3/25/2018 0 Comments
The Whole World Has Gone After Him
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday
Sermons are better seen.
People in power get nervous when hopeless people start hoping.
Many folks from First Church were marching for our lives yesterday in Worcester and in Boston. I was in Worcester with thousands of protestors there. The entire rally was led by the kids from start to finish: student after student from our area high schools, mostly students of color. Their speeches were impassioned and personal. Many of them had lost family members and friends to gun violence. They were powerful, smart, charismatic and determined. I have been to many rallies in my day, and these were the best speakers I have ever heard.
And then I went home and watched more on line because I couldn’t stop watching these kids.
Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida spoke for her friends lost in DC. She said: "Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15 and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kira, 'Miss Sunshine.' Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp. Helena Ramsey would never hang out after school with Max. Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughran would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never. Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.”
She then stopped speaking and stared into the crowd.
There’s a hymn that goes: “Let mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” Emma stood there, holding a crowd of hundreds of thousands, on national TV, all of America, in silence for several long minutes breathing, and silently weeping. It was one of the bravest leadership moments I have ever seen.
She ended the silence with, "Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and twenty seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life before it’s somebody else’s job.”
And she left the stage.
I haven’t cried as much in a year as I did yesterday. I realized that what I felt was a strange sensation I haven’t felt for a long time: hope. Hope in our children and in our future. Hope that we can stop talking past each other long enough to hold silence for the lives we have lost; for all that we have lost.
On Wednesday night, the aptly named Awakening of Hope class Megan and I are leading learned about an unlikely friendship in the pre-segregated south between an African American woman activist named Ann Atwater and the head of the Klu Klux Klan, CP Ellis in Durham, North Carolina. Neither activist wanted to desegregate the schools at first, so they fought one another in town meetings—they hurled dehumanizing racial epitaphs at each other.
And then, a miracle happened: They listened to their children, who told them they wanted to go to school together. They realized then that they were fighting about the wrong things…that the schools themselves would never get better unless they worked together to improve them. They put down their weaponized words, cried together, and joined forces to head the committee to desegregate the schools in their community. C.P. left the Klan and became a Christian. And together they founded the organization “Save Our Schools” in an effort to fund a better education for their poorest children in their community. A book was written about them called “The Best of Enemies.”
When the hopeless start hoping… empirical forces fear what has been true all along: the people united in God can never be defeated.
Today is Palm Sunday. The day the hopeless came together and started hoping.
On the day of the festival, the people heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, so they ran out to meet him waving palms. In John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus just “finds” a young donkey for his triumphant entry, (maybe somewhere at a humble and unassuming, not-to -be-named farm in Sterling, Massachusetts) and sits on it.
The people shouted “Hosanna!” which means “I beg you to save!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” They shout.
They herald him as a King.
But his glorious entry into Jerusalem is not what typically could be called “royal.” Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was.
And for a moment in time before the gruesome days to come, he gave the hopeless reason to hope.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him.
In the procession were all 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. The children and the teenagers. The hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women.
In the procession were the people living with AIDS, the people without health insurance, the unemployed, the recently laid off, the middle management corporate shills. The people who had waited on line for their welfare check, at the DMV, or out the door of the food kitchen that morning. The people who have been gaybashed and deported and shot at in their schools or on the streets of Chicago. The black women who are scared for their sons when they walk to the grocery store in a hoodie, the blue collar workers, the MAGA red cap wearers, the coal miners, the crossdressers, the opioid addicted, the divorced, the widowed, the cancer patients, the grieving, the rape survivors, the people who grew up in a place so saturated by toxic waste that they had no choice but to get leukemia. The people who traveled to be there from places like Flint, Michigan and Camden, NJ and war-torn Syria and Iraq. The refugees, the asylum-seekers, the illegal immigrants.
The hopeless hopers. “Hosanna! I beg you to save!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him,” the religious authorities muttered to each other as they watched the Jesus parade. They were scared.
All the rules were being broken by this man who threatened the power structures with his Love of the world as it was. All the rules were being broken by an unlikely King who didn’t even fear his own death by execution because he came in the name of the Lord.
