An Easter Sunday Sermon
preached on April 21, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
“He is risen!” I said this morning to my husband, Andy, at 5 am.
“Shut up,” Andy said.
You’re supposed to say “he is risen indeed.”
“Shut up," Andy said.
The women were the first to proclaim the resurrection. The men didn’t believe them.
“You’re the pastor of this church?!” someone who attended a funeral I led said to me once. “But you’re a cute chick!”
“You’re my first woman priest,” another says. “You did pretty good, considering.”
“You don’t LOOK like a preacher,” another says.
“Thank you,” I say. (I mean, what else does one say? I feel truly lucky that I don’t have a beard. Yet.)
Folks tell me in one way or another all the time that “chicks” don’t belong leading Christ’s church. That’s the unfortunate message the church has given its flock for millennia.
Remember, the church is not God.
The message given by the Church to and about women in general over the years has been an abomination, in fact. If the Church were Christian, every corner of it would ordain women pastors, preachers, teachers and priests. If the Church were Christian, it would LISTEN TO WOMEN.
Because women were the first witnesses to the resurrection, and the first commissioned to preach the Gospel.
Perhaps that’s because they stuck around to witness the pain of the crucifixion.
According to all of the Gospel accounts, the women were the ones to stand unflinchingly by the cross while the other disciples ran away, denying and betraying their Lord. You can’t blame the disciples, really. Stuff was getting REAL and they believed themselves to be powerless against the might of the Roman empire. They were rightfully afraid.
I read somewhere once that FEAR is an acronym for Face Everything And Rise.
The women were the ones who stayed to face everything. They were the ones, who in the midst of their terror and grieving, bore witness to the death of the One they loved. Even Mary, Mother of Jesus stood at the foot of the cross…her body, her blood, her only son, crucified before her eyes.
It was not easy, but the women knew that together they could do hard things… Even watch, helpless, as their friend; their teacher; their rabbouni; their God; bled out, struggled to breathe, died in front of their eyes— along with all of their dreams.
The women didn’t just stay to watch him breathe his last. The Gospel accounts say they accompanied his lifeless body to the tomb.
Even then they didn’t leave. They came back to the hastily buried body the next day early in the morning while it was still dark to anoint the body with spices.
Because the women faced everything and rose, they were the first to see that he was no longer in the grave where they laid him.
Early in the morning, they approach the tomb, trembling. A stone was rolled away. Inside there were grave cloths, but no body.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Two men, transfigured in dazzling clothes ask. “He is not here. He is risen. Remember? He told you this would happen.”
The scripture says the three women are terrified…but they rise. Yes, they remembered. Yes, they believed. So they ran to tell the others.
Shaking, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, mother of James ran back to the city to find the apostles. They proclaimed, breathless:
“He is not there! He is risen!”
The men didn’t believe them.
But the women knew what they saw. They stayed at the cross, so they witnessed. They remembered, so they believed. They believed, so they proclaimed.
He is risen!
Our work as the church is to be like the women in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts of the Gospels: to accompany one another to the cross, to journey to the tomb where the lifeless are laid, to bear witness to the resurrection.
To witness, to remember, to believe, and to proclaim.
Too often, with a little bit of embarrassment, we make the mistake of marking this day as if this is a historical, even fictional, event that we are remembering together. The product of some ancient hallucination.
But beloved, we don’t sing Jesus Christ “has” risen today, we say Jesus Christ IS risen today.
The resurrection is not a moment in history. Jesus is not over. Jesus is now. He is not a “has been,” he IS an “is” and a “was” an “all that will be,” and an “always will be.” He is the risen Lord: the Love of God that cannot be killed or swept away.
AND HE COMES BACK IN THE MIDST OF ALL THAT IS DEAD TO PROCLAIM LIFE! Love has won. LOVE IS WON.
Why do we need this message on this day, and every day?
Far too many of us die before our bodies have died.
What’s that horror movie where the creepy girl says, “I see dead people?”
I see dead people who aren’t yet dead. Everywhere I go. Death before death.
People who are numb. Who believe themselves to be alone, and act like it. Who are too afraid to love because of what they might lose.
And it’s not just people who are going through the motions of living a life.
We watch death on the news every day. And not just on the streets of Chicago, or at the mosque at Christchurch, New Zealand, or in the war-torn streets of Syria...we see death in the division of this country.
