The scripture we read this morning from Luke contains at least 6 sermons, but you’re in luck: I’m only gonna give you one. Jesus says to us today to love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.* Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful
In other words, we should give without expecting anything in return because that’s what God does.
The truth is, let’s be honest, you and I don’t always give without expecting anything in return as a rule. We’re conditioned not to, which is the nature of a capitalist economy and a country that prides itself on individualism more than Commonwealth. If we want something for ourselves, we pay for it, and expect an excellent product in return. We don’t value things we don’t pay for. I am far more apt to haul my kid to gymnastics when she doesn’t want to go if I’ve already doled out 125 bucks for it…you know what I mean? It’s very rare that I give money without the expectation that I will get something in return, or, at the very least feel good about it.
So it is a relief to me that our scripture today also says this about giving:
“Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
You get what you give.
Last year around this time, I told you that our spending—both of our money and our time--reflects most accurately what we are currently worshipping. And I asked you to take a look at your bank account and your calendar, and to ask yourselves whether your spending reflected your deepest held values.
I tried this exercise myself, and after weeding through the basics like food and shelter, (and monumental student loan debt), I saw a slavish devotion to clothes, going out to eat, apple products and gel manicures. I am spending a lot of money on all that stuff…far more than I spend on the things I most value. Because I say with my lips that I value God, Love, justice, feeding people, ending poverty, my relationships, my husband and family, my children, your children, world peace.
And I pay for iPads and drinks and oysters at Sole Proprietor. And my nails.
I don’t expect you to have noticed this, but I used to always have my nails perfectly manicured. For Jesus, of course. OK, largely because this was something I did for me. And incidentally, there is nothing wrong with that. Self care is important. My “self-care” consists of going over to Serenity Nails and Spa in West Boylston every few weeks on a Friday and getting a manicure and a luxurious spa pedicure with hot wax. The nail polish industry invented this new manicure a few years ago that lasts two weeks, and probably causes skin cancer. It’s called a gel manicure. They last forever, even if you wash a lot of dishes. Truthfully, I was addicted to them. Every time my nails started to chip and peel, I’d go get another one. They are so shiny. They’re kind of expensive, too. But you get what you give.
I’ll tell you the truth: I am distracted at times by the cultivation of my appearance. I am heavily marketed to as a woman, in a way that plays on all of my fears—about being ugly and fat and old, as if any of those things are the wrong way to be, as if any of those things should be a measure of one’s self worth. This marketing plays on my fear that I will be unlovable if I fail to “fix” myself. It makes me less grateful for what I have, more focused on myself than others. Men and people outside the gender binary: you are marketed to, as well. Cars, home security systems, guns, Viagra. Whatever. In different ways, but ways that play on similar fears. And maybe some of you are immune to it, but I will admit that I’m not.
And so beauty and fashion become an idol for me: I need to have new make up, new clothes, new products, new haircuts, new throw pillows on my couch and new kitchen counters, in order to “keep up” with the latest fashion, to mask the dark circles I have under my eyes from working full time and mothering full time—to look younger, better, to impress people with my beautifully appointed home, to mask the mostly-chaotic inside of my family and the fear of insignificance inside of my heart.
We women are the reason God invented Pinterest. And it’s making us crazy, and its making the world worse because we are distracted from making it better.
Glennon Doyle Melton calls this “the Tyranny of Trend” and says, “we certainly aren’t going to get much world changing done if we spend all our time and money on wardrobe and kitchen changing.” Amen?
Henry David Thoreau, in his book “Walden”, declares: “I say beware of enterprises that require new clothes, and not a new wearer of clothes.”
The church is an enterprise that requires not new clothes, but a new wearer of clothes. And so this is an enterprise worth supporting, in my book. While I know that a gel manicure costs $40, and so does a spa pedicure with hot wax, I can’t put a price on my transformation from the inside out. The nail and fashion industry decorates my body, the Church enterprise changes my life, changes OTHER PEOPLE’S lives. This enterprise requires new wearers of clothes for the purpose of creating heaven on earth. This church supports my most deeply held values: Love, justice, education, feeding people, children and youth, the worship of God in the spirit of Jesus. More. Do you know that $30K of our operating budget goes to charity?
