A Sermon delivered at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on February 23, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
A man who had reached his 100th birthday was being interviewed by a reporter.
“What are you most proud of?” the reporter asked.
“Well,” said the man, “I don’t have an enemy in the world.”
“Wow! What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!” said the reporter. “What’s your secret?”
“I outlived every last one of them.” Said the man.
I like his strategy. There’s one problem with it though: the only person I know for sure you and I can never outlive is ourselves.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Just like we can’t love our neighbors if we don’t love ourselves first, we can’t love our enemies if we don’t love ourselves first.
The first rule of preaching is to never talk about your process. But I’m going to break that rule because I like breaking rules. I struggled mightily with this sermon. I rewrote it probably 6 times. It was because I got stuck on one question I just couldn’t get past.
Like the lawyer who tries to trick Jesus with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I got all caught up in this question:
“Who is my enemy?”
It’s not that I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s just that I have too many complex answers.
I’ve created more than a few enemies in my life. Sometimes I have produced enemies from hurtful mistakes I’ve made. But mostly I’ve made enemies by taking bold action, or telling hard truths.
Notice Jesus doesn’t advise us to be more likeable in his sermon on the level place.
He tells us instead to love those who hate us. My colleague Taryn said, “If everyone’s your friend…you’re doing life wrong, which is partially what Jesus meant. Get yourself an enemy! Then love them!” Or, as someone once said, “live your life in such a way that Westboro Baptist comes to picket your funeral.”
I did a funeral for one of the great pillars of this church who now joins the saints in light—Bob Smiley—on Thursday. He had every leadership position there was to have in this church, from Moderator to deacon. Apparently he used to advise lay leaders that it was good to be in trouble with someone at First Church. It meant that something positive was happening…that some good change was afoot. I took that advice immediately to heart, as I am always in trouble with someone around these parts.
So, I intended to preach some version of Taylor Swift’s immortal words: “haters gonna hate.” Love anyway. I was going to preach Howard Thurman’s wisdom: Don’t let other people’s hatred become your own. Don’t become the thing you disdain.
But still, I kept getting caught up in this question: “Who is my enemy?”
So, I did what preachers do—I looked to the scriptures for other instances of the word “enemy.” It’s in there a lot.
Because I did two funerals this week, I recited the 23rd psalm a bunch. The part of the 23rd psalm that is most compelling for me is the line that says: “God sets a table before me in the presence of my enemies. He anoints my head with oil, my cup over flows.”
Sometimes I imagine an extravagant table filled with bread and chocolate, fine linens and silver candlesticks, and my cup overflowing with wine. I picture God setting a place before me in the presence of my ex-mother-in-law, the mean girls from Rundlett Junior High School, the first man who broke my heart, domestic terrorists and Ann Coulter.
I imagine God serving up a big pot of steaming chicken soup with dumplings, beckoning me to sit down. My enemies are watching me carefully place my napkin in my lap and they are salivating.
I imagine Jesus teaching me to pray before we eat: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others. And then—maybe Jesus gives Ann Coulter the stink eye before saying— “And Deliver us from evil. Amen.”
But, in biblical terms, there are two kinds of enemies: the demonic kind and the human kind. In the 23rd Psalm, David is referring to demonic enemies.
David’s not referring to my ex mother-in-law at all, but to the ways in which Satan, the Accuser, attempts to steal our own worth. God is there in the midst of all that reminding us of the banquet he’s set before us in the PRESENCE of all that holds us back from Love’s glory.
“What about when enemies have a human face, Jesus?”
I decided to ask you all who your enemies were when I got home from a day long pastoral care training for lay folks yesterday. On Facebook. Late at night. I got hundreds of answers. The answers weren’t really wearing human faces like I thought they would be. They were more “what” than “who.”
Who is YOUR enemy? I asked.
You said things like ignorance, fear, autocorrect, expectations, ego, oppression, hatred, worry, alcohol, capitalism, fossil fuel companies, disco, the New York Yankees, secrets and systems that support them, apathy, exhaustion, judgement, people who ask for Saturday night sermon help…
Some of you named people who have harmed you, Nazis, your exes, or people who deny the humanity of others.
