Preached on January 24, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Scripture: Luke 4: 14-21
click here for audio.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together be acceptable unto you oh God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-21)
[Preacher sits down.]
Hi. I’m back. What were you thinking when I sat down?
“Is she for real?”
“Has she run out of things to say already? It’s her second year.”
“Did she forget to write her sermon or something?”
“Is she OK? Is she sick?”
“Maybe she thought she’d have a snow day this morning.”
“How much do we pay her again?”
“Well, that sermon was blessedly short! Best church day EVER.”
Did you know that John Davis pays me five bucks if I keep the service under an hour? We are surviving on one salary right now in my family…and we need all the help we can get.
Sometimes we preachers talk far more than is necessary, when there really is only one thing to say, or we could just let the text speak for us. Sometimes we speak when we should keep silence—we have so little silence in our lives already. My preaching professors and wise senior colleagues used to say that most preachers only have one sermon in them, and they spend their whole career trying to say the same thing over and over again in different ways.
Well, Jesus had one sermon in him, too. Yes, he told a lot of stories called parables, and he healed a lot of people, and he said a lot of things. Mostly he DID things at let his actions speak for him. But his words and his deeds all boiled down to one core message throughout. A mission statement. And we heard Jesus’ mission statement today.
In our scripture that Dave read today from Luke, Jesus is beginning his ministry. He has returned to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, and everyone has heard about him at this point. He had begun to teach in the synagogues, and word was spreading. He was “praised” everywhere he went. He was on his way to becoming, in other words, a bit of a celebrity preacher.
And so Jesus gets to Nazareth where he grew up, to his hometown congregation in Galilee. The people there are probably pleased as punch, the way we all feel when our kids come home from college. Kind of like how when our Ben Davis was here last week, home from UVM, to read some scriptures, and some words from Martin Luther King. There’s an “awwwww” factor, and an “awe” factor going on.
Hometown boy makes good.
So, Jesus gets up to preach, looks over the crowd, unrolls the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Expectation fills the room. People catch their breath. He stands in front of them, probably thinking a flood of thoughts. Looking over the crowd and seeing his Hebrew teacher from first grade, and the elder who wasn’t too nice to him when he took too much cake at social hour. Maybe his palms were sweaty, and maybe he swallowed hard.
And Jesus cleared his throat, and read this text from the Prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
And then, with all eyes on him, and all of the people waiting with baited breath to hear what he might say next, Jesus sits down. I call this “Jesus mic drop.” Jesus takes the scroll, reads the text, decides it’s all the words he needs to say, and drops the mic.
And then he sits down.
I can only imagine what the people in that Temple were thinking when Jesus sat down. They were expecting to hear a sermon—some commentary on the text. They were expecting so much more than what he gave them, which was from the scrolls that they had heard probably hundreds of times already. “The eyes of all the synagogue were fixed upon him,” the text says.
“DUDE. Did he forget to write his sermon or something?” “Is he for real? THAT’S IT?!”
And all eyes still on him, still sitting in his chair, maybe because he senses they need more from him, Jesus adds: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it. That’s his commentary.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Dianna Butler Bass, in her sermon “the power of today” says: “(The people in the synagogue) were likely shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord's favor?
Have you been watching the news, Jesus? Are you aware of how horrible things are? That there is more inequality than ever, more people in prison unjustly, more illness of all sorts, more violence and terrorism than our ancestors ever knew? This now--today--is the kingdom of God?
Are you crazy?
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Not yesterday, not tomorrow. Today.’” (see her sermon here)
You are probably thinking the same thing. Have you been reading the news, Jesus? There is no way that this scripture is being fulfilled today. Today, I heard on the news about the Syrian war and the worst refugee crisis in the history of the world, and I read about more racism and homophobia being perpetuated by famous politicians and by the churches that should be safe harbors, not places of hate, and I read today on the news about more hurt and brokenness, and suffering beyond measure.
You can’t be serious that this scripture has been fulfilled TODAY.
