A favorite hashtag on social media is #blessed. We use it mostly when we are bragging about our possessions, our expensive vacations and our happy families all spiffed up for the social media persona we carefully filter.
So I love that on All Saints Sunday, we always read the Beatitudes to remind us what “blessed” means to Jesus. It’s a far from instagram-able picture.
“The Beatitudes”—the scripture we read this morning from the Gospel according to Luke-- means in Latin a condition or statement of blessedness. We read Jesus’ Beatitudes on all Saints day every year because Saints are just imperfect people who did their human best to live in the spirit of this blessedness.
Sometimes we read the Beatitudes from Matthew, famously called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Today we read the “Beatitudes” from Luke, which is referred to as the “Sermon on the Plain.” This is a sermon that after a night of praying, Jesus delivers to his disciples at a “level place.” The Sermon on the Mount” and the “Sermon on the Plain,” though they both contain a similar list of those who are blessed by God, have some differences.
One difference is that the sermon on the plain has a whole lot of woe. Jesus says woe to those who are rich, full of food, powerful and laughing. I picture the villain in Austin Powers….Dr. Evil with his cohort of villainous friends after he says, “Gentleman, in exactly five days we will be one hundred billion dollars richer.” And then they laugh maniacally, holding their bellies.
But by Jesus’ standards, that “woe” is reserved for pretty much all of us in the richest nation in the world. WOE unto all of US, he is saying. In the Greek, “woe” doesn’t mean we are all Dr. Evils, or that we are all cursed or damned. It means, “yikes,” or “watch out.” Don’t get too comfortable. If you are comfortable, start paying attention to those for whom your heart breaks.
Jesus gets pretty specific about who his heart breaks for, and calls them blessed. They are the people who receive his attention during his ministry: the poor, the hungry, the crying, the ostracized, the hated and outcast.
In the sermon on the plain, he highlights the clash between the woeful world as it is, and the world as God dreams it to be.
The woeful world says, the more stuff you have, the happier you’ll be. Jesus says: “Blessed are you whose wallet is empty.”
The woeful world says, “happiness means nothing bad ever happens to you.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who know what it’s like to mourn the death of a husband, a wife, a relationship, a child, because you will love other people with a profound and real love exactly when they need it. You will laugh again.”
The woeful world says, “You have to be strong and powerful and well thought of.” Jesus says “Blessed are you who are afraid and unsure and are willing to admit it--for your humility is your strength.”
The woeful world says, “Seek revenge. Take to twitter in retaliation. Return anger for anger. Hurt those who hurt you,” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you who do unto all others as you would have done unto you.”
The woeful world says, “Win every fight. Show no mercy. Arm yourself with an arsenal of weapons so that you may protect you and yours,” And Jesus says “Blessed are you who love your enemies, who show mercy, who turn the other cheek.”
The woeful world says, “Be nice to everyone so that no one will think badly of you. Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company and keep your voice down,” And Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you because you rise up in Love’s name.”
Jesus makes God’s blessing particular and real. All lives matter to God, but in the beatitudes, Jesus declares that the oppressed, hated, poor, persecuted and pushed down matter more. He calls them blessed.
I ran into a guy on the common last Sunday who said, “aren’t you the church that feeds all the people? I don’t go to church anymore, but I wanted to say thanks for being real Christians.” Becoming saints means concentrating on those who are hungry.
Speaking of the saints, Pastor Zach and his family moved to Sterling last Saturday! It’s so great! His house is beautiful out there on Kendall Hill. We visited this week. They are all settled in and cozy just in time for the first snow.
The weekend that they first visited Sterling, Zach’s eight year old, Tiana, saw a sign on the side of the road on the way to Meadowbrook Orchards that said “Black Lives Matter.” She turned to her dad all lit up and said, “Dad! Black lives matter here!” It made her feel immediately welcomed; like she could live here.“Eight year olds are so literal,” Zach said. So is Jesus, who blesses Tiana.
That sign is on the way from church to her house now, so she gets to see it every day as a reminder. I am so grateful. I don’t think that the person who plunked that sign in their yard has any idea how much of an impact it would have on an actual human being, but whoever you are, thank you.
The first night Zach was here, he texted and asked us where to get pizza delivery, and I gave him the name of a local place. The pizza delivery car that pulled into his driveway had a bumper sticker said, “Make liberals cry again,” and we were texting back and forth laughing about it. “Welcome to Sterling,” I said. “It’s a mixed bag.”
The next day, a political rally next to our worship service at the library made sure that our confirmands had to pause occasionally in their beautiful faith statements over the honking of passing cars and screaming during our church service on the common.
And then while we prayed, a rolling rally paraded through, flags waving, trucks honking, for several minutes. For a long time, the participants made sure that only God and the people watching us on-line could hear our prayers. Many in our congregation were angry and attempted to shush them. One person waved joyfully. Some were shocked and uncomfortable, probably wondering what I would do. Many wept openly, including my children and Zach’s children, and the adults trying to comfort them. Suddenly, the bumper sticker from the night before that Zach and I were joking about seemed less amusing. The division in this country stood in stark contrast to our worship of God who UNITES us in one shared origin, and one shared destiny—LOVE.
I hope our confirmands heard the message of the song we sang to try and wait out and drown out the blasting of the horns: “there’s a river flowing in my soul, and it’s telling me that I’m somebody. There’s a river flowing in my soul.” I hope the children and youth heard the message from their church: that they are somebody to God.
Beloved, I am aware that this is an anxious week for all of us. Our Christian faith is being tested by the divisive and dehumanizing political climate in America, and the election is Tuesday.
I see signs all around town that say “Vote for God and country.” There’s one right across from my house.
I’m not sure what they mean, so I have been praying about it.
I have talked to more than one person who wrote in Jesus Christ in the 2016 presidential election. Maybe that’s what they mean. I wish I could vote for Jesus, too.
People often ask pastors what it means to be a Christian in a voting booth. Many pastors risk their 501c3 status to tell you which politicians to vote for. I don’t have a perfect answer for you for how to vote for God and country…I only have an answer for me.
In grade school, I was taught that my country was ONE NATION, UNDER GOD, INDIVISIBLE with LIBERTY and JUSTICE for ALL. To me, voting for country means voting for liberty and justice for all. We are only human and incapable of being perfect citizens. But if we hate half the country, we are not patriots.
The God I worship calls the poor BLESSED. The God I worship says the hungry will be filled, and the full will go hungry. The God I worship doesn’t just say “all lives matter,” but gets specific about WHO’s LIVES matter. To me, voting for God means voting for those who lift up the poor, who welcome the stranger, who set the captives free. We are only human, and incapable of being perfect Christians. I also know this: if we hate half of the country, we are incapable of loving God.
Here’s what I also know:
After we vote, no matter who we voted for or why, we will come back together around this table of blessing, where both the rich and the poor are fed and called beloved. We worship a God who tells us to LOVE our enemies, to BLESS those who curse us. Who demands that we give ourselves away. We worship a God who says that we shall DO UNTO OTHERS as we would have done unto ourselves. It doesn’t matter who we voted for…we will pray for each other, and build a world worthy of our children’s promise.
Regardless of what happens this week, remember first and foremost that you are children of the living God. An election doesn’t change that. You are known and named beloved. Our number one job as humans on this earth is to love God by loving our neighbor as ourself. Remember that in the voting booth, and more importantly, remember that in the weeks and months and years that follow. Get to the task of re-humanizing one another. It is our calling.
Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead — you first,” “I like your hat.”
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on August 25, 2019 before a three month sabbatical
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
God is abounding in steadfast love. Bless God’s holy name. I know many of you are mourning Jim Harper’s passing today. Still at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
This poem is called ”The Lanyard," by Billy Collins.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the 'L' section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that's what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
'Here are thousands of meals' she said,
'and here is clothing and a good education.'
'And here is your lanyard,' I replied,
'which I made with a little help from a counselor.'
'Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.' she whispered.
'And here,' I said, 'is the lanyard I made at camp.'
'And here,' I wish to say to her now,
'is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’
This poem reminds me of our covenant with God Isaiah alludes to.
The covenant goes like this:
God gives us life. God promises us water in parched places. God promises nourishment and freedom; a breathing body and a beating heart. God promises us steadfast love, most of all.
We cannot return the gift.
In fact, we are only human and it feels that we have hardly anything to offer in return. Our gift is just to do our human best to love God and neighbor. These small acts seem to pale in comparison to what we’ve been given. Plus, we mostly won’t succeed since we are only human and doing the best that we can.
And yet God somehow makes us sure that it’s all enough to make us even.
Covenant is a word many thousands of years old, which lies deep at the center of the spiritual and political heritage of the western world. It means, “An agreement freely made between different but equal partners and God to respect each other and work together for the common good.”
God says through the prophet Isaiah that we must keep our promises to each other so that we can become light in a dark place. We are to stop fighting, speaking evil, pointing fingers, and instead offer our food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
God says if we can do that, we will become repairers of the breach.
Breach has a very interesting usage in the English language when it comes to our relationship with God. Here is a list of synonyms for “breach” taken from the dictionary: break, gap, opening, rupture, split, alienation, schism.
The first definition of breach is particularly important when it comes to the church: “the breaking of, or failure to observe a law or contract or standard.”
The second definition of breach is: “a breaking of relations; an estrangement; a quarrel; a broken state.”
Our work is the work of repair; to help heal all that has been broken.
What is broken right now? Shout it out. Where do you see a breach? What needs repair?
These are hot mess times. Our country is as divided as it has ever been while the world literally burns. We have separated ourselves from each other and from God. We have demonized and dehumanized those who are not like us.