But here’s what surprised me: most of you said that you are, in fact, your own worst enemy.
More than half of you said some version of “the voice inside my head is my enemy. The part of me that second guesses every decision, that tells me I’m worthless; that I’m not good enough. That’s my enemy.”
You didn’t answer the way I expected you to: with your political opponents, the people in the internet comment section, the kids who always picked you last for teams in gym class, your critical grandmother who told you you we are fat and lazy, the people who have violated your bodies over the years with violence.
You told me that the accuser resides inside of you.
The enemy, it seems, is not just external to us, but inside of us. It’s like the horror movie when the actor suddenly realizes, “the call is coming from inside the house.”
But here’s what I KNOW to be true:
God is there, too, inside the house. God sets a table there in the midst of our fears and insecurities and our apathy and our anxiety and our tendency to beat ourselves up and says:
“Your worth is determined by my Love, not the accuser’s hate. Here, have some soup.”
Jesus says “love your enemy.” Just like we can’t love our neighbors if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love the enemy if we don’t love ourselves.
The word used in this passage from Luke for love—agape in Greek—is not the Hallmark kind of love. It isn’t the doormat kind of love. It is the rebel kind of love. It is the brave, whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. Expecting nothing in return.
I want us to imagine together what it might look like to give brave, whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for our own well-being. Expecting nothing from ourselves in return. Not a thinner body, or a reprieve from foot-in-mouth syndrome, or remembering to send thank you notes.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and writer, thinks we should pray naked in front to the mirror.
Bear with me.
She recommends that from time to time we take off our clothes, look at ourselves in the mirror, and tell ourselves with as much tenderness as we can, "Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address."
Thankfully, Jesus left us a blue print for how to love. He told us how to see the divine in the faces of our enemies, even if we see the face of our enemy in the mirror.
So beloved, if your worst enemy is yourself, go home tonight and pray naked in front of the mirror. Look at yourselves with as much gentleness as you can muster. Look at every stretch mark and wrinkle and mole and hair or lack thereof…let your body tell the story of where you’ve been. Embrace yourself with the kindness that can only come from a wastefully, extravagantly loving God. Your life has been shaped in that body. It is your soul’s address. Let God carefully set a table before you in the presence of all the demonic forces in your life that have led you to believe you are not worthy of Love.
And then sit down at that table with God and have some delicious enemy pie.
preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on February 3, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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I call this “churches gone wild week” in the lectionary.
Congregations are capable of great love, and great destruction. That’s the uncomfortable lesson both Jesus and Paul have to teach us this week.
In our scriptures from Luke for the last two weeks, we have followed Jesus to his hometown congregation, where he preaches his first sermon.
I recently had a similar experience, for the sake of field research.
On October 7, 2018, more than 24 years after I graduated from Concord High School, I stood in the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire. This is the church where I was born and came of age in. My mother was the music director for 18 years. My father is still on the buildings and grounds committee. My stepmother chairs the stewardship drive. I know about every fight the church has had in the past 40 years, every minister they ever ran out of town, and who was on which side. I also know them to be capable of loving me into the person I am.
I hadn’t been back on a Sunday morning in at least 20 years, maybe more.
I swallowed hard, my mouth suddenly dry. I looked out into the congregation to see my father, my brother, my niece, my sixth grade teacher, my high school English teacher, my grade school piano teacher, my Sunday School teacher, my childhood friend, my friend’s parents and my parent’s friends. “These people will never take me seriously,” I thought.
(How many of you grew up in this church? Show of hands. I started to realize what you all feel every Sunday.)
The elder of blessed memory who scolded me after I played an angel in the Christmas pageant telling me I “acted more like a devil than an angel up there,” had long since gone to live with God. I’m not saying I’m relieved that she died, only that her absence that morning took some pressure off.
I had never been so scared to preach a sermon in my life.