But that’s exactly what Jesus says. That’s his whole sermon. Today the scripture has been fulfilled.
And Jesus’ mission statement is also for the Church, since the Church belongs to Jesus—since Jesus left us with the power to continue on with his work--which is now ours' to do. So this mission statement is ours’. We claim ownership of it; including the now-ness of it.
Today the spirit of the Lord is upon US.
Today WE have been anointed to bring good news to the poor.
Today he has sent US to proclaim release to the captives.
TODAY the sight of the blind has been recovered.
TODAY the oppressed will go free.
TODAY is the year of the Lord’s favor.
And yet, in the Church, we don’t often talk about the power of today. Instead, we spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past, and freaking out about the future.
We romanticize the past. "Our old governance system was better." "What happened to the line drawing of the church on the front of the bulletin?" "I miss when our minister had a beard." "Remember when everyone wore their Sunday best to church?" "Back in the 1990s, our youth group attracted people from miles around!" "In the 1950s, our pews were full because people all went to church every Sunday back then." "In my day, there were no soccer practices on Sunday morning. The stores weren’t open. We didn’t sing these newfangled hymns."
“Those were the good old days.”
And on the other hand, we wring our hands about the future.
“We need to get more children here, or the church will die with us!” “What if we don’t make enough money in the stewardship campaign to fund all these new staff people?” “I keep hearing that Protestant churches all over the state are closing and shuttering their doors for the last time…is that going to happen to us?” These millennials are never going to come back to church…not even when they have children. “Do we need to get a rock band?” Is Twitter the new Facebook or is Instagram the new Snapchat?”
Beloved, ultimately, neither the past nor the future is what matters. “Harness the power of TODAY,” Jesus says, in his one-line commentary. Jesus sounds like a self-help guru when I say it like that, doesn’t he? But that's what he says.
Today the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
And this scripture is fulfilled by the people of this church, TODAY.
We have been anointed by the spirit, to bring good news to the poor, and the poor is all of us—we who live in a culture that starves the spirit, thrives on separation and greed, and feeds empty consumerism. Our good news is the message that all are loved, that all are welcome, that there is depth and joy beyond the culture of MORE and better. We are doing this today—proclaiming this Good News. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are bringing good news to the poor.
We are releasing captives today, too: those of us held captive by the illusion of control, by addiction and bad relationships and bad financial decisions, and those of us held captive by the boxes we are put in, and the expectations of others. People are being set free by our shared faith. I can’t tell you how many people come into my office, or tell me at social hour: for the first time in my life I feel like I am worth more than what holds me back. I used to feel like a captive of a prison of my own making, and now I feel free. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are setting the captives free.
The blind are receiving sight right now. Our eyes are being opened TODAY to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or covered over. 90 people gathered to talk about shedding light on racism in our communities on Wednesday night, here in our parish hall. 90 people. Our outreach team has shared with us the hidden needs of people suffering in our community—the least, the last and the lost, here where we live. Our eyes are opened more and more, and we are responding. We were blind, but now we see. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are recovering sight to the blind.
The oppressed are being set free. We are coming together to raise money and send another medical mission team for the 19th year in a row to a deeply oppressed population of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. Close to 200 people gathered in the parish hall last night to fund this trip. We are giving these workers medical care and clean water, and hope for a better tomorrow. We are looking for ways to connect with our Muslim neighbors, and to serve the poor and lonely in our own community in partnership with them. TODAY the scripture is fulfilled. The oppressed are going free.
And still, there is more work to do.
This is annual meeting Sunday, the day when we all meet immediately after this service is over to do the “business” of the church. To vote on the budget, to hear about the progress in the strategic plan together, to figure out who among us will lead us effectively today to share our good news, to release captives, to recover sight to the blind, to lift up the oppressed, to help bring about the kingdom of heaven here on this earth, with the help of God. We will decide just how much money it will cost to serve our people TODAY—to gather in the spirit of Jesus TODAY; to create heaven on earth TODAY; to expand our vision of the beloved community TODAY. And then we will put our money where our mouth is, because it matters NOW, and so we will raise our pledges. TODAY. Not because of our nostalgia for what once was, and not even for some vision of the distant future, but because it matters TODAY. Because the people we serve TODAY need us now more than ever.