While all of that is priceless, it also costs money. To be specific, it costs $400,000 to be the Church you dreamed together we could be. And though I do believe God is rooting for us, he ain’t paying the bill. You and I are.
And so, I gave up gel manicures so that I could raise my pledge by $1,000. That is $20 more a week than I already give, because I want to be one of the 65 people that helps us reach our dream budget by raising our pledge $20 per week, which will fund ongoing transformation of this community, this town, my children, this world: into a place that is a little more like heaven, a little less like hell. We do this because my family has committed to putting God and this God kissed community first, and having our bank accounts reflect that.
And every time I look at my sad, dull and colorless nails, I rejoice remembering that the church has made me new, and that this organization doesn’t care one whit if I have shiny nails in the latest fashion colors. Just like God doesn’t care because God made me in her image. My giving back to the church is in gratitude for what you have given to me and to my family, and in gratitude for the grace of God, which challenges me to change and grow.
The measure you and I give will be the measure we get back, running over, put back into our laps.
And friends: this place is not a product to be bought and sold. You get out of this community pretty much exactly what you put into it. We are unlikely to get much from an endeavor that we don’t give a lot to—time, money, our whole selves. You know this, but it bears repeating. The measure you give will be the measure you get back.
This week, I was looking at this church’s congregational profile that was up on the internet when you were searching for a pastor. It’s still there, and I was curious to read it now that I’ve been here for awhile. It’s fascinating to do this two years into my ministry here, because you get a sense of how the church was selling itself then, and how it’s doing now.
So the thing I noticed when I was looking through your congregational record was the membership numbers and attendance numbers, which they ask you to record and present for something like 40 years. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they tell a part of it. Turns out, back in 1985 you had 700 members, and an average weekly attendance of 100 people in worship. In 1990 when you had 432 members, an average of 132 people in worship, so that’s a better percentage. In 2005, you had 402 members and 100 people on average in worship. Your membership was not showing up to church—at least not all at the same time. And your giving reflected your attendance.
And that’s not atypical, and it is also so fascinating because, well, you get what you give. Because the truth is, it doesn’t mean that much to you and to me to just be a member of a church that you only go to if you have nothing better to do, or you only go to on Easter and Christmas. It’s just like putting something on your resume for the pearly gates, like how our kids join the Spanish club so they have something to put on their transcripts for the ivory tower. Our average attendance in the past two years has been higher than all of the years in that recorded history, about 140 on average and climbing, which is about half of the membership. People are engaging more and more with the church. And our giving reflects that. We raised $60 thousand more in stewardship last year than the year before. And we can do it again, because we can do hard things.
You get what you give.
So it matters that you come. I want to tell you that I miss you—we miss you--when you’re not here (and that’s true, but it sounds a little whiney…like, “wah, we missed you Sunday.”) So instead I want to say what’s really also true. YOU miss something when you’re not here. You miss a chance to connect, a hug, a moment of profound beauty, a friend who needed you, a friend you needed, the choir’s soaring sung prayer, a child’s rite of passage, a testimony, those surprising snatches of time we didn’t plan for when we notice God shimmering among us. Sometimes you even miss a good sermon.
You get exactly what you give.
Do you want to get more out of this experience, of this church? Step it up. Give more time, give more money. Do you come once a month? Come twice. Do you leave without going to social hour? Go today. We have treats. Do you want to become a member? Join us March 6th after church for a class. Do you wish to deepen your relationships with each other and God? Come to Eat, Pray, Learn or Pub Theology or Aging Gracefully or the book group or our retreat in the spring. Do you want to be inspired? Teach our children on Sunday morning in one of our Sunday school classes. Would you like to act your values in the world with us? Join us on a mission trip, volunteer with IHN.
This church is not my church, it’s not the choir’s church, it’s not the deacons’ church. It’s yours’. The church is made church by your presence and your investment. And it is only as good as you make it. It is only as valuable as what you pay for it. It is only as meaningful as what you add to it.
So beloved, you get what you give. If you want to be transformed, you need to show up. If you want this community to make a difference in your life, you need to INVEST in it. Only then a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.
