A sermon preached on Veteran's Day
November 11, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard/seen.
According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
I’m much more terrified of being in the coffin than doing the eulogy (obviously). Though I spend a lot of my life as witness to death and dying, I also expend a lot of energy in an attempt to forget that I await the same fate.
Many of us spend our lives similarly, buying medication and wrinkle treatments and surgery and eating the “right” foods and compulsively exercising, worshipping at the God of busy-ness…thinking maybe we will be the ones to finally cheat the inevitable.
Our psalmist says “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish."
My plans will one day perish, my breath will depart and I will return to the earth. It’s too bad we work so hard to forget about death, because our mortality has the power to keep us humble, grateful, justice-seeking and right-sized. We desperately need our mortality as a check on our arrogance; a reminder of who is really in charge.
We also need this reminder: Money won’t buy our way out of the grave; power won’t buy our way out of the grave; the right, most ideological purity won’t buy our way out of the grave; religion and right belief won’t buy our way out of the grave…nothing will.
After I read an article in the Christian Century this week by Matt Fitzgerald about an iPhone app called “weCroak,” I immediately downloaded it. WeCroak was inspired by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” “Because we are either unable or unwilling to live a rural life in the picturesque Himalayas where time for contemplation may happen more easily,” an ad for WeCroak explained, the app’s creators had developed the next best thing: a 99-cent app that would “foster happiness” and “cultivate mindfulness” by pestering users with reminders about death. The app sends you a text five times a day to your smartphone at random times to announce that you're going to die.
"Don't forget, you're going to die," my phone now buzzes at me. (As if I needed this. I mean, I live with Andy, who is already a walking/talking existential crisis.)
But on Friday, I was reading a Facebook bickering match between two colleagues, and I was about to jump into the fray with my very important and carefully worded opinion when I was interrupted by my phone. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” it chirped.
I was ignoring my children’s pleas for attention while online shopping about three hours later. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone told me.
The next day I found myself thinking about a friend who I felt had wronged me recently, and the fact that its been a long time since I visited my dad. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone buzzed at me.
My life is probably at least half over, and I waste a lot of time, miss a lot of tender moments with my people, and I still haven’t learned to knit, play the guitar, or reliably send thank you cards.
Matt Fitzgerald says "a microdose of mortality can make the day glow." I know what he means. The fact that I will one day perish from the earth makes the sun shining through my window all the more shimmering; the people I love more precious to my life; the grudges I hold all the more pointless. I can't take any of it with me.
Mostly, I spend my waking hours fretting about the state of the world, my country, my helplessness to effect change. “Don’t forget you’re going to die,” my phone chirps happily.
Only God is eternal.
Hate may be having one of its shining historic moments right now in this hot mess of a world, but in the end, only Love will reign forever.
Since we last met, we have had a tumultuous week in the life of America, which at this point is business as usual. There was an election. Some people won, some people lost. There was no clear mandate from either “side,” though both sides wish there had been.
There was more fear-mongering about the stranger, the demonization of the poor and powerless, and more attempts to pit “us” against “them.” There was corruption and greed. There were wealthy power-brokers on either side of the political spectrum controlling the conversation while the exhausted middle became increasingly more exhausted. There were rich people showing off their riches, expecting to have the best seats in the house and senate, meanwhile devouring the houses of the poor. There were poor people giving everything they have because they have no other choice. In the midst of all of that, another mass shooting in California barely hit our radars. Now California is burning.
Yes, these are hot mess times. Our scriptures remind us that Biblical times were also a hot mess. There were intense political, religious, social, and tribal divides, just like there are for us today. And compounding all of that was the vast economic disparity between the have and the have nots…the ones who get to control the conversation, and the ones who have absolutely no voice at all.
Our psalmist says that the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. There is nothing new happening right now…our eyes are just being opened to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or silenced. These United States, it seems, might have been more aptly named these “divided” states. But that’s just not new. God is just opening our eyes to the truth.
We will perish from the earth, yes, but this doesn’t give us permission to tap out of the fight for justice.
There was a bumper sticker that was popular in the eighties that said “God is coming, and she is pissed.” Our story from the Gospel today about the widow’s mite has a similar message: “Jesus is watching, and he is pissed.”
In our reading from Mark, Jesus plunks himself down across from the treasury in the Temple and simply watches what the people add to it. This is not one of his confounding parables, Jesus is just commenting on what he’s observing. Jesus is restoring sight to the blind…he is showing us. He is showing us those who have no social safety net, who are cast aside by economic systems that prey on them – even as their leaders parade about in rich clothing. Jesus is simply observing, and lifting up the poor widow, who gave everything she had while her oppressors pompously postured.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
Jesus is still watching what we put into the coffers with a noisy clunk, and what our motivations are for showing it off. Whether our addition to the treasury is a virtue-signaling Facebook post share or dumping our excess into the oceans or the trash piles slowly taking over Camden, New Jersey…Jesus is watching; re-focusing our attention on the least of these.
Jesus shows to us the voiceless: the migrant, the refugee, the transperson, the black teenager, the Muslim, the gay couple with kids, the Jew, the homeless vet, the working poor, the battered woman…and Jesus re-humanizes all those who have been de-humanized.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
“They are giving all they have,” he says. “Watch.”
Our psalmist says: I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever.
God is watching us, restoring our sight, and reminding us that we, too, will die. So this morning, just like every morning, I'm grateful that we love and serve the Lord. I'm grateful we do not primarily serve ourselves, or a denomination or a "movement" or a political party or a president or even a church. We serve the Lord, who is Love. Who opens our eyes to see.
People often ask me what holds this church in all of its theological and ideological diversity together. The answer is always Love. One of our folks came up to me after a sermon I preached a few weeks ago to tell me he didn't like a term I used when describing an immigration policy. He had shouted out “no!” during my sermon, so as he approached I said, "are you coming over here to yell at me?" And he said, "of course I wouldn’t yell at you. I love you. But you're wrong."
I was, of course, right. I always am. But here’s what’s important:
Love is much more important than being right. We are mortal, and our righteousness will die with us. We are all so very human. It’s easier to be right than it is to be kind. It’s easy to be hard. It's harder to love. But we do hard things every single day. We disagree, but we preface it with “I love you.”
Psalm 146 tells us this: do not put your trust in mortals. When their breath departs, they return to the earth, on that very day their plans perish. Princes and presidents and politicians and murderers and words made into weapons and weapons made into idols will all perish from the earth. Love stays. So put your trust in Love. It’s only love that never ends.
Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God.
God’s Love will reign forever,
for all generations.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.