And perhaps the business of the church may sound boring to you and old fashioned or unfashionable, or expensive, or like none of it really matters that much anyway. But the governance of our church is freedom, is grace, is salvation, healing, life-saving to many--a church where all have worth and dignity; where all have a voice; a church that reaches out into our community with its hands and with its funds, and to communities all over the world. Our church that provides a spiritual home for children, youth and adults that is safe for their precious and fragile souls. Our church that stands by us in the toughest and most tender moments in our lives. Our church that holds the hands of people who are dying. Our church that seeks to build a world worthy of our children’s promise. Our church that challenges us to be better people; our church that commands of us; that claims us; that shakes us; that challenges us to put our money toward our deepest held values. Our church that gathers in the spirit of Jesus, and commits to creating heaven on earth.
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon us
because he has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
Annie Dillard wrote that “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We’re about to have a conversation about race and racism on Wednesday evening here in our parish hall, and I’m embarrassed to confess that there’s been some anxiety about it on my part. (Yeah, I know, I used to be more brazen. I guess I’m getting old.) Will people come? Which people will come? Will it be hard? Will people say the wrong thing? Will I be disappointed, or angry? Will I lose my job? I am up nights worrying about conflict and divisiveness, about being run out of town. The town library wasn’t sure whether to help us sponsor it, and the town administrator isn’t sure they want to put it on the flashy sign. Oh great, I think. The last thing I need is to be seen as the radical new pastor who is pushing divisiveness in a pleasant and conflict-free town.
Meanwhile our God draws us into the work of repair of the world, not pleasantry. Meanwhile, my call from God is to prophecy, not politeness. The least I could do is try to host a deeper conversation about racism without freaking out.
“Figure it out, Bartlett. Your job is not to keep your job, it’s to serve a God of justice who radically unites the whole human race. It’s time to starting talking about what that looks like.”
Perhaps like Annie Dillard says, I need a crash helmet and a life preserver for vestments instead of this pretty rainbow stole. For the God we serve is showing us how to create heaven here on earth, but if we want to get there, it is going to be a bumpy ride. The waking God may draw us out to where we can never return, and that’s the whole point.
I think you know the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. The Israelites follow Moses out of slavery in Egypt, and into a long period of walking through the desert toward a promised land they have not seen, and they have no proof that they’ll ever get there—only a promise. They know that it’s gotta be better than where they came from, though the devil you know is sometimes better than the devil you don’t. They begin to lose faith. They wonder if they should turn around. They are impatient. Moses probably is, too. And so Moses takes this time to climb a mountain to get some perspective. Deuteronomy 34, verses 1-4 says: "Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo ... There the Lord showed him the whole land ... Then the Lord said to him, "This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... I will let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it."
Whoa. Wait a minute.
So before they reach the Promise Land of milk and honey--after a long journey of first hope and then frustration, and Moses getting kinda dumped on as a leader by a group of malcontents, Moses is then informed by God that God will not allow him to enter into the land he’s been leading them to. That he will only see it with his eyes. So Moses glimpses it, and sees the promise, and is told by God that he won’t get to go there. God also made it pretty clear that neither was he free to abandon the Israelites and leave them to their own devices to get there on their own.
Shortly thereafter, Moses dies and is buried by God, and his successor, Joshua, finally leads the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Moses never gets there.
This frustrating and real truth is the same for us. Our God has shown us what the kingdom of God—heaven on earth—looks like thousands of times, but we will likely not cross into it in this lifetime. However, neither are we free to abandon the work or the people we serve who are trying so hard to get there. We owe it to our children and their children to get as close as we can.