We see death in the dehumanization of God-imaged people. We see death where walls are built instead of bridges. We see death in the mindless consumerism that so often takes the place of building meaningful, life-giving relationships. We see death in our addictions that keep us numb so that we don’t have to feel our emotions. We see death in the internet comment sections, and in the words of the pundits demonizing the other side as if there are sides in Love’s kingdom.
We are rotting from the inside out.
But there is life before death, and life after death.
In Orthodox iconography of the resurrection, Jesus is never alone. He is always depicted taking the dead by the hand and pulling them out of their own tombs. As the song goes, “made like him, like him we rise. Alleluia!”
Many of us are alive today because someone reached out their hand to pull us out of the grave. A teacher, a mentor, a friend, a parent, a pastor, a therapist, a doctor, a lover, an AA sponsor...Someone held out their hand and helped us rise up out of the darkness we found ourselves in. Someone stayed at the cross with us; bore witness to our pain. Someone who didn’t stop loving us, even at our most unlovable. Who didn’t turn away when the going got hard, or when the rot began to smell.
That person reminded us somehow that Love rises up, and rises us up.
So believe it. Why do you keep looking for the living among the dead? He’s not sealed away in a tomb. Christ is right here. Christ is right now. He is risen indeed.
So, Beloved, be an Easter people. Face Everything And Rise.
Witness to the suffering of the world without flinching. Don’t turn away.
Remember you are impossibly, extravagantly beloved by God, and you are to love one another as God loves you.
Believe that God’s future belongs to all times and all seasons. To believe in God, we must believe in US. For we are glorious.
Proclaim heaven is here on earth! (ooo baby do you know what that’s worth?) Preach that Gospel. If necessary, use words.
Jesus is not over. His story is not over. You are his story. Made like him, like him we rise.
A Palm Sunday Sermon
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on April 14, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Being a Christian should be far more dangerous than it is. I suspect that the church is dying in the West precisely because it is so safe.
I have a beloved congregant who shall remain nameless. He LOVES and supports our justice and outreach activities with his whole heart...and he always says that he just doesn’t want our congregation to end up on the 6:00 news. I know what he means.
But if the Church were Christian, it would probably end up on the 6:00 news all the time. I suspect he knows that deep down, and that’s why he worries. Especially with me at the helm.
If the Church were Christian, it would be worthy of its true leader, the One who rides into Jerusalem to foment a love revolution and gets killed in the process.
Revolution foments when people know their worth. Jesus is dangerous for that reason. What wondrous love is this, O my soul! Of course, this kind of riot doesn’t just end up on the six o’clock news on Palm Sunday (What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening?)...it gets Jesus killed five days later.
So seriously, I know why my friend worries. Especially with Jesus at the helm.
“The reason I love church is because I know the rules,” Glennon Doyle says. “The rules are that everybody’s welcome and you are allowed to make mistakes, and that there is no shame.”
Those are the kind of rules that break all the other rules. Love overrules.
Unfortunately, too often the Christian church has made a business of shaming people for their sins instead of celebrating the potential and worth of God-imaged people.
Doyle was reading a Christian review of her first memoir, and she recalls it saying: “How is it that she can have so little shame about her abortion?”
Doyle said: “I get so confused by that because all of Christianity is based on the fact that we are forgiven. Forgiven for everything. That’s the beauty of it. I feel so bad for the people who come to Christianity and refuse to dance with grace….. It reminds me of going to a party and just standing against the wall and refusing to dance. And not only that, but refusing to let other people have a good time dancing. Don’t be mad at me because I’m shameless...Jesus told me to be shameless. And you know what? I’m a recovering drug addict, alcoholic and food addict. Grace is the only buzz I have left. And you will take it from my cold, dead hands.”
If the Church were Christian, it would be a dance party of shamelessness.
Palm Sunday sure was. The Palm Sunday partiers included multitudes: 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 dancing in the aisles.
After being stooped over with their shame for far too long, they were finally standing up straight, perhaps some of them for the first time.
They shouted “Hosanna! Grace is the only buzz I have left and you will take it from my cold, dead hands!”
They were anything but peaceful.
Jesus was born during a time of “peace,” but it came at the cost of heavy-handed oppression. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) existed only because Rome squashed all dissent. In Rome, the peace was kept with force and displays of intimidating military might.
Shane Claiborne says: “A counterfeit peace exists when people are pacified or distracted or so beat up and tired of fighting that all seems calm. But true peace does not exist until there is justice, restoration, forgiveness. Peacemaking doesn't mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.
The festival of Passover was a threat to the Roman authorities because freedom was a threat to their power.
