our community’s soup kitchens, this is our prayer.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, this is our prayer.
When we feed the hungry and the lonely, this is our prayer.
When we eat soup, break bread, worship, and learn together, this is our prayer.
When we visit the elderly and the infirm, the lonely and mourning, this is our prayer.
When we unite with people brought together not by being like-minded, but like-hearted, this is our prayer.
When we welcome the stranger, this most especially is our prayer. Our wide open doors is a prayer no act of terror can close and lock.
Beloved, unite in the love of God with those you disagree with. Pray without ceasing by going, and doing. Invite someone you disagree with to talk about guns in America. Listen to understand. Be brave enough to imagine together a world in which the words we have turned into weapons have been transformed into tools of healing and harvesting and hope. And surely then goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Preached Sunday, November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
This All Saints Sunday, I want to tell you the story of one of our saints, who joined our church family just two years ago.
A few weeks ago, on September 19, 2017, Shelly Kennedy-Leonard showed me who she was. Shelly called me at the beginning of September and told me that she wanted to see me. I had been waiting for this phone call. Diagnosed with a terrifying cancer diagnosis at the end of July, I had been trying to check in and give space at the same time.
Shelly texted me on the day we were supposed to meet and asked me to come to her house in Lancaster. I arrived at 10:00. As she applied make up expertly (even with contouring) on her living room couch, she told me the story of painting her living room.
“Matt and the kids were all away, so I painted the whole thing myself. It lightened the whole room. It looks like a magazine now with the contrast wall! I must have had cancer the whole time, but I didn’t know it. Isn’t that crazy?”
She told me what the living room used to look like, that she has so many regrets now about living with a “depressing” brown living room for so long, about trying to make it somehow better by adding rugs and decorations instead of just re-painting it. “Why didn’t I do this long ago?” She mused. “It could have been beautiful all this time!”
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
She showed me the hundreds of cards she had received since her diagnosis, hung up around the entry way so she could be “literally surrounded by the love of her friends.” She said, “Can you even believe all of these cards? I can’t believe how much love there is out there for me. This is the thing that keeps me going. My favorite card is the one from the Davises. They weren’t too hand-wringing, they just told me they’d bring baby goats over to my house! That’s the best. People bring me things every day. T-shirts, socks, books about making cancer sexy, because I’m doing this thing, you know? You gotta make this funny. I’m so lucky to have all this love. I wouldn’t have even known the power of all this love if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. I just can’t believe how much love there is.”
After the home tour, Shelly told me to follow her car because she had more to show me. I followed her to Drumlin Hill in Lancaster, where I had never been. We got out of the car. It was a drizzly day, but Drumlin Hill was one of the most breath-taking sights I have seen in Massachusetts.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Shelly brought me to the edge of the path up the hill, and pointing up, told me that she came there almost every day, with different constellations of her family or the dogs, or by herself to pray.
“This is the place where I feel close to God. I go to the top of the hill, and I’m sure I can feel God’s presence all around me; surrounding me. I come here for prayer and quiet…the kind you can feel wash over you. When I’m here, I feel surrounded by God’s love and peace.”
She described Drumlin Hill 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 because of all of this beauty….”
She looked at me as my eyes filled with tears. “Is this weird? Is this too much?”
“No,” I said. “I can see why you know God’s presence here.”
“Good. I just wanted you to know who Shelly Kennedy-Leonard is. I love you, Robin, and so I want you to know who I am.”
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
We got back into our cars, and I followed Shelly’s car to St. John’s in Clinton. She was talking animatedly on the phone to a friend or family member…I could see that million-watt smile in the rearview mirror.
We arrived at the door at the front of St. John’s in Clinton, near the altar. Shelly put holy water on her forehead, made the sign of the cross and genuflected as we walked over the threshold. Shelly went to find the lights in the sacristy. “I want you to see it all lit up! It is the most beautiful sanctuary I have ever seen. Look at the stained glass! The beautiful carved wood. The pictures of Jesus. The balconies, which are overflowing with people on Easter. The music that plays out from the rafters from the back fills this whole space. It pours over you. God is present in this space. You can just feel it. Can’t you? The power and majesty of this place. I have always felt as though God is in every beautiful thing here.”
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
After we kneeled and prayed she said, “I wanted to bring you here, Robin, because I wanted you to get o sense of my family’s journey. I want you to know where we came from.”
She told me the story of re-discovering the Catholic church as a 20-something, needing to make some kind of meaning in her life, feeling generally lost. She told me about taking the confirmation classes at St. John’s as a young adult.
She told me how hard she had worked, how proud she was on the day she stood on the altar to get confirmed the congregation beaming back at her; how proud her parents were. She felt as though something powerful had made a claim on her life.
She told me she came to church there every Sunday, and felt profoundly at home. She was an irreverent Catholic. She told me about laughing uproariously with Matt after marriage classes in the vestry, how fun it was to share that experience with him which they both took seriously and lightly at the same time; a metaphor for their love and marriage.
