by Reverend Robin Bartlett
delivered at First Church in Sterling
March 27, 2016
Scripture: John 20: 1-18
Listen to the sermon here
My husband told me last year when I was still vibrating with over-caffeinated, chocolate and timpani-fueled joy from our two Easter Sunday services that he’s always been deeply uncomfortable with the triumphalism of Easter. The ceremony and pomp and circumstance and the displays of bright flowers and the “We won! We’re number one!” of it all always kind of offended his sensibilities, even from when he was little. He appreciates the reality of Ash Wednesday, the penitence of Lent, the servant leadership foot washing of Maundy Thursday, the suffering at the cross of Good Friday. But the forced happiness of Easter? The whole show? The resurrection—three days and all is GOOD? The Hallelujahs? Gag.
Well, way to “yuck” my “yum” as the kids say.
I love Easter. I am an extroverted Broadway fan and I love high drama and key changes and timpani and triumphant singing. Seriously, Gen-Xers, I listened to ‘80s hairband ballads all yesterday to psyche myself up for Easter. What? You’d be surprised at how appropriate they are. This morning’s sermon brought to you by Guns N’ Roses and Cadbury mini-eggs. And my husband is an introvert who loved acoustic hipster music before it was cool, who prefers sober inward reflection about death. He’s a little morbid, and I’m a little, well, overly-dramatic.
I’m sure many of you are like me which is why you are here, but I bet there are also plenty of you out there like my husband, and your grandma made you come anyway. And I know people who avoid Easter services in church, or wish that they could, because they just lost a spouse, or they are struggling with depression or addiction or they just got a divorce, or lost a job, or their child died, or a dream died inside them. Or simply because it seems ridiculous to shout “Hallelujah, praise God” into a broken world full of evil and terror.
And the bright greetings of the day
“He is RISEN!”
“He is RISEN INDEED!”
And the bright colors
And the bright music
And the bright preacher in the pulpit saying, “this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,”
Even if it’s your wife…
Rings false, unbelievable and forced.
And sugared words that make your teeth hurt more than the Peeps you ate for breakfast this morning… well, it’s all a little much.
Well, church, we have had a sincere lack of sugar in the past 40 days, so bring on the Cadbury mini-eggs and the Hallelujahs. Amen?
The tradition since about the 5th century in the Christian church has been to take the word “Hallelujah!” out of the liturgy for the forty days of Lent. The focus of Lent is supposed to be on taking careful, prayerful stock of personal and communal sin and offering repentance to God with sober sacrifice. The theory is that the joyful shouting and singing of the word “Hallelujah,” which means, “Praise God” should be said only when we can give it full voice—when our joy is complete in the resurrection of Christ. That’s why our “Hallelujahs” are suspended during the weeks of Lent, no matter how badly Ronna and I want to add a little oomph to our worship-planning by singing “All Creatures of Our God and King” with a modulation at the end (That’s my favorite hymn, of course.)
So our Hallelujahs go away. And they all come out again today after the betrayal of Maundy Thursday, the horror of crucifixion on Good Friday, and the mourning of Holy Saturday…as soon as the stone has been rolled away on the third day, and Jesus is found mysteriously gone from the tomb they laid him in. We say “Hallelujah” today as a relief and a hope. Sorry, honey, but I’ve been waiting for this moment!
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
I acknowledge that many of us maybe aren’t ready for all that yet. We are not ready to roll away the stones: the stone of our grief, or the stone of our grudges, or the stone of our addictions, or the stone of our deceit and conceit, or the stones of our anger, or the stones of our self-loathing, or the stone of death. Some of us are not ready to come out of our tombs.
And that’s OK. Sometimes we try to say a joyful, triumphant Hallelujah way too soon.
Brene Brown recalls being a young child of about ten and going to a funeral of a toddler from her neighborhood with her mom. The toddler had been killed in an accident in his home, and the mother was diagnosed with cancer soon after. And the preacher said to the congregation, “this is not a time for grieving; that’s selfish, because this little child is with God. This is a time to celebrate.”
And this just made Brene furious. She just couldn’t even make sense of that.
And thank God Brene’s mama said to her in the car on the way home, “I just want to be really clear with you that this is not a time to celebrate. If you’re sad today, that’s OK. Be assured that God is grieving today too. God’s weeping with you.”