This was the week the Jewish people remembered God’s liberation with feasting and with story-telling. When people get a literal taste of freedom, they can get out of hand.
This was the week the Jews celebrated their chosen-ness; their beloved-ness in the eyes of their God. And when people dare to remember they are beloved and worthy, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND.
This was the week that the Jews celebrated a God who led them out of slavery and bondage, and through the gates of freedom. And when people are reminded that they are still in chains and they were promised more, THEY CAN GET OUT OF HAND.
And they have a new leader now: Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. The one who was consistently reminding the voiceless ones that they are worthy, and maybe not so powerless after all.
Yes, it was a dangerous week to be in Jerusalem. Insurrection was in the air, and this gleaming procession of imperial power—the long arm of the law--was prepared to do whatever it took to stop it.
Jesus was not to be deterred, and so he led his shameless followers in another kind of parade. 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.
But it was LOUD. It was the volume you might expect from a group of people once silenced; who have just found their voice.
They were singing and shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
“Teacher, order your disciples to stop. Tell them to be quiet. This is getting out of hand,” some Pharisees in the crowd said. They were standing up against the wall and refusing to dance with grace, and they didn’t want to let others have fun dancing either. It was too dangerous.
“I tell you,” said Jesus, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”
When we were in Bible study on Wednesday night, one of the participants asked, “I wonder, what does this mean...that the very stones would shout out?”
One of the participants, one of our newest newbies, who was worried that her ideas were too radical for Bible study, suggested this:
“I think Jesus meant that if the crowd was made to be quiet, they’d start throwing rocks.”
I had never heard that interpretation before. This is why it is good to have have people who think they are too radical for Bible study in your Bible study.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. called a riot “the language of the unheard.” Riots don’t happen when people have enough food in their bellies. Revolutions aren’t needed when all people are free.
Early Saturday morning on June 28, 1969, police staged a raid at the Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run gay bar in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Unlike the many previous raids that had taken place at the Christopher Street establishment, this one inspired the bar's patrons to fight back. The Stonewall Riots, as the days-long protest became known, is credited as the spark that ignited the modern-day LGBTQ-rights movement.
The week following the protests, Village Voice writer Howard Smith described the "strange mood" when when police first ejected Stonewall’s patrons out onto the sidewalk under a full moon.
“Loud defiances mixed with skittish hilarity made for a more dangerous stage of protest; they were feeling their impunity,” Smith wrote. “This kind of crowd freaks easily.”
What had been a routine crackdown on an illegal bar took a turn when pennies and dimes started to whiz through the air and toward the police. The cops barricaded themselves into the bar, and then the gay mob outside the bar began to throw bricks and rocks toward the door and tried to break through the boarded up windows.
The first Gay Pride parade happened in New York City, one year later on June 28th, to commemorate the Stonewall riots...the day God imaged people dared to hope for freedom; and together proclaimed their own sacred worth. They marched into New York shouting “You will take grace from my cold, dead hands! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of LOVE! And love is love is love is love is love.”
The Pride parades that have happened every year since are Palm Sunday processionals: celebrations of Shamelessness.
The Church is slowly waking up to the fact that it is more Christian to show up at a Pride parade with signs that say “I’m sorry” than to protest one. Christian author Jen Hatmaker brought her husband, Brandon, and members of her church community to Austin Pride to give out "Free Mom Hugs, Free Dad Hugs, Free Grana Hugs and Free Pastor Hugs like it was our paying jobs.”
"Our arms were never empty. We 'happy hugged' a ton of folks, but dozens of times, I'd spot someone in the parade look our way, squint at our shirts and posters, and RACE into our arms. There were the dear hearts who said:
'I miss this.'
'My mom doesn't love me anymore.'
'My Dad hasn't spoken to me in three years.'
'Please just one more hug.'
You can only imagine what 'Pastor Hugs' did to folks. So we told them over and over that they were impossibly loved and needed and precious. And we hugged until our arms fell off. This is what we are doing, what we are here for."
This church is saving lives. LGBTQ teens are dying at alarming rates. If the Church were Christian, we would show up with free hugs instead of judgment and condemnation. God’s people all over the WORLD are shouting “Hosanna! I beg you to save!”
Barbara Brown Taylor says that “salvation is not something that happens at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead.”
And beloved, salvation doesn’t come from safety. If you want to bring about the revolutionary love of Jesus on this earth, don’t stand against the wall anymore. Don’t be safe.