She told me about her wedding day in that space. “Here’s where Matt and I stood on the altar.” She told me about the love she felt from her family and friends gathered, how hot she and Matt looked “before kids.” She talked about how proud she was to marry Matt, what it felt like to be up there making those promises to him.
She continued to take me on a visual tour of the church’s space.
“Here’s where we sat when my children were babies, so Matt could rock that car seat back and forth with his right arm to keep them from crying. So embarrassing. It’s so echoe-y in here!”
“Here’s where Sadie and Harry were baptized. Here’s where we were sitting when Sadie took her first communion. She put out her two hands in front of her like this. Her little hands were trembling. I was so nervous for her.”
She beamed that smile made of light when she pointed to the back and said: “Here’s where the kids would be penned up before the Christmas pageant. It was like letting the animals out of the zoo. We always helped out because it was pandemonium. Here’s where we sat when they came in with all the hundreds of other sheep and angels, on the aisle so we could see.” She told me every character Sadie and Harry were in the pageant. “Harry made a great donkey!” She said.
Shelly told me about the day she left the church for her children’s sake. She was sure that the priests were not preaching God’s Love as she understood it. She wanted Sadie and Harry to know God as she knew God.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
And then she said: “Here’s where I’m going to cry, so I’m sorry, Robin.” She continued, “I know that God loves me. I know that God loves my family. I have never felt more sure of God’s love. I feel certain that it is not my time to die…that God still has more for me to do here. I’m getting treated, and I have hope. Because the only way to approach this is to believe that I am going to beat this. And there are new experimental treatments every day. But if by any chance that goes wrong, I wanted you to see where my family has been. I’m going to need you and First Church to take care of them, so I need you to know who we are.”
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Then Shelly told me the story of when she was diagnosed with cancer…the way she and Matt were told, the shock of it; the disbelief. The terrible bedside manner of the doctor who announced the presence of her tumor to them matter-of-factly, like a stealth bomb.
She talked about her kids and how they are coping.
“You can ask us any question you want,” she and Matt said to them. “No questions are off limits.”
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
And Shelly was filled with hope that God would heal her.
“I have an icon of Jesus from the chapel downstairs where I pray that I visualize in my prayers. It is an image of Jesus with rays of light shooting out of his heart. And when I pray, I pray that the cancer is leaving my body like those rays of light, healing me, and dissipating into the air as it leaves my body so that the cancer cells can disappear from my body…but not just that… I pray that they harm no one else. And then I picture God’s love radiating into me in its place, filling me. And I picture those rays radiating out from my own heart and back into the world. That’s what I want: to be filled with God’s love, and to give that love back.”
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
We left the church, and Shelly and I walked to Bushel and Peck deli. She cracked jokes with the staff and the people in line. Winking, she insisted on buying me my salad and told her I owed her for next time. We sat down inside since it was drizzly outside. “How are you?” She asked me, and meant it.
“Robin, we’re scared of coming back to church. We are skittish and sensitive. We’re scared to cry. We’re scared of what people will say in front of the children. But I am determined to get my family back there. What I want the church people to know is that I am not my illness,” she said. “I am being treated. I’m not lying in a bed somewhere. I’m alive!”
We talked about strategies for well-intentioned questions and comments. We talked about how to care for her family. “My mom and dad are my rock and strength.” “Don’t hug Matt, he is trying to be strong and he doesn’t want to cry in front of you.” “Sadie doesn’t want to be singled out or pitied. No hugs for her either…high fives are fine. My strong, funny girl. “Harry needs lots of hugs and love and care. My sweet, sensitive boy.” She knew her people so well; she knew them by heart.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
She told me that the time since she has been diagnosed in many ways had been a gift. She had to take off from work, allowing her to realize how much she had been needing to slow down. She could make sandwiches for her kids every day in the morning, which was a loving spiritual practice she re-discovered when she was home. She could be home every day when they came home from school. “I’m soaking up every moment with my crazy family,” she said.
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Before I left her to return to the normalcy of my day (as if anything could be normal after this conversation), she said to me, “Robin, I want you to know something else about me. I need to find a way to return all of this love I have been getting. And there’s no reason why I can’t, just because I have cancer. So please, if you can think of something that I could do to give back to the church or the people, please tell me. I don’t want to just receive, I want to give.” I told her that she had already given me the best gift I have ever gotten as a pastor. And I left.
Shelly Kennedy-Leonard came back to church on October 1st and October 8th she volunteered to teach Sunday School so that the love of God that pierced her heart might radiate back out into the world. The next Sunday, October 15, 2017, Shelly went home to live with God, who she knew with every fiber of her being loved her, and loved her family.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us rejoice in his salvation.
May light perpetual shine upon Shelly, beacon of hope, lover of life, giver and receiver, believer in God’s goodness. Well done, good and faithful servant.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on October 22, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/ heard
We humans like to set up false dichotomies. We have to choose between either or, black or white, good or bad. It’s true or false. There is rarely room for in between. While it’s easier that way, this lack of nuance is freezing our hearts.