And so we know we must become repairers of the breach. We have no other choice. We must become practitioners of revolutionary love.
We know that if this revolution is going to come, we need to arm ourselves. Not with weapons, but with a mix of humility, bravery and kindness that is foreign to the current political climate. Here at First Church, we know we do not belong to a political party, or a government. We belong to each other, and we belong to God.
This place of memory and hope is a training ground for covenant mending and tending. You have healed, again and again, all that is broken in me. And I know that is true of so many others.
You are repairers of the breach.
We do this especially well in times of joy and sorrow.
Jim Harper went home to live with God on Monday, and his funeral service is today at one. The Harper family hopes to have their church family in attendance. This church’s outpouring of love and affection for Jim was palpable in the hundreds of prayers, messages, and cards you sent. Jim was nothing short of a hero who saved thousands of lives over the course of his 72 years. He was our tender toddler tender here at First Church for close to twenty years. He took that job more seriously than his professor and veterinarian jobs. And just as seriously as his paramedic job.
He was a repairer of the breach.
School starts on Tuesday, and we blessed the backpacks of our students and teachers so that they might learn to build a world worthy of our children’s promise.
They are repairers of the breach.
And yesterday, I married off Don and Jan Patten’s daughter Sarah Patten to her wonderful new husband Nick Wilder in Harrisville, NH.
What they promised to one another in the vows they wrote themselves could be our church’s covenant (except the kissing part).
They promised one another:
to stand by your side in moments of joy and sorrow -- through the highest peaks and the lowest pits.
to encourage you to pursue your dreams -- celebrating you in your successes and supporting you in your challenges.
to remain hopeful for a better world, and to remind you of your own hope when you forget.
to stay silly, never take ourselves too seriously, and always dance around the house with you.
to strive for a life full of joy, laughter, and adventure - and to permeate that spirit to those around us.
to remember that you are human and to try to practice patience, empathy, and forgiveness when your bad day gets the best of you.
to keep our home a place of respite, tell you that I love you, and always give you a kiss goodnight.
to give you my attention, love, hugs, homemade meals, and strong coffee without seeking a return.
to honor and create traditions with family and always make time for friends.
“I promise all of these things,” they said, “and I promise to come back to these vows when I need reminding, I make these promises to you today, and for the rest of my days.”
They are repairers of the breach.
When I was at the Patten wedding, I met someone who lives in Sterling and is on the search committee for another congregational church in the area where he has been a long time member.
He told us that my name comes up in every meeting they have about what they are looking for in a new minister. They want someone, he said, who can help them to revitalize and grow; and reach out into the community, like in our Eat Pray Learn and Community lunch programs. He was especially interested in pub theology.
I said, “I suspect you don’t need a minister like me, but to become a church like mine.”
I asked him, “How good are you at having hard conversations? About theology and ideology; about stuff that matters in this time and in this place?”
He said, “oh, that’s the one thing people don’t want according to our surveys. No politics from the pulpit.”
“Yeah, that’s hard.” The motto at my church is “we can do hard things.” I said, “We love one another BECAUSE of our ideological and theological differences, not in spite of them. Listening to understand one another has brought us closer to God, whom we know to be Love.”
Our congregation has been gathering since it’s federation in 1947 in the sincere belief that we need not think alike to love alike.
We can do hard things like change. We can do hard things like engage each other in taboo topics such as comprehensive sex education, money and politics.
We have made extravagant welcome a priority and we live it out in the world. We became open and affirming to the LGBTQ community in 2017, which was a statement not so much about who WE Are, but about who we know God to be: Love. We have grown as a result of our moral courage, not our programs,” I said.
And sure, we have grown in numbers over the past five years, welcoming 160 new members, many of whom are families with young children. Our young adult Facebook group has 80 people in it. Our Facebook page has 1500 followers. Our giving has grown exponentially. We have 500 people on the First Church “members and friends” list.
But mostly, I said, we have grown in depth because we are not afraid.
We are repairers of the breach.
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, once said to us that "If your concept of love serves only to reinforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
This is the Good News of the Gospel, the SCANDAL of the Gospel: is that we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether or not we are worthy.
That’s why this Church is rising up as it has over the course of its 275 year history to offer our meager gifts in return to an extravagantly loving God, and succeeding.
We know the Church is made for such a time as this:
rising up to build bridges, not walls;
to give us a new heart for each other and the world;
to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
We are repairers of the breach.
I don’t know if he was convinced. He looked pretty skeptical.
This is my last sermon before my three month sabbatical, a meager offering in response to your extravagant love and care of you have given to your tired and increasingly more middle aged pastor over the past five years.
You have set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
You have taught me to walk and swim in this ministry
and I in turn presented you with a lanyard.
'Here are thousands of meals' you said,
'and here is clothing and a good education.'
'And here is your lanyard,' I replied,
'which I made with a little help from a counselor.'
I just want you to give you this one last lanyard before I leave:
I love you. I bless you, and I will miss you. I will rejoice when I return to you on December 1st.
And I thank you. Thank you for accepting my meager gifts in response to your life giving love for me and for my family. Thank you for toiling in the vineyards with me to create heaven on earth. Thank you for giving me this time away. Thank you for the hope you give me for a broken world made whole again.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
August 18, 2019
Tell me, Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Jesus answers: “Do not be afraid. Treasure it. Pay attention. And give it all away.”
I know it says in the bulletin that my sermon title is “Tidying Up”, and that’s because I have been wanting to preach on Marie Kondo. the queen of giving things away. She’s the organizing guru and best selling author who has a show called “Tidying Up.” Inspired by her Shinto religious practice, she is the reason why Goodwill has stopped taking your clothes: she has encouraged all of America to ask themselves if each of their possessions “spark joy”, and if not, to gently thank them for their service, and throw them out.
It’s not our possessions that “spark joy”, after all. Our treasure lies somewhere else, where no thief can get at it, and no moth can destroy.
But things quickly changed since we’ve last met in the life of our church, and I’m going to leave Marie Kondo’s wisdom for another week.
I’ve decided to call my sermon, simply, “how to pay attention.”
There’s a lot happening in our passage from Luke today. He starts by saying that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, which we understand to be here on this earth…already here, but not yet here. He goes on to say that we should sell all our possessions and give them away. And then he talks about being dressed for action and having our lamps lit…to be alert because God is coming back like a thief in the night.
You might not know what one has to do with the other. Luke kind of jumps from one thing to the next, without real clarity on why they are all smushed together in one paragraph.
But this week, it all came together for me:
We have been given the gift of creation by a God who delights in giving it to us. Our task in the small amount of time we have on earth is to treasure that gift by giving ourselves away. Life is fleeting and precious and we don’t know when it will end. So pay attention.
Do not be afraid.
I got a dog yesterday, as Pastor Megan told you. Her name is Holly. She is a rescue, a three year old hound dog, white with brown spots and silky brown ears. She loves humans, belly rubs and lying around all day. In other words, we are soul mates.
When I first told Doug Davis last week that I was doing this thing he said, “Wow. Good luck with that.” It was over text, but I read it as sarcasm. He is a pillar of our church, one of the owners of Davis Farmland and the world’s best animal person, and he knows that I am really not. I mean, I like animals, but I don’t have any idea what to do with them since they don’t talk to me. So I’m just like, “oh, a goat. Hi goat” when I’m at Davis Farmland with my kids.
Ironically, though I’m not what one would call an “animal person”, it has become my signature move to bring as many animals as possible into the First Church in Sterling whenever there is occasion for it.
Though I didn’t have any myself until today, I am a sucker for watching my people love their animals. So I bless all of your pets every October, we have goats at the Christmas pageant. I even made Doug bring a donkey named Fiona into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday against his better judgment. When I asked Doug to bring Peanut the Camel for our Christmas pageant last year, he told me I had gone too far and to stop exploiting my pastoral authority by asking him for ridiculous things.
Anyway, I put Doug Davis down as a reference with the rescue, and they gave me a dog. So he must have lied and told them he has no reservations.
I sent Megan a sweet sleeping picture of my dog Holly last night over text, and she wrote back, “I think she will teach you whatever you’ve been needing to learn on your sabbatical.”
Mary Oliver of blessed memory writes:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Megan knows that unlike Mary Oliver, I don’t know how to pay attention, to be idle and blessed, or to stroll through the fields. I am notoriously bad at such endeavors. As soon as I arrive at the beginning of something, like a vacation, or a relationship, my first feeling is the deep sadness and fear that it will end. I spend much of my time calculating how many days or hours I have left doing a thing that I love, or being with people I love.
So my first thought when I saw our new dog’s beautiful face staring up at me was: “I love you. How long will you live?” After all, our Holly will die at last, and too soon. I am about to spend thousands of dollars on my kids’ first tragedy.
And mine. I love her already. I already feel like a dog person. I have no idea what to do with her when I get home, but I cannot wait to bury my face in her head again.
Megan’s right, Holly has a lot to teach me about paying attention.
Frankly, when I’m not paying attention, I’m paying for THINGS.
The treasure you and I keep in bank accounts, locked safes and 401Ks so often reflects kind of a futile and somewhat depressing hoarding of resources for no good reason. We can’t, after all, take it with us, and we know darn well that money has never bought any one of us happiness.
Thankfully, God promises us a different kind of treasure. God’s treasure comes in the form of loving what will die at last and too soon. God’s treasure comes in the form of people we love and people we are called to love. God’s treasure comes in the form of grace—unearned gifts like forgiveness and the temporary health of our bodies, and the good, green earth we lie down on.
Our only response to these gifts, our scriptures say, is to stay alert, and give everything we have away.
