preached on February 25, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen.
Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: "Kasserian Ingera," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?”
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young. (Patrick T. O'Neil: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/and-how-are-the-children).
I want to ask all of us this today: And how are the children?
This Christmas, I preached that Love means taking care of what is fragile. I said that anyone who has ever loved a baby or a small animal or a classroom full of kids, or a democracy…anyone who has tended a garden, or a faith the size of a mustard seed, or someone’s fragile ego—knows this. Anyone who has tended to a marriage of any length knows this. Love is cultivating and tenderly nurturing that which is vulnerable to harm.
It makes sense, then, that God sent us a human baby to teach us how to love.
When Jesus talks about setting our minds on divine things, we might do well to ask ourselves how the most vulnerable parts of God’s creation are faring. We might do well to ask this question:
And how are the children?
How fragile we are.
In our reading from the Gospel today, Jesus says some real plain truth the disciples didn’t want to hear about his own vulnerability. God didn’t just send Jesus to live among them; God sent him to suffer and die.
Well, this doesn’t sit well with the disciples.
I imagine they wanted their Messiah to have more power and strength—the ability (or at least the will) to destroy his enemies. To reign terror upon his opponents. To win, at least by outsmarting them, or by amassing more wealth, or by managing to make it to the top of the religious power structure.
I mean, this is supposed to be the Son of God.
Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that he, too, is fragile. He says, “I will undergo great suffering. I will be rejected by everyone: the senior pastors of large churches, the deacons, the ministry leadership team leaders. And I will be killed. I will die at the hands of the state, an unremarkable death. Then I will rise again on the third day.”
This is not the first time Jesus has said this to the disciples, by the way, but they just don’t like it.
In fact, Peter “rebukes Jesus,” which is another way of saying that Peter essentially tells the Son of God to “Shut up.” (Peter is like the Maureen Cranson of the group).
And Jesus gets so pissed at Peter that he calls him Satan, the tempter! It’s just about the nastiest thing Jesus says to anyone in scriptures, I think.
“Get thee behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.”
Humans worry about human things. Humans worry about power and control. Humans amass weaponry. Humans worry about indestructibility. Humans enact vengeance and violence.
But God asks “And how are the children? How are the divine things?”
God cares for the powerless. God tends to the vulnerable. God hungers and thirsts. God goes into the wilderness. God suffers with those who suffer. God dies for all of humanity.
God’s power comes from love and sacrifice.
Jesus doesn’t stop at admitting his own fragility. He goes on to say, “if you want to become my followers, you will have to admit your fragility, too. You will have to take up your cross and follow me. You will have to endure humiliation, suffering, death. You will have to embrace your powerlessness; your lack of control; your mortality. Because the only way to save your life is to lose your life.”
No wonder the disciples want him to shut up. Godly power and might comes from Loving what is mortal. And therefore Love means loss, suffering, pain, humility, and giving up the lies we tell ourselves about safety. Love what is fragile. Love what will die.
God’s power comes from Love, not dominance. Love, not vengeance. Love, not wealth. Love, not violence. God’s power comes from Love, not the lobbyists or the congress or the president. God’s power comes from Love, not objects of war.
This Love is everywhere, but it doesn’t shield us from pain. It is not a bullet proof vest. It doesn’t assure our safety or even survival.
I saw a t-shirt shared over and over again on social media this week that made me so angry not just because it had like six different fonts including comic sans, but because of its terrible, terrible theology. It said:
“Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a student.
Dear student, it’s because I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”
Since we are setting our mind on divine things this morning, I want to remind us what the Gospel tells us:
God is omnipresent, which is a fancy way of saying that God is everywhere Love is. You can no sooner remove God from a school than fly to the moon.
Our schools are filled with the children of God—teachers and students entrusted into each other’s care to grow and learn and be free. God is in every act of grace that happens between student and teacher, at every lunch table where the anxious and sad kids look nervously around for a friend. God is sitting beside the lonely kid on the buddy bench.
God doesn’t go only where God is “allowed.”
If you need to know where God is in our schools, look no further than the open doors on the school buses, and the swarm of children who get off, trusting their fragile lives to the faculty and administration inside.
And let me be very clear: God does not “allow” violence, WE DO. Right now, God is weeping in our schools at the sins of our people.