Lately, I’ve noticed that we have political debates in which we are asked to choose between this false dichotomy: the sacredness of symbols vs. the sacredness of humanity. I’ve noticed this most recently in the debates about our nation’s flag. The argument that is set up by liberals is that if you care more about a “piece of cloth” than lethal systemic racism against a group of people, then you are heartless. The argument that is set up by conservatives is that if you care more about a protest than a significant national symbol of unity and the ultimate sacrifice by a specific group of people it represents, then you are heartless. You must choose between black citizens and veterans or black citizens and police officers. You must choose between black lives and all lives.
Well, I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
There seems to be no room for this fact: both symbols AND humans are sacred. Symbols are sacred because they represent something that matters deeply to one’s humanity. Human beings are sacred because they belong to God.
Standing with a hand over your heart for the national anthem in honor of our country’s military is sacred. Kneeling in protest for all of God’s children to be treated with inherent worth is sacred.
I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
What is considered sacred is one of the most important tenets of our faith tradition, debated over millennia. It is written into the second commandment. It is debated in churches and in our nation’s classrooms. It is a complex conversation.
This week, a colleague inquired among my other clergy colleagues about whether or not there were American flags in their worship spaces. “Absolutely not!” They exclaimed. “Thank God, no.” Others said. “Nopiest note. I hate that. Is that a New England thing or something?” Someone suggested.
“I have one in my church,” I said sheepishly. “And I like it.”
I know why my colleagues are uncomfortable at best with the American flag in any place of worship. And no, it is not because they are a bunch of un-Patriotic liberals, although who knows…that may factor in. Many clergy and many people of faith believe that the flag is idolatrous in a house of worship…that in church we worship God, not flags. That our only symbol should be the cross, not the stars and stripes.
Choose! “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s! And to God what is God’s,” my clergy colleagues might say.
But I said to them, “I think now more than ever in this hot mess time in our country, having a symbol at the front of our sanctuary that reminds us of our nation’s highest ideals: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is the message of the Gospel we may need to hear.
Well, I don’t think that went over too well. (I feel sort of proud that I seem to be equally offending conservatives AND liberals lately. Sterling, man. It rubs off on you.) But I have officiated or attended so many military veterans’ funerals in my lifetime, and there is nothing I can say in a eulogy or no words I can utter in a prayer that come close to the careful and prayerful folding and presentation of the American flag to a grieving widow at a gravesite burial, taps playing reverently. It is sacred.
I refuse to choose.
Religion and politics have always been conversational minefields, especially when you mix them. Talking about politics in the church is particularly controversial, even illegal. You can get your tax-exempt status removed for plugging candidates or positions on questions. We all know that doesn’t stop many churches from creating voter guides, and pastors using the pulpits to tell their congregations who to vote for. Even talking about politics when you are a minister of a church on social media can get you in trouble with your congregation and the surrounding community. (Or at least that’s what I hear. I wouldn’t know, personally, of course.)
Talking religion in the political sphere is also a lightning rod. Debates over the separation of church and state have been going on since this country’s founding, and it is often debated whether our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom should be considered freedom FROM religion in the public sphere.
When we meet Jesus in this story from the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees are trying to trick him into ticking everyone off by mixing religion with politics; pitting symbol against God and humanity. They are hoping this is the final nail in his coffin, if you will. They try to fake him out with mock respect: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
They are trying to get him to choose a party, to check a box, to put a stake in the ground. They are trying to trap him in either hypocrisy or something illegal. They want to get either his followers furious with him for choosing the government over God, or the emperor mad at him for choosing God over the government.
He doesn’t have coins in his pocket, but he asks them to take out theirs’ “Show me the coin used for tax. Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer “the emperor.” Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.” Check mate. He refuses to take the bait. He refuses to be caught in a false dichotomy. He refuses to choose. They leave, amazed.
This teaching isn’t just for ancient Jesus times. It is completely relevant for our lives today. As hard as liberals and conservatives try to figure out what Jesus would do in the voting booth, or how he would feel about our current political platforms from gay marriage to a flat tax, Jesus makes it clear that he has much bigger concerns in mind.
He says, essentially, that governments and taxes and leaders are necessary, so obey the law of the land. But don’t defile the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? We do. The earth and all its people. Liberals and conservatives. Tax collectors and Pharisees. Black people and white people. NFL protestors, veterans and police officers. Jews and Muslims. Women and men.
The whole world is God’s and everything in it. Including us. Especially us. We spend too much time trying to decide what matters more to God: symbols or humanity. Maybe Jesus is trying to tell us they both matter.
We laid Shelly Kennedy-Leonard to rest yesterday at her previous Catholic Church, St. John’s in Clinton, and now she surrounds us with the saints in light.