The women who visited the tomb on Easter morning were going through the motions, like you do when someone dies. They were weeping, not celebrating. They were still in the depths of mourning. When they saw the angels in white, they were scared, not thrilled. When the women went to tell the others, they were confused and didn’t even know what happened to the body, they were not exactly rejoicing. When Mary saw Jesus in the garden, she was disbelieving, not delighted.
Resurrection comes slowly. We aren’t always ready for a Hallelujah, even if our season of sadness is “supposed to be” over.
Some of us--we are like Mary weeping at Jesus’ tomb. Mary, still mourning her friend’s death, which was more than just a friend’s death. It was the death of the dream of a world made whole in God’s shalom. She was probably up all night wracked with grief. She was wondering how she would go on.
And those angels say to her: “Woman, why are you weeping?”
I imagine her snapping at them: “Because they have taken away my Lord,” likely with the same disgust and disbelief 10-year-old Brene felt when the priest told her to celebrate in the face of impossible tragedy.
And then Mary sees Jesus. He appears to her, and they are in the garden alone. She supposes him to be the gardener, in fact, and then finally recognizes him. “Teacher!” she says.
And he says, “don’t hold on to me. I am ascending to the father. To my God and Your God.”
She knows that it is him. That he has come up out of the tomb, that he has gotten up and walked away; triumphed over death. He is risen indeed! And still…
And still he tells her, “don’t hold on to me.”
I wonder if she stopped crying then. The scripture doesn’t say, but I’m not sure that would be a satisfying answer to me, enough to halt my tears. Those of us who have said goodbye to a loved one who is dying know that it can be little consolation to be told: “I’m ascending to the father. To my God and Your God. Don’t hold on to me.”
Resurrection always means grieving and letting go, because there has to be a death first. And so hallelujah comes slowly.
As Leonard Cohen sings, “love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
Sometimes our hallelujahs are smaller, deliberate, tentative, because sometimes resurrection is simply a quiet determination to begin again—to praise God despite our despair.
Ellen Bass writes:
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air,
heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief.
you think, how long can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
Sometimes Hallelujah is the tentative choice we make in the midst of our grief--to praise God regardless, to hold life like a face between our palms, and choose to love it again.
And beloved—some of us need one of those joyful, full throated, unbridled “Hallelujahs” today more than ever. We have been waiting for this moment of Hallelujah for a long time.
Our Hallelujahs are not said in denial, but defiance. You and I are struggling with so much loss this season. Change has been hard for us, and with change comes loss and no small amount of grief. We have buried so many dead. We have been mired in job loss and financial insecurity, loss of people and pets, the change of identity that comes with retirement, new relationships, new parenthood. We have endured seemingly endless chronic illnesses and new diagnoses, people we know and love committing suicide, and attempting suicide, depression, chronic and empty busy-ness, the anxiety of not knowing, of waiting. Right now, our friends Maureen and Kristen Cranson sit at the bedside of their son and brother who lays dying of melanoma at a ridiculously young age. It’s not fair.
You and I have been trying to raise thoughtful, kind, faithful children and teenagers, and we tremble with fear at the thought of them reaching adulthood, and we tremble with the fear of them not reaching adulthood unharmed.
And you and I are worried and we are sad and we are scared when we look at the state of the world, and at our country with its division and its violence.
And in the midst of all this, we give praise to God, because fear, hatred, division, violence and grief don’t have the final word. Resurrection does. Love does. Life does. God does.
You see, our Hallelujahs are sung in defiance of death. Our Hallelujahs are loud laughter at the terrorists and kings and cancers who would seek to steal our joy with their murderous rages. Our Hallelujahs are our determination to praise God through the bitterness of our tears.
We know it sounds crazy to some.
Hallelujah! What a thing to say just days after Good Friday—the day an innocent man was murdered at the hands of the state, while friends abandoned and betrayed him. We say Hallelujah because death did not have the final word. We say Hallelujah in defiance of imperial power and legislated hate. Life wins! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! What a thing to say on this Easter Sunday, following a horrific terrorist bombing in Brussels in which so many innocent people were murdered at the hands of those who have distorted the word of God. God climbed out of his grave on Sunday morning to remind us that though this may have been a week of terror, it is still God’s world. We say Hallelujah in defiance of terror and fear. Love wins! Hallelujah!