God’s arms are wrapped around those children killed in Parkland, Florida, and their parents, and the three adults who died to save them. God is lying on the ground, shot dead in a classroom in a pool of blood. Every one of those children and teachers and coaches contained a piece of God. Pieces of God were murdered that day, and are murdered every day on the city streets and in the suburban and rural homes of our nation at the hands of other humans. The metal that spills their blood are human things, not divine.
I imagine God’s voice coming over the intercom in every school in America after the pledge of allegiance is recited asking, “And how are the children?"
Well, the children are alright. Those of us who have been inspired by the students educated at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School can see this. Can I get an amen?
Delaney Tarr, a senior from the school said in a speech on Feb. 21:
“This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager—these are our strengths. The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety.”
Human things: money and elections. Divine things: passion and pain.
This Wednesday, Eat Pray Learn was led by Chaplain Clementina Chery who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Boston.
Clementina Chery had a choice to make shortly after her 15-year-old son was innocently gunned down in crossfire between gangs battling in Dorchester.
“For me the anger and violence was there,” she said, adding, “I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to go on the path less traveled.”
Chery chose the path of peace following the death of her son, Louis Brown, and founded the Dorchester-based Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.
Her son was killed in 1993 as he walked one afternoon into a teens against gang violence event. It was her son’s death, she said, that woke her up.
“My anger was there, my search for revenge was there, but yet who was I going to take revenge out on? Someone who looked just like me? Someone who looked just like my son? So I had to channel my pain and my anger in a way that would be more about rebuilding the community,” she said.
The Peace Institute focuses on primary prevention, to stop the seeds of violence before they grow, and peace education as a way to stem violence.
“If we don’t address the emotional psychological needs of hurt children then they will become hurtful adults,” she said.
Chaplain Tina told us Wednesday night about going to meet with the mother of the boy who shot her son and embracing her. They were both mamas who had lost their children.
Then she told us about going to meet with her son’s murderer in prison. She offered forgiveness. She told the tempter inside her that wanted revenge to “get thee behind me.”
She asked instead, “and how are the children?”
Human things: revenge, retaliation, hatred. Divine things: forgiveness, peace, community building.
This is one of my favorite poems. It is called “Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world's most sensitive cargo
but he's not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream
deep inside him.
We're not going to be able
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
The power and might of Love is like that: our ears filled up with breathing and the hum of a child’s dream deep inside us, God’s voice chanting “Fragile, handle with care.” We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another.
preached on February 18, 2018 (1st Sunday in Lent)
at the First Church in Sterling, MA by
Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen to be experienced.
“Beloved Is Where We Begin” by Jan Richardson
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
Last week, I preached about your belovedness. I reminded us to gaze upon each other the way we gazed upon little baby Ryan: as a sign of God’s light in the darkness.
It is Lent, our wilderness journey, and beloved is where we begin.
In Genesis, beloved is where the world begins. In the beginning, God lovingly created the universe, and called it beautiful and good: the humans, the plants, and the animals….all part of the interconnected web of creation.
And then, things started to go wrong. The humans started truly messing it up.
I know we just told the story of Noah’s Ark to the children, but I’m going to admit to you now that this is not a cute children’s story. I don’t mean to shame those of us who have Noah’s Ark themed nurseries, and beautiful Noah’s Ark children’s books like the one we just read to the children this morning by Peter Spier. After all, my favorite summer camp songs are both about Noah’s Ark. My favorite is “Rise and Shine, and Give God your glory, glory!” And “There were green alligators, and long neck geese, some humpty back camels and some chimpanzees…”
I mean, the story of Noah’s Ark has animals and rainbows! And apparently even unicorns! On the surface, it absolutely seems like it might be one of those beloved bible stories for the kiddos.
The problem is that it’s really not a sweet story at all.
Noah’s Ark is the story of a God who is so horrified by human sin that God destroys the whole world.
Yes, we begin with beloved. God creates the world and all of humanity and calls it good.
But then humanity betrays God with grievous sin. In Genesis 6, verse 5, it says: God saw that "every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually."
Humanity is so broken and so destructive, God decided, that God deeply regretted creating us in the first place. God sorrowed over how lost we truly were, and sent a flood—tears of grief poured into an endless river; tears over the rending of the relationship between humanity and God.
Let’s just say it plain: in the story of Noah’s Ark, God is so aggrieved with humanity that God commits mass murder. God is so flooded with sadness—by the sinful nature of humans, that God wipes out almost the entirety of creation.
The destruction, of course, is not total. God takes a remnant of what God created to re-build. The flood, therefore, is not sent just to destroy, but to begin again. God even uses some of the original source material.
