A Love Letter to First Church in Sterling
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached at the Regional Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association's New England Region on
April 22, 2017
“A new heart I will give you,” our reading from Ezekiel says, “a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
We are in constant need for God to reach into our chests, pull out our hearts of stone and replace them with beating hearts of flesh. That’s why we come together in religious community:
We need a heart transplant.
And you and I know that this whole nation needs a new heart right now; re-started by Love.
You and I have watched (helplessly, hopelessly, angrily, cynically, exhausted) this year as our collective hearts turned to stone. We know we need Love to repair what has been broken.
We need a heart transplant. We need a LOVE REVOLUTION.
So often we Unitarian Universalists believe that the problem is outside of our own communities. As liberals, we don’t need to change. As liberals, it is our politics that saves us. And so it is our job to fix and save others; to save the world. But the truth is, you and I need a change of heart, too.
I grew up UU from birth, at the UU church in Concord, NH in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I grew up in a congregation that—at the time—worshipped the holy trinity: Emerson, Humanism and the Democratic party. There were three words we were not allowed to say in church in those years: God, Jesus and Ronald Reagan.
I interpreted the message of Unitarian Universalism rather poorly as a kid. I was the 7-year-old mini-Richard Dawkins on the playground who told the other kids there wasn’t a God, and also that Santa wasn’t real. (I don’t blame this on you, UUs of Concord, NH. I’m raising my 7-year-old with Jesus, and she does the same thing. It must be genetics.)
In college, I had a bumper sticker that said, “the road to hell is paved with Republicans.” I didn’t even have a car, but I had that bumper sticker.
I needed a heart transplant.
I found Jesus sometime in my late twenties at First Parish in Milton, Massachusetts. He taught me about Universalism, and was constantly challenging me to love religious hypocrites, the tax collector, and my enemies. But I rarely had to put those principles into practice since I surrounded myself with people I perceived to be exactly like me: white liberals. Ironically, I didn’t see myself as one of the religious hypocrites.
Then I moved outside of Boston.
You may have read that I am the minister of a UU church also affiliated with the United Church of Christ out in a town in Massachusetts you’ve maybe never heard of called Sterling. First Church in Sterling is what’s called a “federated” church: the result of the American Baptists, the Congregationalists, and the Unitarians coming together into one small town church during World War II.
As a result, this 300-plus member Christian church I serve is the most theologically diverse church I have ever encountered in my 40 years of being UU. We have progressive Christians, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, atheists and agnostics, and we have folks who believe that there is no way to be saved except through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. We are committed to above all else gathering in the spirit of Jesus, and we share in a commitment to re-make earth as it is in heaven. Because we believe that God is Love, we care for each other with a warmth I have rarely experienced, without parsing who’s worthy of it. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by remaining open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching, law-abiding Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together one day early in my ministry. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you, Cathie. And I held up a silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.” And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant!” I said. “The cup of salvation!” I never made that mistake again. She taught me a lot about ministry that day: reminding me that I’m not the one in charge, and that sometimes we need something a lot stronger than hope.
Ministry in a theologically diverse context provides ample opportunity for heart transplants.
The hard thing about my settlement in Sterling is not the theological diversity, though, it’s the ideological diversity. Sterling is a deep red rural farm town where Trump won the election. While liberals are overwhelmingly attracted to the church on the town green with the rainbow flag, so are conservatives. It’s the only mainline Protestant church in town, after all. In a small town, we have the beautiful problem of being stuck together, and so ours’ is a religion of welcome for all. I sometimes guess that we are about a 50/50 conservative and liberal mix in our congregation, politically. This is an unlikely scenario for a Unitarian Universalist church, I know. It’s a gift that even my colleagues in the United Church of Christ in New England don’t necessarily share. Church leaders, both conservative and liberal, are used to political orthodoxy in our congregations. We are far more likely to say that the reason we join a church is to surround ourselves with “like-minded people,” than we are apt to say we joined a church to worship a God who unites us across difference.
This political diversity in my congregation was a shock to my system, to be honest. And it has consistently and painfully necessitated my own heart of stone to be removed by God quite against my will and replaced with a beating heart of flesh.
The November 2016 presidential election hit our congregation hard. If we are being honest, it threatened to tear at the fabric of our congregation’s unity, and even tear some of my congregations’ families apart.
