A sermon for new member Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on March 19, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. You can hear this sermon here.
New members: My admiration for you is unending. It’s vulnerable and brave to join a church. It takes guts just to walk in the front doors the first time. Almost every time I meet with a new person, when I ask them why they came, tears almost immediately begin to flow. The journey here is always different, but it almost always involves pain, rejection, loss and no small amount of mourning. It is brave to trust your tender hearts and your stories to these admittedly imperfect fellow humans who you are only just beginning to know.
Also, I admire you because people will look at you a little funny when you say you joined a church. (I was single for a little while there in between husbands, and let me tell you, telling men at the bar what I did for a living was a surefire way not to get a free drink, much less a date.) Your atheist cousin, your Crossfit enthusiast brother in law, your best friend who yogas on Sunday, your teenaged kids …they all maybe secretly think you’re weird.
And you’ll say to them, “Oh, it’s not that kind of church. And, I promise, it’s not a cult.” And truthfully, they’ll wonder.
Anyway, we delight in your presence here. We welcome you and everything that makes you weird, because we’re weird too. Don’t stop inviting your friends, not in a creepy way to win more hearts for Jesus, but because you’re certainly not the only one who needs a place like this.
Today’s scripture reading so beautifully reenacted by Drew, Janice and Xan, the Woman at the Well, is thought to be both the lengthiest and most theological text in the entire New Testament.
So let me say that the most remarkable thing about this text is not the content of their conversation, but the fact that Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman at all. Jesus, who was a very pious Jew at the time, should not have been talking to a woman in public. Public conversation between the sexes was forbidden by religious and cultural laws. He also should not have been talking to a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated one another.
It’s also important to know that women at the time, and in this area of the world would have gone to the well very early in the morning to fetch water before the sun rose, together as a group. The Samaritan woman in our story comes to the well midday at the hottest time of the day. This is a sign both that she is desperately thirsty, and that she is an outcast in the Samaritan community. If she had not been, she would have been allowed to travel to the well with the other women, before the sun made it hard to travel, and exacerbated her thirst. It is thought that her outcast status is the result of her “many husbands.” And still, despite the rather extreme difference in status, the Samaritan woman is not scared to talk to the Rabbi Jesus, to tell him about her thirst, to question him, even. (Jesus likes bold women. He listens to them. He sees them.)
So despite the fact that she is of a different religious persuasion, gender and social status than he is, Jesus meets her as conversation partner. Despite the fact that she is a different race, Jesus sees her as kin. Despite the fact that he clearly knows her story, Jesus offers to share God’s love with her. In fact, he asks to share her drinking vessel, an action that makes him unclean according to Jewish law. Jesus was crossing every boundary.
In God’s family, there are no lines drawn between people, and the well of God’s mercy is deep and unending.
Like the disciples, every time we turn around, we find Jesus is talking to a person who you and I would rather not befriend. We happen upon Jesus at the well again on our way home from work, and he’s hanging out with that smelly homeless person who kinda scares us, or the boss who we despise, or a Fox News commentator, or our ex-mother in law, or a member of a gang, or a flamboyant drag queen, or a guy with the red #MAGA hat, or whoever we are referring to these days as a “snowflake.” Jesus always seems to see the people no one else notices. He hangs out with the people you and I have de-friended on Facebook because of their political memes. He offers them mercy, depth and belonging. He offers them living water, a font of the spirit that never runs dry.
And as such, he messes with our institutions, and the boundaries we have drawn around them.
Jesus tells the woman at the well that a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here--
when the importance will not be placed on the time and place of worship
but on the truthful hearts of worshipers.
He says, in essence, it doesn’t matter whether you fit the mold of what other people think a faithful person should look like. What matters is your authenticity. What is in your heart matters far more than what you have done, who you voted for, where you came from, or what the label affixed to your outside is.
New members, with truthful hearts and from many different places, you are joining this congregation in a glorious new day for the Church. If you have been cast out, we welcome you back in. If you have been a stranger in a strange land, or de-friended on Facebook, or made to walk to the well alone, here may you find citizenship and love in the kin-dom of God.
You are here at the exact right time. This is the best time in our nation’s history to join a religious community, the year 2017.
