Preached on 1/21/2018, Annual Meeting Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Last week our psalmist praised God for “hemming him in”, for intricately weaving him in the depths of the earth, for being knitted into his mother’s womb. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses similar textile metaphors saying that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied into a single garment of destiny.”
I love that imagery of being hemmed in, sewn in the earth, knitted together, tied together.
I suppose being hemmed in could sound suffocating, but instead it gives me the sense that I cannot escape Love’s grasp.
And it reminds me of this truth: we belong to each other.
Every single other.
St. Paul reminds us that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”
God wants us to behave like this is true, which is where things usually break down.
The fishermen in our story from the gospel today are mending fishing nets when Jesus happens upon them. I don’t know much about the ancient fishing industry, but I imagine they are mending the nets to ensure that every fish makes it out of the water and into their awaiting buckets. I imagine the goal is that all the fish stay firmly held inside the net together; that no fish fall through the cracks.
When Jesus encounters them, he tells the fisherman to leave their work and follow him; to fish for people instead.
Jesus is asking the disciples to follow him into relationship, with other people and with God. He invites them to collect people, making sure no one is left behind.
Our life’s work is to act as though we belong to each other in this way. Our work is to mend the nets so that no one falls through the cracks, and then get to work fishing for people.
This is the one-year anniversary of annual meeting 2017 when we became an open and affirming congregation—a unanimous vote to become an official place of welcome, safety, sanctuary and affirmation for the LGBTQ community. Our historic vote was even listed in the Landmark newspaper as Sterling’s biggest news story of last year.
Those of us who attended the very powerful Eat, Pray, Learn with the LGBTQ asylum seekers on Wednesday night know in our bones that mending the nets and fishing for people saves actual lives.
We cannot do this powerful work of welcome without every single one of us on board. We cannot do this life saving work of welcome without casting our nets together into the turbulent and raging seas we currently find ourselves tossed around by.
Today is annual meeting 2018. In this increasingly digital, virtual age, this way of doing the business of the church is a strange and counter-cultural practice to many. It requires investment in this flesh and blood community. It requires a belief in democracy’s power. It requires that we buy in, tie ourselves together, care. It requires that we dust off our rusty understanding of Roberts Rules of order and try to get through the church business fast so that we can eat lunch.
Annual meeting requires membership in this church to participate and vote. It requires the conscious choice to be knitted intricately into a single garment of destiny with these particular people, in this particular time and place.
And that’s kind of a scary idea to many in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2018. Church membership is, in fact, a dying concept.
My clergy colleagues are always speaking with some frustration about the commitment-phobia people have these days with regard to church community. The trends show that people who come to church are not readily joining. They continually date the church (or multiple churches) without settling down and getting married.
And our members are showing up less often, too. What constitutes as “regular” church attendance has shifted from every week, to twice a month, to once a month. My clergy friends lament that this lack of commitment is the byproduct of treating church like a consumer product rather than accepting the invitation to relationship Jesus offers us.
But you and I know that this is only part of the story. We are busier than ever. We are over-scheduled. We are caring for sick children and aging parents. We are working on Sundays. We are tired and need rest. Often, Sunday is our only family day. Sometimes, we disappear because we are hurt by someone’s actions, or a decision of the church.
Whatever the reason for slipping attendance and investment in the Church, my clergy friends lament that lay folks now expect ministers to do the work of relationship-building alone. It is the minister’s job to grow the church, to maintain the church, to care for the people who are there, and to go after people who’ve left.
We know this has consequences for real relationships with the body of Christ. If we leave relationship building to someone else, we don’t benefit from the hard work of community. If we don’t show up, we miss out. We cannot hold the hand of a beloved friend when they cry, or pray aloud for the recent widower, or be challenged to change, or welcome the newcomers who were brave enough to walk in the doors for the first time, trusting this group of strangers with their vulnerable hearts.
And let’s be honest, we are skittish about commitment to a group of people for good reason. It’s vulnerable to be known. It involves arriving with our real families, without the safety of the filtered images of the beautiful-looking life we carefully cultivate on Facebook and Instagram.
Human community is incredibly disappointing and just plain hard work. Rachel Held Evans’ friend says that joining a church is just picking which hot mess is your favorite.
I read a beautiful essay by Amy Frykholm from the Christian Century this week. She talks about her own ambivalence about joining a church.