The day after the election, I didn’t want to face any of it. My colleagues on Facebook were posting comments saying things like, “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter. Even if they say they aren’t racist, they voted for one. You can’t be a UU and be a Trump supporter.” My experience with people I love in my congregation told me it was more complex than that. Many of my Trump voters worked for justice right alongside me, attending vigils for Charleston and Orlando, partnering with the Worcester Islamic Center to help refugees, going back year after year to build a hospital in the Dominican Republic, providing medical care and clean water for Haitian workers there. One of the African American men in my congregation voted for Trump.
And when it comes down to it, whether I like it or not, casting folks out of our circle of care is against my religion.
And so I spent the day, like so many of my colleagues did, in pastoral care with the grieving and terrified, trying to forgive. I mostly just listened, which ultimately I should do far more often.
We gathered in our sanctuary that same night in the candlelit darkness. 80 or 90 of us stood together united—conservatives and liberals, at a post-election communion service, open to the town. We shared a common meal at God’s table. We reminded each other to whom we belong—not a political party or a president, but to each other and to God. We sang “Imagine” together. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day, November 9, with beating hearts of flesh.
I gathered with my church’s board the next night. There are 6 of us on that board. Half of us are conservatives, half of us are liberals. 3 and 3. Two were on the Republican Town Committee, one a former chair. We voted differently in this election. We love each other a lot, this board and me. We laugh easily, and we have a great deal of trust in one another. Knowing them doesn’t usually change my mind, but it has absolutely changed my heart.
But that Thursday night, I was angry. We shared the story of one of our black teenaged congregants who had been harassed in the name of Donald Trump at her high school. We were told that a young adult child of a board member was sexually assaulted on the subway that day in New York City because “there’s a new sheriff in town, and we can grab women now.” A couple of us cried. Some of us just seemed numb.
And so we held hands before diving into our agenda, and Doug, our board chair, who I’m quite sure is not comfortable praying extemporaneously, prayed for us. He prayed humbly and with great tenderness, because he could tell how angry and defeated I was, and he could tell I had no words. I’m pretty sure he could tell I didn’t want to hold his hand, so he gripped it tighter.
Doug does not agree with me politically AT ALL. But we love each other, we respect each other, and we serve this place of profound unity together. We believe with every faithful bone in our body that Love builds bridges and tears down walls. We know we belong to each other. That’s what grace looks like in our context, and I do believe that’s how the world changes. Tears dripped down my cheeks despite my rage. Turns out what I didn’t know I needed was a Trump voter to pray for me that night.
My heart of stone was replaced that evening with a beating heart of flesh.
On the Sunday after the election, I got up into the pulpit with trembling voice. I told my people that I know we don’t watch the same news, and so I was only going to tell them news from our congregation. I told them about our children of color who have been harassed at school, our friends at the Worcester Islamic Center who need self defense classes, our young adult who was sexually assaulted on the subway, our congregation’s immigrants worried about deportation, and our people scared of losing health insurance. And I said directly to my Trump voters: “I know you didn’t vote for this—for any of this-- because I know you and I love you. “Tribalism got us into this mess, and it’s not going to get us out,” I said. I told them that no matter how we voted, we must now stand for black lives, for our children, for women, for Muslims, for Latinos, for queer people, for each other, because we stand for Jesus. We cried together, and then we chalked the whole town with messages of love for our neighbors. Some of my conservatives wrote me emails of gratitude. The emails said, in one way or another, “thank you for loving me. I will stand with you.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day with beating hearts of flesh.
Despite our ideological diversity, First Church in Sterling became an open and affirming, welcoming congregation to the LGBTQ community this January by unanimous vote. We hosted several conversations on race including with our police force, a forum on being LGBTQ and Christian, and a “Meet Your Muslim neighbor” gathering for the community, 100 people congregating in our parish hall for each event, of every political persuasion.
We are learning to listen to one another, searching not always for agreement but understanding. It is heart surgery. No one leaves unchanged.
At our path to membership class we had a couple of weeks ago, 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!”
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, once said to us that "If your concept of love serves only to reinforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
This is the Good News of Universalism, the SCANDAL of Universalism: we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether or not we are worthy.
Social scientists say that we haven’t been more divided as a nation since the aftermath of the civil war. And so 2017 is the best and most important time to be a religious leader in America. In fact, we have never needed communities of faith more.