So no wonder we’d rather just quietly come to church in our straw and velvet hats with our polite manners and our staid hymns. We don’t want the sleeping God to waken and notice that we aren’t out in the streets right now marching. We don’t want the waking God to lead us where we don’t want to go, like into an uncomfortable conversation about race, or a local mosque to support our Muslim neighbors, or on the streets, encountering homelessness, or into the prisons, visiting the incarcerated, or standing with our transgendered siblings at a Pride rally. Maybe we’ll just try and be as small and quiet as possible here in Sterling and God won’t notice us. (Hopefully God doesn’t read USA Today.)
But God has shown us the promised land. And it sounds like freedom and it looks like justice, and we aren’t free to abandon the work that it takes to get there.
That’s the same lesson Jesus taught us when he died on the cross and left us to our own devices. In fact, he had to climb back out of the tomb, visit us himself, and shake us up a little and tell us that we still have work to do. “Hey! Buck up! Just in case you weren’t listening the first time, my work is still yours’ to do! I know you’re sad, but you’re not defeated yet. It’s not over. I’m sending you out.”
Jesus showed us what the kingdom of God—heaven on earth, the promised land—looks like, and told us we may not get there in our lifetimes, but neither are we free to abandon the journey.
We are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, Genesis reminds us, and our brother’s blood is crying up from the ground. And today, on this Martin Luther King Day weekend, Dr. King’s blood is crying up from the ground, echoing the words of Saint Paul in Galatians: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
All of you are one.
And so the very least thing we can do is to have a conversation about barriers to our unity on a Wednesday night over Linda Davis’ delicious soup.
Because, beloved, we have seen the promised land. We may not get there in our lifetime, but neither are we free to abandon the work. Bring your crash helmets, your life preservers, and your signal flares.
There are some people I would like to invite to this event that won’t be there in body, only in spirit. One of them is The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrate this weekend. I wrote him a letter to invite him.
Dear Dr. King:
I believed in you before I believed in God. My parents taught me to put my trust in good people. And at 9 years old, you were my first hero since you were the best person I could think of. We thought about you a lot in New Hampshire, because we were always fighting to get our state government to recognize your birthday. We were the last in the nation to do so because, many in our legislature argued, New Hampshire has very few black residents. But I knew you were an American hero for all people, not just black people, and finally sixteen years ago, after I had already graduated from high school and college, New Hampshire decided to recognize you with a holiday. That came with a fight, because most things do. People in New Hampshire remember what they were wearing that day we won.
And I’m quite sure the whole world remembered what they were wearing that day on April 4, 1968, when you died.
I wish you were still here. You would be 87.
You were one of many “gateways to God” for my childhood self, Dr. King. You were the first to teach me what God’s love was like in a way that made sense to me. I was a young child watching films of your riveting, black and white I Have a Dream Speech on TV, thinking that these telecasts were the “olden days”, when they were really just two short decades prior. I was in awe of your courage, your soaring rhetoric, your insistence on peacefully showing up where you weren’t wanted. I couldn’t imagine doing that as a sensitive and rule-following kid. I still hate the idea of it. But you were spurred on by a principle much larger than your comfort, much larger than following the rules. And I have the luxury of choosing comfort over working for justice because of the color of my skin that you just didn’t have because of the color of yours’. The truth is, I usually choose comfort, even though my God calls me to choose justice. And I humbly repent.
You taught me, Dr. King, before anyone else did, what God’s love looks like, feels like, sounds like. Cornel West said “never forget that justice is what Love looks like in public.” You lived that for us. And God’s Love, you taught me, doesn’t look like hearts and butterflies and Valentine’s day candy. You taught me that God’s Love looks like marching and civil disobedience, and going to jail and singing in the streets; interrupting evening commutes, walking toward danger with bravery, facing down fire hoses and billy clubs and even bullets with nothing but the shirt on your back. You taught me that God’s Love looks like integrity and “no justice no peace” and you taught me that God’s Love looks like standing up for the oppressed people on the margins even if it is unpopular, even if it causes public scorn, even if it means dying. You taught me that God’s Love meant praying for your enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiving them, refusing to give up. You taught me that no one is free until all are free. You taught me that God’s love is like being caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny—that I belong to a web of humanity I could no more extricate myself from by creating false boundaries any more than I could fly to the moon on my own power.