After visiting about eleventy billion churches and not committing to any, she talks about the day she finally makes the choice to go through a church’s confirmation class, and take the membership plunge. The people in the room are asked to pick a Bible passage that speaks to their spiritual journey. On the surface, they have nothing at all in common with her. She is the only liberal in the group, and the only one with a PhD. There is a Vietnam Vet, Fox news- enthusiast named Floyd who describes his faith journey using the first chapter of Genesis. He says he was a formless void until the church comes into his life, adding light into his darkness. There is a tightly wound, thin lipped woman named Linda known for her angry outbursts at church meetings who talks about a passage on peace. She describes being surprised that an ancient text can speak so clearly to what she needs in her life. Amy feels instant kinship with this group, knowing their stories. She decides to call them family despite her fear of commitment. On the day of the confirmation, Then I said, “Everything you all have said is so beautiful. That’s what I mean. I am grateful to have found you. Grateful to be a part of you. That’s all.”
The ceremony of confirmation was simple. “There is one Body and one Spirit,” we recited. “There is one hope in God’s call to us.” She says…….”I knelt before the bishop in his silly pointed hat, and he placed his hands on my head. He prayed for my sustenance. And for Floyd’s and for Linda’s.”
“Since then, Linda has moved away. Floyd committed suicide, a consequence of unrelenting PTSD. Perhaps those facts illustrate one of my greatest difficulties with belonging, one of its terrible risks: the thing to which you claim to belong changes minute by minute. “Community,” Martin Buber said, “is the moment’s answer to the moment’s question.” Belonging is not a possession; even as it is claimed or imagined, it changes.
…No wonder people drive by churches and don’t go in: the risks are great, the rewards intangible. The forming of a community is fragile and takes a lifetime. It can disappear in a breath. And yet I think of Robert Hass’s poem “Spring Rain”: “The blessedness of gathering and the / blessing of dispersal— / it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense, / lasting as long as the poppies last.”
We come to church because we are glad for beauty like this, casual and intense. We come to church because a life of faith requires other people. It requires gathering even in the midst of the flu season. It requires humility. It requires forgiveness.
We come to church because it literally saves lives.
So on this annual meeting Sunday at the start of a new “church year,” I am going to challenge us all to do five new things in 2018 that will deepen our relationship to this place.
Remember, these five commitments are only a challenge if they are hard for you to do. We can do hard things!
Maybe your biggest challenge is showing up. If this is your first time here, come back. If you only attend this church once a month, make the commitment to attend twice or three times a month this year.
Maybe your challenge is generosity. If you know you could pledge more than you do, commit to increase your pledge.
Maybe your challenge is saying “no.” Commit to turning down a church commitment in favor of giving yourself rest and restoration. Say yes instead to what feeds you and gives you life. I’m serious.
Maybe your challenge is fear of changing your mind. If you have been nervous about having difficult conversations across difference, attend an Eat, Pray, Learn or a Pub Theology on the subject that makes you feel uncomfortable. Join Aging Gracefully or the book group on Sundays. Attend the retreat.
Maybe your challenge is forgiveness. Commit to forgiving someone, especially someone in this community that you are holding a grudge against. Commit to forgiving yourself for the ways you have fallen short.
Maybe your challenge is the fear of being known. If you have been nervous about making new friends, commit to come to coffee hour every time you’re here, and talk to one person you’ve never talked to.
Maybe your challenge is deeper commitment. If you have been on the fence about joining the church, attend a Path to Membership class. If you have been worried about committing more of your time and energy, try a short term volunteer project and see if it drains you or re-energizes you.
Maybe your challenge is deepening your faith. If you think that the Bible is old and irrelevant and doesn’t have much to teach you, come to the Lenten Bible study we’re leading. Commit to a regular spiritual practice like praying or meditating for five minutes every morning before you start your day.
Maybe your challenge is getting to know people who you think do not share your values or background. Invite folks of different ages and stages to share your pew. Go to the Worcester Islamic Center to volunteer to help refugees. Hang out with our teenagers. Get to know an elder.
Maybe your challenge is loving people at their most unlovable. Show compassion for someone who doesn’t deserve your compassion. Invite someone out to lunch who doesn’t share your political or theological ideologies. Listen for understanding.
Beloved, this is your church, and you belong here. Commit to mending the nets with us, so that no one falls through the cracks. Show up. Challenge yourself to deeper relationship with each other, and with the living God. We are stronger together. We are all connected. We are love’s hands in the world.
