A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on January 13, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Jesus' Baptism Sunday
I read a story in the Manchester Union Leader this week about a New Hampshire hiker named Pam Bales who followed a sneaker trail up Mount Washington in October to rescue a hiker in distress. In near blizzard conditions, she found a hypothermic man who had hiked up that morning before her, shivering in his shorts and t-shirt. She found him just sitting there in the snow above tree line. He was unresponsive to her questions, so she gave him a name (John). She gave him warm clothes and a hat and covered his body with hand warmers and foot warmers—everything she had in her pack. Despite his protests for her to leave him, and at great physical risk to herself, she put her micro-spikes on his sneakers and force marched him for 8 hours in freezing cold temperatures and deep snow all the way down the mountain and into his car. He mumbled a few words to her before he drove away and she never saw him again.
Pam Bales risked her life to save this man. She didn’t want to die herself, but she refused to give up on him. Though she could not fathom why he would put himself and other hikers at risk by not checking the weather and bringing the proper gear, she gave him a name. She gave his life particularity. She regarded him as worthy of saving.
Remember that Mr. Rogers song?
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
That’s how The Reverend Mr. Rogers spread the Gospel of Love on TV…with the power of the word “you.” He was a televangelist, but he didn’t suggest that if you believed the right things about Jesus you’d get a new car or house like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did. Mr. Rogers didn’t even mention Jesus or God at all. He simply sang that song to children every week. It’s you I like. Every part of you. And children loved him for it. He gave their lives particularity. He regarded them as worthy of saving.
Fred Rogers was criticized widely for this approach to child development. He still is. Everyone from parents to preachers to teachers to politicians fret that this theology has led to the downfall of society. It’s dangerous to tell kids they are loved the way they are. Our children think they are special snowflakes. This “everybody gets a trophy” nonsense is what’s wrong with kids today.
Many of my more Conservative colleagues worry that focusing on God’s extravagant love for us in absence of God’s wrath and judgment has led to a whole generation of unrepentant, self-obsessed sinners…the “me generation.” The “selfie generation.” Many of my liberal colleagues suggest that focusing solely on God’s grace makes people too comfortable with their own complacency with injustice in an unjust world.
Maybe they are all right. Who knows.
But if the goal of “me-culture” is supposed to be sky rocketing self-regard, it doesn’t seem to be working. The way I see it, we are more self-loathing than ever before. In an increasingly individualistic world where self-reliance, choice and freedom are the highest values, consumerism becomes the main mechanism for self-fulfillment.
We aren’t told we are loved enough, if you ask me.
Our value no longer comes from our status as Beloved children of God, but from our status as consumers in the marketplace. The result is that we feel as though we are never enough. The result is that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
The Gospel tells us a different story. Our scriptures say “You are precious and beloved in God’s sight. YOU. You, you and you. You are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.” No mistake or sin or injustice or face lift or range rover will change who you are to God.
“You” is a more powerful word than “me.” Like the word “me”, “you” is particular. It is specific. It is personal. But to hear the word “you” is to be regarded by another. You matter. The word “you” gives us particularity to someone else. It makes us worthy of saving.
Love makes you a you.
Human babies are the only offspring in the mammal species that need love to stay alive. In fact, we know from studies done in orphanages that if human babies—even if they are fed and dressed and bathed properly—if they are not held regularly they can experience both psychic and physical death. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
We are loved into existence. We need to be held in order to experience healthy psychological development. When we are born, we do not know that we are separate from our caregiver. Newborns believe their mothers are just an extension of themselves. This is why it is so critical that we respond to their every need in the first weeks and months.
It is only through the process of being held and regarded by another that we begin to know ourselves to be separate entities. Caregivers mirror back to us our smiles and sounds, and we realize we are a self. We become not just a ”me” but a “you.”
You are loved into your you-ness. Love is what makes you a you. Love is what makes you not just part of another person, but your own person.
Once you realize that you are a separate entity, the next stage of development is to realize that you are part of a larger “we.” That your circle of love extends beyond you and your mama and into your family and your community and the world.
Baptism is simply an outward sign of an inward grace—an affirmation that you are part of a larger “we.”
In our scripture from Luke, John admits that though he has the power to baptize with water, someone far more powerful is coming after him. He’s not even fit to untie the sandals of Jesus, John says. And yet, Jesus waits until all the people have been dunked into the River Jordan, and then presents himself to be baptized. I wonder what John was thinking in that moment. I wonder if he was shaking in his sandals. “Why would God himself want me to baptize him? I’m not even remotely worthy to do this, and here he is bringing up the rear.”