We say Hallelujah because we need resurrection now more than ever. New life where there once was death. Hope in the face of fear. We need to say, “yes, life, I will hold you like a face between my palms, and I will try to love you again.” Love wins! Hallelujah!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
And so we say a defiant, a hopeful, a determined “Hallelujah.”
My friend Rev. Jake Morrill writes: “Maybe resurrection isn't a fancy new outfit at a well-outfitted church; maybe it's somebody who should have OD'ed last night, but woke up in the morning; or a country that seemed on the verge of tipping the whole planet into hell, but tipped back at the last moment, avoiding the final devastation. On Easter morning, those who loved Jesus were amazed. But they were still in trouble, Rome was still in charge, and they were still at least two thousand years away from glory, maybe more. Still: Hallelujah.”
Hallelujah still. Praise God, still, though we are still far away from glory; still far from God’s dream for a world made whole.
My favorite verse of the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” is the last and least sung verse. I don’t know why it is the least sung verse, because it is the best one. I’m going to close with it. Will you sing the Hallelujahs with me?
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
You are the resurrection and the life, beloved. Happy Easter.
Delivered March 20, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Scriptures: Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Luke 19: 28-40
THIS is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
We gathered this past Wednesday in our parish hall for our “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” night with over 100 people, 20 of whom came from the Worcester Islamic Center. It was a beautiful event, amen? We broke bread together, we prayed together, we learned together.
I found myself on the verge of tears the whole time, and I realized that I wasn’t tearful because it was so moving, though it certainly was. I found myself on the verge of tears because I was scared, and I was angry that I was scared. Gathering in a room with a large group of people trying to create peace across difference has always been dangerous, especially now. And that makes me angry.
I am angry that our Muslim neighbors have to justify why they deserve the same human dignity that you and I do. I am angry that our neighbors have to constantly distance themselves from terrorists, as if Islam and terrorism are the same thing. I am angry that I feared disruption from people who may have had ill intent toward our guests. I am angry that our Muslim neighbors here in Central Massachusetts have faced discrimination, harassment at the grocery store and on the internet, defacement of property, violence. Especially Muslim women, who have to take classes in self-defense because they are targeted far more than men. I am angry that our Muslim brothers and sisters are over and over again told to leave this country, even though they are citizens, many born here. I am angry that a country founded on religious pluralism and religious freedom is not free.
And I’m ready to turn over some tables, which, if you are asking yourselves “what would Jesus do?” Don’t forget that’s one of the options.
This is a good week for fear and anger. And it is also a good week for hope. It is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. We will go through the suffering and the torture and the death of this week with Jesus at our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. You need to come to one or both of those, because the Christian story makes little sense, and has far less power, without them.
And next Sunday, after the violence and destruction and betrayal and scorn and spit and blood and nails of this week is over, LOVE WILL WIN. The stone will be rolled away, and God will rise victorious.
Likewise, after the violence and the hateful rhetoric against our brothers and sisters in this presidential election is over and the dust clears, the stone will be rolled away, God will still reign, and Love will win.
Today is Palm Sunday. We heard the story of the Palm Sunday procession from the Gospel of Luke already.
But there were actually two processions into the holy city of Jerusalem on Passover week.
Pontius Pilate also entered the city at the beginning of the week, in a procession from the west, described as being “draped in the gaudy glory of imperial power: horses, chariots, and gleaming armor” (David Lyon Bartlett, Feasting on the Word). Pilate rode in with a professional, organized army to represent the watchful eye of the law. This processional was a display of might and power. It’s sole purpose to make sure Passover week in Jerusalem didn’t get out of hand.
This festival of Passover was a threat to the Roman authorities, after all. This was the week the Jewish people remembered God’s liberation with feasting and with story-telling, and when people get a literal taste of freedom, they can get out of hand. It was the week the Jews celebrated their chosen-ness; their beloved-ness in the eyes of their God. And when people dare to remember they are beloved and worthy, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND. This was the week that the Jews celebrated a God who led them out of slavery and bondage, and through the gates of freedom. And when people are reminded that they are still in chains and they were promised more, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND. And they have a new leader now: Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The one who was consistently reminding the voiceless ones that they are worthy, and maybe not so powerless after all.
Yes, it was a dangerous week to be in Jerusalem. And so the first procession was one designed to show the military strength and the power of Caesar’s government. The procession came to intimidate those who gathered to witness Jesus’ arrival into the city.