Some people will tell you that the Church has a bad heart, and is coding on the table. You and I know a different truth, and that is why we are here this morning. The church is experiencing a shock to the heart unlike anything we’ve seen in history.
And so the church will be born anew. CHARGE UP YOUR DEFIBRULATORS and get ready to shock the church’s heart back into beating.
AND BEHOLD! The Church will rise again: to build bridges, not walls; to give us a new heart for each other and the world; to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
The Church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we welcome the stranger and pray for our enemies.
The church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we LOVE our neighbor as ourselves.
That’s because, in Barber’s words, the watchword of faith is ‘WE’.
We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
Beloved friends: may our hearts be shocked back into beating for each other, and for the God whose Love knows no limits.
Preached on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett at
First Church in Sterling, MA
The stone-cold guarded tomb Jesus was sealed in, like the world after he was crucified, was very dark. As the stone was slowly rolled away on Easter morning, I imagine just a crack and glimmer of light illuminating the darkness inside as the women realized he was no longer there. Like moonlight on water. God said let there be light; and there was light!
The smallest of lights can illuminate the deepest darkness.
Though the dark sometimes gets a bad rap in scriptures, it is not all bad. God creates in darkness. God spoke light into the darkness. Darkness is where seeds are planted and regenerate new growth deep in the earth. God resurrected Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb. Life is created and re-created in darkness. And darkness is where we begin, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knitted in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made.
Once they are born, we try to recreate the darkness and warmth of the womb for our babies for at least the first three months they are alive, sometimes longer. We swaddle them, we put light canceling curtains in their nurseries. We carry them around close to our bodies. This darkness helps them to eat and sleep and grow. The darkness is as generative as it is safe.
Some of us don’t necessarily get over this desire to cocoon in the safety of darkness as we age, either. For those of you who, like me, have been hiding underneath a blanket all winter wondering if it will ever be safe to come out again, you know what I mean.
We long to retreat into the warm safety of the womb, in order to shield ourselves from the darkness all around us that is cold and frightening like the tomb.
It’s no wonder we are afraid. The world has gone very, very dark. And the still-approaching, encroaching darkness is threatening to plunge us deeper into despair. According to social scientists, the nation is as divided as it was immediately following the Civil War. We are not sure if we are on the brink of another major World War, but we do see increased military actions lately that make us wonder. We have lost faith in our institutions: our democracy, our healthcare system, our free press, our corporations, our schools, the Church. Hate crimes are at an all-time high, and radical hate movements from Isis to the KKK are celebrating victory. We know at the very least that we have entered an era of enormous rage. We feel as though we have been plunged into the tomb with Jesus on Good Friday, and we wonder if we will ever emerge victorious.
At an interfaith watchnight service this year, civil rights lawyer, award-winning film-maker, interfaith leader, and Sikh activist Valarie Kaur said:
“Yes, the future is dark. But the mother in me asks: what if. What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?.....What if this is our nation’s great transition?”
Valarie Kaur finishes her speech on that watch night by asking “What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And push. Because if we don’t, we’ll die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor…for revolutionary love.”
So on this glorious Easter Sunday, breathe. And tomorrow, you and I will get back to laboring for the creation of God’s kingdom here on earth. Because the alternative, Jesus reminds us, is death. It may be scary, but there is no going back. This is the great transition. All we can do is breathe and then PUSH.
Because God doesn’t call us to safety, God calls us to life.
First, we have to follow the glimmer of light at the crack of the opening, roll that stone away and burst out of our tombs.
Kids, have you all been to the Museum of Science in Boston? There is an exhibit there that has been there for so long, it was even there when I was a kid: the lightning exhibit. I loved that lightning room, and I was scared to death of it. They had lightning shows every few hours, and children sit in the dark with their parents, waiting for a spectacular light show to light up the room with a loud zap and crackle. It is stunning and loud, and I jumped with fear every time the lightning zapped the metal conductor, just like I do every time thunder cracks after the lightning in a rainstorm. And yet, I couldn’t wait to go back every year. It was exhilarating. Lightning is as beautiful as it is terrifying.