We learn some important things about God here: God is not simply a genocidal maniac. God is deeply sad when we are lost in sin; when we are separated from one another and from God. We also learn that God is in the business of not just creation, but re-creation. We learn that this is a God who makes all things new; who turns death into life.
It is at this point when we arrive at our reading from the Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures this morning. It is at this point that we pack up and set out on our Lenten journey in the wilderness.
Our journey begins today with the new beginning: the re-start of humanity and the earth. Earth re-boot. Earth 2.0.
We begin again with the same source material, so we humans are no better than we were before, but God has changed his strategy this time: from destruction and mass devastation to extravagant love.
This time, we begin with a promise from God.
God seals the newly-restored relationship between us with a covenant. The flood does not cleanse the human heart of sin. However, God promises to never destroy God’s people again, and puts a rainbow in the sky as the signature on a promissory note.
God is determined to find a new way—beyond violence and destruction—to get through to us instead. By promising us fidelity and faithfulness, forgiveness and unconditional love. What’s more, God makes this rainbow promise to ALL flesh. Black people, brown people and white people, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus, Republicans, independents and Democrats, prisoners and criminals, politicians and parents, sinners and saints, gay and straight, rich and poor, all along the gender spectrum. All flesh begins with beloved.
God promises to love us into restoration rather than retribution.
God “hangs up his bow”, retiring from battle. God picks up a lantern instead, heading up a search party to find us as we stumble around in the darkness of the wilderness. God promises to seek us and seek us, and never give up until we are returned home.
God knows we are lost in the wilderness of destruction and gun violence; fearful for our children; separated from each other. God promises relationship. God promises return. God promises us steadfast love. God reminds us we aren’t alone. The rest is up to us.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Toward the beginning of our Ash Wednesday service this week, we took water, and, using the sign of the cross, we blessed each other with it, saying, “you are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.”
We say this before we rend our hearts. We say this before we confess our sin. We say this before we come to the cross. We are reminded of this before we receive the ashes of our humanity, the knowledge that we are but dust.
We begin with beloved.
Our Ash Wednesday service is beautifully intergenerational, which is how it should be. I trembled as I put ashes on the heads of children, including my own. “You are God’s beloved dust, and to dust you shall return,” I said to children just born this year, and the children I created in my womb.
I shake at the truth of this: “To dust you, too, shall return.”
The day I gave birth to Cecilia was the day I realized I was going to die, and so would she. I wept at the thought of it. We would one day be rent from one another. (And please God, let it be me who dies first.)
“How could I have brought this beautiful child into this brutal world, knowing this horrible truth?” Was my first thought upon seeing her. I was instantly filled with terror and awe. For the first six weeks, I hid the 12 month onesies people gave me because I was terrified she wouldn’t make it that long...so close was the fact of death to the fact of life. Some people call that postpartum depression. I call it postpartum truth.
There’s also a strange sort of comfort in knowing your mortality. A strange humility in knowing you’re no different. A strange sameness to placing ash on the 92 year old forehead, right after the 2 year old forehead. Both the 92 year old and the 2 year old know better than you do what it’s like to be close to God. You can see it in their faces as you gently remind them that they are God’s beloved dust. They already know.
But there is no comfort in knowing that the mortality of our children can be acted out in vengeance upon them with weapons of mass destruction. There is no comfort in knowing that the beloved children God knit intricately in the wombs of their mothers could die, terrified and confused, as if they were targets in a video game instead of perfect creations of the holy.
All of those victims on Ash Wednesday in Florida— every single one—began with beloved. They were stolen from the earth by a perpetrator who didn’t know his own belovedness, so he couldn’t have known theirs'.
Meanwhile, the mothers’ weeping is echoing throughout the land right now in this season of repentance. I can hear it from Florida to Massachusetts. It is ringing in my mama ears. I want to tell my children that I’m sorry. Not sorry they were born, but sorry that I can’t protect them from the truth of their dying. Sorry I can’t protect them from the truth of America’s sin; the truth of America’s taste for their blood.
It is time for Americans to turn back toward God, which is what it means to repent. It is time to beat our swords into ploughshares. It is time to know the nearness of God’s kingdom on earth. It is time to be God’s REVOLUTIONARY LOVE in the world. It’s time to spread the kind of Love that is bold and unafraid: Love that doesn’t bow down to politicians or big business or the NRA, but to a God who is steadfast; a God who loves ALL FLESH. Begin with beloved.