Insurrection was in the air, and this gleaming procession of imperial power—the long arm of the law--was prepared to do whatever it took to stop it.
And from the East, came another procession. Jesus, a newly popular prophet (which means truth-teller), leads this one. There were no fancy saddles and horses and chariots for Jesus…just a donkey with some coats laid over it to ease his seat. This procession didn’t look at all like a kingly procession—there was no gleaming armor or guards or weapons. Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was. And it was a fulfillment.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him. They cried out Hosanna! Which means “I beg you to save!” In the procession were those in need of salvation: the religious outcasts and the inner circle, those on the margins, the lepers and the lame, the strangers, the aliens, the prostitutes, the homeless, the sick. Kind of a scrappy bunch of sinners and saints, hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women, the healed ones and the ones still in need of healing. You know, just like us. Just like our scrappy banged up band of sinners and saints here in this church. All being led by the blessed king who comes in the name of the Lord.
And the multitude was standing up straight and shouting, perhaps some of them for the first time.
Because this was a group of misfits formerly on the margins, drawn into God’s ever-widening circle, shoulders back, faces to the sun. They were grateful and joyous to be counted again as worthy by this unlikely King Jesus. And so these people; this multitude; spread cloaks in the road, waved palms. Made the path straight and soft for his feet.
And it was LOUD. It was the volume you might expect from a group of people once silenced; who have just found their voice.
They were loudly singing and shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
As my friend and colleague, Reverend Claire Feingold Thoryn, says, “it was a pop-up parade of loud poor people who had the audacity to be happy, so you know someone was going to complain.”
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop. Tell them to be quiet. This is getting out of hand,” some Pharisees in the crowd said.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
Jesus knew that this merry band of followers was too loud; too dangerous. That he was a threat to the authorities by virtue of his audacious crowd; that his days were numbered. In fact, he knew he was entering the city in which he would meet his death just five days later. It was dangerous. Gathering with a large group of people trying to create peace across difference has always been dangerous, especially now. He was probably even fearful, and maybe angry. Maybe even on the verge of tears.
He rode in on that donkey anyway. Jesus had more important things to do there in Jerusalem than worry about his own death, or the volume of his followers’ cheering. He was going to that city to remember, and to taste God’s meal of freedom—our God whose steadfast love endures forever; our God who opens the gates of righteousness.
Let them be loud.
“If these were silent, the very stones would shout out.” He said.
It is Palm Sunday, and you and I need to be loud, too; we who have tasted God’s meal of freedom; we who seek to create earth as it is in heaven. There has been too much silence in the face of oppression at the hands of the powerful; at the expense of the weak.
It is time for the people of faith to be the voice for the voiceless.
I want to read a letter to you that Episcopal Church House of Bishops and the United Church of Christ leaders have signed onto:
On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.
In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.
In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.
We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.
Beloved, the spirit of reconciliation must prevail if we are to live up to our status as God’s own beloved. God’s people are crying: Hosanna! I beg you to save.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that “salvation is not something that happens at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead.”
On Wednesday night, we opened our doors. We rejected the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hope of others. We took a step toward respecting the dignity of every human being, and the common good of our community.
Our Worcester Islamic Center guests were brilliant, faithful, kind, funny, and inspiring. We were humbled by our neighbors’ willingness to teach us, and to share with us. This is what God’s world looks like—people eating at table, breaking bread together despite difference, growing in faith by looking into each other’s eyes, and recognizing God there.
In a time of deeply concerning rhetoric against our Muslim brothers and sisters, and our black brothers and sisters, and our Mexican brothers and sisters, and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and our immigrant brothers and sisters, we need to know one another. In a time of violence and hate, we need to love one another. In a time of disunity, we need to create unity.
We will unmask the lie that only might makes right. This may be Caesar’s week, but it is God’s world.
We sang this song together on Wednesday:
Weave, weave, weave us together, weave us together in unity and love.
We will ask our one eternal God to continue to weave us together in unity and love. We will have the audacity to be happy. Our voices will no longer be silent in the face of intimidation and hate. We will prick the ears of the authorities with our songs of unity; we will triumph over those who seek to divide us. In the spirit of Jesus, we will be LOUD with our insistence that love will win. We will get out of hand if it will loose the bonds of injustice. We will find our voices and use them on behalf of the voiceless.