These are hot mess times of unprecedented disunity, divisiveness, instability and a crazy-making war on Truth. These are hot mess times defined by the crumbling of our storied American institutions, including healthcare, schools, the press, democracy itself. And so we need Jesus the boundary-crosser; the truth-teller; the healer. And yet, if you listen to pew reports and academics and sociologists--the institution of the church is crumbling before our eyes, as well. You will hear from people who study religious institutions and nostalgic friends say that the hey-day of the Christian church in America was back in the 1950s when America was great, the pews and Sunday School classrooms were full, and the (white) women stayed home from work and kept the church’s ministries running.
So maybe you think I’m crazy when I say that today is the hey day of the Christian church. But it is.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
Here’s why: the statistics say most people don’t go to church in New England at all, much less regularly. This is because nobody has to be here. Nobody pressures you to go, except maybe your grandma. The malls are open on Sundays now, and so are delicious brunch restaurants selling mimosas. I can smell the hot coffee brewing from here. Our jobs are requiring more and more hours out of us, and Sunday is sometimes our only family day; our only day to sleep in or ski. Soccer practice happens during church services, and truthfully, most parents choose sports as the priority for their kids. Church is a choice among many.
And church is seen as boring, outdated, a thing of the past. Worse, the Christian Church is associated with hypocrisy, discrimination and hate, largely due to its own….well, hypocrisy, discrimination and hate. (The church has to get better at being the church, or it will deserve its own death.)
We who sit here in these pews with our questions and our tender hearts: we are here despite all of that. In other words, we’re here for no other reason than because we choose to be. We are here because we still thirst for water from a deeper well, and our thirst is not satisfied by consumer culture, surface-level friendships, buying more stuff, winning soccer games or elections, and mindless entertainment.
We are here only because of a yearning for God and each other. We are here because we choose to be a part of the love revolution, starting with ourselves and one another, and radiating out into the world.
A new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
It’s already here because there is unity in the family of God, and we crave unity despite difference. At our path to membership class, 90-year-old Charlie said despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
A new day is coming—in fact it’s already here!
This new day is already here at First Church in Sterling because we are proud to be theologically and ideologically diverse. Atheists sit next to Theists. Conservatives sit next to Liberals. Gay people sit next to straight people. Young people learn from elders, and elders learn from young people. We serve our community together, regardless of our differences. We reach out to our Muslim and Jewish and immigrant neighbors. We hug each other. We even like it.
That’s because our thirst is consistently quenched by the living water of a shared faith in Love—something deeper than the arbitrary lines that divide us.
Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from a place of an authentic love, not tribalism. Worship, therefore, is sourced in truth; it comes from an authentic experience of God, not rote practice, or habit, or compulsion. Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its prayer.
A new day is coming for the church—in fact it’s already here.
Rachel Held Evans says that "For much of my life, being a Christian was all about believing the right things, finding the right denomination, living the right life. My faith had, in many ways, been reduced to intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It took watching that faith completely unravel in the midst of the doubts, questions, and frustrations of my young adulthood to realize that you never really arrive at "right." Right is not the point. What I longed for with church, and what I think a lot of people long for, is not an exclusive club of like-minded individuals, but a community of broken and beloved people, telling one another the truth and taking it all a day at a time. What I longed for was sanctuary -- a place to breathe, to be myself, to wrestle with the mystery, to confess my sins and explore my doubts, to experience God rather than simply believe in God.”
Broken and beloved people: Let us tell the truth to one another, taking it one day at a time. Let us experience this God that brings inside those who’ve been cast out. Let us long for Jesus to continually challenge our assumptions about who should be included in our circle. We thirst, like the woman at the well, to be part of one human family, united in Love. So for all of us who have spent our lives seeking after things that do not satisfy, a new day is coming—in fact, it’s already here.
May Love’s living water that quenches thirst forever.
become a fresh, bubbling spring within you,
giving life throughout eternity.
May you never be thirsty again.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
based on John 3: 1-17, and "Born Again, and Again, and Again" by Kerry Egan
preached March 12, 2017 at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/heard.
What was it like? The day you were saved?
I wonder if you’ve ever been asked that question.
In our scripture text from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John, Nicodemus is a religious leader genuinely puzzled by the question of salvation. Jesus tells him that he needs to be “born from above” in order to see the kingdom of God. “How is that possible?” Nicodemus asks. “I am old. I can’t be born again. I can’t squeeze myself back into the womb of my mother, and come out anew.”
“Yes, true, but you can start your life over in the spirit,” Jesus suggests. A spiritual re-birth is possible. The spirit is not like the flesh, it’s like the wind. And the wind is powerful. You can’t see it, but it rustles the trees and knocks out power lines, and you hear the loud howling sound of it wooshing through the wind tunnels the sky scrapers create in the cities. You can feel the impact of the wind when it touches ground in a tornado. And the spirit is also like water. It cleanses you, like a newborn baby bathed in amniotic fluid, as yet untouched by the world.