It truly was a great celebration, a pop-up merry band. And in hindsight it just looks shameful. Because this same crowd will spit on Jesus, jeer at him, mock him, and laugh at him while he’s crucified by the Roman authorities just days later.
But for this one blessed moment, the crowd is convinced they have a place and a voice and a God to champion their cause. They believe at least for a day that because he lives—that their lives matter. That Love can truly be the Law of the Land.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was created as a piece of street theater. We don’t always think of Him this way, but Jesus was a satirist like John Stewart, or the Onion, or the writers of Saturday Night Live, (like our own Emma Clark). The world will be saved by the comedians, for they show us with laughter that the emperor has no clothes.
Jesus’ street theater parade was as fearless as it was funny. He knew he was going to die as he rode into town. He rode into town anyway to thumb his nose at the authorities; to show them that God has the power, not weapons of mass destruction. And he set up this pop-up “march for our lives” to mock the military parade that was happening at the same time, on the other side of town.
The military parade was an expensive show of power. There were big horses and chariots and weapons and gleaming armor. The Romans paraded through the city, passing the crucified bodies of political dissidents hanging from crosses as they went. “Don’t try to cross us, or you’ll be next” was the message they sent with their expensive show of military might meant to wow and silence a crowd.
Jesus laughed at them. And his followers shouted with joy. “Hosanna! Blessed are we who come in the name of the Lord!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him.”
I’m sure the Roman authorities had the same thought.
And so it’s no wonder they killed him. When the whole world goes after God, empire quakes in its boots. When people see themselves in one another’s eyes, when they dare to hope, when they understand the whole world to be God’s, and not the government’s or the king’s or the president’s, that’s a dangerous thing.
The people start to see their opponents as friends. They start to realize that people in power want us to be divided so that we the people remain powerless. When we see one another as God sees us we might realize that the people united can’t be defeated because GOD CAN’T BE DEFEATED.
When people see each other the way God sees us, our differences start to melt away.
The cop and the unarmed black man know that they are one
The white minimum wage cashier at Walmart and the Mexican immigrant laborer picking in the fields know that they are one
The idealistic teenager and the cynical adults criticizing them in the internet comment sections know that they are one
The Conservative Republican and the Liberal Democrat know that they are one
The gun control activist and the second amendment activist know that they are one
The small town coal miner and the city-dwelling Marxist know that they are one
The gay asylum-seeker from Jamaica and the rural white farmer know that they are one
The uninsured and the unemployed know that they are one
The Muslim and the Christian and the atheist and the Buddhist know that they are one…
That’s dangerous stuff. Because when the people know they are one, they stop following the rules of religious orthodoxy and empire, and start enacting God’s law of love instead…TOGETHER. They start fighting together for the children—for their lives and their quality of life. They start creating communities together that topple the mighty, that lift up the lowly.
When we stop following the rules in order to follow Jesus, the whole world is turned upside down. Which is exactly what God’s dream for the world is.
This week, we will follow Jesus through the betrayal, the trial, the denial, the suffering, the crucifixion, the death, and the long dark night of the soul; the utter hopelessness that follows this day of hope. And then on Sunday, April Fool’s Easter, Love will rise, victorious. God will have the last laugh.
So as we prepare to walk united around our little town here in Sterling…as we prepare to walk with our donkey in our own street theater parade of hope in the Palm Sunday promenade….remember this:
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other.
This may be Caesar’s week, but this is God’s world. The power of Love will overcome the Love of power, and we will rise.
3/18/2018 0 Comments
You Who are Broken
A sermon preached on
March 18, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
You who are broken:
Stop by the Potter's house.
Give God the fragments of your broken life.
You who are broken:
You're in the right place this morning.
The prophet Isaiah says that we are the clay. God is the potter and we are the work of God’s hand. We are formed from dust and water from the earth, and then continually shaped and molded on a potter’s wheel.
The prophet Jeremiah declared his message from God in a Potter’s house: “So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. On our Potter’s wheel, we begin with a formless lump of clay that has imperfections, a lump of clay that will be molded into something beautiful and imperfect; a clay pot that will crack at the brittle places in time and become broken.”