In our scripture from the Gospel according to Matthew, the women go to the tomb on Easter morning, and there is a great earthquake. An angel of the Lord rolled back the stone sealing the tomb where Jesus had been, and sat on it. His appearance, the text says, was “like lightning.” The guards and the women must have been shaking with fear because lightning is as terrifying as it is beautiful. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay,” the Angel says. The story goes that the women left the tomb “with fear and great joy,” to go back and tell the others.
Fear and great joy.
So it is with all of us.
Like the women who came to the tomb that day, the resurrection has not eradicated our fears. Many of us will go home again today, still uncertain of where our next pay check will come from, still facing terrifying diagnoses, still living with domestic violence in our homes, still mourning broken relationships that can never be repaired, still struggling with the heartbreak of addiction, still mourning the loss of a loved one, still fearful of what the future holds for our children and our earth. Christ’s resurrection does not wash those realities away. It simply calls us to impossible joy in the midst of our greatest fears. That is what our resurrected God invites: joy anyway. Let there be light!
This Easter Sunday, let us greet with fear and joy the light of God that cannot be put out. The love of God that cannot be killed or swept away. You are the proof that God’s light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
So come out of your tombs! Raise up your lights. Turn them on and hold them up! Hold up your lights for all those loved ones we have lost, because they are not gone. Light perpetual shines upon them. Hold out your lights for the broken hearted, for all is not lost. The light of hope still shines. Hold out your lights for those who live in fear. Do not be afraid! The light shines in the darkness. Hold out your lights for all those waiting to be resurrected from the darkness of their tombs. Death does not have the final word, life does. Darkness does not have the final word, light does.
God has made you a light in a dark place….Alleluia! LET IT SHINE!
Let it shine on the darkness of your fears....the light of joy will illuminate it.
Say it with me: Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of illness...the light of hope will heal us.
Say it with me: Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of loss….the light of our loved ones will live on inside of us.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of lies and conceit...the light of truth will stamp it out.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of war and terrorism….the light of peace will reign.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of evil...the light of Love will DESTROY it.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Let it shine on the darkness of death....the light of life will overcome it.
Alleluia! Let it shine!
Breathe, and then PUSH. For a new world is waiting to be born. God’s LOVE is ready to burst forth, from your hearts, and your hands. No grave can contain it. God has made you a light in a dark place. Alleluia! Let it shine.
4/10/2017 0 Comments
A Humble King
Preached Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be seen, not read. Watch this sermon here.
Today is Palm Sunday. And thus begins our Holy Week journey with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem today, to the Last Supper and betrayal of Maundy Thursday, to the horror of Good Friday, the desolate mourning of Holy Saturday, and the triumphant resurrection of Easter Sunday. This is a great day in the life of the church, and so is Easter next Sunday. If you come to the 10 am service next Sunday…come early. It will be spectacular. But please do not just come to our Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services. You miss most of the story if you do. Just going from glory to glory leaves out the meat…the part that is hardest to face, yes, but also the part that makes resurrection that much sweeter. So join us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this week, too.
The celebration of Palm Sunday is always a little mawkish and macabre because most of us have heard this story so many times, we know what happens next. Sort of like a movie we know the gruesome tragic ending to, and so we cringe even when we watch the happy part at the beginning.
First, Jesus, a newly popular prophet (which means truth-teller) has his disciples go and steal a donkey and a colt. That’s right, Jesus asks his people to swipe livestock. He says, if anyone asks why you are taking these, just say “the Lord needs them.” (And friends, please don’t try this at home next time you need a mode of transportation. Saying “the Lord needs this Tesla” at the car dealership probably won’t work as a method of payment.)
The disciples then bring the donkey and the colt to Jesus, and spread coats over them to soften his seat. Then they spread cloaks and palms on the road to soften his path. That is how the people show God honor: by softening the path he travels.
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 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. 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.
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.
I always think of the scene in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar on Palm Sunday. The ensemble in the musical sings a rather sinister-sounding song in celebration of Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem: “Ho-sanna, hey-sanna, sanna sanna ho, sannah ho sannah hey sannah, hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me, Sanna ho sanna hey Superstar?” T.S. Eliot says that “the last act is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
They sing that song as if they are cheering for him, but for all the wrong reasons. Smile at me, Jesus! Fight for me Jesus!