At the risk of comparing myself to Jesus, I preached the good news Jesus preached to his own hometown congregation, from the scripture you heard Megan preach last week:
The spirit of Love is upon me because I have been anointed to bring good news to you who are brokenhearted. All of you who are held captive will soon be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will receive justice. And I am proclaiming this—2018--the year of Love’s blessing—the year of the Love Revolution.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Tears streamed down my face as we sang the closing hymn. I was home.
In the receiving line, person after sweet person held my hands and told me how proud they were of me. “That was the best sermon I have ever heard.” “You are so beautiful.” “I can’t believe it’s you.” “Who knew you had this in you?” “Aren’t you Beth’s daughter? Please tell her how much we miss her.” It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I just couldn’t believe they remembered me—just one of the church kids—24 years later. And that they came just to see how I’d turned out.
The congregants were also quick to point out to me that my theology was now so different than theirs that I could never be their minister. “You’re a Christian now? How does *that* work?” The subtext was "Thanks for visiting, but that would never fly here.”
You can never go home again.
“Isn’t he Joseph’s son? He is so gracious,” Jesus’ hometown congregation praises him when the service he preaches at is over. But Jesus knows long before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem that groups of humans can turn on a dime. He knows that humans can close each other off to heaven just as quickly as they rain down grace.
He knows you can never go home again.
So Jesus goes ahead and ruins all those good vibes in the receiving line. He predicts that they will reject him before they do, so he heads them off at the pass: “I’m sure you want me to heal you. But I know from scripture that prophets are rejected in their hometowns.”
When the congregation heard Jesus say this, they turn on him. His prediction comes true after he says it out loud, which kinda sounds to me like the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy, no? The congregation flies into a rage, drives him out of the synagogue, and out of the town. They don’t just stop there, they try to hurl him off a cliff!
Jesus passes right through them, which is such a beautiful image of non-anxious leadership. He just kind of rises above their anger and perseveres, and goes on his way. May we all be like “chill Jesus,” amen? When someone is so angry they want to hurl you off a cliff, it’s not you, it’s them. Just take a deep breath, pass through the midst of them and go on your way, my friends.
Our reading from first Corinthians is one of the most famous readings from the scriptures. It is most often read at weddings, and people cross stitch it onto wall hangings. We are tempted to think that this reading is trite, romantic or lacks nuance.
But this reading is not at all Hallmark sentimentalism. It comes from a pointed letter Saint Paul wrote to the church in Corinth rebuking them for becoming a petty, nasty brood of vipers.
The people of the church were in the midst of being total jerks to one another. They were passive aggressive, or just aggressive. They were giving each other the silent treatment, making dramatic threats to leave, and threatening to lower their pledges if they didn’t get what they wanted. They were talking about each other behind each other’s backs in the church parking lot. They were undermining leadership with petty gossip. In short, they were behaving badly. They couldn’t figure out how to live with one another, much less how to love one another. They didn’t even like one another!
And so Paul says “Look: we can say we are all for creating heaven on earth and gathering in the spirit of Jesus, but if we don’t have love, that means absolutely nothing. We can study scripture and pray and generally know a lot about God, but if we don’t have love, that’s all a worthless endeavor. Might as well go bowling. Even if we give all of our possessions away to the poor and don’t have love, we gain nothing. Meaningless.”
And then Paul tells them what Love really is when you are no longer a swooning teenager, or a princess on your wedding day. When you are an adult, Paul says, Love is not a feeling, but a way of being. Love is patient. Love is kind, he says. Mostly he tells the church in Corinth how NOT to be in Love:
Don’t be envious
Don’t be boastful
Don’t be arrogant
Don’t be rude
Don’t insist on getting your own way
Don’t be irritable
Don’t rejoice in wrong doing.
“There’s no room for any of that nonsense when you are adulting,” Paul says. “Stop trying to throw one another off the cliff.”
He’s not talking about LOVERS, he’s talking to the church.
Now this church is blessedly not particularly oriented toward petty fights at all. Mostly, we are a beloved community with a sincere focus on our mission. And we can still get outraged about the small things every now and then. We are only human and doing the best that we can, amen?