Like on Pastor Megan’s pottery wheel, we begin as a formless lump of clay that has imperfections; marred even in God’s hands. We are each created both beautiful and marred. We are formed and reformed, shaped and re-shaped by God’s grace but never fully “fixed.”
Over time, we crack at the brittle places and become broken.
You who are broken: you are not alone.
Most of you know that I am divorced and remarried. Most of you also know that I’m willing to be your exemplar--not for my Godliness, but for my humanity. I have been broken, and then saved by grace. I was eventually found by God, put back together eventually, and re-purposed in a time in my life that I was participating in my own salvation about as much as a lump of clay would be.
Jesus died to teach us that our God is a God of grace; who forgives and loves; that our covenant with God endures regardless of how many times we break it. I want you to know that, too. No matter what you have done or how many times you have done it, God has promised to love you. God has promised to use you for good.
And in the end, Love wins. Not sin, not death, not broken covenants. All of us who have been broken and put back together again know that Love wins, but it sometimes bangs you up a little first.
The word “sin” has been used as a weapon far too often by certain forms of Christianity, and I know many of us have found this church because we are tired of being shamed simply for being human.
But since the word “sin” is so often used as a weapon, let’s turn this sword into a plough share and put it to better use.
The concept of sin is present in every world religion and secular system of ethics in every culture. Sin is of central importance to the Christian tradition. The “problem” Christianity tries to solve is sin, with the salvation of Jesus Christ. Sin means, in it’s most useful definition, separation from God.
Last week we learned that “salvation” (root word salve) means healing. So if sin is separation from God, salvation is the healing of that separation.
Our separateness from God is only healed through revolutionary love for God’s people.
Remember, this isn’t the Hallmark card kind of love. Jesus is not a Hallmark kind of savior. This is the “love your neighbor as you love yourself” kind of love, this is the “love your enemies” kind of love, this is the “everyone’s welcome to the banquet and no one is cast out” kind of love, this is the “crossing boundaries” kind of love, this is the “touching the untouchables” kind of love, this is the "healing the sick” kind of love, this is the “dying on the cross for the sins of Empire” kind of love, this is the “forgive them father for they know not what they do” kind of love.
We need this kind of love right now. We need this kind of healing.
These are hot mess times in this country. We are undeniably separated from one another: Fox News, CNN and every internet comment section where humanity goes to die tells the story of our separateness. We insist on the illusion of dis-unity. And we need a savior.
I’m waiting every day for the Potter to put us back together again, looking for signs. I expect it to look like the rapture, or an end to the Russia investigation, or something.
But God never puts it all back together the way we expect. Instead, God will invariably put some guy in front of me who doesn’t share my political ideologies who I can’t help but love, and gently suggest that I go to the gun range with him to learn to shoot semi-automatic weapons.
And grace becomes my teacher again. The Potter re-shapes me to love people in ways I didn’t expect to.
Saint Paul in his letter to Ephesus says that we are saved from our sin by grace, not works. We can’t save ourselves through “behaving” the right way, or by our own action. We are clay in God’s hands. Over and over again, God steps in even without being invited, healing us at the broken places. Re-shaping us.
We are due for a radical re-shaping. It’s gonna bang us up a little bit first, but in the end love wins. If love hasn’t won yet, it’s not the end.
So I’m not saying the world was saved, but at least the year 2018 was saved by a Netflix TV series called Queer Eye. This is our 8-episode reminder that love is universal, that healing is possible, that masculinity is far less narrow than we give it credit for, and that God is good.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, the show is a reboot from the early 2000s make over show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The premise is that five gay men called the “fab five” swoop in to make the life of a straight guy with low self esteem, a messy house and bad fashion 100% better. The Fab 5 do a home make over, a clothing make over, a grooming make over, teach how to cook an easy fancy dish for a dinner party, and buck up one lucky guys’ self esteem. He invariably lives in ill-fitting cargo shorts and a house filled with light up beer signs.