Our beloved long time congregant and friend Jim Harper has always known this. We’ve been sitting vigil by his bedside this week, storing up treasures in the stories people tell. Jim spent his life paying attention, and giving himself away.
He is a saver of lives:
A life-long lover of animals and a veterinarian, Jim saved so many animals’ lives. He also helped them die peacefully, and with dignity. His family marvels in the fact that he put down all of the family’s animal companions himself when it was their time to leave this world, too; a final act of deep and abiding love for them.
Jim saved countless human lives as well, and trained other people to save countless more. Jim was a devoted and tireless EMT in Sterling literally in his spare time, and trained perhaps the entire EMT force, refusing to take a paycheck for the thousands of on call hours he worked.
He saved our lives. At church, he has worked with our babies and toddlers in our kinderwatch every Sunday morning for close to 20 years. He sits in his favorite rocking chair every Sunday, and simply delights in the creation God has the pleasure of giving to us in the form of our youngest children.
He gives his money away lavishly, with no need for thanks: to the church, to causes he supports, to the deacons fund in anonymous envelopes full of cash. He even sponsors several children from those “save the children” commercials in the ‘80s and still sends them all money monthly.
Jim gives his love away lavishly: adopting his wife’s first child from her first marriage when he was a toddler, and raised him as his own, in addition to the beautiful child they had together. And then Jim opened his heart and home again to adopt and raised two children out of foster care with that same abundant love, as well.
Jim did not hoard his treasures, he gave them away. His whole life, he gave away.
I have been with the Harpers for the past few days as our beloved Jim lays dying. Last Sunday, he was here at church with us, giving us the gift of his heart in our conversation on guns. On Tuesday, he had another stroke, his fourth. As the EMTs he trained himself transported them to the hospital, he told them what to do and what they were doing wrong. And then he began to give away his life, and fast. He was in the ICU for three days and yesterday he was transferred to Rose Monahan hospice. Today, we pray that his transition home to live with God is as gentle and large as Jim is.
My time with Jim’s wife, the other Robin, has been precious this week. She is a woman of valor who does not want to let him go, but has the strength to just the same. He has given her so much that she knows she can’t live without him. She also knows she has to let him go. This, too, is a gift: this last loving act of living out her marriage vows by respecting his wishes to die with dignity; to tell him that it is OK to go, even though it’s not OK at all.
Even as Jim slowly ran out of all his speech, two days ago, he could still say, every time the doctors asked him:
“Who is this lovely woman?
“That is Robin, my wife, as opposed to Robin, my minister.”
Who is that man sitting over there?
“That is Dr. Carl M. Harper, my son.”
Jim couldn’t smile because his left side no longer worked, but he could still beam with pride. “Over there: that’s where my treasure is. That’s where my heart is also.”
Everything dies, and far too soon. Pay attention. Give it all away. Do not be afraid.
Beloved, the kingdom God happily gives us does not look like a King’s or a megalomaniacal politician’s or a Wall Street Executive’s, or a Football Star’s version of a kingdom. It doesn’t have golden thrones and limousines and waving throngs of adoring public begging to kiss golden rings. God’s kingdom does not look like several boats and vacation homes and beautiful cars with leather seats and designer clothes and stock options, although that’s the lie we are taught by consumerism.
The kingdom it is God’s good pleasure to give us looks just like this. A group of rag-tag, perfectly imperfect, lovable and sometimes hard to love people gathered together from all different walks of life, gathered around a table where the food never runs out. We make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, that thieves cannot steal--when we simply pay attention. When we fall down in the grass. When we give everything we have to Love.
When we are asked “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
May we know how to answer. May we be the people God finds alert in the kingdom. May we be the people who know how to be idle and blessed. May we be the people who can beam with pride because our treasure and our hearts are not in what we have kept to ourselves, but the love we’ve shared with others…
…so even as we go down to the grave we make our song “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Do not be afraid, little flock. Life is fleeting and precious. Pay attention, and give it all away.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
on August 11, 2019
We all know that nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America quite like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy coupled with inaction.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough!” is the rallying cry we all have become accustomed to in the macabre mass shooting script we know by heart.
I don’t know about you, but I admit that sometimes I just feel resigned to living in a world in which evil is allowed it's own tools of rage.
And so as a small town pastor, sometimes I feel that all I have are thoughts and prayers, and the knowledge that they aren't enough.
And I cry “how long, O Lord?” And God asks me the same question.
I came home from my four week vacation on the day of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. It was a harsh re-introduction to Facebook, which I hadn’t read in 5 weeks. My feed looked like yours’ that day: heartbreak, thoughts and prayers, anger and fury, calls to “do something,” lots of talking past each other and fighting over the 2nd amendment while the bodies were still warm.
And I was so relieved and heartened to be back in church last Sunday, just hours later. Seeing all of your faces helped me to remember that we can do hard things because we have each other. Not just in the virtual space of political posturing, virtue signaling, and bluster, but in real time.
And then on Sunday afternoon, a townsperson from Sterling who is not associated with this church wrote a Facebook status on her page and in our First Church Facebook group criticizing me and all of the religious leaders and churches for not doing enough to end racism in the town of Sterling, and being silent about mass shootings and gun violence in the United States. I know a bunch of you saw this before she took it down.
On her page she said something like, “the deafening silence coming from our ‘religious gurus’ in the town of Sterling in the wake of El Paso is disgusting. Praying about racism isn’t doing anything to stop it. Tax exempt status must be nice.”
And on our page, she said something like, “What are you people DOING to stop white supremacist gun violence besides praying, exactly?”
And I got awfully defensive.
“As one of the ‘religious gurus in your town’ I want you to know that I was not silent on El Paso today,” I said. “I preached on both racism and gun violence. Here’s video proof.”
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” she said.
“I agree,” I said.
And I listed the other things we have done as a church: vigils, protests, sign-making parties, Keep the Faith articles in the Telegram and Gazette, educational events at Eat Pray Learn like conversations on race, and on the impact of gun violence in our community.
She didn’t back down or apologize. After criticizing me and the church’s lack of action some more, she had a specific assignment for me. “Come to the black lives matter conversation in Cambridge next week with me, and the counter-protest at the Nazi rally in Boston on August 30th. Walk your talk.”
I told her that I was busy that day and suggested that a better way to partner with religious communities in our town would be to get to know us better before making specific demands of us.
She de-friended me on Facebook.
But she still didn’t give up. She called me on the phone the next morning, and then the day after that to demand that we show up in Boston on August 30th.
“Every community needs to show up and walk the talk. The religious communities in Sterling need to stop praying about racism and do something.” she said.
The speech of prophets is sometimes harsh and unskillful, but it is not wrong.
So you can imagine how quickly the self-righteous defense of my religious leadership was quieted when I read the lectionary texts from this week. In them, God’s Word spoke through the mouth of Isaiah:
“Your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE NOT ENOUGH! God says.
“Leaders of Sodom ... People of Gomorrah! Listen!” Isaiah begins. Admittedly, that’s when some of us tune out. After all, you and I aren’t the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah was burned to ash by God for the sins of the people who resided there in ancient times and ancient lands, long long ago.
Many of us know that story well. It is a story about two angels disguised as travelers who arrive at the gates of Sodom. Lot, who is a relative newcomer to the town as well, does what he imagines God would demand of him. He takes the strangers in and he feeds them a glorious feast. He insists they spend the night in his house. In other words, he provides them with lavish welcome and hospitality.
When the rest of the men of Sodom hear about the uninvited guests in their town, they storm Lot’s house. They demand that the guests are turned over to the men so that they can gang rape them.
Far too often, when we hear about Sodom and Gomorrah from some preachers, we are led to believe that God burns the city with fire because of the sexual sin of its inhabitants. In fact, we are often led to believe that homosexuality was the sin of the Sodomites.
In fact, the real sin was the failure to lavishly welcome and love the strangers in their midst without inquiring as to whether or not they were worthy. The real sin of Sodom was the attack on those deemed “other” using common tools of war: rape and terror. Rather than welcoming traveling sojourners into their home, the men of Sodom desired to exert their power over them. The sin of Sodom was radical inhospitality. The sin of Sodom was failing to recognize the stranger as a piece of ourselves we did not yet know.
The Bible itself expressly describes the sin of Sodom elsewhere as the failure to extravagantly welcome travelers in our midst. According to the prophet Ezekiel, the real “guilt” of the Sodomites was the fact that, although they had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” they “did not aid the poor and needy” and were “haughty” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
The Letter to the Hebrews warns Christians by alluding to the true sin of the Sodomites as inhospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
The sin of Sodom was a terror attack on migrants. So when Isaiah says, “People of Sodom and Gomorrah, listen!”
God’s voice is saying:
“Americans! Yes, you! LISTEN.
The blood is crying out from the ground from El Paso and Dayton and Orlando and Charleston, and Pittsburgh and everywhere terror is inflicted as a tool of war against the stranger,
You are your brother’s keeper!
Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Beloved, I know that you, like I am, are paralyzed by the enormity of the world’s grief. Henri Nouwen says that your faithfulness to small tasks is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.
Our psalmist reminds us that you and I are not helpless because we are not hopeless. God’s steadfast Love—God’s chesed, will not leave us. Our soul waits on the Lord. God is our hope and our shield.
And the psalmist says that God looks down from heaven, and sees ALL of humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth--
he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
Rich and poor, black and white, old and young, European and Asian, African, North, South, Central American, straight and gay, male, female, trans and cis, disabled and temporarily able bodied…
God sees us.
God sees the migrants fleeing, knowing that no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, as Warsan Shire says.
God sees those children in border detention centers, crying for their mamas and trying to keep warm under a blanket made of foil, under the fluorescent lights of a warehouse.