Only then can we become the community God calls us to be.
Delivered at First Church in Sterling, MA
February 21, 2016
Scripture: Psalm 27 and Luke 13: 31-35
Have you heard about the fight that Donald Trump and the Pope got in this week? This week the Pope was in Mexico, and he said, referring to Donald Trump, that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. That is not the Gospel.”
And Trump shot back that the Pope was “distasteful” for questioning his faith.
In an attempt to “broker peace” between the two men on the late show, Stephen Colbert asked, “Is it possible that you guys are fighting because you have so much in common?”
“After all, you both think you're infallible,” he continued. And showing a picture of Donald Trump’s gold plated toilet, and the Pope’s gold plated papal throne, he said: “You both sit on golden thrones and you both wear very silly things on your heads.”
I happen to agree with Donald Trump that it is distasteful to question someone else’s religious faith.
I also agree with the Pope that building bridges—engaging in relationship with others, particularly those we fear, particularly the least, the last, and the lost-- is what our Gospel calls us to do, and building walls is not.
(Colbert pointed out that the Vatican is 100% surrounded by walls, but never mind that fact.)
Fear builds walls, faith builds bridges.
That’s easy to say, but let’s be honest: most of the time our fears are much stronger than our faith.
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
The only thing to fear, President John F. Kennedy Jr. said in his inaugural speech, is fear itself. And that is the truest thing I can think of to say to you about fear. Because it is fear that keeps us from living. It is fear that keeps us separate from each other, and from our neighbors. It is fear that causes us to buy more, and to love carefully, selectively and with tight control. It is fear that keeps us locked up in our homes, more prone to depression and obesity and loneliness and addiction and isolation. It is fear that drives us to build walls and gated communities and barbed wire fences—around our families and our neighborhoods and our hearts--to keep people out. It is fear that stunts our generosity and our curiosity. It is fear that even causes us to kill one another. Fear is actually lethal.
Our psalmist says: The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?
Turns out the answer to that question is long and complex, and it ranges from public speaking to death to spiders to clowns.
In the 2015 survey of America’s top fears done by Chapman University, they uncovered some interesting results. More than 1,500 adults around the country participated in the survey, rating their level of fear for each question on a scale of 1 (not afraid) to 4 (very afraid). Here are the categories in which Americans' fears fell most heavily:
1. Corruption of government officials
2. Cyber terrorism
3. Corporate tracking of personal information
4. Terrorist attacks
5. Government tracking of personal information
7. Identity theft
8. Economic collapse
9. Running out of money in the future
10. Credit card fraud
So we are scared of our government, and scared we are being watched, scared of terrorism (which is the point of terrorism, after all) and scared we will run out of money. As I said last week, studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like crime, like fear of terrorism or war—people are less likely to welcome the stranger as the gospel calls us to do. Less likely to treat the foreigner among us as if they were native-born, as Leviticus cautions us to. Less likely to trust authority, or institutions. Less likely to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, as Jesus tells us is the second of only two commandments that matter in the end. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics. Our fear erodes our faith. It makes us unable to see one another as beloved by God. Fear is invariably selfish and keeps our world smaller and more controlled.
And it keeps us walled off. We stay in our houses, we turn on our TVs, we don’t get to know our neighbors, we become more sedentary and depressed.
The most oft-repeated phrase in our scriptures is “Do not be afraid” for a reason.
But beloved, this is hard work because we are really invested in the business of being afraid. Marketers have made a lot of money capitalizing on our fears. Politicians have risen to power capitalizing on our fears.
Those of us who have children know so well how the culture of fear can take hold. Our children rarely leave the house anymore without our watchful eyes on them, except to go to very regimented activities where we think we can guarantee their safety. They are having difficulty learning who and how to trust, and how to become independent and self-reliant, because we won’t let them. People have gotten rich off of us—state of the art car seats and home security systems and organic baby food and after school enrichment programs and SAT prep tutoring for our 5th graders—there is an economy of parental fear.