Yes, the show plays on the stereotype that straight men are so busy doing “man stuff” that they don’t have time for cooking and fashion and that every gay man lives in New York City and has a degree in interior design.
In the re-boot, the premise is similar, but this time the producers of the show set out to make “red states pink.” In the opening mission statement, the token British member of the “Fab Five”, Tan, says: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.”
It accomplishes far more than that. The show reaffirms that despite the divisions in this country, we are all human, and we all need love. The subjects are never depicted as helpless buffoons, nor are they treated as uncouth idiots; the problems that are raised are those of an unwillingness to be vulnerable or the social embarrassment surrounding the notion of self-care.
The connections made between the New York City-based Fab Five and the people they help in the rural areas of Georgia are heart-warming and grace filled. They learn as much in the process.
In episode 3, Fab Five member Karamo, who is black, has a truly open and honest conversation with “straight guy” and white police officer Cory, about the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. This culminates in both men crying, having reached a new and emotional level of understanding one another.
Karamo says “I’m open. I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay black guy is going to solve our country’s problems, but maybe it can open up eyes.”
If you want to be reminded of the goodness of grace, watch it.
God shows up to heal our separation from one another in the most unexpected ways. Like city dwelling gay men waltzing with small town firefighters, and anti-gun liberals learning to shoot an AR-22. That’s the hand of grace. It doesn’t look how we expect it to look, but it molds us into a new creation.
Here’s what I want to leave you with:
Clay pots, no matter how imperfect, are made to be used. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says this: we’ve been saved for the purpose of good works. We are healed to be a healing.
So those of you who are broken on the ground right now: hold on. Grace is coming. Those of us who have lived through the dark night of the soul are holding that little glimmer of light for you because we know that you can’t quite see it yet. We are reminding you that the darkness will end, that God has sent out a search party for you and that you will be found. God’s grace will mold you into a new creation, one far more beautiful for having lived through what you are living through.
Kintsugi, meaning ‘golden joinery’ is an art-form in Japan that restores cracked vessels or broken ceramics with gold, leaving the piece even more beautiful than it started out. The broken places of the pottery shine with sparkling gold when they are finished.
The idea behind it is not to hide the ugliness and brokenness but instead to use gold to make it shine; to illuminate and expose the damage. And at the end of the process the piece is even more beautiful for having been broken.
So, you who are broken stop by the potter’s house. You will be put back together.
You who despair stop by the potter’s house. You will find comfort.
You who are guilty stop by the potter’s house. You will be forgiven.
You who are fearful stop by the potter’s house. You will be at peace.
You who are lonely stop by the potter’s house. You will be found.
You who are outcast stop by the potter’s house. You will be welcomed.
You who are addicted stop by the potter’s house. You will be healed.
You who are depressed stop by the potter’s house. You will find joy.
You who need mending, stop by the potter’s house. You will be hemmed in.
You who need healing, stop by the potter’s house. You will be blessed.
All who are separated, stop by the potter’s house. You are one in the Body of Love.
Give God the fragments of your broken life.
Let Love put you back together again.
Healed people heal people. Healed people heal the world.
3/11/2018 0 Comments
The Heavens are Telling
Preached on March 11, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen.
Please pray with me in the words of the psalmist:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen
Many preachers say some version of that last line from our psalm before they preach. It is essentially a last minute, game-time plea to God to say: “Lord, help me preach today, because my kids were home for two snow days this week climbing all over me and screaming at each other as I wrote this. Lord, help me, because I am human and therefore unworthy of this big, old pulpit with your name emblazoned above it, so forgive me in advance for screwing this up.”
Mostly we pray this prayer to say: “Lord, help me to channel your Law of Love through my very human words. I pray at the very least whatever I say is acceptable to you.”
Truthfully, it’s impossible to know if the words of my mouth are acceptable to God. (God hasn’t struck me with lightning yet when I’m in the pulpit, so I’ll take that as a good sign.)
I do know that a good gauge is to test my words by the meditations of my heart. Love is the only filter through which I can even attempt to utter the Word of God.