Of course, I now know that you learned all that from Jesus. I now know that you learned that from Moses, and Saint Paul and the prophets. And so I thank you for leading me up this mountain for a glimpse of God’s promise land.
There have been so many times when I wished you were here, Dr. King, so you can see how things have changed. I remember I wept for you, like a baby, on that day in 2008—the day that the first black president was elected to office in the United States of America. That wouldn’t have happened without you, Dr. King, and I wept because I wished you could see it. I think often of how much you have missed, but mostly I think about how much your voice is still needed.
Dr. King: I was listening to your mountaintop speech, the last speech you gave before you died.
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” you said. You had a glimpse of the promised land, and I think you knew like Moses, that you wouldn’t get there. It was enough just to glimpse it. You knew that you were also not free to abandon the work. And like Moses, you died soon after. We will continue on for you, Dr. King. I will.
So when I wake up on Wednesday morning fearful of a 90 minute conversation on race in my sweet little small town in Massachusetts in 2016, may God kick me in the pants. May I remember your courage, and may I refuse to pull the covers over my head just because I can. God help me remember my job, which is the same job that we all have—marching to the promised land one blessed step at a time. God help me to find my crash helmet.
I hope you’ll be there with us on Wednesday night at 6 pm, Dr. King, at the very least to remind us why this conversation still matters; why nothing matters more.
Preached at First Church in Sterling
January 10, 2016
READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Isaiah 43: 1-7)
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
SERMON “Called by Name”
First Church in Sterling! You are Church famous! For those of you who don’t know, since last we met, our awesome church was featured online by tens of thousands of people: on nationally syndicated Religion News Service, Sojourners Magazine, After.church online news, Huffington Post Religion page, and USA Today. The article about us was shared by countless churches, my colleagues from all over the country, and many denominations’ Facebook pages, including the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association. It was even in the print newspaper in Baton Rouge, LA yesterday. Our website traffic doubled and tripled in the past three days. Our Facebook “likes” are nearing 800. Next stop, Oprah, right? I wish all 800 of our Facebook “friends” would come to church!
The original article is here: http://www.religionnews.com/2016/01/04/tiny-churches-big-hopes-thrive-despite-odds/
I bet you are wondering why that happened.
Well, one of our denominations asked me to fill out a survey, as they often do, for a research project by a national organization called Faith Communities Today by researcher David Roozen. For a change, the researcher was interested in church health and vitality rather than just reporting on more doomsday gloom and doom about the end of church in America. He was interested, in a climate of declining church attendance, in searching for hope, for spiritual depth, and for health in our nation’s churches. The report he wrote is optimistically titled: “American Congregations 2015: Surviving and Thriving.”
What a concept.
Anyway, of the 4,436 congregations who filled out the survey, our church jumped out at Roozen, and at Cathy Lynn Grossman, a nationally syndicated religion reporter, as an example of hope and vitality in our nation’s churches. So I was interviewed, along with Doug Davis, and one of our fabulous new young adult members, Ann Taft, for an article that was shared literally around the world this week. Why were we chosen out of 4,436 other congregations to bring hope to American religion? Well, the crux of the article, and Roozen’s report can be summed up in this sentence:
“Hope thrives where change is welcome.”
He says, “Thriving congregations are nearly 10 times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.”
The report discovered the single most important ingredient to church health, growth, and vitality is everyone’s favorite thing. Change.
The. Willingness. To. Change.
The message church researchers are consistently giving is this: change or die.