And this economy is based on the false premise that our children are in more danger than ever, when the opposite is true. Articles from the Washington Post in recent years have said statistically there has literally never been a safer time to be a kid in America. The child mortality rate has never been lower, largely because of vaccinations, but also because child homicides and teen suicides are down to the lowest they have been in decades. The reported child missing persons are at record low levels and 96% of missing children are run-aways, not kidnapped as we fear. Child pedestrians are much less likely to be struck by cars than ever before likely do to safety and infrastructure for sidewalks, and so on.
And yet, we keep our children under lock and key, and we call the police if we see children playing in the park by themselves, or walking home from school. We call letting our children play in the yard or walk to the store at 10 years old “free range parenting.” My parents just called that “parenting.” If you ask your average parent at the playground about why they have followed their school aged kids there, you’re likely to hear, “in my day, we could play outside by ourselves. The world was different then. It was safer.” This is statistically and patently false. The world is far safer now, by every known statistic. And I know that it is important to teach children to be appropriately wary of strangers, to trust their interests and to keep themselves safe. But sometimes I worry that I’m teaching my children things I can’t unteach: that people are to be feared until they have proven themselves trustworthy.
More and more, the people we encounter in our country, or in our world are seen as a possible threat—to our bodies, to our wallets, to our way of life, rather than a possible friend; rather than an opportunity to see Christ in the land of the Living. And everything from play ground bullying to street gangs to institutional racism to religious persecution and war is fueled by this pervasive story that people are to be feared until proven trustworthy.
Our gospel teaches us something different. Fear builds walls. Faith builds bridges.
We need to use our fear to tell a different story about who we are as people of faith.
Sister Simone Campbell, founder of Nuns on the Bus told the UUA’s General Assembly this story two years ago. A reporter said to her: “Sister, it seems like whenever there is trouble, you walk toward it.” And she replied that it was then that she “realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards trouble. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal.”
Fear builds walls, faith builds bridges.
Sometimes transcending walls of fear and tearing them down means ignoring real or perceived threats to our bodies or even our lives in favor of bridge-building.
In our scripture today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is still in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem. The Pharisees came to Jesus, and warned Jesus that he better get out of there, because, they said, Herod wants to kill him. This was a legitimate concern. This was not the Herod who was killing babies in the Jesus birth story, they’re talking about Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s three sons who each rule one third of their father’s not very big territory. And this Herod was in the business of be-heading people, he had just be-headed John the Baptist, and he was after Jesus next.
But Jesus, when told this news that Herod was out to get him basically, says, “talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening”, as we used to say in middle school.
He says: “Go tell that Fox for me, listen, I’m busy doing the work of the kingdom to come. And I will be doing this for three days. I’m not finished, and I’ll be done when I say so.” To call someone a fox, Mary Luti says, is to call someone “cowardly, silly, trivial.” He calls the guy who is out to savagely be-head him a cowardly, silly, trivial little man.
Jesus is walking toward trouble: doing God’s work of embracing, touching, healing, and no human king is gonna get in his way. Herod wants to kill me? Ain’t nobody got time for that. Go tell that Fox, Listen, I’ve got more important things to think about than my own death. Herod’s laws are human and finite and meaningless. God’s Law of Love is infinite and eternal, and on its own timeline, thank you very much.
[2When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
3Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?]
Sometimes it is hard to, as the psalmist writes in our psalm this morning, to see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
You and I can choose to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living if we can tell our very real and very human fears to “talk to the hand.” But we can’t do it unless we break down the walls we have built up around our cities and our neighborhoods and our homes and our hearts. We can’t see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living until we see all people as our neighbors. We can’t see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living until we love our neighbors. Our homeless neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our indigenous neighbor, our gay neighbor, our migrant neighbor, our Jewish neighbor, our Christian neighbor, our atheist neighbor, our disabled neighbor, our addicted neighbor, our refugee neighbor. As we love ourselves.
If you want to find God, my colleague Erika Hewitt says, you need to go to the fringes to see who has been pushed there. The goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living is found on the edges and the margins and the outside. You and I are gonna have to come out of our houses, look on the margins for the outsiders, see them as God’s beloved children, and bring them in.