And together, we rise.
INTRODUCTION to our guests from the LGBTQ Asylum Task Force from the Hadwen Park UCC church in Worcester, MA.
Dear asylum seekers who we are so lucky to have as guests today,
In this church, we worship a God whose other name is Love. I can proudly say that since a year ago at exactly this time in 2017, this congregation unanimously affirms what we know to be true about God:
You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God loves every part of who you are, no matter who you love. God knit you intricately in the depths of your mothers’ wombs, lovingly created you exactly who you are now, and called you “good.” Then God named you "Beloved." We affirm in this congregation unanimously the belief that God does not make mistakes.
We also believe that your stories are part of the story of God, and so we are honored to hear them today. We will listen for the voice of God resounding within them.
...Testimonies from our guests...
Bode and Calvin, I am so glad you came to our church to be baptized today. We don’t know the two of you very well yet, but we do know your Mamoo, Sue, and we knew your Great Grandma (did you call her GGma?) before she went home to live with God. They are special people who make our church and our world a better place, so we know that you are lucky. We also know this about you:
You were fearfully and wonderfully made.
That’s a fancy way of saying you are awesome, and your bodies and your souls are perfect and whole and right and good because you were created by God to be exactly who you are. Today we affirmed the fact that you were already blessed by God, just by being born into this world.
You were formed by a God who loves every part of you. God has searched and known you; even your inward parts. Especially your heart. God already knows who you were born to be. God created you and called you “good.” And then God named you beloved.
You were born to love—you were born to be a blessing. You were born to love many people: your family, yes. But also your neighbors, your community, and all of the people of this beautiful and brutal world we live in. You will do this imperfectly, but it will be your life’s project.
Today is Martin Luther King Sunday, the day that we celebrate a man who died long before you were born, Bode and Calvin, but who lives on in our hearts and minds and imaginations. He was a minister who preached the Truth: that all people were created by God and called Beloved. He said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Like Jesus, he taught us that all children, just like you, are fearfully and wonderfully made. Every child who is born to every parent, in every country, all over the world. You might hear from our leaders or your friends at school sometimes that our country or "our" people are somehow better than other countries or people. Those are human voices resounding like a noisy gong. That is not God’s voice. Listen for God instead. God’s voice echoes throughout the heavens saying this: “I created this whole world and called it Good—the heavens and the earth. The night and the day. The grass and the trees. The animals and the people. You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased.
Likewise, the children of Haiti and Africa and Mexico and in every part of my world are my beloved creations. Intricately made in the depths of the earth. Loved and whole.”
Each of you were fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the depths of the earth, searched and known and named Beloved. God does not make mistakes. You are exactly who you are supposed to be.
But there’s more. You were knit into the tapestry of this particular place and these particular people to be a blessing; a healing on this earth.
The song that the choir is going to sing a little later was commissioned for Doctor King’s funeral…his favorite hymn, Precious Lord. And the lyrics were written just for his return home to God. I want you to hear them as a prayer:
Precious Lord, take my hand, bring Thy child home at last, where the strife and the pain are all past; I have dreamed a great dream that thy love shall rule our land. Precious Lord, precious Lord, take my hand.
Precious Lord, take my hand, take Thy child unto Thee, with my dream of a world that is free for that day when all flesh joins the glory thou has planned, precious Lord, precious Lord, take my hand.
Preached on January 7, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
Glennon Doyle says this in her Ted X talk called “Everything I know I learned in a mental hospital.”
A former addict and bulimic, she describes college as a haze of binging and purging in the morning, and booze and drugs and boys in the evening. She says:
“….I hated the sunrise.
I closed the blinds, and I put the pillow over my head when my spinning brain would torture me about the people who were going out into their day into the light to make relationships and pursue their dreams and have a day – and I had no day; I only had night.
And these days, I like to think of hope as that sunrise. It comes out every single day to shine on everybody equally. It comes out to shine on the sinners and the saints and druggies and the cheerleaders. It never withholds; it doesn’t judge. And if you spend your entire life in the dark and then one day just decide to come out, it’ll be there waiting for you — just waiting to warm you.
All those years I thought of that sunrise as searching and accusatory and judgmental. But it wasn’t – it was just hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. And I think if you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited.”