God sees the MAGA hat wearers in the flyover states and the Bernie Bros at the hipster coffee houses in Brooklyn.
God sees the trans kids forced to live a lie and the teenage girls starving themselves so they can disappear.
God sees the homeless drug addict who lives on the street and the wealthy white collar alcoholic who lives in an endless stream of business travel.
God sees the pious Muslim facing Mecca to pray five times a day and the mega-church attender raising up their hands in praise as the rock band sings of the Lord’s salvation on Sunday morning.
God sees us.
God sees you and God sees me.
And God has fashioned ALL of our hearts.
No matter what our political persuasion or our thoughts on the second amendment, God fashioned each one of your hearts. And I know your hearts cannot endure another shooting. Not one more. God fashioned our hearts to break. And our broken hearts will teach us more about what we are called to DO next. Trust your broken, God-fashioned hearts to do the next right thing.
After church, we’ll share thoughts and prayers in room two so that we can discern together what we might do. Small things with great love, informed by our God fashioned hearts.
I want to close with this poem by Danusha Lameris:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Let your steadfast love, O God, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on August 3, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Jesus’ parables don’t always remind me of George Carlin routines, but when they do, I should definitely tell you about it, right?
George Carlin has this famous routine in which he comes out onto the stage and says:
I would have been out here a little bit sooner...
...but they gave me the wrong dressing room...
...and I couldn't find any place to put my stuff.
And I don't know how you are...
...but I need a place to put my stuff.
So, that's what I've been doing back there...
...just trying to find a place for my stuff.
You know how important that is, that's the whole...
...that's the whole meaning of life, isn't it?
Trying to find a place for your stuff.
That's all your house is...
...your house is just a place for your stuff.
If you didn't have so much stuff...
...you wouldn't need a house.
You could just walk around all the time.
That's all your house is, it's a pile of stuff...
...with a cover on it.
You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down...
...and you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff.
Everybody's got their own pile of stuff.
And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up.
Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.
They always take the good stuff.
They don't bother with that stuff you're saving.
Ain't nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.
They're looking for the good stuff.
That's all your house is, it's a place to keep your stuff...
...while you go out and get more stuff.
Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move...
...you gotta get a bigger house.
Why? Too much stuff.
You've gotta move all your stuff...
...and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.
Imagine that, there's a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.
Enough about your stuff, let's talk about other people's stuff.
Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house...
...you never quite feel 100 percent at home?
You know why? No room for your stuff.
Somebody else's stuff is all over the place...
...and what awful stuff it is.
Where did they get this stuff?
Now, now, sometimes you go on vacation...
...you gotta bring some of your stuff with you.
You can't bring all your stuff, just the stuff you really like...
...the stuff that fits you well that month.
Let's say you're gonna go to Honolulu...
...you're gonna go all the way to Honolulu you gotta...
...take two big bags of stuff...
...plus your carry on stuff, plus the stuff in your pockets.
You get all the way to Honolulu and you get in your hotel room...
...and you start to put away your stuff...
...that's the first thing you do in a hotel room...
...is put away your stuff.
Now I'll put some stuff in here, put some stuff down there...
...here's another place some stuff here...
...I'll put some stuff over there.
You put your stuff over there, I'm putting my stuff over here.
Here's another place for some stuff.
Hey, we got more places than we've got stuff.
We're gonna have to buy more stuff.
And you put all your stuff away, and you know that you're...
...thousands of miles from home, and you don't quite feel at ease, but you know that you must be okay because you do have some of your stuff with you.
And you relax in Honolulu on that basis.
That's when your friend from Maui calls and says "Hey...
...why don't you come over to Maui for the weekend...
...spend a couple of nights over here?"
Oh, God no.
Now what stuff do you bring?
Right, you've gotta bring an even smaller version of your stuff...
...just enough stuff for a weekend on Maui.
And you get over, and you are really spread out now...
...you've got stuff all over the world.
You've got stuff at home, stuff in storage, stuff in Honolulu...
...stuff in Maui, stuff in your pockets...
...supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain.
But you get over to your friend's house in Maui...
...and they give you a little place to sleep...
...and there's a little window ledge...
...or some kind of a small shelf...
...and there's not much room on it but it's okay...
...'cause you don't have much stuff now.
And you put what stuff you do have up there...
...you put your imported French toenail clippers...
...your odor eaters with the 45 day guarantee...
...your cinnamon flavored dental floss…
...and your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you know you're a long way from home...
...you know that you must be okay because you do have...
...your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you relax in Maui on that basis.
He goes on, but he gets a little too PG13 for church, so I’ll end there.
“That’s the whole meaning of life,” George Carlin says, “trying to find a place for my stuff.”
“One’s life does not exist in an abundance of possessions,” Jesus says.
In our scripture from today, Jesus does his own stand up routine about “stuff.” He tells a parable about a rich land owner who desires simply to build larger structures to fit his hard earned possessions in.
For that, God calls him a fool.
Now, one could argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person, and not a fool at all. He’s doing well for himself. He’s worked hard, and has produced a lot of stuff presumably through succeeding in business.
It makes sense that he’s gonna need a bigger barn to put it all in. That’s all a house is: a pile of your stuff with a cover on it.
So he decides to knock down his current small barns and build ones large enough to store all of his grain and goods in. With that, he can save for his future so he’ll be able to enjoy his retirement, and live off the fruits of his labor for the rest of his life.
Perhaps most Americans would pat this smart capitalist on the back and say that he earned his life of leisure.
The problem is, the rich farmer appears only to live for himself. He decides to build a home with a four car garage big enough to fit all of his luxury automobiles and boats, and a yard big enough for his swimming pool and his tennis courts.
And he tells his soul, “you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry. Go on as many European vacations as you want and splurge on the good wine.”
Now, I don’t think that Jesus demands we live joyless, sensible and sober lives. We all know that Jesus likes to relax, eat, drink and be merry with friends himself. We can think of plenty of instances in the Bible in which Jesus is found partying and drinking good wine.
But the farmer doesn’t choose to thank God for this abundance, or give the extra to the workers who helped him get where he is, much less to people who are starving and homeless. He has way more than he could ever even use, but he doesn’t ask how he can share it, or what God might require of him. He just decides to hoard it all in a bigger barn.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you!” God says. “The things that you’ve prepared…whose will they be?”
A wise person said that people were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.
Love demands more of us. We are not put on this earth to amass money and power. We are not here to keep the dieting and beauty industry in business. We are not here to buy every new version of the iPhone. We are not here to acquire more land and real estate than we could ever use.
We are put here by God’s grace to embody revolutionary Love.
I don’t have anything particularly new to say about the latest mass shootings yesterday and early this morning that you haven’t already heard me say about the hundreds of mass shootings that have happened in this country in the five years I’ve been preaching in this pulpit. Since Sandy Hook, there have been 2,189 mass shootings, to be in exact.
Today, 20 people are dead, and 40 are injured in El Paso because of a white supremacist motivated by hate and radicalized in the bowels of the internet, who drove 10 hours to El Paso to kill Mexicans and Mexican Americans. As of one am, nine are dead and 16 are injured in Dayton, Ohio. We don’t yet know the motive of that terrorist.
Every couple of months, I have to decide whether to preach on a mass shooting motivated by dehumanizing political rhetoric and the accompanying objectification and demonization of groups of human beings amid a culture saturated with guns and gun worship. A disgusting and macabre tradition.
I’m sick of it. I’m physically sick of it.
Our response as a country is always to amass more weaponry. To build bigger sheds for our guns.
And I want to shout “Fools! This very night our lives are being demanded of us. One’s life does not exist in an abundance of firearms.”
When we love our stuff more than we heed the call Love demands on our lives…when we make things into an idol…we are prone to see other people as competition for wealth that we believe to be rightfully ours.
When we turn people into objects…when we refer to fellow God-imaged human beings as “animals” or “illegals” or “infestations”…when we suggest that Americans need to be protected from hordes of dark skinned intruders…when we fan the flames of fear and hatred….evil manifests, violence flourishes, and death is the result. It is the death of all humanity.
When will we wake up and realize that our true security lies in God, each other and the earth, to whom we belong?
Jesus weeps over our sin-sick nation.
This very night, our lives are being demanded of us. God is demanding that we be rich towards God. That we embody revolutionary LOVE.
When we fight racism and ethnocentrism and Christian nationalism in ALL its forms—especially where it manifests itself in our own hearts, this is the spark of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, we co-creqte the training ground for the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we open our doors to those who have been cast out of the Church, this is the beginning of the LOVE REVOLUTION. When we love each person exactly as they are once they get here, this is the ETHIC of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we seek to unite with people of all faiths and no faith in shared service to our communities, THIS is the enactment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we offer comprehensive, inclusive and body-positive sexuality education to an entire community of middle schoolers, this is the embodiment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we welcome the undocumented or documented immigrant, the refugee, the asylum-seeker, THIS is the ESSENCE of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end white supremacist and other terrorist violence, this is the WORK of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we create green transformation in an effort to plant seeds of HOPE in the midst of climate change, this is the manifestation of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we share our excess wealth with those who do not have enough, this is the fulfillment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
Beloved, Love is demanding our lives this very night. Stop worrying about the things you’re going to gather, or keep, or hide, or hoard, or bring with you. Stuff won’t keep you safe. Don’t build a bigger barn, bust the doors open on the barns you already have and share what’s inside. You will feel far less alone.
Let the treasure we store up on earth be beautiful, shimmering, brave acts of revolutionary love.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
June 23, 2019
God has no other hands but ours’, so we need to put them to good use. And sometimes we need to just admire them. Isaac asked me to paint his fingernails purple the other day, so I did. Now he just stares at them multiple times a day, admiring those delicate bones just above the knuckles, delicate as bird’s wings. That’s a God pause—taking time just to admire the beauty of creation.