And beloved: come to church more often, because it helps us to bridge-build to be here together. It reminds us of who we are. Seriously. Make church attendance a weekly thing. Don’t just come when you haven’t gotten any better offers, or when you’re not skiing, or when your kids don’t have a birthday party. Because it matters that we come together. We practice bridge-building here in this place because that is the work of faith, and the work of God. And practicing bridge building can’t be done on top of a mountain, on a beach at sunset, or in yoga class. It has to be done in the brokenness and beauty of human community. There is no human project more important than this one.
And, wherever you are, be the church. Love with extravagance and with wasteful abundance, without stopping to inquire who is worthy. Tear down the walls around your heart. Walk toward trouble. Go to the margins where you fear to go. Do not be afraid. The Lord is your light and your salvation, so there is no one and nothing to fear but fear itself.
Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13
preached at First Church in Sterling, MA
February 14, 2016
When I was in college, I had the most ridiculous bumper stickers. The kind you would imagine any reactionary lefty, completely black and white thinking, “politically correct” 19 year old to have. I didn’t even have a car, but I had bumper stickers. I put them on my dorm fridge. They said things like “I’ll be post feminist in the post patriarchy” and “Coexist” and “Ralph Nader for president”…remember him? Nothing like simplistic, bumper sticker politics.
The one that I’m most embarrassed about said this (and I humbly repent):
“The road to hell is paved with Republicans.”
I’m embarrassed, because what a ridiculous thing to think, and how diametrically opposed to my understanding of who God is. My beloved grandparents were all Republicans, and many of my friends growing up in the red state of New Hampshire were, too. They were loving people, who wanted the same things I did: happiness, freedom, a loving and healthy family, kindness and community. Yet, I was raised by lefty parents in a lefty church during the Reagan years, and I was taught (not always explicitly) to believe that Republicans didn’t care about the poor, didn’t care about justice for the oppressed, didn’t care about my rights as a woman.
I bet some of you were taught similar stereotypes growing up about people like me. Liberals are lazy, they want “free stuff”, they want to police all of our words for political correctness so that we can no longer have free speech, they want to punish people for being rich.
And so on.
Well, what a bunch of bologna sauce that all is. We can’t even see each other.
Essentializing one another like that is the most destructive (and human) thing there is.
We can’t even see each other.
When I picture the devil, I always picture those cartoons I watched in the eighties. Looney Tunes, or whatever. In cartoons, there is always a red devil with a pitchfork and horns and a tail on one shoulder whispering in one’s ear, and an angel on the other with a glistening halo whispering in the other ear. Whatever the devil is suggesting you do is far more fun than what the angel is suggesting you do, and what the angel is saying is always appealing to one’s goodness and morality. The whole concept of the devil as a separate being is a little….cartoonish in my mind, and therefore sometimes hard for me to take very seriously. Not to mention, it’s often used as a cop out—“the devil made me do it.” Or, worse, the devil is associated with something that needs to be excorsized from one’s soul, like homosexuality at those awful “pray the gay away camps” that I consider an abomination unto the Lord our God who created us just the way we are, in her image.
But maybe I should take the devil a little more seriously than I do.
Because I’m quite sure that evil exists in the world, and we need not look any further than our own hearts to find it.
Evil doesn’t always look like Sandy Hook and ISIS and abortion clinic bombings. Sometimes it looks like unexamined bias. Sometimes it looks like assuming that the man I met at the bar who is voting for Donald Trump is heartless, or the black teenager I pass on the street is going to rob me. The evil in my heart looks like a tendency to categorize and objectify human beings, rather than truly see them. And I’m quite sure that I wrestle with that evil every day; I don’t know about you. I know that evil can look rather subtle, and erodes my heart slowly but surely. The road to hell is not paved with Republicans, or Democrats…the road to hell is paved with assumptions that I am different than or better than, or more deserving of God’s love than anyone else is.
The devil in my heart is tremendously tempting because he appeals to my desire for power and sustenance and control; my desire to be right, and everyone else to be wrong. And I am most apt to be tempted by him when I am lost in the wilderness.