This week, with her family’s permission, I explained in an email a little bit about Shelly’s spiritual journey to you. She testified last year that she left her Catholic church largely because the conservative politics preached from the pulpit she found to be an anathema to her faith in a loving God. She found God here in this in this church’s welcome for all; in the people who radiated warmth and kindness; in the love that flowed so freely.
And yet, the symbols of the Catholic church didn’t leave her.
She went to St. John’s every day of her illness to sit surrounded with the symbols of God’s love carved into the wood there; painted onto the stained glass; emblazoned on the icons of Jesus. The empty church was safer than the people…the symbols didn’t talk back. She was alone with God.
I came with Shelly to pray at St. John’s in Clinton a few weeks ago when the people weren’t there. She was trying to figure out a way to come back here to First Church, now that her cancer diagnosis was public; now that she was raw and her family was skittish and fearful; and she wanted some control over what well intentioned people at coffee hour might say to her kids and her husband.
She wanted to explain her faith to me…how much the Catholic church had meant to her, why she had to leave, why the practices and prayers called her back in her time of illness. “Robin, I left this place because of my kids. I left this church because I remember squeezing Matt’s hand and gritting my teeth and sweating trying to get through the sermons. I left this place because the men who represented it didn’t represent God. I didn’t want my kids to hear what they were saying because it wasn’t about Love, it was about judgment. But the priests are just men. They aren’t God. God is still in this place. God fills this place. I still find God here. So I come here when the people aren’t here mucking it up. Do you understand?”
“You leave your home but it doesn’t leave you,” I said. I thought of my ex-pat friends living in Europe who described weeping at the first bar of the national anthem, every time it played. Your home doesn’t leave you. Symbols matter.
She asked if we could pray. She kneeled on the kneeler, and I joined her. From my position, I looked up at the impossibly high ornamental ceilings of that beautiful Cathedral of a church, where she saw God in every beautiful thing there: stained glass, carved wood, the castle-like altar, the candles, the holy water she crossed herself with as she genuflected, and I, too felt awed before the mystery of God. I finally closed my eyes. We rested our hands lightly on our foreheads as we knelt in silence.
“What do you pray for when you pray?” I asked when we were done.
“A miracle,” she said. “For God’s love to surround me and heal me.”
She asked me: “can I kneel when I pray at First Church? Will that offend anyone if I do that?”
I said “I think it will give others permission to.”
And so Matt and Harry, Shelly’s husband and 9-year-old son, made this kneeler for her, to bring a little bit of St. John’s with her to First Church. And on October 8th, the last Sunday she came here, she sat in the front row, and kneeled on this kneeler for the prayers. One of her last wishes was that Matt and Harry make more kneelers for the people of First Church so that we could join her if we wished.
I could never find kneeling disrespectful after this conversation.
Shelly kneeled because that was how she gave herself over to God. It was an act of humility and respect in the vastness of God’s love for her.
Kneeling is an act of humility that few Protestants participate in when they pray in church. Like everything that has to do with the cultural and religious markers of showing proper respect and humility before God, the dichotomy between the sacredness of symbol and and the sacredness of humanity is contentious between Catholics and Protestants. I read this from an anonymous Catholic:
When my son was about 5 years old we went into a Catholic Church where the smell of incense hung in the air. We were protestants at the time.
The priest came out and was talking with us about the beautiful church. My son was sniffing the air and smiling. The priest asked him what he thought of the church.
“It smells holy.” He replied.
The priest then asked him what his church smelled like.
“Coffee.” Was his answer.
This man wrote this to be disdainful to Protestants, of course. But to me, coffee smells like God, too. And not just because it consists of magic beans that turn into a warm comforting liquid helping me to refrain from selling the children on Craigslist every morning. But because the smell of coffee reminds me of gathering in love, of hospitality, of coffee shop conversations, and connections with people, which is one way I know Christ.
Both are sacred. Both symbol and humanity. Both belong to God.
On the day she died, Shelly had the priest come to the hospice to do the sacrament of the sick. Some of her last words were the Hail Mary. And her pastor (I) came to comfort, and to bring the love of the community that knew her name.
All of that was God. Shelly refused to choose.
Beloved, give to God what is God’s. Give yourself to God by serving in your community, by raising good kids, by showing up at church. Give yourself to God by serving your country in war or Americorps; in soup kitchens or on mission trips. Give yourself to God by protesting for our country’s highest ideals, or fighting for its freedom. Give yourself to God by taking a knee, or by standing and saluting the flag. Give yourself to God by standing and bowing your head, or kneeling and genuflecting before the cross.
Give to God what is God’s: YOU. It is to Love you belong. Give yourself to the people of God because God ensures that we belong to each other. You don’t have to choose between the cross and the flag; between incense and coffee; between standing and kneeling; between tribes and symbols; between the nation and the Holy. Choose all of the above. Choose love.