In August of 2016, I came home from vacation and my thoughts were turning to homecoming and getting the church ready, I sent an email out to the operations team leadership saying, “Hi all! When is our new sign going to be installed on the front lawn?”And Doug wrote a “reply to all message” that said, “I saw the sign! It is amazing. Probably installed Wednesday.”
This was in the evening and I was in my house which as most of you know is quite close to the church. I swear to you I was fully sober. And I was so excited to see it, that I ran immediately over to the church to witness with my own eyes the newly installed church sign Doug was talking about.
What I saw looked exactly like our old sign. Forest green, with just the words “The First Church in Sterling”, barely visible, and back from the road, fading into the green bush behind it like camouflage.
At first I was confused, and then I was just mad. In fact, I had never been so furious with this church. My belly was in KNOTS. I considered going back to therapy.
“We spent all this money on the sign, one that was supposed to stand out and SAY WHO WE WERE, and the new sign we made is exactly the same as the last one!” I yelled at my husband.
I wrote to my best collegial friends: “They changed the sign plans without telling me. And it fades into the bushes and doesn’t have our denominations on it, and doesn’t have my name on it, and it was supposedly going to! What do you think this MEANS?!”
My colleague friends said, “maybe they are trying to tell you that they don’t want too much change too fast. Maybe they figure they are the town church, and they should go for small and tasteful. You got too much press last year! They didn’t like it. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity for conversation about communication and mission and change.”
For a full hour, I was enraged. “I’m just curious,” I wrote in an email to the church leadership who worked on the sign. “Did something change with our sign plans? This new sign looks just like our old one. Did I miss something?”
Chris Roy finally wrote back, after I had slipped further into the abyss until there was practically no return. “You missed something alright. The sign is not going to be installed until this Wednesday.”
And Jon Guild replied, “in case folks don’t know, Doug saw the new church sign yesterday…on a smartphone. If the “new” sign is green, has peeling paint, and looks very similar to our existing sign…that’s probably not the new sign.”
“Whoops,” I said to my colleagues. “It turns out that was the old sign I was looking at.”
And they died. “Thanks to your nervous breakdown, Robin, we have sermon fodder for WEEKS,” they said. We will call our sermons, “I saw the sign,” “signs and wonders,” “Signs, signs, everywhere are signs”.
Sometimes we are a little too quick to hurl each other off cliffs without having all the facts, without assuming good intent, without offering abundant grace instead. We jump to wild conclusions without asking our friends directly, trusting their intentions, or waiting for an answer. We are only humans, and doing the best that we can.
In the spirit of doing the best that we can, three years ago your church leadership did some really good work. In January of 2016, several of your congregation’s leaders got together to create what they called a behavioral covenant, after multiple afternoon workshops and work sessions on “Walking in the Way of Peace.” They learned skills like active listening, speaking the truth in love directly to people you have a concern with in a timely fashion, and assuming good intent. They learned about avoiding “parking lot” conversations, triangulation, Facebook comments section debates, and “reply to all” emails, or emails with emotional content when a face to face meeting is called for.
This is how to treat love not as a feeling, but as a way of BEING, they told us. It’s not easy, which is why we have one another to keep us accountable.
Here is the covenant we made, articulated beautifully by Janet Baker and Vicki Gaw:
As a congregation, we gather in the spirit of Jesus to create heaven on earth. To succeed in our mission, we must practice open and honest communication among ourselves and with others:
We will speak from our hearts and without judging; seeking facts, ideas and inspirations.
We may disagree, and we will do so with respect.
When we have concerns or questions, we will bring them directly to the person or group with the responsibility.
We will do so with the expectation of being heard and understood and the possibility of deepening our own understandings.
In all this, we will speak with love and nourish our connections by sharing our laughter, our prayers, our lives, and ourselves.
These promises are how we practice being Love, here in this place.
Beloved, be patient. Be kind. Rejoice in the truth. If you incite rage in others, remember it’s not about you. Don’t let anyone throw you off a cliff…big breath, and go on. Be humble enough to say you’re wrong. Offer forgiveness like it is water for the thirsty. Begin again and again. Open up the heavens by remaining open to one another. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org