The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove in this moment, and the heavens open up. God’s voice booms down, “YOU are my son, the beloved. With YOU, I am well pleased.”
Baptism confirms Jesus’ status as beloved with the power of the word “you.” An outward sign that he, too, was part of the larger “we.” Karoline Lewis says that maybe “Jesus needed to hear “you” so as to recognize who he needed to see. It’s hard to pay attention to another when you have never had another pay attention to you.”
Imagine for a moment that we paid attention to other people the way we are paid attention to by God. Hear these words from Isaiah again:
Do not fear, for I have created you, I have formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When 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. 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. Do not fear, for I am with you.
Pam Bales treated John, the unprepared hiker, this way. “Do not fear, for I am with you,” she said. She called him by name. She gave him particularity. She told him he was worthy of saving.
She had no idea what happened to “John” after he left the parking lot at base trail. She had no idea why he was on that mountain without proper gear, or whether or not he got treatment for hypothermia and got home. She never so much as found out what his real name was.
Ty Gagne writes:
(Pam) Bales would not get an answer until a week later, when the president of her rescue group, Allan Clark, received a letter in the mail, and a donation tucked between the folds.
I hope this reaches the right group of rescuers. This is hard to do but must try, part of my therapy. I want to remain anonymous, but I was called John. On Sunday Oct. 17 I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, talking to me, giving me food, talking to me, making me warmer, and she just kept talking and calling me John and I let her. Finally learned her name was Pam.
Conditions were horrible and I said to leave me and get going, but she wouldn’t. Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to find me.
The entire time she treated me with care, compassion, authority, confidence and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way — chewed out yes — in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I somehow still mattered in life.
I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly. If she is an example of your organization/professionalism, you must be the best group around. Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety. NO did not seem in her mind.
I am getting help with my mental needs, they will also help me find a job and I have temporary housing. I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves. I got your name from her pack patch and bumper sticker.
My deepest thanks,
Bales was deeply moved by the man’s gesture and his reference to the fact that she made him feel that he mattered. She said, “Some people have asked me if I tried to find John. The thought of searching for him felt wrong. As I’ve reflected more on this story and its relation to the issue of mental health, my response to the question about finding John has evolved. I have in fact found John, and he is very close by me. John is my neighbor, he is my good friend, a close colleague, a family member. John could be me.”
Beloved, You matter to God. You matter to me. Every part of you. You, in the particular. You are worthy of saving. On this day when we remember our baptisms, let us remember to use the extravagant, wasteful Love we are given to show other people that they matter, too.
An Epiphany Sermon
preached on January 6, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Arise, shine, your light has come!
Yes, it is winter.
Yes, it is dark.
Yes, we suffer. Every day we are alive we must mourn all that we have lost: our innocence, our dignity; our loved one; the life we carefully chose for ourselves somehow turned asunder. It is always darkest before the dawn…
And your light has come.
Yes, there is hate.
Yes, there is debilitating illness and death and starving children.
Yes, there is rage and outrage.
Yes, there is division and dehumanization. Yes, there is war. And mass shootings. And climate change. And racism and ethnocentricism. And greed. And poverty.
And still out of this darkness, your light has come.
Look around this room! God’s light has come in the form of human flesh. Beautiful beloved human flesh of all shapes and all sizes, of all colors and ages and walks of life. God’s light is in YOU: in all races and classes and ethnicities and genders and sexualities and political and religious beliefs.
Arise and shine! Your light has come.
The light has come from those who feed hundreds of people at community lunches in the parish hall on Saturdays. The light has come from the hugs offered during the passing of the peace. The light has come from those quietly knitting prayer shawls for our folks who need to feel God’s arms wrapped around their shoulders. The light has come from the La Romana mission team planning once again to visit a remote village in the Dominican Republic to offer medical care and clean water to Haitian workers there. The light is baked into the cookies lovingly made each week for coffee hour. The light has come in the hands and feet and eyes and heart of the person in the pew next to you. The light has come in the heart of every stranger who is just a piece of us we do not yet know.
Our advent scriptures promised us that all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord TOGETHER. Look around! We can’t see God’s glory if we can’t see one another. This is our epiphany. Your light has come.
The story of Epiphany is a story about the light of Love emanating from human flesh in a time of impossible darkness:
King Herod—a puppet leader inserted by the Roman empire—heard about a baby born in Bethlehem who was to become king of the Jews. And he erupted into a vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! He raged and he sputtered. He ruminated and he intimidated. Too gutless and powerless to do anything on his own, Herod looked around for those loyal to him and fearful of his power to do his dirty work. He called on some gentile scientists--Wise Men and astrologers--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these men to reveal the powerful baby’s location, just 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 knowing the final destination. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they are filled with joy. They offer him gifts of gold fit for royalty, frankincense in honor of religious leadership and myrrh, foreshadowing his death on the cross and his resurrection. There’s a joke that goes if wise women were the ones going to visit Mary and the baby, they’d bring a casserole, diapers and a mess of chocolate, Lanisoh cream, and wine for Mary.