A Homily by Doug Davis and Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached, with a baby alpaca afoot, at the Blessing of the Animals Service
The First Church in Sterling, MA
October 15, 2017
Growing up on a farm, animals have been an integral part of my life since I was a small child and I helped my dad milk cows in our milking barn. And of course they became even more a part of my life in my current line of work at Davis Farmland. When I think of why animals are such a blessing in my life, I have to start with this fact: I believe that being around animals makes us all better humans. I have learned responsibility from animals. I have many animals in my life and it is such a feeling of responsibility and devotion to deliver a newborn baby, to stay up nights nursing or caring for them, to raise, train, watch them grow and mature, give them medical treatment and even sometimes make the tough end of life decisions that we all eventually face with our loving companions. I can only relate it to being a parent to each of them.
Animals have actually taught me how to relate to people better. When you try to truly understand why an animal does what it does, the particular personality of this animal compared to that one, and have a deeper understanding through this wordless communication between species, there is a feeling of being one with our fellow animals, in communion with them. I have always loved the challenge of meeting new animals, observing them and learning through interaction how to care for them better. Just like with God, it takes a willingness to let go of the illusion of control and open yourself up, to truly begin to understand your fellow animals.
For many years I preferred the company of animals and could relate to them better than my human counterparts. Animals are unique: they are willing to share their true spirit with you without any angles, agendas or hidden motives. Their openness and personality can seem so often like a young child’s, but with glimpses of an elder's wisdom. Throughout my life, I have learned to relate to people on a deeper level because of having learned how to relate to animals. I have used this to help me realize that people have all the same wants and needs as many animals and that truly paying attention to people lets me understand, empathize and connect with each person, with or without verbal communication.
This unspoken understanding, devotion to and love of animals makes me feel closer to Nature and to God. It is through this love of my animal friends that I feel my closest comparison to how God must love each of us. We are all his flock and he is devoted to each and every one of us.
The act of blessing is the act of invoking God’s favor upon a person or a creature. Today we invoke God’s favor on all of creation. We praise God in chorus with our animal companions. Today, we bless the animals. We bring them into God’s house, and we raise our voices in concert with theirs. Praise the Lord all the earth!
I love Marilynn Robinson’s story from Gilead of the preacher’s son baptizing barn cats with friends. When the pastor father is asked by the son what would happen if one were to baptize cats, the father answers by saying that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. “That wasn’t really an answer to the question,” he said. “We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats………Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
Why do we bless our animals? We think the whole world of them.
And our animals bless us.
I saw a kinda creepy ad this week. I forget what the product was called, but it was essentially an ad for a cat simulator. It was a big fluffy furry headless stuffed animal, about the weight of a cat. You put it in your lap, and it wags it’s tail when you pet it. It also wags it’s tail when you haven’t petted it for awhile. The product says that it is for anxiety, because those of us who have pets know that petting a furry thing that wags its tail helps ease anxiety. So even if you have allergies, or you don’t feel like changing a litter box every week, you too can reap the anti-anxiety benefits of having a (headless) cat to pet. Petting cats and other animals releases that love hormone oxytocin, which helps stave off the depression some of us have to take pills for.
Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of receiving a blessing from it, is a very different thing.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
When I was visiting Sue Quinn last year as she lay dying from cancer, I will never forget how her golden doodle, Gracie would lie in her lap, keeping her warm, staring up at her with concern and love. Wherever she went, Gracie would follow. That dog was sent from God to be her angel and comfort.
Why do we bless the animals? Because God has blessed us with our animal companions as angel and comfort.
Every year, when I do this service, I am amazed at the emotion of it. The tears shed when people come forward to light candles for pets who have died. The pure joy in people’s faces when they get to introduce beloved members of the family to their church.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
So some of you may think it’s crazy that Puerto Rico is in a humanitarian crisis, and a part of California is burning down, and we may be on the brink of a possible war with North Korea, and we’re over here in Sterling whimsically blessing animals.
Well, we have no other choice. We must celebrate the wonder of creation, especially when it is threatened. Anyone who notices the world, Rebecca Baggett says, must want to save it. We choose to bless this broken world. There is nothing else to do but bless it.
So today, as we worship in chorus with our church family’s animal companions, let us remember to touch everything worth saving with the pure intention of blessing it.
The whole world, and every living creature, deserves a sacrament.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
“Shoulders” Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on October 8, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard/seen.
We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to treat one another like precious children of God. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
You and I woke up Monday morning to news of another mass shooting, the deadliest in recent history by a single gunman, this time at a country music concert in Las Vegas. 58 people died and close to 500 were injured. It’s a breath-stealing, incomprehensible number. Our Sofie Hopkins, who has lived just 18 years on this earth, texted me that day and said, “You know what’s weird? In my lifetime the headlines of a shooting being the largest in US history has appeared like four times.”
All I could say was “I’m sorry.”
If you’re anything like me, you woke your kids up on Monday, and pretended you weren’t numb or grieving or angry. You woke your kids who greet each day with a wonder and an innocence you prefer to maintain, and you smiled, made them breakfast, and pretended that you weren’t worried sick every day about the world you brought them into. You resisted the urge to apologize to them about the state of the world still flooded and groaning and divided and on the brink of nuclear war, and you shuttled them off to school, praying for their safety.