Thankfully, God doesn’t rely on human’s words as the only conduit. God’s Love is written into the earth itself; the grass and trees; the sky and air; the moon and the stars. Even the rocks would shout it out, our Palm Sunday texts say. Our psalmist says that the heavens are telling the glory of God. “In the heavens, he has set a tent for the sun.” When we’re lost in the darkness of our separation from each other and from God, the sunrise is our daily invitation to come back to life.
The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun.
That song from Annie is not my favorite from the show. It always struck me as overly optimistic and trite…until ten years ago.
On July 27, 2008, people gathered in the sanctuary of my dear friend Jake Morrill’s childhood church; the church my friend, Chris Buice pastors: the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. They gathered to watch the children and youth of the congregation present the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, many thought the noise was part of the musical, but they quickly realized there was a gunman in the sanctuary. Some people ran from the room, others threw themselves and their children under the pews.
The gunman killed Greg McKendry when he moved in front of others to shield them from gunfire. The gunman wounded several other adults including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the congregation, who later died of her wounds.
People in the sanctuary, including my friend Jake’s father, John Bohstedt, tackled and subdued the gunman, who had concealed his shotgun in a guitar case as he entered the church. The police arrived and took into custody the shooter, David Adkisson, who had written a suicide screed left in his car condemning liberals, homosexuals, Muslims, and black folks. Adkisson was ex-military, had recently lost his job, was a frequent consumer and purveyor of dangerously violent anti-liberal rhetoric on the internet, and his ex-wife was a member of the congregation.
Hurt people hurt people.
A witness said, "Everybody did exactly what they needed to do. There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It's a remarkable congregation of people. I've never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.”
Healed people heal people.
When the community in Knoxville held a vigil the night after the attack, some of the kids who were performing in the production of Annie Jr. the day of the shooting began singing:
“The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun. Just thinkin’ about tomorrow, clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow, ’til there’s none.”
Everyone joined in.
“When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely, I just stick up my chin and grin and say: the sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you gotta hang on ‘til tomorrow, come what may. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya’ tomorrow, you’re only a day away.”
The sanctuary was rededicated just a few weeks later. "We reclaim our sanctuary," Reverend Buice announced to an overflow crowd. "This sanctuary which has been defiled by violence we rededicate to peace."
Prior to the rededication, Reverend Buice in his homily emphasized the unity of all people regardless of race, sexual orientation or political persuasion.
"We are all liberals. We are all conservatives," Reverend Buice said.
He heralded the heroic crew of unarmed “lefty” types in his congregation who had wrestled the gunman to the ground.
"Reports tell us the shooter thought liberals were soft on terror," Reverend Buice said, injecting humor into his comments. "He had a rude discovery.”
The 800 people in attendance gave a loud extended standing ovation to its congregations’ heroes, including my friend Jake’s father.
They ended the service singing “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
If you need evidence of God’s overwhelming love for us, look no further than the people who risk their lives to save others. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the children singing songs of hope amid death and destruction. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than a church re-opening its doors again just as wide after being defiled by violence, refusing to fear. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the sun’s return, a daily invitation to come back to life.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Love.
We have been on a wilderness journey through the dark together this Lent, and these lanterns represent the search party God has sent out to find us: the little lights in the dark that illuminate the path home.
All of the lessons we have learned during this Lenten season point back to the beginning; our original blessing; our original belovedness. Today is no exception: our scripture from John reminds us that God so Loved the world that God gave his only Son.
Imagine loving the human project so much that you give the precious, priceless gift you most adore in the world to prove that you truly mean it.
Occasionally, one or two of you have asked me why I so often pray for Love’s sake instead of in Jesus’ name. “Is that some sort of Unitarian thing?” You have asked me.
And I always answer, “No, silly. Unitarians don’t pray!” Kidding. Unitarians, I’m kidding.
I pray for Love’s sake because Love is God’s name for Jesus. “This is my Son, the beloved,” God announces at his baptism, and again at his transfiguration. Praying for Love’s sake IS praying in Jesus’ name. His name is Love.