In our scripture today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was led by God into the wilderness, where it says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. And interestingly, the devil and Jesus are both quoting scripture at each other—both quoting passages from the Hebrew scriptures. Remember how I said last week that this book right here can be twisted and used for evil? Here is a prime example of the devil himself using scripture to try and tempt Jesus away from God.
And Jesus is the one at a disadvantage.
The devil tempts Jesus when he is in a state, I am sure, both mentally and physically, of utter desperation. He hasn’t eaten for weeks. He is likely hallucinating. He is probably thirsty and tired, and feeling empty and powerless. He likely feels as though he is about to die; vulnerable and alone, gaunt and weak. He’s probably even scared. First Jesus is tempted with food, and Jesus says, “one does not live by bread alone.” Then Jesus is tempted with power over all of the kingdoms of the world: “And Jesus answers, essentially, “I worship God, not power.” And then the devil tempts him to prove who he is by throwing himself down, and Jesus refuses saying that we should not be in the business of trying to test God, or make God prove anything to us.
Jesus passes every test by interpreting the texts not by the Letter of the Law, but by the Law of Love. He’s Jesus, that’s why.
You and I are not Jesus, but like Jesus in this story, we are far more vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we are weak and tired and hungry and alone and most of all--scared.
Studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like fear of terrorism or war—people are less likely to love the stranger. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics.
It should come as no surprise that we are most apt to be tempted by power when we are feeling powerless. We are tempted to believe we can control terrorism through religious persecution. We are tempted to believe that our comfort level and safety is more secure if we move to a town where there is little racial, ethnic and economic diversity. We are tempted to believe that we can control an insecure economy by hoarding our own wealth, and by excluding and demonizing people groups like Mexican immigrants or so-called “welfare queens.”
We are less likely to welcome the stranger when we are afraid.
We are most vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance; when we see people in the world as objects to be feared and despised rather than as God’s own beloved. And so we exploit the worst stereotypes we can think of about each other, so that we can no longer see one another; so that we can no longer see God in one another.
And yet Jesus reminds us: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Which, as we know, means simply this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
My favorite blogger, Glennon Doyle Melton, wrote a blog post this week called “How to use your fear to make something beautiful.” I just love that title. We all have fear. Our job is to abide by the law of Love anyway, and transform fear into beauty.
I think that’s why we come to church: so that we can use our fear to make something beautiful together. And we create beauty in the face of fear every day. In response to two separate terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and in San Bernardino this year, do you know what our congregation did? We reached out to our Muslim neighbors to get to know them better, to tell them that we see them, to begin to understand our points of connection, as well as our differences. And this Tuesday, nineteen of our children and adults went to the Worcester Islamic Center to learn more about Islam, and meet our Muslim neighbors in Worcester. They will come here to First Church in March for Eat, Pray, Learn on March 16 so that we can learn more about each other, and worship together. That’s how we use our fear to make something beautiful.
In response to protests in Ferguson and all over the country, and to a white supremacist killing people at a historic black church, Mother Emmanuel, in Charlestown, South Carolina this summer, do you know what our congregation did? We held a prayer vigil for the victims, and we began a faithful, imperfect conversation on race. We reached out to our police officers, and to the people of color in our community to ask how we could get to know one another better, and fight racism--together. Instead of battening down the hatches, we committed to learn about and connect with people to talk about the sin of racism. That’s how we use our fear to make something beautiful.
We use our fear to make something beautiful when we apply this same grace to ourselves, because if we are not starting our Lenten journey knowing we are Beloved children of God, we won’t get very far. Nadia Bolz Weber says: “when voices other than God’s try to tell you your worth – when the categories of late stage capitalism or the siren song of professional advancement or the various ridiculous ranking systems in society, or your own head tries to tell you your value and trust me, this will happen--but when it does may you again remember your baptism – remember that you have renounced the Devil and all his empty promises and are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit and that you belong to God, because nothing…nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”
Let’s commit to this practice: when we are afraid; when we are angry, and tired and hungry and lonely, let’s use those emotions to make something beautiful. That’s how we renounce the devil and his temptations, together. Get thee behind me, Satan. Because nothing and no one else gets to tell us who we are but the one who made us and named us Beloved.
Preached Sunday, February 7, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Listen to the audio version here.