If you’re anything like me, you resigned yourself to the inevitability of the next “deadliest shooting” headline in Sofie’s lifetime happening again, and soon.
If you’re anything like me, you held your breath when the Wachusett Regional High School was on lock down on Wednesday because of a school shooting threat. Xan described it to me last night at Harvest Grille. Bomb sniffing dogs were brought in, and a gun was found in a kid’s backpack, with detailed threats. The kids aren’t sure if it was a bee bee gun, or a real one. One upside of the lock down, Xan said, was she got to miss math.
Yesterday, my seven year old came into my office and said, “what’s a terrorist attack and why do they happen?”
God bless all the teachers and administrators keeping our children alive. They are all so vulnerable. God bless all of the parents who are trying to answer questions we don’t really know the answers to.
The world’s most precious cargo is contained in these classrooms; these homes, asking unanswerable questions.
The hum of our collective dreams is contained within these walls. And the road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
I don’t have anything to say this week about gun control or mental health screening or the lack of prayer in schools, or any of the rest of the talking points that so many have something to say about. That’s all far above my pay grade.
What I have something to say is about is the mass dehumanization of God-imaged people.
What takes my breath away is the ability this man in Las Vegas had—whether you call him a lone wolf or a terrorist-- to treat God-imaged human beings like targets in a video game. The fact that a fellow human can forget that all people have sacred worth is an evil that terrifies me far more than his weaponry.
It scares me because I recognize this tendency to dehumanize everywhere I go.
In this age of 24-hour connectivity, we are more isolated in our homes and our carefully cultivated news feeds. We are less likely to know our neighbors, to go outside in our neighborhoods, to go to church, to interact with real, flesh and blood community, to encounter difference of opinion, culture, religion or ideology. We are less likely to grieve each other’s losses; to celebrate each other’s triumphs. It is no coincidence that we are more divided as a nation than we have been since the Civil War. The mass dehumanization of God-imaged people will keep happening as long as we suggest those we disagree with are less than human.
The mass dehumanization of God-imaged people will keep happening as long as we worship idols more than God, whether those idols are politics, material goods, money, weapons or the flag.
But God is still here, present in every person we encounter:
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; Love will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; Love utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of Love is with us; the God of Love is our refuge.
If you’re anything like me this week, you felt lucky that you have a community like this one to grieve and pray with on Sunday morning, reminding you that you are not alone. If you’re anything like me, you felt lucky that you have a community like this one that reminds you to be still and know that Love is there, as a refuge and a strength. You are not alone.
If you’re anything like me, you looked for the helpers this week to find God. You found God in the first responders, the police officers and fire fighters who run toward the sound of gunshots rather than away.
If you’re like me, you found God in the administration of the Wachusett Regional high school and Holden police department, who swiftly locked down the high school, kept the students calm and the parents informed.
If you’re like me, you found God in the music teacher and principal at the Houghton elementary school in Sterling who plan a peace pole celebration every year, the kids dressed in rainbow colors singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River in my school.”
If you’re like me, you found God in the Sterling fire chief and town administrator who made a difficult, heart-wrenching decision to fire an employee of the department. They took a stand for the dignity of each human life that day, as the fire department and police force and EMS in Sterling does every time they walk into a burning building, or revives a dying patient in an ambulance.
And if you’re anything like me, you found God in the many beautiful stories of simple human heroism in Las Vegas.
This is the one that stayed with me (from CNN.com):
Jordan McIldoon, a 25-year-old from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, died holding the hand of a stranger at the concert.
Heather Gooze told CNN she somehow ended up next to McIldoon. Even though she didn't know him, she held his hand during his final minutes. She felt a squeeze from his fingers, then felt his hand go loose.
Gooze said she knew there was nothing more to do. Yet, she stayed with McIldoon for hours. When his phone rang, she answered it and learned his name and told the caller everything was not OK.
She relayed the news of his death to his long-term girlfriend and his mother, all the while staying by his side, she said.
"I didn't want Jordan to not have somebody with him," she told CNN through tears. "I didn't want him to just be a no-named body. I knew who he was, and now I had an obligation to make sure that everyone knew who he was."
I knew who he was, she said… Jordan died holding Heather’s hand; someone who knew his name; who felt obliged to make sure everyone else did, too. He died knowing he was not alone.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what she’s doing
with one another.
So what do we do when we can’t hear Love’s voice over the uproar of the nations, the tottering kingdom, the mountains trembling, the waters roar and foam, the political posturing, and the sound of bullets shattering the night sky?
Be still. Be still and know.
There is this funny word that shows up in the psalms 71 times, including the psalm we read this morning. Usually people skip over it when they are lay reading, I notice, which is probably appropriate since no one really knows what it means. The word is “Selah.” Scholars think that it is an ancient musical notation, because the psalms are meant to be sung. They guess that it is a pause or a rest. They think it means that we should pay extra special attention to the verse before, and meditate on it. They think it means “stop and listen.”