The real story of Palm Sunday is not about the crowds, though. It is about the Humble King they cheer for.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was different than others. 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 whatever the reason for their cheering, the crowd had the humility that day to make his path soft. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, they made the path soft. They didn’t care if their coats got ruined by donkey hoofs and excrement. They didn’t care if they never got the dirt and dust off of their fur coat or prized Patriots jacket or robe and stole again. They threw their palms and maybe even their hopes and their hearts into the path along with them. Hosanna! I beg you to save!
Today we make the path soft for Jesus, our Humble King, because we, too, are in need of salvation.
We start by admitting we are no different than the crowd gathered that day. We’d like to believe we’d make a different choice, of course. But humility requires admitting that we are just as likely to cheer for Jesus, as we are to turn on him. We are just as likely to raise up our leaders and then rip them down. We are just as likely to betray our deepest held values, and even the people we love the most.
What the world needs right now is more people admitting that they are capable of being wrong. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people who are willing to put aside their own pride. Make God's path soft. What the world needs right now is people willing to admit over and over again that they are not God. Now, more than ever. Make God's path soft.
On this Palm Sunday, more than ever, we need a reminder that we serve and follow a Humble King. Make his path soft.
The problem is none of us particularly like humility, if we’re being honest. Humility is not a character trait we herald in our kings. We want our kings to be tough and raging. Manly. Invulnerable. Like we wish we were. We want our kings to fight with the people we think are wrong. To call the cheering crowd righteous, and the jeering crowd a basket full of deplorables. To take down our enemies in war, or on Twitter.
But the scriptures tell us that the easiest way to know God is through his Son Jesus. And so we know that raging, power-hungry, murderous Kings are not God. That’s humanity. Ann Lamott says that we can trust we have made God into an idol if God hates all the same people that we do. We are raging, jealous, and vengeful, but that’s not God. We worship a God who loves without stopping to inquire who is worthy of it. We worship a God who demands that we love each other the same wasteful way we are loved. We worship a God who forgives even as he empties himself on the cross. We worship a God who rides the road of humility.
So let us make his path soft.
And let us make the path soft for one another. The people sitting next to you here in this church, or out driving on the highway, or in line with you at the grocery store—these people are all opportunities to see and know Christ. And so we must make the path soft for one another. Throw off whatever you are hiding under that coat you are wearing and put it on the ground. Practice humility.
Of course this is easy for me, since I am the most humble person I know.
For those of you who are new to us, this 300-plus member Christian church is the most theologically diverse church I know of. We are the result of all of the town churches coming together during World War II—the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Unitarians. As a result, we have every denomination here. We have atheists, agnostics, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, Lutherans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists. We have rather Conservative Christians who believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, and your average progressive Christians who love hippie Jesus. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We even have some Jews and Buddhists. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by being open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
When I first got here, I thought I was pretty awesome. The first called and settled female minister to serve First Church, I was right out of divinity school and feeling pretty smart and holy.
I was just getting to know everyone, and the quirkiness of First Church. “Oh, I can do theological diversity,” I kept saying to everyone. “It’s fun.” I think I prided myself in being able to like, minister to the whole world with the ease of Jesus himself. I was disabused of that myth quickly.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons who shall remain nameless described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together by intinction one day early in my ministry here. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you. And I held up the silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.”
And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant,” I said quickly. “This is the cup of salvation.”
I never made that mistake again. She taught me something about humility that day, and therefore brought me closer to God. She reminded me that I’m not the one in charge; none of us are. She reminded me that maybe we all need a little saving. She reminded me that like the grape juice we serve instead of wine, sometimes hope’s not always a strong enough cure for what ails us. Hosanna! I beg you to save.
We make the path soft for Jesus when we make the path soft for each other.
St. Paul’s letter to the Phillippians instructs us:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
As we journey with Jesus on Holy Week, follow the humble path. Follow a savior who would enter Jerusalem to preach and heal and save, despite his fate. Follow the path of a God who would rather climb up on a cross and die to show us how loved we are than to save himself. Follow the path of a savior who instead of choosing anger and scorn at the tormenters in the crowd, instead said, “forgive them, father. They know not what they do.”
Make his path soft.
This Holy Week, remember how much you are beloved by God despite your tendency toward pride and hypocrisy. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Listen to one another not always for agreement, but for understanding. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let us not regard our belovedness by God as something to be exploited.
Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord. His steadfast love endures forever.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org