The passage we heard today contains John 3:16, perhaps the most famous scripture from the New Testament, the one often used as a purity test and a cudgel:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Here’s what I want you to remember from these sometimes weaponized words. Here is what I want you to teach the children:
1. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD.
2. God did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.
Love changes us like a tornado: indeed it reorders our lives; it turns things upside down, and we are never the same. Love washes over us like a cleansing: We are reborn in it again and again. And yes, Love saves us, and we don’t have to earn our salvation. (God is not a monster, and love is not a lie.)
So what was it like? The day you were saved?
Truthfully, this is a question that I don’t get asked that often, even as a pastor. It’s kind of a thing that people usually don’t talk about in polite company, at least in Massachusetts anyway.
And yet, I remember so clearly last year one of you came to me distressed. You were having a conversation with someone in a professional capacity, and you happened to mention how much you loved your church; this church.
And the question posed to you by this associate was, “Are you saved?”
And you panicked. You had no idea how to answer. You were sure that the question didn’t come from a place of love, but from a place of judgment. You were hurt, confused and angry that someone would question your faith; your Christianity.
You wanted to know how you should answer the next time you are asked this question. Maybe you could turn the question back on the asker like Kerry Egan did, from a place of genuine, loving curiosity and say:
“What was it like? The day you were saved?”
A few months ago, I was hosting some evangelical clergy colleagues here at First Church. They were from a Pentecostal church in Worcester. I happened to be wearing a clerical collar (which I hardly ever wear) that evening. One of them introduced himself to me and said, “are you a Catholic?”
Puzzled, I said with a wink, “I don’t think the Catholic Church is ordaining girls like me into the priesthood these days. Yet.”
Then I realized he was referring to my collar, which he said he’d never seen a “Christian” pastor wear. (Much less a lady pastor, though he didn’t say that.)
“Oh, you’re referring to my collar. I’m the pastor here,” I said with a smile.
“Is this a Christian church?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Protestant Christian church.”
“What denomination?” He asked.
“It’s multi-denominational,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, looking skeptical. “Do you believe in Christ? Is your church Bible based?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a Christian church associated with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Bible is our foundational text.”
“Oh,” he said, eye-ing me a little sideways. “Good.”
The people I was standing next to were puzzled by these questions. “Aren’t we kind of obviously a Christian church? We’ve been here on the town green since Christianity was, like, invented.”
But I knew that these were coded questions. He was gauging our purity. “Are you saved? Is your congregation saved?” He was asking me. This is the way some Christians parse believers from un-believers, based on the scripture text from John that we read today. Are you born again? Are you John 3:16 Christians? Which is another way of saying “true”, “saved” Christians?
I want you to know that in preparation for this sermon, I googled yesterday morning the question “am I saved?” Because when Jesus said to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling, I felt sure that Google was one tool Jesus placed in my tool box. I found a quiz online called “Am I Saved?” It asked me the following questions:
1. What is your age?
2. What is your gender?
3. Are you born again?
4. How do you feel after you've become born again
I’m born again and a new creature in Christ
I’m born again but the same person
I’m not sure
I’m not born again
5. Do you love your children, parents, or your own life more than Jesus?
I have to think about that
6. How do you feel about your sins?
I hate sin and I flee from sin
I don’t want to sin but I cant stop
I love my sins
7. Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
8. Do you forgive others who have sinned against you?
I forgive and forget
I forgive, but don’t forget
I only forgive those I love
I don’t forgive
9. Could you die for Christ? ie...decapitation
I don’t know
No, I cant
10. Do you believe the bible to be 100% true?
11. How often do you pray and read scriptures
Whenever I have time
12. Who is Jesus?
A good man
God in the flesh
One of many gods
My result was, in a nutshell, that I am only 33% saved. (Which I suppose is better than 0%, but still seemed kind of low for a pastor).The internet doesn’t always have all the answers, because it is wrong, at least in this case. I am 100% saved. So are you. Every single one of us is 100% saved by virtue only of our birth.
For God so loved the world that God came not to condemn, but to save it.