He utters his voice, the earth melts, the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Stop and listen.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Stop and listen.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him. Selah. Stop and listen.
I keep imagining what the world would be like if we truly stopped and listened to one other and to our children for God’s voice; for God’s dream deep inside each of us.
Our Kristin Turner--who is a history teacher I am so glad is teaching our children-- writes this about the recent NFL controversy last week:
Today there are many groups looking for empathy and understanding. Some of those groups have vastly differing political beliefs and values – but I would argue their desire to be heard and understood is a commonality that is greater than their differences.
Today, if you struggle to understand why people kneel – ask to understand.
If you struggle to understand why people are hurt by those kneeling – ask to understand.
Listen for understanding, not for outrage, or to respond. Listen.
If someone tells you they are hurt by something - don't tell them that they're not, instead just listen.
Selah. Stop and listen. Maybe this is how we transform the world. Maybe this is how we withstand the storm. Maybe this is how we protect the children. Maybe this is how we understand something of who God is.
Adrienne Rich writes:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.
Beloved, We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to treat one another as precious children of God. Every single other. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
Stop and listen. Let our hearts be moved by all we cannot save; by all that has been destroyed. And then let us build a community of hope and love on this earth. I cast my lot with all of you, who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
about the Parable of the Landowner
preached on September 24, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons (especially with Yumi Wada solos) are better heard.
There is an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer goes to anger management because he’s a Rage-o-holic. “I’m Homer Simpson, he says. And I’m addicted to Rage-a-hol.”
We are a culture addicted to outrage-a-hol. Moral outrage has become our modus operandi.
It is costing us our heart.
Despite what you may believe, liberals and conservatives: outrage addiction doesn’t know a political party, an ideology, or a religion. It is equal opportunity. For every liberal snowflake member of the PC police, I can show you a person who is outraged about the generic holiday greeting they received at Walmart.
News media outlets capitalize on it by using click bait catered to our particular tribal instincts and triggers.
They do this to titillate us into buying what they are selling, and we fall for it, every time.
Slate.com says that “following the news is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.”
There are infinite reasons to be outraged at any given time in this broken world we live in, don’t get me wrong. And good people must stand for justice.
But our way of fighting for it is to pick the current issue du jour from our couches, opine on the topic with the appropriate amount of rage and virtue-signaling on Facebook, get a bunch of likes from all the friends who agree with us, get in a few ad hominem arguments with the friends who disagree with us, until the issue itself disappears into the sky 24 hours later. Then the cycle starts again.
Political or moral outrage effects our brains like a drug. We can’t get enough of it. The perpetuation and spread of outrage has overridden things like fact-checking, debate, humor and reasonable conversation with people who disagree with us.
While it is absolutely true that good folks must stand against evil, our addiction to outrage has a numbing effect. It is ironically leading to a kind of moral fatigue, cynicism and apathy. Virtue signaling has started to stand in for true virtue. Our addiction to angry moral righteousness has also exacerbated our ideological differences with one another such that we no longer just disagree with the other “side,” we believe one another to be evil.
Our outrage-a-holism is destroying our relationships with each other, and with the living God.
God is a God of justice, yes. But Jesus tries to teach us a better way to fight against injustice: with revolutionary Love. And God’s justice does not always look like yours’ and mine.
This is why I love the parable of the landowner. It makes almost everyone mad, from liberals to conservatives, from young children to hard-working adults, from organists, to ministers…which means it’s probably a good parable to pay extra special attention to.
Jesus always tries to tell us what earth as it is in heaven might look like, feel like, sound like, BE like-- by telling us stories called parables. In the parable we heard this morning, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.
And he tells this story:
At sun up, a landowner employs a bunch of workers to work his fields. They agree to the amount they are going to be paid at the beginning of the day, and they get to work. The workers work from sun up to sun down doing manual labor, sowing seeds, picking crops, sweating in the hot desert sun.
Meanwhile, the landowner keeps going back to the marketplace to find more workers. Some he finds at 9:00 am, some at noon, and yet some more at 3:00 pm. When he finds them, he just keeps sending them all into his field to work.
Then the landowner goes to the market place at 5:00 pm, and finds a bunch of people just hanging out, playing video games on their iPhones, wearing pajama pants in public, and shooting the breeze.
“Why aren’t you working?” He asks them.
“No one hired us,” they said.
“Well, go and work in my vineyard then,” the landowner says.
“Great,” they say, and they start their work for the day at 5:00 pm.
An hour later, all of the workers finish the day’s work. The landowner starts with the workers who just began working, and pays them. Right on down the line, from the last to the first, he pays everyone the exact same amount of money.
The workers that worked all day long did far more work, for far longer, and in much harder conditions, sweating in the noonday sun.
They are MORALLY OUTRAGED!