It’s a new day; a new sunrise; and we’re still alive. Let us accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life, and let us hold out that invitation out to others.
Because it’s very dark.
This country is fearful and anxious and often ugly in its rhetoric and division. There is saber rattling daily about nuclear war; hatred and killings seem to feed our daily diet of what the world we inhabit is really like. No matter what political party we associate with, we know that we have a contempt problem fueled by separation and alienation.
It’s very dark.
Here in our congregation, so many of our beloveds have been recently diagnosed with cancer, have terminal illness, are struggling in crumbling marriages, are mired in substance abuse, are unemployed or under-employed, are scared of what the future holds. We are all mourning deep loss. Many of us have lost hope.
This time of darkness is the best time to celebrate the festival of Epiphany. Because Jesus was born to be the light of the world in a time of terrible darkness.
The story of Epiphany goes like this:
King Herod heard tell of a baby born in Bethlehem who was to be king of the Jews. Herod erupted into a raging, vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! So he called on his constituents--three Wise Men--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these guys to reveal this powerful baby’s location, so that Herod could destroy him.
The wise men set out to follow the brightest star they had ever seen out of the darkness, journeying for days with no map or direction, not stopping to rest, not knowing the final destination. They simply relied on the wisdom to know the journey would lead them to a new understanding; new knowledge; new hope. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There’s a joke that goes, if the wise men were wise women, they would have brought practical gifts like diapers, wipes and maybe one of those vibrating bassinets that plays lullabies. (They would have also brought a casserole, lanisoh cream, and cleaned up the stable.) But the wise men brought impractical presents because they were gifts fit for a king; fit for God.
The wise men have a dream that night that spooks them enough that they don’t go back to Herod to tell him where the child is. And Joseph has a dream telling him it’s a good idea to move his little family to Egypt to protect them, so he does.
When Herod finds out that he had been tricked by the wise men, he goes into a rage. Like the jealous, thin-skinned, easily threatened, narcissistic, impulsive leader that he is, he retaliates by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. That’s right. Herod is so spiteful, thin-skinned and easily provoked that he kills all of the young children in Bethlehem, all in response to his fear of a little baby who challenges his leadership.
The parents of Bethlehem are inconsolable, of course. The weeping is deafening: wailing and loud lamentation.
The Epiphany story is the story of a tiny baby boy shining God’s light of Truth into the darkness of empire, great sorrow, and terror. It is the story of a journey to follow that light not knowing the destination. It is a story of becoming wise; an invitation to hope’s promise.
My favorite stories are epiphany stories. My favorite stories include heroes like you and me who decide to accept the invitation to hope the sunrise offers. My favorite protagonists take a journey out of the safety of darkness, not knowing where they will end up.
And so my new personal hero is Christian Picciolini, and I want you to know his epiphany story. I was introduced to him last week on Sarah Silverman’s show “I Love You, America.” He recently wrote a book called “White American Youth: My Descent into America’s most Violent Hate Group, and How I Got Out.” After I saw his beautiful interview with Silverman, I watched his Ted talk, and then a 60 Minutes show dedicated to him and the black man who forgave him. I wept openly watching all three, something I rarely do.
Christian Piccolini’s story begins as a young child growing up in Chicago with Italian immigrants for parents. He came from a good family, but as recent immigrants to America, his parents had to work all the time. They had two jobs each just to make ends meet and Christian was alone a lot, and feeling emotionally neglected. As a young middle schooler, he was small and bullied often. He didn’t fit in at school, and generally didn’t have a place to belong. He was angry.
One day, at age 14, he was smoking a joint in an alley, and a man twice his age came up to him, took the joint out of his mouth and told him, “you know, the Jews and communists want you to smoke this to make you docile.”
Christian admits now that he didn’t know any Jewish people at the time, and that the only communist he had heard of was the antagonist in his favorite Rocky movie. He also admits now that he had no idea what the word “docile” even meant.
Nevertheless, that man gave him an identity, a purpose, a place to channel his rage, and a place to belong that day. Within a week, Christian had joined the most notorious and deadly white supremacist group in the nation. He rose up as one of the biggest leaders in the movement quickly, starting a white power punk rock band and touring the world, and recruiting young, vulnerable white boys into the community.