Today I anointed the called to care team’s hands for ministry. Most often there won’t be much they can say or do to alleviate the suffering they encounter. Their job will simply be to hold a hand in silence. So those hands I anointed this morning are precious gifts of grace capable of great healing when there are no words.
Hands are some of the best things God has ever done.
God made your hands delicate and still strong, capable of kneading dough, holding a heavy head at the end of a terrible day, or scratching a hard to reach place. God made hands that can type letters to the editor, hold a steering wheel, grasp and lift barbells, lay pipe. God made hands that can paint, play the piano, hold a baby, chop wood and vegetables, hammer a nail, sew needle point, perform heart surgery, and pet a cat’s warm fur.
God made hands capable of touching, of caressing, of holding, of healing.
Look at your hands for a moment.
These hands need to rest. These hands need to stop texting on a tiny bright screen, and hold the chubby hand of a toddler on the rail trail. These hands need to stop typing emails and start digging deep into the dark earth, making things grow. These hands need to stop scrubbing toilets and floors and start lazily skimming the surface of the water as you read a trashy novel on a float somewhere.
These hands need rest.
I used to hate going to my family’s lake house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. We piled into the way back of my father’s Ford station wagon to go there a few times a summer, often with my cousins.
It was a beautiful place—two cabins right on the lake in a cove not far from Alton Bay and Mount Major. There was a dock for boats and a rock to swim to, and a large lawn that some people might have parties and barbecues on. We had a canoe and a row boat, never a speed boat. A true Yankee, my Grandfather built both cabins himself with his own two hands, and continued to work on them for the rest of his life. After my Grandfather died, my Grammy owned it.
Grammy was a rather cross old farmer from Ludlow, Vermont, and like my grandfather, she had no idea how to relax or have fun. And so when we went to the lake as kids (the way I remember it anyway), we spent the entire time doing chores. We scrubbed vegetables and shucked corn. We did endless dishes in the sink. We washed windows and scraped paint. We bailed out the row boat and raked. If we ran out of things to do, Grammy would tell us kids to pick up sticks in the yard. I couldn’t imagine why sticks needed to be picked up from their natural habitat, so I found this activity to be confounding busy work. I didn’t see “Grammy’s lake” as a vacation when we went there, but a job.
I don’t relate much to my Grandmother’s work ethic. My house is dirty, I haven’t washed a window since I was a kid, my garden is full of weeds, I still can’t make a pie crust without getting angry, I have never changed a tire or worked a farm tilling fields. My hands are as soft as a baby’s bottom.
And yet, I have a confession to make on the eve of my five week vacation and study leave. I have been over-functioning in this ministry to the point that I have failed at times to invite your engagement. I’ve been working long hours, saying yes to too much, doing too much on my own, losing a ton of sleep, eating less than healthfully, and all but ignoring my family. I have been depressed, cranky and resentful at times. I have occasionally lost sight of who I am and whose I am.
And I have had interventions by congregants, and colleagues and family members and friends saying: Try exercise. Make sure you take your days off. Do yoga. Enlist help. Shut down your computer and bring your kids on a hike. Take a vacation.
And I give all kinds of excuses why I can’t. I am the only person who can do this thing. If I give it to someone else, they won’t do it right. The world cannot function unless I am posting something inspirational on Facebook five times a day, I’m sure of it. Sure, I can book meetings and visits and softball games and kids’ concerts back to back and still write a board report and a sermon and a funeral today. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Does this sound familiar? It is pure hubris.
And that’s why stopping is one of the ten commandments.
“Idle hands are the devil’s toolbox.” That’s what my grandmother used to say. In other words, if you’re not working with those hands, you’re getting yourself into trouble. But God says that working hands that never lay idle are the devil’s tool box.
In addition to such crucial commandments as not killing or stealing, God declares all humans must have a day of rest to live healthy and moral lives. Sabbath, or shabbat means, quite simply, “ceasing.” Stop. Rest. Recharge.
Keep the sabbath holy, God demands.
On that day no one in your household may do any work.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth,
the sea, and everything in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
God doesn’t insist we rest because God is some kind of self-care guru. God doesn’t insist we rest because God wants us to sip margaritas on a beach in Mexico, or get purple mani-pedis. God insists we rest so we remember an important truth: the world is perfectly capable of going on without you in it. Nothing hinges on you.
Rev. Walter Brueggemann wrote a book titled Sabbath as Resistance, and he says: Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms…
That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that God is not a workaholic, (b) that God is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.
If the world can go on while God rests, it can certainly keep going while you do. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you are necessary to the work of creation on your own.
TAKE TIME OFF. Lay your hands down.
My friend Claire came across these gems from Rev. Donna Schaper who charges us with these Sabbath practices, whether we are taking a day off, or a vacation, or a sabbatical:
Lose the guilt early. Rest is a gift from God. When you don’t rest, you more than risk idolatrous behavior. You get too tired to think, much less act.
Find out if you really know how to do nothing. You may not….
Imagine yourself an escapee from the prison of the dominant narrative: “You are what you do.” “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” “Hard work is the route to justice.” Imagine another narrative: “I lift heavy things lightly.” “The Spirit thinks I am precious.” “I am here to enjoy Spirit.” “I am here to relax.”
Bask in the renewable energy of a large narrative. You are a creature. You are not in charge of the universe. You are enough. You are all right. You are the child of a kind parent. You don’t run on power supplied at a cost by a utility company. You are not an extractive resource, like oil. Like solar and wind, you are a renewing resource. There is energy enough for you – and it is free. And finally, Rev. Schaper advises:
Don’t worry about whether you can maintain any of these habits when you are back at your job. Don’t think much about the end time. Treasure the now time. Work is work; play is play. Sabbath is Sabbath. There are six other days in the week, also divine.
Hands were some of the best things God had ever done.
I want to invite you into a space of quiet and peace, to ground yourself by noticing your contact with chair and and the ground, by sitting straight, by becoming aware of your breathing.
Look at your idle hands. They've been through a lot, those hands...they have strengths, scars, beauty...I invite you to remember that it is your hands that do the work of love in the world.
These hands may hold another's hands.
These hands may sign cards of consolation and congratulation.
These hands may patiently teach, quilt works of beauty or write words urging peace.
These hands may bathe children, feed elders, nurse the ill, work the earth, organize communities.
These hands clasp in prayer, open in release, grasp in solidarity, clench in righteous anger.
These hands need rest. These hands need holding. These hands need to remember that they aren’t the only hands.
These hands are God's hands, your hands, our hands; a great mystery of flesh and intention, a great potential of embodied love.
A Sermon for Jesse Lynes
for celebration Sunday on the occasion of his baptism
by the Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
June 16, 2019
You were born to one of my dearest friends on my 43rd birthday. In addition, we share the same “godfather.” I know we have only met twice. We have been letting your mom get to know you before we do. But, you’ll soon realize you’re stuck with me and all of us. We loved you before you were born, just like God did.
On your baptism day, we do what must be a strange and confusing ritual to your baby eyes and senses, though I’m sure everything that happens in your world right now is strange and confusing:
We poured sacred waters on your head to remind you that you are connected to All That Is, and we touched you with a rose that you might live your life as a beautiful unfolding.
Speaking of roses, ever since I found out your name, every time I hear it, I break out into the Christmas carol “Lo How a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse’s lineage coming as men of old have sung.” (You’ll notice since you’re going to hang out with me a lot that I break into song all the time because I believe my life to be a musical.)
Your name, Jesse, came to your mother in a dream. She thought it was strange to dream a name, but it makes sense to me since we all know that you were your mother’s best dream. We also know now that you were a part of God’s dream.
Did you know that Jesse was the father of a very famous King named David, who is important to both Jews and Christians? Of course you didn’t know, you’re a baby. Well, Jesus is said to be a part of Jesse’s family, too.
I love that your name is already God’s family name. I love that everyone you’ll ever meet is a part of that same family. A stranger is just a piece of us we do not yet know. The water we blessed you with is just an outward sign of that inward grace.
Jesse, your name and your baptism is simply our way of telling you who you are:
a precious, dreamt for, worthy and beloved part of God’s family you were welcome in all along.
Jesse, I want you to know that you were not born just to watch TV, eat, and consume products sold to you by people peddling fear.
The task of your living is growing wise.
The reading we heard this morning says two things that I want you to know about Wisdom:
we grow wise through joy, and
we don’t grow wise alone.
Our book says that God created wisdom before God created anything else.
Wisdom is like your Mama Megan. Wisdom is a Woman who plays with God.
Mama Wisdom has been there since the very beginning beside God, like a master worker. Mama Wisdom has been dancing in the ocean. Mama Wisdom has been lying in the grass staring up at the sky. Mama Wisdom has held a cedar waxwing in her hand. Mama Wisdom leads children in parachute games on the common. Mama Wisdom has been counting the stars before falling asleep at night, just like you will be on Star Island this summer as you are rocked to sleep on a rocking chair.
Mama wisdom delights in the beauty of creation, just as we are meant to. Louise Glick says, “we see the world once, in childhood.” She’s right. You get to see a world we don’t see, and so you are already wise.
The common English Bible translates verse 30 this way: “I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with this inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.”
Jesse, as you grow please remember that having fun is an expression of wisdom. Smile before God.
Delighting in your play; learning to laugh at what’s sublime and ridiculous…this is all part of becoming wise.
This group of people that surround you now…they will go way out of their way to have fun and make you laugh.