By the way, this isn't the love you find in cheesy Hallmark Valentine cards we invoke with Jesus’ name. This is the turn-over-tables, crack-the-whip, self-sacrificing, servant leadership, washing feet, crossing borders, making-the-untouchables-touchable, bringing-the-margins-into-the-center, die-for-the-sin-of-empire kind of Love.
Jesus’ name is REVOLUTIONARY LOVE . That’s why I have never liked this text I’m preaching on today from the Gospel of John. And for some reason, John 3: 14-21 pops up in the lectionary every year to torment me.
John 3:16 is arguably the most famous sentence in the Bible. Many of you have it memorized: “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.”
Many Christians use John 3:16 as a purity test and a cudgel. It is displayed on screen savers, spray painted on over-passes, and emblazoned on football uniforms.
But the next lines in the chapter are the harshest purity test of all, written right there into the Gospel. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And then John 3:18 says “those who do not believe in him are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.”
The passage begins with beloved, and ends with condemnation. On first read, anyway. John 3:18 "condemns" all my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my atheist friends, my Buddhist friends. It “condemns” some of us here today. It condemns me on a bad day, and pretty much condemns my entire family except maybe Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and Isaac. I love Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and I adore Isaac, but a God who only saves them and condemns everyone else is no God I would worship.
This God of condemnation sounds more like the shooter in Knoxville than the God of limitless grace. The shooter at the Tennessee Valley UU church accused the Unitarians of being un-believers, in fact, in his suicide note. He probably felt like he had license to kill them. “After all, those who do not believe are condemned already,” he might have thought before he fired the first bullet.
Last week, I told you that sometimes when you wish to see God you have to look harder.
Some congregations have Bible-thumpers, but we have what I can only describe as a Bible-adoring sister-in-Christ here in this congregation. If Mary Pat Bailey were an ancient prophet, she'd be like Ezekiel and eat a scroll...that's how she consumes the word of God...she ingests it like food. She breathes it like air. She drinks it like water. Her beloved childhood Bible is dog-eared and covered with tear stains…written all over the margins. She carries it everywhere.
When MP has trouble with a text, she crosses out the references to God and Jesus with her pencil and writes "Love." She remembers what Jesus’ name is, and just writes it right in there. Too often I forget to pull out my Mary-pat Bailey revised standard version of my Bible. Too often I am so stuck in my head that I forget to interpret the text with the meditations of my heart.
So, today I want to invite you to turn in your Mary Pat Revised Standard Version of your Bibles to John 3: 14-21 and listen to me read this passage again.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must Love be lifted up, that whoever believes in Love may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave us only Love, so that everyone who believes in Love may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send Love into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Love. Those who believe in Love are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of Love. And this is the judgment, that love has come into the world, and people chose hate rather than love because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in Love.”
The heavens are telling the glory of God through it’s messengers of revolutionary Love.
Let’s talk about eternal life for a moment. The root word of salvation is salve. A salve is a balm…a healing. God so loved the world, that God gave us only Love to heal us all. Salvation means healing, and all means all: the negative nellies, the guy who flipped you off in the traffic jam, the gossipy soccer moms, the golfers with truly impressive dad guts, the drag queens on Ru Paul’s drag race, the prisoners at MCI Concord, the weird kids with piercings in strange places, the opioid addicted small town dwellers that the economy forgot, the gamers and LARPERS and the Sci Fi enthusiasts, the mediocre disciples, the believers, the non-believers, the questioners, the questioning believers--all will be healed in Love. All have an invitation to turn their face to the sun. People who choose hate choose darkness. Hurt people hurt the world. But people who choose deeds done in love are healed people. And healed people heal the world.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Revolutionary Love.
If you need a reminder of that truth, turn your face to the sky. The sun will come out tomorrow, and the healing will begin; light like a balm for wounded souls. Love does not perish, but has eternal life. It’s only Love that never ends.
3/4/2018 0 Comments
Lift Your Head and Look Around
A sermon preached on March 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
This week, a large group of us was in the Lenten class Megan and I are leading on Wednesday nights which is called “The Awakening of Hope.” We had just watched a video about Camden, New Jersey, voted the worst place to live in the United States. We learned that Camden’s residents’ back yards have become home for our waste. Camden has no jobs, no grocery stores; no businesses. The police force has been cut in half. It has a higher murder rate than Baghdad. We saw picture after picture of burned down factories and toppling trash piles. We heard about the drug problems, crime and poverty.