As a teenager, Christian was expelled from his high school six times, three of those for beating up the same black classmate. He was finally kicked out of his high school for good after calling the African American principal horrific racial slurs, threatening the lynching of all of the black people in Chicago, and trying to start a fight with the African American head of security at the school. He was restrained by that same man, and later arrested.
A high school drop out and skinhead, Christian got married young at 19, and soon after had two young boys. So at 21, his hard shell was cracked open a little bit, and a tiny ray of light shone in his darkness. (Little babies have the power to topple hate and empire, after all. They have the power to save the world.)
Christian started to ask himself who he really was: a white supremacist, or a husband and father. He started to have a new sense of allegiance, belonging and identity to the young family he had given life to. He left the streets in those years to protect his family, but he still didn’t leave the movement.
Instead, Christian opened a record store to sell his white power music; the only true “business” he knew. People would come from all over the country to buy it. He knew, though, that if he only sold white supremacist music, the community would see him as a threat and shut his business down, so he also sold some hip hop, punk rock, and other genres.
As a result of the diverse array of music his store sold, Christian began to meet and form relationships with people in the communities that he had long purported to hate.
One day a black man about his age came into his store, and he was noticeably shaken and tearful. Christian decided to ask him what was wrong and he found out that the man’s mother had breast cancer. Christian felt compassion and kinship for this man because Christian’s mother was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Another week, a gay couple came in, and Christian watched them tenderly care for their little boy. He had a sudden realization that this couple loved their little boy just as much as he loved his children, and he related to them instantly.
Another week, he met and talked with recent immigrants. Their story reminded him of his own parents’ immigration story, and how hard they had to work just to survive and take care of him. Suddenly, instead of hating immigrants for taking jobs, he remembered that he, too, was the son of hard working immigrants.
Christian slowly began to see more in common with the people he once hated than the hate group he was associated with.
He began to be embarrassed about the primary source of his income now that he had made these new connections. He closed the store, and as a result, lost everything he worked for. However, he didn’t denounce the white power movement entirely, so his family left him soon after.
He was depressed and lost. Eventually, a friend got him a new job installing computers. One day, Christian had to go to his old high school to install a computer. Terrified to confront his past, Christian saw the African American head of security that he fought with years before, who still worked there. Christian followed the man to the parking lot, and tapped him on the shoulder. The man stepped back in fear, recognizing him. Christian couldn’t think of what to say. Finally, he stammered, “I’m sorry.” And the man moved forward to embrace him.
“I forgive you,” the man said. “But I ask that you do one thing. Go out and tell your story to everyone who will listen.”
That day changed Christian’s life forever. He says: “I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.”
He has now counseled over 100 people out of the white supremacy movement through his organization “Life After Hate.” He speaks in prisons and in schools. He wrote a book about his journey, and teaches about the spread and psychology of hate groups. He shines light, every day, in the darkness of hate.
And he does it with love. When Christian meets with young white supremacists, he doesn’t try to convince them they are wrong or bad. He just listens with compassion. He listens for the potholes in their life, and fills them. He listens for alienation, and he finds them community. He listens for anger and loneliness, and he offers them hope and connection. He helps them get job skills, tattoo removal, counseling, and self-esteem building.
And he doesn’t stop there. He brings them to meet people that they purport to hate. He says that hate comes from fear of the unknown. It is almost impossible to hate people when you know their story.
In our scripture from Isaiah, the glory of God shines upon the nation’s darkness, and the nation reflects God’s light like a mirror. The light of God shines upon them, and they arise and become a light for others.
Christian Picciolini allowed light to pierce the darkness of his hate. He followed the light though it meant leaving the safety of his community and way of life. He just kept doing the next right thing until he made it to Bethlehem to kneel down before the Christ child. And then he offered his gifts fit for a human divine king. Christian, acting as a mirror to reflect the light, asks others to do the same. He challenges his audiences to find the people who least deserve our compassion, and give it to them. Impractical gifts that just may be fit for God.
Beloved Epiphany people: Christian’s task is our task. We must let the light of God pierce our deepest darkness. We must follow the light though we do not know the path, and have no map to follow. We must do the next right thing until we reach the Christ child. We must offer our impractical gifts fit for God. We must accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. If you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited. Invite others to come with you. Find someone who doesn’t deserve our compassion, and give it to them.
Arise, shine; for your light has come! Lift up your eyes and look around! The glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Happy New Year!
*Watch the TedX Talk that inspired this sermon by Christian Picciolini here.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org