So you’re still wondering why we stuck out in that report, aren’t you? You may not have noticed, but we are doing the work of transformation and innovation together every day. We were picked because we take risks in order to grow in depth and in numbers; because we are willing to transform ourselves and reshape what we are doing in order to meet the needs of the culture around us. Can you believe that? That we are a bunch of risk-taking change-agents out here in staid puritan New England sitting here in our uncomfortable pews, complaining that we don’t like the new logo on the front of the bulletin?!
Just kidding. Change is hard, even for change agents.
But I want to say our magic lies in more than taking risks, and trying things like Pub Theology and Eat, Pray, Learn. That’s what the article didn’t report.
One of our newest members, Julia Klebanov, says it best. She wrote this when she shared the article on Facebook:
This (church) is my little slice of heaven featured! What the article doesn't say, is how truly amazing this community is. Just one year ago, (my husband) Toly and I were militantly against organized religion. All we could see of it was the divisions that it created; “how can you find God in division and hatred?” we wondered. It was only by what Toly has begun to term 'godincidice' that we wandered through these doors. What we found surprised us: a community of people united by differing belief systems. This church is attended by Baptists, Catholics, Unitarians, Atheists, and UCC members, among others. How is that possible? Love………..We felt welcome and comfortable from our first step into the building. The openness of those involved, and the love and support we have felt from the members, continues to stun us. Knowing these people makes me a better person, and makes me continue to strive to improve. I don't usually get religious on Facebook, but I wanted to say this. God is love, people, and the First Church of Sterling has it in abundance!
Julia’s right. What the article doesn’t say is that it isn’t just our innovative new programming that makes us vital and hopeful…it’s our audacious claim that God is love, and more importantly, that God loves everyone. That God’s Love transcends all of our differences, even the differences among us here in this room—atheists, theists, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Idon’tknowwhat-ists. What makes us vital and hopeful is this church’s likely naïve and definitely stubborn insistence that we act on that Love all the time and everywhere.
A friend and colleague calls this phenomenon “willful hope.” And we are a community of “willful hope” because we ground ourselves in the Good News of the Gospel, which is that we don’t have to do a single thing to earn God’s love. It’s just there for everyone.
We spread this Good News not to create more Christians, but to create a better, more peaceful, more just, more kind, more loving world. We live this good news so that we might love the world the way God loves us.
Enter our scripture from today. Our passage from Isaiah, one of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible, is important to understand in context. Margaret Whyte says: “This passage forms the concluding part of a longer poem. The unknown prophet of Israel's Babylonian exile, called Deutero or Second Isaiah, writes this poetic promise of the return of the exiles to their homeland in Judea. Like all prophets, he spoke for God, giving their scattered people the great hope that despite there being seemingly insurmountable obstacles, God would bring them back. Isaiah reiterates the concrete faith based on their experience of God's ancient covenant with Israel as God's chosen people. It is a dominant theme throughout their history of oppression and suffering, that God would intervene and redeem them.”
We read this text from Isaiah along with the account of Jesus’ Baptism from Luke during this season of Epiphany, which is the festival that celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. That is a fancy way of saying that the coming of Jesus to earth was God’s way of showing us that God’s Love was not just for one group of people with the “right” ancestry, but for everyone.
Epiphany is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a sort of “festivus for the rest of us.”
The reading from our Hebrew Bible text today is a love letter from God to the Israelites--to give them hope in the midst of impossible obstacle. I want you to hear it as a love letter to you—because maybe YOU need a little hope right now. Maybe you feel scattered, and like you need to be led back home. Maybe you have forgotten God’s promises to you.
And so I took the liberty of re-interpreting our poem from Isaiah as a letter from God to us. It’s in the New Robin Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that this letter is sent to you from God.
I have called you all by name. I know that you usually call yourself your given name like Jon, and Judy, and Phil and Janet, and Ann, and Molly, and Marge and Bob, but I am God, and I do what I want. And I call you my pet name for you, which is Beloved. I know some of you squirmed away as children when your parents caught you up in an oppressive embrace and called you nicknames like honey and sweetie and pumpkin and love-muffin, but it was nevertheless a reminder that you are their child, and that you are known by these names because you are loved.