It is time to spread and share and perpetuate God’s revolutionary Love until we have surrendered our killing machines for the sake of our children’s promise. It is time to teach our American boys and men a thirst for life instead of a thirst for death. It is time —across religious and political and race and class barriers—to cultivate and enervate in us the desire to create and re-create rather than destroy.
Repent, repent. Return, return. Restore, recreate.
We began with beloved, and got lost along the way.
God has sent out the search party for us, and we will be found. All flesh.
In the meantime, let us remember this:
God promises us that
on this path,
there will be help.
that on this way,
there will be rest.
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on February 11, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
On the day you were born, God said, “This Little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Last year, I was all set to say grace at the First Church Treasures of the Community auction before we ate our meal. Apparently, the organizing team didn’t like my prayer the year before, so they were attempting to micromanage my grace a bit.
“You can talk for a little longer than you did last year. Can you not sing this time? Can you say a couple of funny things, but not too funny? Can you call them all beloved, like you call us? We want them to like you.”
There are lots of folks who go to the auction who don’t come to our church. I think the auction planners figured that a couple glasses of wine, a few jokes, and a sweet nickname might make people happier to part with their money.
But I don’t call you “Beloved” to endear you to the church, or to me. I call you that because your status as Beloved by God is what matters here. I remind you that Beloved is your true name because where else are you going to hear that so explicitly? That’s the only way I can serve you the way you deserve to be served. You are God’s son, God’s daughter the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.
From The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen:
“Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests”—the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, (the second Adam); the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light...it is the never- interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love whenever it is heard.”
We all need to find that home at the center of our being that reminds us of our belovedness, we need to quiet the voices of hate and fear so that we can hear that never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity.
Now I don’t know, but I imagine the morning Ryan Blaquiere was born—February 28, 2017--was a day like any other for many of us. While we were slowly waking up, trudging to the shower, dragging a brush through our hair, waiting in the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru for the person in front of us to put in a large sandwich order with multiple coffees (why don’t they just go inside?!), fighting traffic on the highway, turning on our computers and mindlessly scrolling through our newsfeeds…while we were going about the every day-ness of our our day….God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and a light was born anew in the form of Ryan Lee Blaquiere.
The glory of God shone on his face, and the world would never be the same.
Especially for Lauren and Dave.
That day, Lauren and Dave gazed upon Ryan, smelling the newness of his head, drinking in his soft baby skin, lying him down on their bare chests, gingerly handing him out to others to hold, and immediately missing the weight of him in their arms as if he had always been there…
And it was very quiet, as rooms with newborn babies often are—there is a hush of awe. In the quiet, the voice of God whispered in their ears and flooded into their hearts:
“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Eventually, the nurses and doctors said they could bring Ryan home from the hospital, and Lauren and Dave couldn’t believe that the medical professionals were trusting them with this monumental task they certainly weren’t ready for. Like every new set of parents, they probably drove about 15 miles per hour all the way home.
Listening to Ryan, the Beloved, was their new task. It was going to take practice and time and every bit of love they had to give.
And so Lauren and Dave set about to listen, their hearts leaping at his every cry. They listened to him with bleary-eyed frustration in the middle of the night wondering desperately what he was asking for: to be fed or changed, to be held or rocked to sleep. They listened to his new language as the months went on: coos, and squeals and burps and diaper blow outs, and their baby’s first laugh, which is like a thousand angels singing.
They whispered in his ear, planted kisses on his brow, “You are my son, the beloved. I will always listen to you.”
“This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let him shine.”
You were all loved like this once. And this is how God loves you still. This love’s for keeps.
The only way to love a baby is largely without a lot of words. You love a baby by touching, feeding, rocking, holding, healing, listening. Responding.
Being loved and loving others in this way has the power to transform us into a far more beautiful version of who we could have been. It keeps us alive, and turns us human.
This kind of Love has the power to alight darkness, to change us into new beings.
Today is transfiguration Sunday. Happy Transfiguration Sunday! Most Christians probably don’t even realize that this is a “thing”…that this Transfiguration story gets told every year on the Sunday before Lent in Christian churches across America. No one at Walmart even wishes you a “Happy Transfiguration Sunday,” and Starbucks cups do not have a Transfigured Jesus as a logo at this time of year…they are just plain white and green. I call it the War on Transfiguration.
Anyway, this Sunday comes every year.