Once they created a bobblehead doll of me, kept it a secret, and flew it all over the world to take pictures of bobble headed me in strange and wonderful places like a crocodile’s mouth and the Dominican Republic. I broke it and Jon drilled it back together. These folks fix what is broken with joy.
They have bouncy houses, face painters, and karaoke dj’s, throw galas and Caribbean dinners and friendship Sundays, and they just laugh a lot.
Please don’t ever think that fun and laughter is not spiritual or religious.
Life is not all joy, dear Jesse. Life has just as much sorrow. Human pain is sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual and sometimes existential.
Sometimes its all of those things at once. We get sick. People and institutions fail us. Things break. We struggle with meaninglessness. Someone we love dies.
Sometimes we get hard and mean because we are in pain.
The world can be as brutal as it is beautiful; as terrifying as it is exhilarating.
That’s why we go to places like this. We wouldn’t survive were it not for joy, beauty, each other, and creation itself.
And we come because we can’t get wise on our own.
The vision of Mama Wisdom in Proverbs suggests that God does not create alone. No one ever does. Your mama did not create you alone, and she will not raise you alone.
And so your baptism, Jesse, was not just a welcome into the whole world’s family, but into the family of this specific congregation, in this wonderful small town full of character and characters.
Today, on this most auspicious of all days, I want to tell you what all of us have helped God to create before you arrived; to prepare a place for you.
First, it’s important to know that this place and this collection of people didn’t start with the people in this room, and it won’t end with us either. That’s how life is…we are always the dream of the people who came before us.
This congregation has been becoming wise together in this spot since 1742. It recreated itself in 1949, when all three of the Protestant churches in Sterling decided they were better together than they were apart. They were becoming more wise: they knew they were children of the same God. They also knew that together they could do hard things: like disagree, and love one another all at the same time.
Just five years ago, I came here after the very very long and beautiful ministry of a man named Pastor Jonathan. I was really lucky to be in a place where it is OK to be exactly who you are, because these people accepted me and loved me right from the start even though I was a whackadoo liberal and some of the congregation really wasn’t.
This group of people is not always like-minded, but they are like-hearted.
And still, together, we expanded our welcome enough that your mama felt like she could have a place here, too.
One day in 2017 we said out loud together FINALLY and with one voice that “love is love is love is love.” Without that declaration and affirmation, we might not have gotten to know and love you. I shudder at the thought, dear Jesse. Co-creation with God creates expansive welcome. We are getting more wise.
Jesse, I know sometimes we can only learn by seeing, so I want to show you what co-creation with like-hearted people looks like. I’m going to ask the congregation to rise in body or in spirit when I ask them to.
Please rise if you are on the
Ministry Leadership Teams
Please rise if you are the
Please rise if you are on the staff, or are one of the pastors at this church
Please rise if you sing in the choir
Rise if you taught or assisted in Sunday School
Helped out, cared for kids in kinderwatch
Provided childcare for events
worked with our high school youth
Stand if you were a student in a Sunday School class
homework and hang out.
Please rise if you are on the Called to Care team
Eat, Pray, Learn team
Saturday meals team
La Romana Mission Team
Treasures of the Community auction team
Green transformation team
Stand if you
volunteered for IHN
for Habitat critical home repair
Walked in the Palm Sunday promenade
Served at a community lunch
Performed in a SCT performance
Serve on the Village Green Preschool board
Helped make pies for Thanksgiving
Volunteered at Worcester fellowship
Helped with the Holly Berry brunch
Caroled on the common
Helped out with Eat Pray Learn or presented there
Came to Eat Pray Learn
Led the book group, participated in book group
Planned the co-ed adult retreat or women’s retreat
Went on retreat
Did yoga with Lindsay
Participated in aging gracefully
went to pub theology
Rise if you hosted a coffee hour
If you prayed for people on the prayer list or on Facebook
Participated in meal givers
Helped bake for a collation
Brought flowers to shut ins
Made a prayer shawl
Stand if you are a head usher or if you ushered this year
Offered your musical gifts in worship
lay read in worship
assisted with communion
Delivered a testimonial
Had an animal or a backpack blessed
Served on the welcome team
Counted the offering
Provided flowers for the chancel table
Rise if you are here for the first time.
Now rise if you have been here your whole life.
Rise if you attended worship at least once this year. Now stay standing.
Look around this room, Jesse. That’s what I mean by co-creation with God.
There is a translation of a poem by Sufi mystic Rumi that says:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I pray you become wise. I pray you co-create something beautiful with other people and God.
I pray you learn to make good coffee, good friends, and a good and kind community.
I do not require you to pray in a certain way. There are so many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
But I do pray that you find a collection of faith-filled, grace oriented people who will Love you; who will co-create with you in the spirit of Jesus, which simply means Love.
Let the beauty you love be what you do.
You are a part of the beauty God has dreamed for the world.
Delight in it, as we delight in you.
I love you, God loves you,
“Can these bones live?”
A sermon for Pentecost Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at First Church in Sterling
June 6, 2019
I parked outside this morning behind a car that had a Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster sticker on it, made to look like a Christian fish. That’s a tongue in cheek symbol for atheists to poke fun of believers who worship a supernatural God. And I thought, how awesome. A church of the flying spaghetti monster parked outside the Christian church. It’s gonna take all of us to make it. And so we better learn one another’s language. Church of the flying spaghetti monster adherents need to hang out in Christian churches so we can learn each other’s language. Believers need to learn the language of non-believers. Muslims need to learn the language of Jews. Jews need to learn the language of Buddhists. White people need to learn the language of black people. Elders need to learn to speak the language of teenagers. Americans need to learn languages other than English that are already spoken here. Powerful folks need to learn the language of marginalized folks.
Did you notice what happened when we read the scripture?
Last time I did that a few years ago on Pentecost, everyone got mad at Helen Hill, our office manager. They thought she messed up the bulletin. So I just wanted you to know that I did that on purpose, so leave Helen alone.
Last week was ascension, when we overheard Jesus praying that we all may be one. Then he left, officially, to sit at the right hand of the father, and left us down here to our own devices. He promised us that he would send us the Holy Spirit to help, but we didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
In our scripture from Acts, the day of Pentecost comes, and just like Jesus said it would, the Holy Spirit fills all the people. When the Holy Spirit enters, a transformation occurs. It’s scarier than the disciples imagined.
It involves a roaring windstorm, and a STRANGE FIRE.
And all of a sudden, all people of the world have the presence of God inside of them, and can actually SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER and understand one another, even though they are speaking different languages. They were speaking in tongues.
This looked and sounded just as crazy to them as it sounds to all of us.
The text says they are “perplexed.”
They look for an explanation: “maybe they are filled with new wines,” which is Bible speak for “maybe they are trashed or on something.”
And Peter says: “That’s not possible, it’s nine in the morning.”
Peter says “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
It’s supposed to look like this: seeing visions. Speaking a new language so that this messed up world can become more like God’s dream for it.
It is notable that the people gathered around the disciples don’t learn to speak the disciples’ language. Instead, it’s the other way around. The Holy Spirit gives the disciples the ability to speak in the language of the international crowd who have gathered around them.
All of a sudden, differences are stripped away and the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, residents of Rutland, Holden, Sterling, West Boylston, Leominster, and Worcester, France, England, Syria, India, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Iraq, and the United States of America, are no longer strangers who speak strangely, they are all simply children of God.
All of a sudden black people and brown people, transgender and cisgender people, MAGA hat wearers, and co-exist bumper sticker owners, immigrants and natives, poor people and rich people, CEOs and farmers, young people and old people…They all share the same language:
God’s word of Love is all they know to say.
PENTECOST. The day we found our voices.
Pentecost. The birthday of the church.
God has placed us in the valley of the bones to show us why we need a re-birthday of the church TODAY.
God has placed us here
in the valley of rising health care costs and crushing student loan debt
the valley of irreversible climate change
the valley of white nationalism and ‘straight pride’ rallies
the valley of mass shootings
the valley of poverty
the valley of meaninglessness
the valley of despair
the valley of violence
the valley of over-consumption
the valley of addiction
the valley of racism and ethnocentrism
the valley of division
the valley of hatred
the valley of demonization and dehumanization
God asks, “mortal, can these bones live?”
We don’t know what to say to that because we think we are alone here in death valley.
We think we can pull ourselves up by our own boot straps.
We think we are meant to be self-made and self-taught and self-righteous.
We think we can find salvation by having a personal relationship with Jesus,
or a personal relationship with the beach,
No need to show up for one another.
We think that we should concentrate
We think we are meant to go it alone in the valley of the bones.
No wonder we are shouting:
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely!”
We are shouting into our echo chambers on a dying planet, the Good news of the Gospel choked out by the fake news on our news feeds; the language we use getting smaller and meaner.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking.
We reply, “we just don’t know.”
And so God says: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord….”
Speak, CHURCH, God says.
Speak the word of Love and God’s breath will enter your lungs. And you shall live. COME UP out of your GRAVES.
CHURCH: “Can these bones live?”
YES YES YES.
But only if we speak. PROPHESY TO THE BONES.
I saw one of the greatest prophetic leaders of our time at the festival of homiletics in May, Rev. William Barber.
He says “we must not speak from the left or from the right but with the voice God calls us to speak from. Because it’s not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong. And some things are just WRONG.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
He says: “We can no longer use the language of Caesar. It’s too puny to challenge the extremism we are facing now, things that are wrong and just plain mean. We must claim the deep moral language of faith, and silence is not an option.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
Have you heard about 16 year old Greta Thunberg yet? She explained in a speech at the COP24 climate talks in 2018 that while the world consumes an estimated 100 million barrels of oil each day, "there are no politics to change that. There are no politics to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.”