A man named Chris Haw was being interviewed in the video. He had moved to Camden to bear witness to the suffering of God’s creation firsthand. He was given a plot of land among the devastation in the neighborhood, where he planted a garden. He spoke very frankly about the web of poverty and violence that he encountered as the underbelly of capitalism run amok. He talked about what it was like to live in a place where there are no jobs, and no hope that they would return.“That’s where you have to draw from faith, hope and love,” he says. “Irrationally. You have hope because its a hopeless situation.” His way of practicing hope in Camden is raising chickens, and growing tomatoes in the rubble.
At the end of the class, one of the participants said. “This class is called ‘Awakening of Hope. I didn’t find any hope in that video. I found it depressing and hopeless. If there is hope in Camden, New Jersey, I think I missed it.”
Sometimes hope doesn’t look hopeful. Sometimes when you’re looking for God, you have to look really hard. You have to look at what is ugliest in the world, and then look for tiny seeds of redemption. Like a small garden plot in an urban wasteland. God’s story in Scripture is not about escaping this world, but about bringing heaven to earth. It’s the story of resurrection; of grass piercing concrete. It’s the story of chickens laying eggs in vacant lots—little signs of life amongst all the death and destruction.
Hope is a lot like faith, I said. It’s all we have when we cannot see our way home in the dark. We can’t see the light, so we just have to believe it’s there.
The problem with having faith is, most of us humans need to see to believe.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That’s what a group of Greeks say to Philip in our scripture from John’s Gospel today, having traveled to the festival for worship. That’s what a group of Gentiles we wouldn’t expect to see participating in a Jewish festival say to Phillip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they needed to see to believe.
The desire to see Jesus, it turns out, is a rather lucrative business. In March of 2017, a man in Windham, Maine discovered the image of Jesus in his buttered toast. He preserved the toast in the freezer and put it on eBay with the starting bid of $25,000.
As far as eBay auctions go, this theme is played out. Sellers eager to make a quick buck — I mean, spread the Christian faith — have auctioned off "miraculous" images of religious figures like Jesus and the Virgin Mary embedded in everything from toast to a fish stick. A woman named Diane Duyser sold her 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on eBay.
Duyser said she took a bite after making the sandwich 10 years ago and saw a face staring back at her. She put the sandwich in a clear plastic box with cotton balls and kept it on her night stand. She said the sandwich has never sprouted a spore of mold.
The market place responded by making “Grilled Cheesus”, a sandwich maker that toasts the image of Jesus into your sandwich.
One of you gifted me once with a Jesus stamp for my own toast which was so sweet of you. (“What to give to the pastor who has everything?”)
We long to see Jesus. We long to taste and see that the Lord is good.
According to a new study published in the journal Cortex, this phenomenon of seeing religious figures in our food is “perfectly normal” because of a phenomenon called “face pareidolia, the illusory perception of non-existent faces.” We have a tendency to see faces that aren’t there because of the way our brain functions. Our religious beliefs strongly correlate with what we see in the ordinary things like grilled cheese sandwiches.
It turns out our brains are pre-programmed with the longing to experience what is ultimate in the form of another human face.
We Christians long to see Jesus.
And it makes sense that some of us see Jesus in our food. We are hungry. We are starving on the steady diet consumer culture feeds us: more and bigger; new and IMPROVED, flashy and fast-paced. And so we buy and buy, and spend and spend, but we are never satiated. We are hungry for something more than the thin gruel of empty consumerism, TV and movies, shopping and home improvement, politics and cliched inspirational memes shared on instagram.
We long to see Jesus. To experience God in the form of another human face.We experience the world through our bodies, so we want to EXPERIENCE God with all five senses. We desire to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God.