In the transfiguration story we heard today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, bringing his friends with him. While he is up there, a white light surrounds him, the appearance of his face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white. We see Moses next to him, the representative of the Law, and we see Elijah next to him, the representative of the prophets.
Now you may think that transfiguration sounds like some sort of miraculous event that can’t be real. But those of us who have sat at a death bed with a loved one who is dying know that the closer we are to God, the more our appearance changes.
Jesus’ friends were terrified when they see him transfigure, and amazed. These three disciples have been following Jesus around for quite awhile, and he’s given them lots of detailed instructions about what they are supposed to do to manifest God’s love in the world.
Right before their mountaintop moment, in fact, Jesus told them that anyone who wants to save their lives will deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.
Loving your enemies, healing the sick, visiting the prisoner, and giving away your possessions is not quite as thrilling as being bathed in a warm white light on the top of a mountain.
So when Peter hears the very voice of God Himself telling him that this newly transformed, radiant Jesus right in front of him is the real thing, the only response he can manage is “I like all this Glory, God! Let’s build three places for all of you to live, and camp out here with God forever and ever! This place rocks!”
But the lesson for Peter is that if God can transform, so can he.
So the voice of God says this:
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. That’s kind of a bummer for the disciples, because they know that listening to him means following him. Following him means they must go back down that glorious mountain, and give up their wants, privileges, securities, and power. Following him means turning love into an action.
Following him means to listen and respond: with touch, and feeding and holding and rocking and healing. Loving others, especially when it’s hardest to love.
And listening for his voice means quieting our own, seeing each person’s beauty, hearing each person’s need, feeling each person’s feelings.
So let us be quiet and imagine what Baby Ryan might be saying to us with his eyes and his smile and his little squeals and his not-yet grown-ness.
Imagine Ryan a beacon, a lighthouse planted in the middle of the desert as we poise on the brink of Lent.
Imagine Ryan, closer to the heart of God than any of us, “insisting on being seen” the way Jesus insists on being seen on the day of his transfiguration. Imagine God breaking into a pleased grin upon seeing Ryan, the way God gazes with delight upon Jesus on the mountain. Take delight in Ryan, as God does.
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him,”
Imagine following Ryan to build a world in which the light of God is allowed to be uncovered…a world where God’s light cannot be contained.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Let these be his words to you.
Listen to me.
Listen to me each time I cry to be fed. Respond with nourishment for my body and soul. Listen to me, even when you are angry with me. Respond with love each time I express emotion, no matter how uncomfortable my emotions are to you: my fear and rage, my grief and joy. Do not try and shame me out of my feelings.
Listen to me when I fail, or fall short. Respond by saying that I am forgiven despite my mistakes. I wasn’t made to be perfect, I was made to be loved.
Listen to me each time I cry out in thirst. Respond with living water.
Listen for me when I am lost, and bring me home again. Remind me often that I am to live my life as a gift to this broken and beautiful world.
Listen to me when my inevitable heartbreak and despair overcome my sense of joy in living. When you listen to me, it helps me to see the beauty of the world more clearly, and shows me ways to transform a little of life’s brutality into something I can use to grow.
Listen to me: to my small and tender call to build together a world worthy of my promise.
Respond by showing me I am not simply a consumer of goods, I am a part of the kingdom of God, no less and no more important than any other human being.
Imagine if we gazed upon every adult and child the way we gazed upon Ryan today; the way God gazed upon Jesus. My son, the beloved. We would no longer define ourselves by what tribe we belonged to, but as beloved children of God. Listen.
That kind of listening would demand we come down the mountain, ready to follow Jesus into the forgotten places of the empire to illuminate the darkness with our light.
If we are quiet and listen, the never- interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity can be heard.
When you were born, God said, “This Little light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Let your light shine. Amen.
Run and Not Grow Weary: A Sermon Dedicated to All Those Who Live with Cancer (In other words, all of us)
Preached on February 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett, with gratitude to marathoners Jennifer Caron and Kate Pietrovito, and to Jen Kalnicki, and all of the families in my congregation who live with the devastating affects of cancer. You are all inspirations, though we love you just as much at your most uninspired, uninspiring and weariest.
Sermons are usually better heard (though this one features bad singing because I forgot the tune to the song).
My son learned a song at Village Green preschool that he made me sing with him all day Friday. Maybe you know it.