Scripture: Luke 9: 28-42
Today is transfiguration Sunday. In the telling of the transfiguration story we heard today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray. While he is up there, a white light surrounds him, the appearance of his face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white, and we see Moses next to him, the representative of the Law, and we see Elijah next to him, the representative of the prophets. From a cloud comes a voice:
“This is my son, the chosen. Listen to him.”
This is such a crazy experience for Jesus’ friends. So wild that they don’t even talk about it. They kept silent. They told no one. They were probably pretty freaked out, and didn’t know what to do, and I’m sure they thought people wouldn’t believe them. I imagine they wanted to stay on top of that mountain with Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening for God’s voice. Listening to Jesus, the newly transfigured one, chosen by God. It’s an unparalleled mystical experience for them. A “mountaintop moment” most of us never have. I’d want to stay up there, wouldn’t you?
But what does Jesus do after this experience, the next day? He doesn’t stay up on the mountain communing with God, Moses and Elijah in the clouds. He doesn’t stick just with his friends who were clearly told by God to “listen to him,” though it’s always easier to hang around people who you know will listen to you. He comes down the mountain to be among the people—the people who are lost, who are sick, who are imprisoned, who are oppressed, who are in need. And right after he comes down the mountain, he heals a man who is possessed by a demon.
“And all were astounded by the greatness of God.”
Beloved: if you and I have seen the light of God, it’s time to come down off of our mountains.
That’s where the greatness of God shows up—not just in the clouds in baths of white light, or in the woods during a beautiful snowscape, or on mountaintops--but among the people. Our tradition teaches us that mystical experiences communing with God alone in nature mean absolutely nothing if they aren’t followed by loving our neighbors: toiling in the fields of conflict and heartache…healing, lifting, listening, doing, forgiving. This loving your neighbor business is far harder work than the peaceful tranquility of the ocean at sunset, or shivasana during a yoga class and meeting God there. Trying to find God in humanity is much harder work. We will be disappointed by people and institutions again and again. And they will be disappointed in us. We will fail each other. We may even lose faith. But it’s worth it, because it’s the only real thing there is. And it is the Way of Jesus.
And if you’re lucky, your heart will break in the process of loving others wastefully, and extravagantly the way God does, because last I checked, the statistics are the same: 100% of the people you love will die. Love anyway.
Some of you know that in the last week I have done three funerals. We are in the midst of a season of sadness here at First Church. In the last 8 days, we have honored the lives of Jean Adams, Rick Dell, Clyde Magaw. And in the weeks before that, Helen Wessels, and though we didn’t have these funerals here at the church, our congregation also mourned Muriel Senter and Helen Rugg. I have spent a lot of time up here in this mountainous pulpit, trying to speak some words of comfort, on behalf of God; on behalf of the risen Christ. Which is an impossible task for a human being, when you think about it. And, as you know, I am so very human.
So, at one of these funerals, I was about to go into the sanctuary to begin the service. One of the mourners, a gentleman in my parent’s generation, was looking for the door. He had been to the bathroom, and couldn’t find his way back to his seat. “This congregation is a maze” he said with a smile. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
I said, “Welcome. This is the door to the sanctuary.”
He looked at me for more than a second. I was wearing my full vestments, robe and stole, bathed in so much “white light,” and smiling a beatific smile. I imagined my aura to be as Christ-like and ethereal as possible. I adjusted my halo.
And he said, “are you the PASTOR of this church?”
And I said, “Yes, I’m Robin. Nice to meet you.”
And he said, “WOW! You’re a CUTE CHICK! I mean, you’re cute and you’re a chick. You’re the pastor? Wow.”
I said, “We pastors try our hardest to be cute.”
Yes, I know, that wasn’t the most respectful thing to say to a Pastor of a church right before a funeral, and maybe not the best comeback on my part. Though this kind of interaction doesn’t always make me laugh, this time it did. Heartily. Maybe because it was yet another of a million reminders throughout my day that I have a body. That though I may have a role that is set apart, and though I wear a robe and stole when I stand before you that represent my status as ordained and trained, and I stand in this pulpit from on high, I am really just a regular old fallible human, and I am a completely embodied one at that. And still cute! Fabulous at almost forty!