"So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future," she declared. "They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.”
That is the message of Pentecost: the people will rise to the challenge. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
Speak, church, God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
The Chinese character for crisis, we are told, is a combination of danger and opportunity. Right now, the world has reached a dangerous crisis point for humanity. And those of us who are called to be the Church have a unique opportunity to lead us through it by teaching a common moral language.
Leading climate change scientists reported to the UN this year that we have twelve years by conservative estimates to stop irreversible damage from climate change. Those of us who have been paying attention know that we can’t recycle our way out of this, buy the right electric car, or take the air conditioners out of our windows and solve the problem.
Our friend Katy was just telling me that she read a study that said that the more people believe they can effect climate change by doing individual things like recycling, the less likely they are to push for legislation that would stop climate change on a large scale.
In other words, the more that we are under the illusion we can do this on our own, the less likely we are to work together.
We are in the Valley of the bones together. Together, we must learn to prophesy.
On Monday night, 25 or so of us gathered at the Mill in West Boylston to talk about Green Transformation. Led by our fearless leader, Katy Fazio, we had a deep, at times hopeful, at times despairing conversation about the Christian Church’s role in the midst of the climate crisis.
Here’s what we determined:
The church is in the unique position.
We have the skills, and the depth of ritual to help one other grieve:
an uncertain future for our children,
the loss of ways of life we love,
the parts of the planet that may become inhabitable,
the species that have gone extinct.
But we need to turn our grief into action.
We need to start focusing less on self-care and more on community care.
We need to build up communities of resilience.
And we need to use our voices loudly and publicly, filled up with the breath of God.
We need to be voices of urgency, and voices of hope.
We need to teach a shared moral language, one that doesn’t come from the left or the right, but from our God who is Love.
Today, my friends, is the RE-birthday of the church. Some say that the church is dying, but we know a different story.
The Church was made for such a time as this:
Because we believe.
We believe these bones can live.
We believe our lungs are filled up with the breath of God.
We believe God’s spirit is poured out upon ALL flesh.
We believe that Love’s language has the power to reach all nations, all abilities, all genders, all sexualities, all races, all ages, all believers, questioning believers and non-believers, all of HUMANITY.
We believe in the power of Love to put us back together, bone to bone, sinews and flesh,
We believe in the power of God to breathe life back into us mortals so that we might live, stand on our feet, as a VAST MULTITUDE and PREACH THE GOOD NEWS.
And we will rise again up out of our graves:
to build bridges, not walls;
to give us a new heart for each other and the world;
to teach God’s language not of right and left, but right and wrong;
to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
Speak, church. God’s breath is in your lungs.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
June 2, 2019
Long before my conversion to Christianity, I was visiting prisoners. I wish I could tell you this was an act of pure piety. But it was really because I had a thing for “bad boys” as a teenager. I thought that I could save them. (I had a savior complex from a young age.) My mother banned me from hanging out with one young man in particular, which made him all the more appealing.
In 2014, when I was 38 years old and I had just moved the piano my mother had for my entire youth into the parsonage. My stepfather turned over the piano bench onto my dining room table to fix a ding in it.
Underneath the piano bench it said the name of that forbidden high school bad boy in pen, followed by the date, 1994. And then the inscription: “when Robin’s mom is away, we play.” My mom really shouldn’t have left me alone for the weekend so often.
I heard her screech from the dining room, “Robin Wilson Bartlett! You’re grounded!” She grounded me in front of my own children.
Eventually, during my senior year of high school, that same bad boy went to jail for petty larceny, and I wrote him letters and went to visit him every weekend. (Don’t tell my mom.)
Yes, much of my motivation for this was a gigantic crush and a penchant for drama. But in defense of my teenaged self, I did have the strong, deeply-held sense that there wasn’t anything that separated him from me except some really bad choices and two vastly different childhoods he and I had no choice at all about.
The psalmist speaks of a God who “looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.”
I felt a call to visit the prison from childhood, because I could hear the groaning. Nothing human felt foreign to me. I had the sense that I was captive as long as my friend was.
You and I don’t have to reside in the state penitentiary to be held captive.
We are locked in chains:
the chains of our childhood experiences and trauma
the chains of poverty
The chains of unmet expectations
the chains of student loan and credit card debt
the chains of our own hoarded wealth
the chains of our addictions
We are chained
to endless consumption
to the rat race
to keeping up with the Jones’
to the beauty industry
to the diet industry
to the marketplace
to our fears, our insecurities, our shame…
YOU ARE NOT ALIVE TO PAY BILLS AND LOSE WEIGHT
We are imprisoned behind the barbed wired brick walls we put up to keep ourselves separate…
from our neighbors
from the stranger and the foreigner
from those who scare us
from those who don’t think like us
or vote like us
or watch the same news as us
from those who don’t look like us
or act like us
or speak like us
or pray like us…
We are imprisoned. And so we need to GET FREE.
Our collective liberation requires first that we acknowledge our connectedness.
And so it is fitting that our scriptures from the lectionary this week are about unity and a jail break.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus prays for his disciples at table before his arrest. He prays out loud so his friends can hear him.
“Father, I pray that they are one as we are one.”
He doesn’t pray this tender prayer for just the disciples, but for all those who will believe in him. Jesus prays that we do not see ourselves as separate from one another.
He prays we are both bound and free.
The Bible’s definition of freedom is the opposite of the American definition of freedom: fierce independence, an unfettered marketplace, a small government for the people by the people, or pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Christian freedom means freedom from the chains that keep us bound to empire, to power over, to war.
God’s “freedom” means total independence from the stuff we’ve accumulated, the wealth we hoard, the status we’ve climbed the ladder for.
God’s freedom is from self-interest. God’s “freedom” paradoxically means dependence on God and one another as our only source of liberation.
What we also know from our Bibles is that God abhors a jail.
There are no “good” prisons in scripture. Prisons in the Bible are always part of a larger system of injustice, death and oppression. Our biblical heroes are often kept in jails—tortured in dark, dank dungeon cells.
Joseph is sent unjustly to prison. John the Baptist is thrown in jail and beheaded. Paul and the other apostles are jailed at one time or another for preaching the Gospel. And Jesus himself is arrested for trying to foment a love revolution. He is sentenced to death row, stays overnight in jail and is executed by the state the next day.
Christians worship a death row inmate.
Prisons in biblical times are used not to rehabilitate or even to punish…but to silence and oppress religious and political dissidents. Prisons in the Bible are the means by which the power of the state attempts to stifle, lock up, and kill God’s Word of Love and freedom.
Our scripture from the fifth book of the New Testament: the book of Acts this morning tells a rich and complex narrative about a jail break. The Acts of the Apostles is presumably written by Luke around 70-90 AD. It tells the story of how the apostles spread the Gospel and built the church in the time of the Roman Empire.
In the story, Paul and Silas are taking their act on the road. They heal an unnamed, demon-possessed slave girl who follows them around, essentially because because she annoys them with her persistence.
The girl was a fortune teller who made money on behalf of her masters. When Paul and Silas healed her and cast the demon out, she was no longer able to tell fortunes, and was therefore forever after worthless to her owners.
Paul and Silas were dragged before the authorities in the marketplace for the crime of healing her. The mob turned against them and they are stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison. They spent their time deep in the dungeon singing hymns and praise to God. The other prisoners, the scripture says, listened. “Ain’t a scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom….”
Suddenly, there’s an earthquake, and the prisoners’ shackles come off. The doors to the prison fling wide open. But the prisoners don’t leave. They stay put.
The jailer wakes up and assumes they have all escaped. He proceeds to attempt suicide, so fearful he is to be caught by the Romans having let the prisoners escape on his watch. The jailer, too, suffers under the oppression of empire. There are no bad guys and good guys in the story of God’s people, only humans.
Prisoners Paul and Silas do a peculiar thing: they stay there to save the jailer. "Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!” They say. And the jailer falls down before them in the dungeon. Paul and Silas tell him about the Love of God that unifies them.
They baptize him, and the jailer, too, is free in the knowledge that we belong to one another.
It is important to note that we never find out what happens to the slave girl. Paul and Silas, as far as we know, don’t go back to baptize her. She remains nameless and enslaved. Ultimately, our liberation is connected to HER freedom, too.
We won’t get free until all are free.
Jails in the United States are a little different than during biblical times. We have a better understanding of human rights, perhaps, and our justice system is certainly more advanced. But make no mistake about it, people are still imprisoned every day in the name of silencing political and religious dissidents.
On Wednesday, May 29, the trial of geologist Scott Daniel Warren began. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. What heinous crime did Warren commit to warrant such severe punishment? He exercised his religious freedom to provide water, food, and clothing to those facing danger as they trekked across the desert. Warren took the words of Jesus literally, “For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me”
Warren encountered Kristen Perez-Villanueva and José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday in the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where the two had lost their backpacks containing food and water while being chased by border agents. Traversing the desert without food or water can be deadly. According to the Pima county medical examiner, 2,615 human remains were recovered between 2001 and 2016. Warren discovered 18 of those bodies. So Warren brought Kristen and Jose to a shed and gave them food and water.
What makes this land “sacred,” as Warren calls it, is the death of migrants upon it. According to Ryan Devereaux’s exhaustive account published by the Intercept earlier this month, Warren testified that “The entire desert is a sacred place. It’s a graveyard.” For Warren, leaving water becomes a religious act of remembrance and solidarity. He was arrested on April 17, 2018, and charged with two felony counts.
You and I are not free to practice our religion in this country, and it’s not because Walmart employees wish us a Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Christians are all for a literal interpretation of the Bible when we want the “freedom” to not bake cakes for gay weddings based on a few questionable sentences uttered by Paul, but we jail people for following Jesus’ words literally.