We're goin' on a bear hunt
(We're goin' on a bear hunt)
We're going to catch a big one,
(We're going to catch a big one,)
I'm not scared
(I'm not scared)
What a beautiful day!
(What a beautiful day!)
A big dark forest.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
We've got to go through it!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
So it is with the darkness of our deepest suffering. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. We can’t get around it. We’ve got to go through it.
In our passage from Isaiah today, the prophet is speaking to those who have been suffering for a long time. He is addressing the Judean people who have long lived in exile, in Babylon. They are tired, beaten down, and in the depths of despair.
The prophet is trying to coax them to remember God’s promises to them, using almost a pleading tone. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told from the beginning? Our God created the foundations of the earth, the people are like tiny ants below. The Holy One created all of this, called it all by name, loved it all into existence. Wait on the Lord. He will give strength to the powerless; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
Lord, in this bleak midwinter, we gather around this communion table of grace to renew our strength, because we are weary from stumbling in the dark.
As your pastor who has the honor of knowing you deeply, I know that the amount of people here right now who feel powerless, and worn out from despair often far outweigh the amount of people who feel joyful and fulfilled on any given Sunday.
We are tired. We have endured daily images of people on the news who need our help and protection: from wildfires and floods, mass shootings and white supremacist rallies, refugees and #metoo movement, Muslim and Jewish hate crimes, the opioid crisis and the health care crisis…and so our empathy triggers are on high alert, and they have started to wear out. We have compassion fatigue.
Given our exhaustion, it’s pretty impressive that we can still dance our buns off on Friday night, and then serve a Saturday lunch for 100 people on Saturday, then show up here today, and auction off some delicious Super Bowl food to fuel a Pats win this afternoon.
Joy anyway! Joy in spite. Joy beside. Joy in resistance. Joy in defiance.
I also just want to say, Lord, because it needs to be said, we are sick of cancer; tired of cancer; DONE with cancer. This church can’t catch a break with that terrible beast of a wretched disease. Really.
Cancer is an indiscriminate dasher of spirits. It is a silent killer of faith. It steals lives and livelihoods and children from their parents and parents from their children.
And cancer has much to teach us about the depths of our weariness, and the depths of our strength.
I talked to our beloved Jen Kalnicki on the phone on Thursday, who just had her first round of chemo last week, and she was so weak that she said she had to drink from a straw all day because she couldn’t lift her head off of the pillow. She was so weary, Lord, she couldn’t lift her head. She has these two beautiful little girls, and sometimes she can't lift her head.
When I was a kid, my mom used to sing: “if somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.”
I am picturing the whole congregation just singing that to Jen, lying there in that bed. You don’t have to wait on God for strength when you have a community that brings God to you. I picture the whole congregation gently lifting her head up, lifting Paula Fogerty’s head up, and Ranny Sabourin’s, and Jeffrey Nideur’s, lifting up the heads of families who have lost loved ones to this disease, far too early—the Leonards, the Quinns, the Cransons, Pam Dell, the Joyces, to name only a few. I think we are in the business of gently lifting up heads and pointing them in the direction of the sun.
The prophet in the book of Isaiah tells the long-suffering Judean exiles to wait patiently on God, who will eventually give us strength.
Patience is a virtue, but it’s not my best virtue. My favorite prayer is “Lord, give me patience. And hurry.”
The scripture says that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Well, I’m definitely not a runner. To be honest, if a bear was chasing me down the rail trail, I’d just give up right away, lie down and ask the Lord to take me. I’ve led a good life. My children will be fine…they have good fathers.
So given that running is not my strong suit, I reached out to two of the marathon runners in our congregation. “I’m writing a sermon,” I said, “on how to run and not grow weary. I have no idea how that’s done. You two are always running marathons. Do you have advice?”
And I want to tell you what they said, because its just pure insight about living a good and faithful life. In fact, they were so convincing that they almost made me want to do one of those couch to 5K programs.
Jennifer Caron said this:
First of all, there is no such thing as long distance running *without growing weary*. We DEFINITELY grow weary!
Endurance training, though, is all about how to push our capacity so that we grow weary later on into the run (when you first start running, weariness might be at 3 miles, but through persistence and extending the mileage slowly each week - pretty soon you don’t grow weary until 12 miles, and so on). Also taking care of our bodies - eating healthfully, getting rest, getting bodywork, etc. is necessary.
Then there’s what we do WHEN we grow weary.