I wonder if anyone ever said to Jesus, “Wow, Jesus! You’re a cute dude! I like your sandals!”
Maybe they did. Maybe it infuriated or humbled him; but either way, it probably reminded him that he had a body. Maybe he needed that reminder constantly, to ground him in the work of the people.
Your job and mine is to represent Christ who lived in a human body. And God knows I can’t do my ministry from up on a mountain, and neither can you. Our job together is to continually come down off of our mountains of “better than,” or “holier than thou,” or “smarter than,” or “right,” --to come down off those mountains we use to put ourselves above others, and heal some demons with our hands and feet and ears and eyes.
We have to come down the mountain.
The most important thing we need to learn as human beings, by Jesus’ example, is humility. We are beloved by God, but we are not God. We are human, we are embodied, and our bodies will one day be returned to the earth from which they came. You and I are not the center of the universe, and we are not in control, and we definitely don’t belong up on a mountain looking down on the world. This realization is the spiritual task of a lifetime.
You and I are not God; we are mortal.
We have to come down the mountain.
And so I want to say something about the Bible, because the Bible contributes to our belief that we can speak for God—or our belief that we can know anything about God at all. There are Christians who stay up on top of their mountains so that they can look down on other people. To “tsk, tsk,” to shame, to judge worthiness—of heaven, of God’s love, of salvation. Often, those mountains we stand on are stacked with Bibles and cherry picked passages about why and how some are saved and some aren’t…who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s going to hell, and who’s going to heaven. There are Christians who stand upon this book to look down at the rest of us.
This is a beautiful and a dangerous text. This is a text that is used as a tool for evil. You know it, I know it. Election seasons and fundamentalist preachers and the TV news and our Facebook friends remind us of it every day. Those who seek to oppress and harm other people—those who seek to oppress and harm Muslims, Jews, foreigners, people of color, the gay community, the poor, atheists, those who justify unjust wars and genocide and slavery….they use this book to do it. They have throughout this book’s entire history. This book is holy and sacred and beautiful and is foundational to our faith tradition, and this book as been weaponized.
And so our job as people gathered in the spirit of Jesus is to take this book seriously and therefore not literally. There is no other way to reverently and respectfully read this book. And ultimately, we don’t follow this book. We follow Christ.
We need to come down from our mountains.
Gordon Atkinson, in his book "Turtles All the Way Down" writes about a certain prototype of this kind of Bible-worshipping Christian: “there’s something about the way you use the Bible, something about the way you use it as a tool, as a weapon, as a fulcrum, as a means, as an end, as a trump card………
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor. He knows something that you do not know.
Those people around the table? The ones you spoke so harshly to that night when you came upon them sharing a meal and pleasant conversation at church? You told them it was a shame when Christians gathered only to eat and talk. You dropped your big black Bible on the table with a thud for emphasis. They are some of God’s oldest and wisest servants. They have prayed down the walls of prejudice and broken the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of their hands and feet. Their meal was a prayer, though you couldn’t hear it.”
Our job is not to worship a book, but to follow Christ, who came down off of his mountain in a human body, who broke all the laws in this book to be among the people at the bottom: to touch, to heal, to feed, to forgive, to love. And our job by Christ’s example is to pray down the walls of prejudice and break the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of our hands and feet, to know nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.
It is our job to love without stopping to inquire who is worthy. We have to come down the mountain.
When we come down the mountain, we see this: EVERYONE transfigured. We see this: everyone we encounter bathed with that warm white light, which is God. When we come down, we see all people as more than just bodies. As more than just “cute chicks”, black, or brown or white, trans or gay, male or female, atheist, Muslim or Jew--but as people called by their God-given name, which is Beloved. When we come down the mountain we see all people as opportunities to see and touch Christ. These are my sons and daughters, the Chosen. Listen to them.
They will know we are Christians by our _________________.
Not by our morals, not by our biblical knowledge, not by our purity, nor by our Baptisms, not by our support of one political candidate or position over another, not even by our holy book.
Say it with me: They will know we are Christians by our Love.
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.