Get LOUD. And don’t forget to dance.
A Sermon preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on April 7, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
I was listening to this American Life yesterday afternoon, and there was a story about a preschool teacher tired of being the judge and jury for every dispute in her classroom. She installed a chunky red dial pad phone on the wall where the kids could go to tattle on each other. She called it the “tattle phone.”
After getting the other parents’ enthusiastic permission, David Kestembaum put a recorder in the tattle phone for the sake of this story for NPR. The outgoing message said: “Hey there, you've reached the tattle phone. OK, tell me what happened after the beep. Tell me the whole story.”
The kids went to the tattle phone all day every day except during nap time, and so Kestembaum recorded hundreds of messages.
“Eli told me a lie.”
“Seamus wasn't sharing with me, and I don't like it, and I'm very upset.”
“Nathan farted in my face, and I said, yuck, Nathan. And he didn't say excuse me.”
The real crime? He didn’t say “excuse me.”
The tattle phone made the kids feel better because they got to say aloud the things that felt unfair or made them mad. They felt heard, and the teacher didn’t have to step in to solve every fight and hurt feeling. The classroom was remarkably more harmonious. One kid said talking on the tattle phone felt like eating ice cream.
It made me wish that the church was also outfitted with a tattle phone.
However, the reporter said that eventually the kids stopped using the phone as much.
“Why?” he asked one of the children.
“It stopped working. I tattled on my brother who pinched me, but the phone didn’t make him stop.”
“I know,” the interviewer said to the boy. “You want actual justice.”
Sometimes, it’s not enough to speak up and have your voice heard when an injustice has been done. Reconciliation is hard and holy work. It involves more than listening and being heard. It involves humility, repentance, forgiveness, grace, and the hard work of repair. It requires asking ourselves, “what if I’m wrong?”
“Earth is a forgiveness school,” Ann Lamott says. “You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can wear comfortable pants.”
Most of you don’t know this. But this Church in the midst of a fairly heated conversation about a Bylaw change proposal for the May annual meeting that would put the power into the hands of the church as a whole instead of in the hands of the denominational societies to choose its diaconate members, and how it spends benevolence money.
I sent out an email to all of our “undeclared” congregants—those of you who have chosen to remain “interdenominational” or “blank” in our database, to see if you wanted to “declare” a denomination, and be a part of the upcoming conversations about the bylaw proposals. It was an administrative task for me, in other words. It had surprisingly swift and passionate results. I received email after email from dozens of you declaring you would not “choose” a “team,” that the whole idea of a denominational “society” was anathema to your understanding of this church’s mission. The word “society” was not a Christian word, you said.
222 out of our 359 members, in fact, have officially “refused to choose.”
In the meantime, several of the members of both the Unitarian and the UCC societies have tried to mount a defense against the Bylaw proposals, worried that losing the power to choose who serves on the diaconate is losing a piece of our history; of who we are.
My dearest friend and colleague the Reverend Claire Feingold-Thoryn preached at my installation in 2014, saying:
“Now (First Church in Sterling) has three denominations, which is a lot,
but think of the Christians who worship at the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem.
Many people believe the church was built on the very spot where Jesus was entombed, and rose again.
The place is so sacred that within that one building there are six Christian traditions worshipping:
Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Egyptian Coptic.
The Armenian Apostolic priests have ownership of a
small worship space within the large church,
but the Greek Orthodox own the ceiling of that room.
Hard to imagine how that got worked out.
The story goes that recently the lightbulb burned out
on the ceiling of the small Armenian chapel
and unless the Armenians wanted to worship in the dark, they needed to change the bulb.
However, it was difficult to get to the bulb to change it,
Because the Greek Orthodox wouldn’t let the Armenians
touch their space--
the ceiling where the bulb was.
And the Armenians wouldn’t let the Greek Orthodox touch their space--
which included the floor.
In the version I heard from a tour guide,
leaders from both denominations were on the phone with the Israeli police arguing that they should have the right to change the bulb.
So the next day, the chief of police went down to the church very early in the morning,
just happening to casually be carrying a ladder.
He strolled nonchalantly into the room
with the burnt-out lightbulb,
replaced it quickly
and went back to his office.
Then he called the leaders and said,
“I was just there…
and the lightbulb seemed to work just fine!”
Where are we pushing a door shut,
and worshipping in the dark?
Where are we allowing our cries of “liberty!”
to imprison us?
Where are we laying sole claim
to something that could be so easily shared?
How many Christians does it take to change a lightbulb?