Here’s the Truth as Jesus taught:
We are not free until people are free to marry who they love.
We are not free until Scott Daniel Warren is free.
We are not free until the migrants who die in the graveyard of the desert are free.
We are not free until children caged at the border are free.
We are not free until black lives matter as much as white lives.
We are not free until poverty is no longer considered a crime, and prison is no longer the first resort to social problems.
We are not free until combat veterans stop dying by suicide at alarming rates.
We are not free until our Jewish and Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters can worship in their mosques and synagogues and churches without fear of violence.
We are not free until our children can go to school without fear of a mass shooting.
We are not yet free until all of us are free.
So let’s get FREE.
There is freedom in recognizing that we are bound to one another.
There is freedom in following a man whose first sermon said to free captives and whose last act of ministry was telling the prisoner who died with him that he would be with him in paradise.
We don’t know if Joshua or Ezekiel or Nehemiah are in heaven. We don’t know if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are in heaven. We don’t know if Paul is in heaven. But we DO know there’s a death row inmate with Jesus in heaven.
There is freedom in worshipping a God who was sentenced to the death row, was killed by the state, buried and who broke out of the tomb we tried to jail him in.
Jesus always breaks out, and so can we.
There is freedom in singing hymns to God despite our chains.
Maya Angelou writes:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Beloved, don’t ever lose the longing. Sing hymns and praise to a God who prays for our unity. Because the tune is heard by the One who looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.
Let’s get free, so we might LIVE.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at First Church in Sterling
May 26, 2019
In the scriptures we read this morning, paradise is located in two places: the garden, and the city.
The verdant, fruitful garden and the bejeweled city with streets paved with gold seems like two pretty easy places to find paradise.
But you and I need to seek after the home of God where its hardest to find, so I wanted to look elsewhere.
Paradise, California, the northern California town nestled in a pine cloaked ridge in the Sierra Foothills, had a population of about 25,000 until it was almost entirely wiped out by the Camp Fire this winter. It was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. Now, despite a massive effort to clean up, restore power and make plans to rebuild, the town remains largely uninhabitable.
There are still burned out cars, pickups and school buses lining its roads. Neighborhoods remain unrecognizable to even longtime residents.
There's ash and toxic debris everywhere. The beautiful trees that made it so pleasant to the sight have burned to the ground, making the town unrecognizable to its residents. I bet the firefighters who are here today are glad they live in Sterling and not California. There is just so much to save for those who lay down their lives to save.
Yet, there are people who saved and are saving Paradise as we speak. The firefighters there heroically led hundreds of people to escape in water during the days of the fire, helping them swim to safety.
And the city is promising to rebuild. The monumental task of removing the debris is a job that could take well over a year. Disaster response officials say it's on a scale not seen in this country since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even after that, rebuilding is no guarantee for a lot of people.
Perhaps it all sounds futile to you, this task of raising up Paradise again.
But the saving of Paradise is always an act of faith: the labor itself is worth it because of the love it represents.
Rebecca Baggett says that anyone who notices the world must want to save it. As the church, we must be trained noticers of, and witnesses to, the exquisite beauty of the intricate web of creation of which we are apart.
The salvation of paradise is in our hands. We must raise it up out of the ashes.
Some of us are looking for paradise far off, somewhere other than here. Maybe at the Cape this weekend. Maybe in Hawaii or Fiji, or in the next life.
What if I told you you are already here?
In Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s book, Saving Paradise, they set off on a quest to learn about the early church through it’s art.
Through art, they discovered that “early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. Our modern views of heaven and paradise think of them as a world after death. However, in the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on the earth. Images of it in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.”
We desperately need eye-fulls of beauty, because we will not save what we do not love. Our work as the church is to cultivate lovers of this world and this beauty in the present. THIS world is made by God and called Good. We pray every week God’s kingdom come on EARTH as it is in heaven for a reason.
Our scriptures this morning come from the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and the last book of the Christian Bible. The Bible begins in a Garden and ends in the city.
In the beginning, God planted a Garden in Eden, in the east, and that is where God put the first humans. God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. God formed Adam and Eve, out of dust from the ground. The humans were eventually exiled from paradise for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge.
After they were banished from God’s home, humans had to figure out a new way to take God with them. So they built a tabernacle. A tabernacle is a moveable habitation—a tented place for Israel’s divine king.
Various details of the tabernacle suggest it is built to be a mini, moveable Eden. The tabernacle, like the garden of Eden, is where God’s people believed God lived. They put God’s word: the ten commandments in the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, in the holy of holies, and locked God’s presence away.
In those early years, the tabernacle moved, and then they built a building to put it in: a permanent residence. The first and then the second Temple.
But God’s people soon learned that buildings cannot contain God, no matter how ornate, no matter how old, no matter how much lightning protection is purchased for the steeple.
God broke out.
God sent Jesus as a human home for God’s word. A living, breathing, healing, tabernacle.
In the midst of Roman occupation, God makes God’s new home inside a brown-skinned, middle Eastern, Jewish refugee. Paradise is contained in a body on the move.
Paradise was now a movement for justice and peace and healing, and not a place at all.
If you read the scriptures, you’ll notice Jesus hardly preached in the Temple. He preached on the MOVE. He preached on mountains and on the countryside, and on the road….wherever he could find the people of God.
God moves out of the building to become a love revolution.
Jesus shows us how to practice the ethics of paradise:
He heals the sick, he walks beside the suffering, he feeds the hungry, he touches the untouchables, he forgives enemies, he blesses the meek and the humble, he cries for his friend, he stands up for the least, the last and the lost, he even dies to show us what God’s love is like.
And then he rises up out of the grave.
With his resurrection and ascension, he sends us the holy spirit to teach us that our bodies, too, contain the home for God.
We are not the temple, but the tabernacle. We are ON THE MOVE. The moving body of God.
Paradise is unleashed in US. It’s in our hands.
In our scripture from revelation, paradise is a city, coming down out of heaven from God. Ronald Allen says, John sees high walls with gates open on each side. Walls are traditional symbols of community and security. Real security comes from authentic community in which all people feel mutually supported. Gates typically control entrance and exit, but these gates -- four on a side -- are always open. Security is only possible when all are extravagantly welcome, when the doors are flung open.
The breath of paradise wafts its way into this broken and battered world of domination, separation, cruelty and division, reminding us that it is here where heaven makes it’s place. That we have the keys to the city already.
For some of us it is easier to find God in a garden, and maybe harder to find God in the city. There are too many people in the concrete jungle, too much ugly, and not enough quiet to listen to the still small voice of God.
I watched a video on the internet the other day that contained the life-breath of the garden wafting into the city; a saving remedy sent to heal. The filming took place on a New York subway train at rush hour, which is not always where one encounters beauty.
But one day, Greg Wong captured heaven on earth on video.
Wong and some 850 fellow commuters were caught in underground limbo for a full two hours as their train was stalled between stations in Manhattan due to a mechanical failure. It was a subway rider’s nightmare come to life. Eventually, they boarded a “rescue train” that took them, slowly, back to Queens, where they’d started.
But as Wong records in the video, the stranded passengers bonded during the ordeal. They are crowded in a small space. They are black and white, Asian and Latino. They are Christian and Muslim, businessmen and women, construction workers and restaurant dishwashers. They are young and old, male and female, gay and straight.
Together, they had abundance. At one point they share that most precious resource—backup battery charges for their phones.
“We were grumpy at first, but what can you do?” says one laughing young woman as people eagerly plug into the chargers being passed around.
It all culminates in an epic singalong that moves from the latest hits (“Hotline Bling”) to timeless classics (“One Love”).
By the end, after a round of “Watch me whip, watch me nae nae,” everyone is in high spirits. They have survived together, and they have done it with style and grace.
“Anyone who has lived in New York and ridden the trains will recognize the hard-won camaraderie they share. It’s a tough city, and sometimes things get crazy, but we’re all in this thing together, and we are going to make it no matter what,” Sarah Goodyear writes.
As one of the captive riders says at the video’s end, with a smile, “I’m glad I was stuck with all you guys.”
This is the leaves of the tree; the healing of the nations revelation prophesies. This is what it means to be residents of the city of God: glad to be stuck together in paradise. The captive riders embody the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. The glory of God is their light. They are going to make it together no matter what.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Magalia Pines Baptist Church in Paradise, California did not burn. After the fire, the pastor’s family transformed the facility into an aid station, a lifeline for up to 600 people per day. They come for free meals, to pick up donated clothes and shoes. They give out so much bottled water they have trouble keeping it in stock.
Paradise is raised up out of the ashes by the church being the church. Seven months later, the church is still serving two free hot meals a day including breakfast and lunch to survivors of the Camp Fire.
On their website, they thank generous donors to the church for
• Over 70,000 Meals Served to survivors
• Over $1 Million Bottles of Water Provided (donated by Sacramento area construction companies)
• Over 150 Kitchen Setups
• 20 Motor homes and RV’s
• 12 Vehicles
"Magalia is a hopeful place….Magalia is a place where people are looking to the future," said Doug Crowder, the Senior Pastor at Magalia Pines Baptist Church. "It's just people coming together and finding a way and a place to connect because that's really the important thing in all of this.”
Beloved, First Church in Sterling is a hopeful place where people are looking to the future. The saving of Paradise is always an act of faith: the labor itself is worth it because of the love it represents.
This church is a people gathered together to notice beauty wherever we can find it. This Church is an ethic, not a place. It is a movement to raise up paradise from the ashes.
We are the living, breathing, moving home of God. We can choose to live in paradise because paradise lives in us.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org