After visiting the baby Jesus and bowing down before him, the wise astrologers intuitively knew that the gifts he would give the world were far more precious than the gifts they had brought. The light of his truth invaded their consciousness so much that they dreamt about it.
And the next day, they chose another path home. Rather than give up the location of the baby to Herod as they were ordered to do, they went another way. They knew he was a dangerously narcissistic King Baby who feared being unseated by this lowly and humble baby King.
An epiphany is often described as a moment of great realization that causes you to change in some way. The magi became wise in this encounter with God’s light. They chose the path of Love over their orders to comply. They chose the path of Love over following a dangerously unfit ruler. They chose the path of Love over the Law of the land.
And so it is with you and I. We can notice the light encased in human flesh all around us. We can choose to be dazzled by it. The light, if we let it, can permeate our consciousness and change who we are. And we, too, can choose a different path. We too, can choose Love over power. Love over division and cruelty. We, too, can choose Love even over the law of this land.
Richard Rohr says that Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love.
We can choose Christ.
This is our epiphany. Arise, shine, the light of all true love has come down to earth. Love has come to live among us! Love has MOVED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD. The word made flesh. Love made flesh. LIGHT made flesh. We gather in the spirit of a child who would unseat corrupt, hateful, murderous human rulers with a LOVE so profound, so pure, so penetrating, that the whole world lit up with it. We have followed the light to this place, and found God encased in human flesh.
We have no choice but to bow down.
My interfaith colleagues were heartened about the fact that the new congress was sworn in this week on a plethora of sacred texts, from the Bible to the Buddhist sutras to the Koran to the Torah, to the constitution of the United States. It was indicative that the diversity of this country had finally coalesced together into the halls of power. God speaks through so many mediums. God’s truth is written into so many books.
Someone asked this of my colleagues: What text would you be sworn in on?
And one of them answered this: I would be sworn in on a newborn baby.
At first I rolled my eyes and was like, “man, my UU colleagues say some weird stuff.” But then I thought, wait. That’s the Gospel.
I mean, imagine that. Imagine congress putting their hands upon the fragrant head of a squirming, wide eyed, impossibly soft and fragile young human, to make their promises to uphold all that is true and good.
Imagine if every member of our government was sworn in not on a book full of words and laws—but on the hope of the whole world. A newborn baby. The word of God made flesh.
Perhaps the powerful would choose a different path.
Perhaps the government wouldn’t shut down, but build up.
Perhaps our country would be re-built on the Good News of the Gospel and our laws would be shaped by the interests of the poor and marginalized rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.
Imagine if we were all made to swear an oath before God and each other, on human flesh. Imagine if our words had to be backed up by putting some skin in the game.
If before we swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we placed our hand on our own children’s flesh.
If before we pledged to serve this country faithfully, we put our hands on the flesh of an American soldier.
If before we swore to serve God before all else, we put our hands on the flesh of a refugee child.
If before we swore to love God, we put our hands in each other’s hands.
Perhaps we would make haste to Love our neighbor.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to use our words as weapons.
Perhaps we would be less cavalier about sending soldiers off to war.
Perhaps we would be more willing to welcome the stranger, to re-humanize those we have cast aside.
Perhaps we would choose a different path home.
Perhaps we would become the light of the world.
This comes from the writings of the desert fathers:
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?'
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.”
As William Blake said, “We are here but a little while to learn to bear the beams of love.” Beloved, this is epiphany. There is a burning bush in each one of us—a bush that burns but is not consumed. The light of God is ENFLESHED in us. That’s the truth of the Gospel. That’s the truth of Christ. We can use our bodies, our flesh, to do the work of Love in the here and now. We can become all flame.
This year, like the wise men, let us resolve to choose new paths. Let us resolve to choose the path of love rather than the well-worn paths of divisiveness found in internet comment sections and twitter feeds. Let us choose God over Law. Let us choose Love over empire. Let us choose Jesus over petulant, raging politics and hate-inciting rhetoric that harms those on the margins.
And then, let us light the path for others. You, beloved, are the word made flesh, love made flesh, light made flesh. So learn to bear the beams of love. That is the only gift we can offer to the Christ child worthy of his kingdom. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other. Become all flame. Arise and shine!
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org