The scripture says they “grumbled” against the landowner, which is a Bible word for creating a shareable social media meme I saw recently that says: “stupid me! So that’s why I work so many hours so you can collect welfare, wear pajamas in public and have an iPhone!”
They grumble to the landowner: “This is outrageous,” they say. “These guys only worked for an hour! And we worked all day long in the scorching heat. You are giving them the same amount of money?!”
The landowner says this: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Jesus is delivering the sting of the Gospel: God’s love is just like that. God’s love is generous without merit. It is showered on the least, the last, the lost, the tax collector and religious hypocrite; the sinner and the saint; the just and unjust; the lazy and the hard working. It is given to the last first.
That second to last line kills me. “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Dear God, if I answer honestly: most days, the answer is yes. When I look around at what other people have and compare it to what I have, the answer is yes, Jesus, I am envious. I work hard, and I am in debt up to my eyeballs. I don’t want to just “take what belongs to me and go,” because it’s not fair. I am stacking up what I have next to what other people have. And I’m wishing I was richer and thinner and younger and a better preschool parent who picks her kid up on time instead of a half an hour late even though I work in the same building as the preschool. I’m wishing I was someone who makes the perfect pasta salad to bring to the potluck instead of just a bag of chips that I purchased at Appletown market. Don’t I deserve this, God? I’ve been toiling in your vineyard for YEARS.
The problem with us is that we have the tendency to believe we deserve what we have.
Glennon Doyle says this” Some people understand the “kingdom of God” as a place for “believers” and “the kingdom of hell” as a place for “non-believers.” Maybe. But I also think that those boundaries can’t be hard and fast. Because I believe till the cows come home. But I still find myself, quite often actually, feeling jealous and afraid and suspicious and isolated and angry and hopeless. Which feels a little hellish. And other times I feel loving and fearless and hopeful and connected and generous, which feels quite heavenly. So it seems to me that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of hell might also be places I shift between throughout my day, depending upon my attitude, where my heart is, how I’m looking at the world and at other people. And which kingdom I’m currently in depends on whether I’ve got my Jesus glasses on or not.
When I’m wearing my Jesus glasses, I see other people how Jesus sees them. Through my Jesus glasses, it becomes crystal clear that every person is my equal, and so confidence and humility come easy. Through my Jesus glasses, I see, laid out in front of me, ridiculous abundance. Through my Jesus glasses, I see that there is enough, that I am enough, and so is everyone else.”
An episode of one of my favorite television shows, Louie, features Louis CK talking to his 5 year old daughter. When her older sister gets a cookie she wants:
Why does she get one and not me? It’s not fair.
And Louie says: You’re never gonna get the same things as other people. It’s never gonna be equal. It’s never gonna happen ever in your life, so you need to learn that now, OK? And then he says:
The only time you should look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. You don’t look in your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have as much as them.”
The problem with us is that we tend to believe we deserve what we have.
But just the fact that we are here on this planet is a result of grace far beyond our knowing. We have received grace upon grace after that if we have a roof over our head, food in our bellies, a family to love, meaningful work, a community like this one.
And so Jesus reminds us it is far above our pay grade to judge who is deserving of God’s grace and who isn’t. Our job description is simply this: be grateful for what we have, see one another through Jesus glasses, and treat one another accordingly.
If we are going to cooperate with God’s grace, we are going to need to subvert our moral outrage, and get back in touch with each other’s humanity. We need to find the people you and I believe should be taken care of last, and put them first.
You know I love these stories about crossing tribal boundaries with Love, so I hope you don’t mind I keep bringing you new ones. But I was listening to an interview with Al Letson on NPR, a liberal black journalist, about why he stepped in to protect a right wing protestor at a rally in Berkeley as he was being beaten by enraged anarchist leftists.
“What came to me was that he was a human being, and I didn't want to see anybody die. And, you know, I've been thinking a lot about the events in Charlottesville, and I remember seeing the pictures of a young (black) man being brutally beaten by these guys with poles, and when I saw that I thought, "why didn't anybody step in?" And you know, in retrospect, it doesn't matter if he doesn't see my humanity, what matters to me is that I see his.……
……I mean this sounds really high-minded and maybe a little nutty, but I am a huge NPR nerd, and many years ago I was listening to Terry Gross and Father Greg Boyle was on there, and he gave this quote that has just stuck with me ever since. He said, "I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found." And it's how I want to govern myself in the world.”
We talk a lot in this church about what it means to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. Well, heaven is just like that. Heaven is just a new pair of glasses. Heaven is seeing the humanity in others, even if they don’t see yours’. Heaven is looking around and seeing not scarcity, but abundance. Heaven is looking in our neighbor’s bowl only to make sure they have enough, and fighting like hell for them if they don’t. Heaven is stepping in. Heaven is crossing boundaries. Heaven is seeing even the people we feel are the least deserving as beloved by God. Heaven replaces our addiction to outrage with an insatiable desire to love wastefully and extravagantly, the way God loves us.
Beloved, live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found. The kingdom of heaven is governing ourselves in the world that way.
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.