There is another section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that has been fought over by the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox for centuries.
It’s a little bit of flat roof, baking in the Middle Eastern sun.
Currently the Ethiopians control this space,
however, the Coptics have a monk stationed in a folding chair on the roof every day,
to express their claims on the territory.
One hot day eleven years ago, the Coptic monk in the chair moved from the agreed-upon spot
to a place in the shade a few feet away.
This was interpreted as a hostile move,
leading to elderly monks throwing furniture and punches over the crossing of an invisible line on the church’s roof.
How we fight over the roof while the whole foundation crumbles.
How we hoard our history while losing our mission.
How we draw lines invisible and hard as glass
to protect ourselves
and then find ourselves in jails of our own making.”
Reconciliation is hard when there is change afoot: when “the way we’ve always done things” is threatened by people who don’t share our past. Those of us who have been serving on committees and in societies and making the coffee for decades or even generations get anxious when new folks are given equal say and equal rights to the church’s inheritance.
Enter the famous story of the Prodigal Son.
This is the story of a ridiculously, embarrassingly loving father who bestows grace upon grace on his younger, johnny-come-lately son. His younger son demands his inheritance before his dad even dies. His dad dutifully gives it to him! And then the son goes off to the city and squanders his dad’s money on extravagant food and women, and before you know it, it’s all gone. He ends up a pig farmer, toiling in dirt in the hot sun with animals he was raised to believe are unclean. And the prodigal son thinks to himself, “my dad’s slaves are better off than I am! I think I’ll go home!”
He returns home to beg forgiveness. He tells his father he’ll work for him with his father’s slaves, and he weeps apologetically. And his father embraces him right away, and commands his slaves bring out a feast for his son, and they have a gigantic welcome home party to celebrate.
Earth is forgiveness school. You might as well start at the table.
The older brother is furious. He stayed home this whole time, tilling the fields, doing what had to be done, working hard to earn his inheritance. How come his good-for-nothing brother gets the spoils? His dad answers, “Son, we have to celebrate, because your brother was once dead, and is now alive, was lost but now he’s found.”
God’s grace is offensive. It’s unfair. It’s unjust even. It doesn’t matter what the brother did, or even why he came back. He’s welcomed home with a hero’s welcome. He’s given equal stake in the Father’s assets. His voice and his life matter just as much as his brother’s.
Frankly, the older brother is right. He’s right that his father is ridiculously permissive and wasteful with his love. His brother likely wouldn’t have come home and apologized if he hadn’t run out of cash.
In the story, the younger brother doesn’t even ask forgiveness from his older brother.. Clearly, he knows that his father will be easier on him. It’s much harder to reconcile with one another than with God. Reconciliation among equals requires the surrender of pride, the surrender of ego, the surrender of the privilege of being right, the surrender of everything that keeps us estranged.
Sometimes we have to swallow our desire to be right for the sake of relationship.
Now, I love being right more than anyone on the planet. However, I don’t know about you, but relationship is why I’m here. Relationship not just with God, but with all of you. Therefore, I’m starting at the table. This is the table where unity is possible; where we get a glimpse of earth as it is in heaven.
And so, I want to come to this table to re-pent, to re-think. To ask myself the most holy of all questions, “what if I am wrong?”
I identify with this dinner table only. I am no longer interested in identifying with any of the groups that separate us from one another. I choose this table, with all of you. I choose our mission, which is to create heaven on earth. I seek to identify only with the One who calls us all home.
Why? A denomination is not a religion. The Church is not God.
God is one. We are fragmented, God is not. The Church is separated, God is not. The world is a hot mess of groupishness, God is not. God is not a democrat or a republican, a Unitarian or a Trinitarian, a Christian or a Muslim. God is not black or white. God is one, and Father of all.
If you want to follow the way of Jesus, figure it out, and get back to the table.
Get back to the TABLE OF UNITY,
Get back to the table OF AN END TO DIFFERENCE and INDIFFERENCE,
Get back to the TABLE OF REMEMBRANCE,
Get back to the TABLE of REPENTANCE,
Get back to the TABLE OF FORGIVENESS,
Get back to the TABLE OF RECONCILIATION.
Our mission is nothing less than fomenting a LOVE REVOLUTION. We can’t do that when we are distracted by in-fighting. So figure it out and get back to the table. COME HOME. Because THEN we will be gathering in the spirit of Jesus. Then we will understand a little bit about the kingdom of heaven we seek to create in the world.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org