My colleague Rev. Chris Buice, in his meditation manual, "Rollerskating as a Spiritual Practice" (Skinnerhouse Books) writes:
Occasionally I am stopped on the street and asked the question, “Are you saved?” Even though I am a minister, I am never sure how to reply. Then I remember a story from my own childhood. When I was a child, four or five years old, I took my brother’s pocket knife and began carving some words into the wooden headboard of my bed. When my mother discovered my creative work, she was justifiably angry.
I think normally vandalism of furniture would have gotten me into deep trouble. But my mother was a minister’s wife, and the words I had carved into the bed were “Jesus Loves Me.” In this kind of situation it is true that “Jesus saves.”
Of course I was saved not only by Jesus. I was saved by a mom who knew who to balance accountability with forgiveness. I imagine that it is difficult to know how to discipline your children when their religious expression does damage to the furniture. But through a gentle talk, my mom was able to help me see the error of my ways and I changed my behavior for the better.
Another time I was saved when I was swimming in the ocean. I went out into water way over my head and was caught in the undertow. Fortunately my brother Sam noticed that I was struggling. He jumped into the water and came out to get me. He hauled me in to shore.
Once again I was saved by a grace, both human and divine.
When I hear the word saved, I think of being rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm. And in many ways I have been saved. Sometimes this experience of salvation has a human hand and a person’s face. At other times I encounter it when I am alone in the woods and there is no sound except the whispering of the wind playing in the leaves or water flowing over rocks in a stream.
And as I remember these things I know the answer to the question, “Are you saved?” “Yes,” I reply, “I am definitely saved.”
So what was it like? The day you were saved? The day you were rescued from danger, delivered from evil, protected from harm?
What was it like the day you got sober, the day you left the abusive marriage, the day your babies were born, the day you got your health back, the day you survived that car accident, the day you were told your cancer was in remission, the day you realized you survived--bruised and battered, but alive--the death of a loved one, or the death of a relationship? What was it like, the day you were given a new chance at love? What was it like the day you were welcomed—truly welcomed—for all of who you are for the first time? What was it like, the day you forgave a friend or enemy, the day you yourself were forgiven, the day you lost your old life, and found a new one?
If you ask me if I’m saved, I would say: “Yes, I’m saved. I’m saved every day that I’m alive. I’m born again every time the sun rises again in the east, every time the shadow of death turns to the light of morning. I am born again every time I am given the opportunity to see Christ’s face in another human being. I am saved by grace, which has nothing to do with what I have done or have failed to do. Every day I am alive is my salvation day, every person I meet who has a lesson to teach me, a savior.”
If the colleagues visiting our church asked me outright if my congregation is saved, I would have said “Oh yes, my congregation is saved. We are saved by each other, by our children and each other’s children, and by the love of God which is so powerful and so extravagant, that this love doesn’t parse who’s in and who’s out, who’s worthy and who’s unworthy. No bible based purity test or internet quiz can measure it. And what’s more, my congregation is responding to the wasteful love of God by saving others, and that salvation is reverberating throughout the community and the world.”
I got an anonymous card this week with $25 in cash sent to the church office. Here is what the card says:
"Dear Reverend Bartlett,
In today's Item, I read with interest the article about your parish and the reverse offering. One of the stories was of particular interest to me. One member donated her offering to the lunch account of a needy child he knew at Clinton Elementary School. I taught school at the elementary level for 25 years and I am retired. I am hoping that you will be kind enough to find that teacher and ask them to use my enclosed donation to add to that child's lunch fund."
Salvation spreads, like grass in the wind; like the spirit of God that blows upon it. For God so loves the world that God came to save it through flesh and blood humanity. We are born again of the spirit with every act of this salvific love; creating a heaven here on earth.
Anne Lamott says “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Beloved, be a beacon bringing light to the dark places. You are the light of the world. Stand there shining.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on March 5, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard.
I know a lot of you audibly gasped when I changed my profile picture to say that I was giving up Facebook for Lent. Several people called to ask if I was OK.
Lent is a season in which we attempt to rid ourselves of a habit or behavior or crutch that separates ourselves from each other and from God. The traditional practices of Lent are prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, fasting, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Lenten disciplines provide a spiritual housecleaning to provide more space for God.
And I noticed that Facebook feeds my anxiety about the fate of our country and planet, my fear, my insatiable hunger for connection, my desire to numb and avoid, my petty competitiveness, my work-aholism and my failure to observe Sabbath, and most of all, my sinful tendency to see the world as “us and them,” when I know there is only “us.” It kinda crowds God out. So I am currently stumbling around in a Facebook-free wilderness. I have taken up reading books, and, you know, interacting occasionally with my husband and children. I am trying to pray more.
