A Homily by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on May 21, 2017, Confirmation Sunday
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen/heard. Watch this one here.
This week was one of those very full, very sad, very joyful, very beautiful weeks in the life of the church.
On Wednesday night we taught some of our oldest and most vulnerable congregants about the fraud we are all capable of falling prey to. We ate dinner together. We laughed at funny skits. We prayed together, and sang.
Then I went to the calling hours at Miles Funeral Home for Sue Quinn at 9:00 pm, because earlier the line was 3 hours long and approximately one million people were there. I saw half of our congregation still there waiting when I arrived.
Thursday I went to the one hundredth birthday party of one of our beloved congregants, Ken Day, at the Sterling Senior Center. Ken, almost every time I see him, says "can you believe how lucky I am? People like you keep me alive." The truth is, he keeps us alive. His eyes twinkle, and he's in better shape than all of us. He still drives his car around town. He even frequently posts on Facebook! So next time people tell you that social media is only for young people, please remind them that we have 100 year olds on Facebook.
On Thursday afternoon, we laid beautiful Sue Quinn to rest in a service of memory and hope. She was just 50 years old, and there were approximately one million people squeezed into this, the hottest sanctuary in America, fanning themselves with programs and trying to sing through tears. She was the kind of person who collected people because she asked them questions and really listened to the answers. And she was a beloved member of this church. She taught Sunday school and served on the preschool board and raised her children here.
She died of a terrible wretched disease that makes me angry with God because there is no one else to be angry with. But she wasn't angry. She was tough and peaceful and still funny at the end.
She so desperately didn't want to leave her teenaged kids and her adoring and adorable husband. Why she had to makes no goodly or Godly sense to me, I’m just being honest. She didn’t believe in a God who willed her to suffer and die for a reason, so we will never invoke that God in her name. She believed in a God who shows up in people, and in Love, and in the midst of suffering, so it is absolutely no surprise to me how much she loved this place. She was the first person from this generation of parents of teenagers in this church to die, I think, and so all of that crowd was at the reception at Chocksett Inn afterward, crying and hugging, trying to imagine what it must feel like to say goodbye to their children and spouses, loving and supporting one another through the horror.
And then, last night, we raised like one million dollars for the church and its ministries at a celebratory Treasures of the Community auction, put on by volunteers who worked every day for a full year to make this happen.
This morning, we confirm our 10th graders in the love of God, and welcome them into the Church.
Confirmands, you may want to know why I want you to hear all of this. I want you to know that the work and life of the church matters. Going to church matters. Being the church matters. It matters more than virtually anything else that you will ever do. It matters more than your grades. It matters more than soccer games. It matters more than getting asked to the prom. It matters more than the degree you get, the college you go to, the job you get, the stuff you acquire. I’m not saying this because I’m a minister. I’m telling you this because Church contains the full catastrophe; the full beauty; the full reality of life. It will change, transform and orders yours’, if you let it.
I want to tell you this today because too many people treat confirmation like a graduation ceremony. Like after this, “I’m done! I don’t have to go to church again ‘til I get married. Woo hoo! Where’s my diploma?”
Well, kids, this is the opposite of a graduation. This is your welcome into the church. This is the day you make a deeper commitment to the church. This is the day you say, “yes! I will show up…to all of it. From the baby baptisms to the funerals, the turkey suppers to the worship services.” This is your day to remove your bib and put on your apron. This is the day you become a host for those who are hungry for what we have here, which is nothing less than extravagant love. This church needs you. Our hurting world needs you.
You may think that this place, if you’re being honest, is a little boring, or irrelevant. You are wrong. Places like this save lives and mend hearts. So don’t leave. If you leave, don’t leave for long. If you move, find a place like it. Not because your parents want you to. Find a place like this wherever you go for the sake of your own survival. And not the survival of your mortal soul. Please. A God that would send you to some firey pit to suffer because you don’t worship the right way is no God I would worship.
Stay because there are very few places that will move you to awe despite your anger, confusion and depression over the state of the world and God's seeming refusal to fix it. Stay, not because of the strange words we use, or the songs we sing, or the funny rituals we take part in, but because of the people who show up. These will be the people you can count on to show you what God’s face looks like. These will be the people who will show up with casseroles and cards and macabre humor when you need reminders that you will survive because they did, too. They will wipe your tears. They will celebrate your marriage and your babies. They will be there when there’s an illness or an addiction or a divorce and a death. They will offer forgiveness. They will keep you alive.
So, beloved confirmands, welcome to the church. Now show up. Keep other people alive. And when the going gets hard, don’t leave. You’ll miss too much of what life and love and God are all about. You’ll miss being part of the Love Revolution.
May it be so, and amen.
Susan Westwood Seed Quinn:
Words for a Service of Memory and Hope
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
May 18, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Good afternoon, beloved.
I just want to begin by saying thank you. As Sue’s pastor, I am privileged to know about the many ways in which this community of love showed up for Sue in the past two years. There were so many prayers, healing services planned, cards, meals, parties, welcome home signs, books of messages, visits, flowers, letters, gifts, about 1 million people gathering last night at Miles Funeral Home….so much love.