If we were silent, the very stones would shout out, “peace, peace, peace.”
I will close with A Prayer for Palm Sunday by Roger Cowan
And so we come on our donkeys,
Some from Detroit and some from Tokyo and even a few from Seoul.
With horns blaring and brakes screeching,
We enter the city, the holy of holies.
We know what Caesar wants:
Testing ranges and new arenas while the homeless haunt church basements
And the poor shuffle in the streets.
But we march to a different drummer.
Not many rich, not many mighty.
A vagabond crew in a strange land,
Whose ways are not our ways
Nor thoughts our thoughts.
But let us be of good cheer.
Let the word go out.
The donkey is mightier than the missile,
And flowers have been known to split a rock.
This week moves inexorably toward Friday.
It is Caesar’s week.
But it is God’s world.
And so we take heart and rejoice.
This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!
3/7/2016 0 Comments
Preached at First Church in Sterling, MA
March 6, 2016
Listen to sermon here
READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Micah 6: 1-8)
Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The word “require”, used in this famous text from Micah in the Hebrew Bible is translated imperfectly into English from the Hebrew word “darash”, which means “to seek” or “to seek after.” What does the Lord “seek after” in us? To do justice, to love kindness (and mercy), and to walk humbly with your God, the text answers. This translation of darash matters, I think, when we are attempting to fully understand this text. God requires nothing from us; God seeks after us instead.
The Hebrew people, like us, are always pleading with God, “what shall I give? How shall I worship you?” And God responds with what God seeks after in us—not what God demands. God is our God. There are no requirements for membership in God’s family. We’re already in. Everybody’s in. Loved beyond belief.
This is stewardship Sunday, and it is the day our newest among us will come to one of our Path to Membership classes, and if this time’s like every other time, the students will ask: “what is required of me? What must I do to be a member of this church?”
The answer is nothing. There is no “demand”, no “must”, no “requirement.” Everything here is free.
Last week I told you that everything here is quite expensive, and I asked you to raise your pledge by $20 a week. This week I’m telling you that everything here is free. Yes, I know that’s a hilarious contradiction, and a ridiculous thing to preach on stewardship Sunday to boot, but I have a pulpit and a microphone, and I get to contradict myself whenever I want.
The truth is, if there is nothing left you have to give, it doesn’t matter. You’re still welcome, just as you are, as God welcomes you. As a beloved child.
Everything here is free.
And that’s ‘cause Love can’t be bought—when you give love, it’s freely given, or it isn’t love.
I try not to talk about my kids too much, because it’s hard enough being a preacher’s kid without being made into a sermon illustration to boot. And let’s face it, there are only so many episodes of “kids say the darndest things” that you and I can handle.
So you’ll forgive me for using my kid as a sermon illustration today.
My middle child’s name is Eloisa. Some of you know her. She’s the one who comes up here sometimes and tries to lead you all in confessional prayer with me, as if it makes any sense to confess to someone like her. She’s five, and my irreverent kid. (Once she was leading us in grace before dinner. Trying to be a good pastor and mother I said, “Eloisa, what do you think God is like?” And she shrugged and said, “Imaginary.”)
Like I said, it’s hard being a preacher’s kid.
So this week, my husband, Andy, and I were arguing--regrettably within ear shot of all three of our kids--when he left to go to Appletown market to get some milk.
Eloisa said to Cecilia, “Where’s Andy?”
And Cecilia said, “he went to the store.”
And Eloisa said, (eye roll) “for what? A new wife?”
When Andy came back I told him the story, and he said to Eloisa, “they were fresh out of new wives, so I’m going to stick with this one.”
And I said to him, because I didn’t have anything left to give but this: “I’m sorry for what I did.”
And he said, “I’m sorry for what I said.”
And then he forgave me, and I forgave him. Forgiveness is essentially what love looks like in practice, and it can’t be bought or sold like milk. Just like new wives can’t.
God’s love can’t be bought or sold either.
I say at weddings that love freely given and freely received has no giver and it has no receiver. That love is from God. And that Love looks like forgiveness, and it looks like grace—the kind that is extended to us even though we are constantly fumbling clumsily in our relationships with each other and with God.
We don’t pay for love, and we don’t owe anything in return. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, or how much we have been given, how much we have to give, or whether or not we are worthy.
At this church, we attempt with our human best to embody that kind of love. Everything here is free.