You have to take care of yourself physically:
1. EAT! (And drink) We love snacks. Healthy snacks that nourish us and fuel us at proper intervals for what’s ahead.
2. Go a comfortable pace, tune into your body (not too slow, not too fast, just right for that distance)
Most of all, she said, you have to take care of yourself mentally: (and this is 95% of it!)
1. You have to make it fun - run with friends, listen to music, celebrate the crap out of it when you’re done!
2. All the people out there supporting you makes you feel stronger…think of them.
3. You can’t freak out when the weariness and pain comes. An old coach of mine would say “get comfortable with the discomfort”. So when the cramping and fatigue creep in, we’re not going to freak out. Instead, it’s familiar and like an old friend. I will often say out loud “oh hello there, groin/hip/back pain, ol’ friend. I thought I might find you right about now.” This helps you keep calm and not despair. Reframing “pain” as “sensations” also helps me.
4. It helps to keep a perspective about people who are suffering with way worse, and what they would give to have the good health us marathoners have. This inspires you to push on when all else fails.
5. Of course using a trusted coach to help prepare you for the way is crucial.
Kate Pietrovito says this:
The question about how to run and not grow weary makes me think of the Gandhi prayer that we recite weekly in the Spirit Play classroom, specifically, the line: “my wisdom comes from within and without”.
Endurance and motivation come from both internal and external sources. To finish a long race, a difficult race, you must leverage both.
Internally, it’s the mental and physical training and desire. This applies to everything: the desire to work hard, the desire to achieve a personal goal, the things you tell yourself to keep you going when you feel like giving up. Thinking about the work you’ve put in that would be all for naught if you quit.
Externally, our world has so many sources of inspiration. Use them! During the Marine Corps Marathon, there’s a mile called the “wear blue” mile. It is full of photographs of our fallen soldiers, and lined with volunteers—their families. Jen and I both cried through that mile.
Other times, you think of your family. You think of your friends. You think of a First Church favorite phrase, “we can do hard things” And you repeat it as a mantra when your energy is slipping away.
Jen Kalnicki recently wrote this about her first week of chemo, and she gave me permission to share it with you:
The past few days have sucked. You really take for granted the ability to lift your head, hold your phone, just breathe.
There have been moments of doubt (I can't possibly do this...), moments of dread (what if it's like this the whole time...), moments of anger (why are we treating this so aggressively, others are able to work/walk/exist, why can't I?), and finally moments of despair (just hot, hot tears...).
But each time those moments appeared, there was something equally glorious happening. Mark's steady and calming love crashing over me in waves, Ava and Lili's intrinsic ability to comfort and motivate, friends and family swooping in to carry the burden, and the freedom to cry it out. The messages lift and carry us through those lows, even when I cannot respond.
Today, I bear witness to the scandalous generosity and outrageous love this journey has shown me. Today, I woke up able to move a bit more. Today, I woke up.
And tomorrow, I'll get up and do it again.
In this long, slow slog of loving each other, and loving a beautiful and broken world…as we wait on God to give us strength for the journey, remember these tips from Jen, Kate and Jen:
Start by acknowledging that we will definitely grow weary. We are only human and doing the best that we can. Normalize that. Pay attention to it. Then: take care of your bodies. Eat good, healthy food, and drink water. Go at a comfortable pace.
Please, make it fun. Celebrate the crap out of everything. Laugh. Go with friends, and let music be the soundtrack to your life. Use the desire within you and the motivation all around you. Remember you are not alone.
Don’t freak out when it gets painful. Don’t retreat. Get comfortable with discomfort. Treat pain like an old friend who reminds you that you’re still alive, that your heart is still tender. Keep calm and don’t despair. Remember who has it worse, what you are grateful for, who you are living for, and why.
Use trusted coaches who will help you prepare the way.
Leverage internal and external sources of strength. Your wisdom comes from within and without.
We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it. So don’t quit. Swoop in to share burdens and send messages of love. Give the freedom to yourself and others to cry it out.
Together, we can stumble trip through the darkness. Together, we can run and not grow weary. Together, we can do hard things. Together, our generosity and love keeps people alive. This grace is a scandal and an outrage, and sometimes it is nothing less than the reason people wake up in the morning. Tomorrow, we can get back up and do it all again. Not everyone has that privilege.
Don’t just wait on the Lord—be the Love and grace in world the Lord calls us to be. No hands but our hands.
Blessing for the Brokenhearted by Jan Richardson
Let us agree
that we will not say
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
time will heal
when every day
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this--
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us
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.