And I call you “Beloved” because you are my child; I created you; you are mine, and you are deeply and wholly loved, no matter how many times you try to squirm away from my embrace.
In fact, Beloved, you are precious in my sight. When I look at you, I see you. I honor you, and I love you. You are my son, you are my daughter, and in you I am well-pleased. I know that this is the hardest thing for you to believe sometimes, that I am well-pleased with you. You spend a lot of time trying to be good, and trying to fit into a box that you call “holy” or “right.” Maybe religions based on me tried to teach you that you had to earn my love that way. Wrong. You don’t need to do a thing to deserve my love. Not one single thing.
I formed you to be glorious, and I have made you whole. I will not leave you. When you are in trouble, I will be there. When you are scared, I will be there. Over the water, through the fire, up to the mountain, I will be there. When you are alone, I will be there. When it is dark, I will be there, with a path and a little light to see by, calling your name. I will defend you for your life has worth.
Do not fear, for I am with you. I will gather you up in me. I will call you all by name, because you are all mine—my sons from far away—my daughters from the ends of the earth, created for glory.
Imagine if we all behaved as if we believed that letter was true. Imagine if we loved ourselves, our neighbor, our God like that.
Maybe then the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: giving people great hope despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles like oppression and greed, religious persecution and hate, racism and gun violence, suffering and death, soccer practice on Sundays, vast theological differences, and the decline of church in America. Maybe the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: willing to take risks in service to Love, even if it could mean upsetting the apple cart; even if it’s expensive, or inefficient, or even mildly dangerous. Maybe the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: willing to transform itself in service to what humankind looks like right now, in this place and in this time, even though it might mean not doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”
Just imagine if the world looked at every person as if they contained the light of God, the manifestation of Christ on earth—the way First Church in Sterling attempts to.
So, as you know, Jed and I took the Confirmation class to Reach Out Worcester, for the chance to do some mission work serving people without homes there in our neighbor city.
We thought we’d be coming out and serving them. But instead, the experience was a service to us. They hosted us in their home, they fed us, they showed us around, they told us their stories, so that we could encounter and be blessed by the piece of God that resides in each of them.
One of our homeless guides was named Corey, and he was born and raised homeless from age 6 on. His parents were both drug addicts, and they lived on the street, or in a car. He fell into drugs at an early age, which he experienced as a lifeline: an attempt to momentarily escape and numb himself against the reality of living under bridges, and on the steps of churches, waking up every couple of hours by police asking him to move to a new spot, frost bite threatening his extremities. He found Worcester Fellowship, which repeats this mission over and over again to its outdoor congregation:
We are here to listen. We do not evaluate anyone's theology, but work to communicate that God Loves You. Now. The way you are. Before you get clean, or find sobriety, or commit to non-violence, or accept treatment for mental health, or pull your prayer life together, or give away all you have for the poor; before you do anything to make yourself better, God loves you.
Corey, after participating in Worcester Fellowship for a couple of years has gotten clean, has secured housing, and works on behalf of the homeless in Worcester Fellowship’s ministry. Look what a love like that does for people. It changes everything.
And isn’t this the outrageous gospel First Church propagates, too?
May we continue to tell people, and more importantly, may we continue to show people that God loves us the way we are, right now, before we do anything to make ourselves better.
Because that crazy, outlandish Truth is the sum of the gospel. Love God, Love neighbor, Love the hell out of this world.
So congratulations, beloved church, on becoming church famous. You deserve the recognition. And make no mistake about it: our success doesn’t rest on Pub Theology or the amount of young adults we attract, or our new branding or new website, or our Facebook likes. It rests in our insistence on propagating the Gospel of Love.
God is Love, people, and First Church has it in abundance.
I am proud to be your minister today and every day. I love you. God Loves you. Now. God loves everyone else, too.
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.