I believe it was Ram Das who said that we are all just walking each other home. Thank you for all the ways you helped to walk Sue home.
Welcome to First Church in Sterling, which is made sacred in this season of loss with the spirit of love and friendship that you bring as you gather to remember Sue Quinn.
Welcome to Sue’s beloved church home, where she taught Sunday School and served on the preschool board, and infused these hallowed walls with her love. She is now among the saints in light.
You come together as family, friends, neighbors—co-creators of a community that includes those present and also family and friends who could not be here today, but who are with us in spirit.
We come together that we may honor Sue in our hearts, and hold her dear in our memory. This task of remembering is particularly poignant for us because Sue, phenomenal woman—wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, kind friend, speech pathologist, consummate hostess, life of the party—created so many beautiful memories for her friends and especially for her family. And she died too young, with so much love left to give the world.
So today we must remember for her; on behalf of her; to honor her.
Ecclesiastes says that:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;…
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance;…
Today we must grieve Sue’s death. But this service must also be a celebration of Sue, and her remarkable life.
This is still the season of Easter in the Christian Church. Giles Frasier says: “The resurrection is not an argument, still less a philosophical argument. That’s why rational skepticism about the empty tomb just bounces off the surface….Resurrection is who we are – our word for how we go on in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian term for defiance…This Easter rising is not just some fancy intellectual idea, it’s a form of praxis.”
We need that defiance now, as we seek to go on in the face of the overwhelming, impossible, almost drowning grief.
We need an Easter rising today in defiance, and as a form of praxis. And so we raise Sue up in our story and song, in our prayer, in our tears, in our laughter. We raise her from the dead by remembering her as so very much alive. That is how we defy death; with life. That is how we practice resurrection; by pointing to the ways in which Sue’s love will be carried on in all of us—in our bodies, in our hearts, in our actions.
That is how we turn the shadow of grief into the shimmering light of hope.
Though our grief is strong and we must mourn, we will not let the shadow of death obscure the living person who touched us many times, in many ways, filling our lives with memories, meaning and love.
There’s a heartbreaking story in our Christian scriptures that takes place three days after Jesus died, on the road to Emmaus. Jesus’s friends walk aimlessly on that road to nowhere in particular, devastated with their grief. The resurrected Christ, it turns out, is walking with them, but in their overwhelming sadness they don’t recognize him. As he peppers them with questions, the disciples say some of the most painful words in scripture, “we had hoped that he was the one to save Israel.” “Had hoped,” past tense. In their impossible, overwhelming grief, their hope had been lost.
There were so many “had hoped” moments on this road for Sue, and for Sue’s family and for all of you. We had hoped that Sue would beat this cancer. We had hoped that she would live to see her children graduate from high school and college, get married, have babies. She had hoped to grow old with the love of her life who she called “Dickie.” Even when her family knew her death would come soon, they had hoped that Sue would have one more summer to spend on the Cape together.
I visited Sue several times in the last few months. Most recently, I sat and talked with her about hospice, which had been called in on the day I came.
She believed God showed up in people, so we reviewed her life and lifted up all of you, who she loved with genuine curiosity about who you are, great warmth and without judgment. Holy moly, that woman loved people with abandon.
We talked about what activities could still bring her joy, which wasn’t a lot since she was in pain, and she didn’t see much point in shopping or exercising.
We laughed together, saying that at least she didn’t have to wear sunscreen on the beach anymore. She still had a terrific sense of humor. We sang John Denver songs with Dick and Kim while the visiting nurse talked to Dick about hospice. Country Roads and Sunshine On My Shoulder.
Sue felt lucky, even as she was dying, to love the people she loved. She lived her life all the way to the end in deep gratitude for all of you.
Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.
We talked in those days about the difference between naïve optimism and hope. Sue was too realistic and smart to hope for a miracle. She was never in denial about what she was facing.
Similarly, Sue’s faith was not blind. It was the kind of deep faith that one acquires when one spends a lifetime listening more than talking, asking questions more than finding absolute answers. She never believed in a God who made her suffer for a reason, so in her honor, let us not invoke such a God.
But she didn’t lose hope. She hoped that she could find meaning and depth in her last days on earth. She hoped she could spend the days with her children and her beloved husband. She hoped that they would know how she felt about them, which was nothing less than extravagant love. She hoped that her siblings would be OK. She hoped that her adoring parents would be at peace, knowing that she was.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, sometimes when we are on the “had hoped” road, we understandably miss the way God shows up in the path. So I want you in the coming weeks and months and years, to recognize all the ways in which Sue shows up on this road from grief to healing with you. Think about what she would say in the moment when you need her most, remember the stories she told, lift her spirit up, play John Denver in the car, and then turn your face to the sun (but only when you’re ready.)
The disciples finally recognize Jesus on the road to Emmaus as soon as he breaks bread and offers it to them. Let Sue be present with you at every meal, every time you sit down at the table with one another, see her face looking back at you.