That’s why we gather around this table. To touch and smell the bread of life, to taste the cup of salvation, to hear the word of Love. Most of all, we gather to see the people of God: all ages, races, classes, abilities, sexualities, gender expressions: all a part of Christ, all gathered at the same scandalous meal TOGETHER.
We long to experience God.
I asked my friends where and how they experienced God this week and I got so many beautiful answers I can’t list them all: in the sunrise and sunset, in cadbury mini-eggs and wine, in a maternity ward, at my friend’s ordination when she served communion to her momma, in grilled cheese and tomato soup, in the faces of children, in a family of ducks taking up residence in a pond, in the coffee in a coffee cup, in laughter, in the sun peaking through the clouds, in conversations with teenagers, in exquisite music, and music made by children.
Sometimes, when we long to see God, all we have to do is lift our heads and look around. It’s easy when the world is beautiful. It’s not so easy when the world is brutal. When we are lost in the darkness; when we cannot see the light.
I think the disciples are surprised at Jesus’ response when they come to tell him that the Greeks would like to see him. Instead of saying, “oh hey, yeah, bring ‘em on over,” Jesus gives a speech instead, his last sermon. And his sermon points only to the cross. He says, “the hour has come for me to die. If you want to see me, look no further than the cross where I will be raised up out of the ground. I will draw all people to myself.”
The last line of the scripture is “then he departed and hid from them, so that he could no longer be seen.” They wished to see Jesus, and he points to the cross on the way to his hiding spot.
When we are looking for God when God is hidden, look to the cross. Find the rubble, the death, the ugliest things. And then look for little signs of redemption.
When I asked where friends experienced God this week, they looked also to the cross. God was present in the chemo bay, in a little girl in remission from terrible cancer, in the meals and cards sent after the latest round of chemo, in the resilience of kids who have been terribly abused by care-takers, at a 12 step meeting, in the face of a devastated child who couldn’t see his mentally ill mother on his birthday, and a woman who had fallen on the street, The community lunch team at First Church served over 100 people who are hungry and lonely for connection yesterday, and so many of you have helped empower our youth to advocate for their own safety after Parkland. And God bless the many First Church women who prayed for Jennifer’s grand babies delivered too early, and then prayed them home to God. Love amid death. If you wish to see God, look to the cross.
In suffering, we draw closer to Jesus. We experience him. We see him clearly.
The La Romana team had a little adventure Friday night when their flight was canceled, and spent some time at Logan airport. If you wish to see Jesus, lift your head and look around the airport next time you are there.
Jen Colburn writes: Last night I saw a woman who was clearly unhappy with the weather delays. Her interaction with the airport staff helping her was curt. It was clear neither party was pleased with the interaction. Other than staff she was alone. And to be frank I thought the attitude she gave staff was rude. I lost track of her while getting our folks settled.
I saw her again this morning. Completely alone, clearly exhausted, in pain, and just done. I went over to say hello, feeling a little guilty that this had clearly been easier on us. She cried. A friendly hello and the tears flowed. After a difficult surgery, she had received a call in New Mexico, her missing cousin had been found after nearly 6 months. He was murdered. His funeral is this morning. Her new flight out tomorrow.
I can't fix that, Jen said. I could show her kindness. I got her food and water. I helped her think through getting a hotel, got permission from the airline for her borrow the wheelchair she was using. With a new understanding of her situation, they arranged accessible transportation to and from her hotel. A quick hug, a few tears, from both of us and we were both heading off in different directions. I believe sometimes their is a reason we get inconvenienced. I hope next time I remember kindness before judgement.
When you wish to see Jesus, don’t just look for sunsets and babies, look to the cross. Then become children of the light. Plant seeds of redemption with food, water, a hug, and a listening ear. Remember kindness before judgment. Bring heaven down to earth. When the neighborhood looks like a trash heap, plant a garden. Where there is an intractable political debate somewhere on social media, be God’s curiosity. Where there is death, be the living God. Where there is disease and poverty, be God’s healing. Where there is anger and division, be God’s peace. Where there is hunger, be God’s bread. Where there is loneliness, be God’s love. Where there is darkness, be God’s light.
You are the light of the world. Let it shine.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org