It’s my wilderness. You have one, too.
As we know from our Bible, Jesus was led by God into the wilderness where he stays for forty days and forty nights. Afterwards, it says, he is famished. That is when the devil tempts him.
Jesus is in a state, I am sure, both mentally and physically, of utter desperation. He hasn’t eaten for weeks. He is likely hallucinating. He is probably thirsty and tired, and feeling empty and powerless. I imagine he feels as though he is about to die; vulnerable and alone, gaunt and weak. He’s probably even scared.
First he is tempted with food after all that time without, and Jesus says, “one does not live by bread alone.” Then Jesus is tempted with power over all of the kingdoms of the world: “And Jesus answers, essentially, “I worship God, not power.” And then the devil tempts him to prove who he is by throwing himself down, and Jesus refuses saying that we should not be in the business of trying to test God, or make God prove anything to us.
You and I are not Jesus, and so we are far more vulnerable to the devil’s temptation when we are weak and tired and hungry and alone and most of all--scared.
I remind us of this a lot, because it is important to in these hot mess times. Studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like fear of terrorism or war—we are less likely to love the stranger. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics.
We are most vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance; when we see people in the world as objects to be feared and despised rather than as God’s beloved.
And yet Jesus reminds us: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Which, as we know, means simply this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
And beloved, like everyone else in this country, we have been tempted by the devil to hate and despise our neighbor, based on their political persuasion, religion, immigration status, skin color, gender and sexuality, especially this year. And we have refused to take the bait. We have consistently said “no” to the devil, and yes to love.
Again and again, we have chosen love.
And together, we are practicing the Lenten discipline of giving that love away. A few weeks ago, we were given a reverse offering: I gave you $5,000 and told you to use it for Good; to share the love; to come back and tell the story. Some of my leaders and colleagues were surprised that I was willing to trust all of you without any kind of direction other than that. It was an act of faith; in you and in God. And I didn’t question for a moment that this money would be used well, and for God’s glory. Raise your hand if you participated in this challenge.
Turn to your neighbor and tell them the story of what you did with it.
There will be ways to hear each other’s stories—on our website, in a video Dee Wells is making for us right now. At coffee hour, I’m going to ask that you walk around and ask each other 1) how you spent the money, 2) whether this was an easy or hard assignment for you, and why, and 3) how it felt. You need to hear as many stories as possible.
Here are just some of the ways I know the money has been spent so far:
Jennifer shared her family’s money with one of her coworkers who frequently uses her own money to buy clothing and other needed items for the patients in our program. “Kim does this all the time only because she wants to help others in need. She helps others, and I wanted to help her out this time!”
Jon decided that his $25 would be loaned, via Kiva.org, to Tautua, an unmarried woman with two children living in Samoa who is looking for a loan of $400 to stock her local canteen, in order to make money to pay her weekly living expenses. He committed to add to it by loaning more every month. The quote he saw on Kiva spoke to him: "Dreams are universal. Opportunity is not.”
When I went to the young adult gathering two weeks ago, Dave said that if he had been at church that Sunday, he would have found someone there with the opposite political views as him and taken him or her out to lunch to really listen and hear. Don’t you love that? Talk about making room for God.
You reported feelings of amazement, gratitude, excitement. You reported that this gift was freeing, burdensome, joyful. Some of you gave it away impulsively as soon as you got it, and some of you agonized over the decision for weeks. One of you said that it was the “hardest I have ever thought about how to spend a small amount of cash.” Many of you said that the challenge was meaningful for your children. Many of you said it created in you a desire to do more. Many of you matched, doubling or tripling your gifts. Some of you pooled money with family and friends.
This money, this love has been shared and spread all over the community; all over the country; all over the world. Lives have been changed by this money, most especially the givers’.
I told you after the election that we were made for such a hot mess time as this. And this is why. We choose instead of fear and hate, to infect the world with love. To give it away. Away with you Satan! At First Church, when we are faced with the devil’s temptation to dehumanize and destroy, our response is this:
Hope, not cynicism
Abundance, not scarcity.
Sharing, not hoarding.
Understanding, not demonizing.
Love, not fear.
Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord, our psalmist says. Giving away this money was an act of trust that Love would guide it; that love would work magic on the giver and the receiver. Choose that kind of trust…in each other, and in God. This Lent, let us continue to deny the devil a foothold in our hearts. Let this giving be only the beginning of something far more big and beautiful. Love the hell out of this world.
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.