There are churches that are stingier than ours with their love. I know that some of you have been in churches like that before. There are churches where certain people aren’t made to feel welcome, or where certain people aren’t welcome to take part in the rituals, or where people are made to feel wrong or bad for the way God made them.
I was raised in an off-beat, post-Christian, pro-gay, Unitarian Universalist hippie church full of liberals and atheists and intellectual science-worshipping types in New Hampshire. I was dedicated as a baby and not baptized. We didn’t serve communion at all, because that might offend the non-Christians among us. In fact, we kept our historic Emerson communion silver behind glass. “In emergency, break glass.”
So the first time I took communion, I was in fourth grade. I was ten years old, and I had slept over at my friend Debbie’s house. She took me to her Catholic Church in the morning, and I sat with her for the whole service. It was the first time I had been to Catholic church. We sat in the balcony. Though I was fascinated and I thought it was beautiful, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer then. When it was time to take communion, Debbie hissed, “COME ON!” and made me come up to the front with her, and take the small wafer cracker from the priest onto my tongue where it dissolved. It was tasteless, and felt funny in my mouth. I had no idea why we did this strange ritual. That’s how clueless I was having been raised in my weird atheist hippie church.
I told my mom about this experience when I came home, and she was horrified and a little amused. ‘Robin! You are not allowed to do that! That ritual is not for you....it’s only for Catholics! If they knew you weren’t Baptized and Catholic, you’d be in huge trouble.”
I was like, “Whoops.” And I was a little bit proud that I’d done something rebellious without even knowing it.
And then I thought about it for awhile, and was more than a little offended. “Well, fine. I guess if they don’t want me, I don’t want to eat that tasteless cracker anyway.” Looking back on it, I think that church was probably doing something right since my friend Debbie was pretty convinced that Jesus would totally let her non-Catholic friend eat at the Lord’s table.
The second time I took communion was as an adult, it was at an open table, where all were welcome to partake. I was told this:
“You may come to this table if you believe a little or a lot, if you are baptized or not baptized, if you desire community or solace, refuge or strength. At this table, you are enough and there is enough: enough food, enough to drink. Enough for EVERYONE. Everything here is free.”
I inexplicably cried as the delicious, aromatic bread was placed in my hand, “Robin, this is the bread of life for you,” and, as the wine touched my lips. “This is the cup of hope.” I had no idea I needed it. I couldn’t believe it was “for me.” I had no idea what that even meant, and yet, I was shocked at the familiarity of it; the gift of it. I wondered what I could give back in return for that gift. I knew it couldn’t be repaid.
I have similar feelings when I look at my three children, especially when they are sleeping, or at this congregation right now (hopefully not sleeping), or at my house and my husband, my brother, my nieces, or my four parents, still very much alive. I wonder what I can give back in return for these gifts. I know they can’t be repaid.
In our passage this morning from one of the Prophets: Micah 6: 1-8, we have the people of Israel on trial with God. And there is this moment of realization for the Hebrew people that they have been given so much by God, and that they must owe something in return. In the text, God is reminding God’s people what God has done for them. “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…….that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
And the people say back to God: I remember, I know! WHAT CAN WE GIVE? “What can we do for you? How can we worship you best? Should we give you burnt offerings? Sacrifice animals? TEN THOUSANDS OF RIVERS OF OIL???! WHAT?!” And somewhat hyperbolically perhaps, but to illustrate how serious and grateful they truly are, they say “shall I give you my firstborn child, the fruit of my body for THE SIN OF MY SOUL?”
I get that kind of desperate gratitude, especially when given the gift of forgiveness of great sin—love that feels almost comically undeserved. I have felt that kind of love, and I haven’t felt worthy of it. And so I get it.
But God answers the people, “O mortal, what does the Lord seek from you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I think that’s God’s way of saying, “pay it forward.”
Like me being served at a communion table I didn’t think I belonged at; like my husband offering me forgiveness after an argument, like the grace of just waking up again this morning…we want to know what we can offer in the face of that much love; of that kind of grace. And God answers with simply this: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. Which are all ways of saying, “go out and LOVE the way that I love you. Pay it forward.”
It is in that Love, that we will parade forward our financial gifts—our pledges-- to this church for the purpose of helping God to usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth, here in our little corner of it. We don’t offer these gifts because they are required. We offer them simply because we are grateful that everything here is free.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org