The last time Sue sat in this, her beloved church--in that back pew--was Easter Sunday a few weeks ago. I had written my Easter sermon as a prayer for her: about finding the smallest glimmers of light even in the darkest of darkness.
I know that God made Sue to be a light in the darkness, for all of us who have gathered today. That light has not been extinguished. Her love lives on in all of you. Hope never dies because love doesn’t die.
Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.
So beloved friends, we must grieve this impossible grief: of a life that is over far too soon following a death that was painful, devastating and cruel, by a disease that steals the life of so many, indiscriminantly and with no mercy. And for those reasons, we must grieve well and long, because our tears are holy: a testament to how much Sue was truly and deeply loved; a testament to how unfair her suffering was, and that the world now has to go on without her in it.
And we miss her. Sue made every person feel like they were Beloved, which is God’s work. She was a living example of what it means to honor the light of God in each and every person she met. She was tough and brave. She was kind and good. She had an a thousand-watt smile, and a sense of humor that lasted right until the very end. Her marriage was a model for what good marriage should be. She left these beautiful, bright, loving children, who undoubtedly will make this world a better place, just like she did.
And so we must honor Sue by living as she lived—with passion and compassion, kindness and humor, with great adventure and great fun. We must listen well, make other people feel as though each and every one of them is our best friend, we must love our families and friends with tenderness and gratitude. We must affirm for Sue that her death does not have the final word. Her life does.
Sue Quinn: well done, good and faithful servant. Amen.
Dear God who is eternal and ever lasting Love:
In this lonely time of grief over the shocking and breath-stealing death of our friend, Sue
We look to you for peace and assurance that the world will still spin, and we will still go on, despite the hole that the death of our wife, mother, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, friend, leaves in our lives and in our hearts.
Comfort those who mourn today,
We pray especially for Sue’s beloved husband of 21 years, Dick, her daughter Cammie and son Brian and her parents Roland and Barbara, who cherished her. We pray also for her sister, Kim and her husband, Robert, and their children Benjamin, Matthew and Daniel, her brother, David and his wife, Deborah and their children, Nate and Amanda; her sister-in-law, Beth and her children, Kate and Caleigh, her sister-in-law, Jeannie and her husband Cliff and their children, Jay and Matthew. We pray also for her beloved golden doodle, Gracie, who rarely left her side, especially when she was sick.
We pray that Cammie and Brian and Dick feel her presence in every new accomplishment they make, every rite of passage, every triumph and trial, when the sun rises and when it sets.
This is the family that love made. God help them to know that we hold each other, and we hold each other up. When they feel like they can’t breathe, let us breathe for them. If they need help when it is time to roll away the stone of mourning, we will help them kick it away, and turn their faces toward the sun.
O God, who brought us to birth,
And in whose arms we die,
In our grief and sadness and shock,
Contain and comfort us;
Embrace us with your love,
Give us hope
And grace to let go into new life.
We pray all this for love’s sake.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett preached on Mother's Day, May 14, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
My husband thought my sermon title this morning lacked ambition. It’s mother’s day, so I decided to go easy on myself in celebration. Everyone else is probably having brunch.
You all may know this already, but mother’s day is not just a Hallmark holiday. The first mother’s day began in 1870 with the Mother’s Day proclamation we read today by Julia Ward Howe, who is most famous for writing the song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War after visiting a union army camp in 1861.
Despite writing one of the most patriotic war hymns in American history, Julia Ward Howe was also known for her work for peace. In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Howe began a one-woman peace crusade. She translated her proclamation into several languages and distributed it widely. In 1872 she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress but was not able to pull it off. Back in Boston, she initiated a Mothers' Peace Day observance on the second Sunday in June and held the meeting for a number of years. Her idea spread but was later replaced by the Mothers' Day holiday now celebrated in May.
So, in honor of the original Mother’s Day, I am preaching about war and peace, which is the Treasures of the Community auction sermon topic, as well. (The Treasures of the Community auction is coming up next weekend! You’re all coming, right?) For those of you who have never been, you should know that every year for three years, I have auctioned off a sermon topic. This year is no different. So bid high and bid early and often.
Allison and Eric Darlington bid hundreds or thousands or even millions of dollars (I can’t remember) last year to hear me preach this very priceless sermon this morning.
The Darlingtons are both veterans. They both served in the military immediately before and following September 11th, 2001. And they served, though not in active combat, in the Iraq war. Their military experience led them to many religious questions.
“The Bible says a lot about peace, and non-violence. Jesus said to turn the other cheek, that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Jesus said to love the stranger, the neighbor, even the enemy. ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of the ten commandments handed to Moses by God according to our sacred texts. Eric asks: “What, then, does the Church have to say to veterans who come home from war? Is there ever a time when it is OK to kill? What is the healing message that the Bible has for those of us who have served our country in war?
Thank you, Eric and Ally, for this question. In so many ways, I am inadequate to the task of answering it. I have never served in the military, nor have I lived during a time of compulsory military service. Biblically, just like always, there are no easy answers to this question. But I do believe the church needs to respond to this question. In fact, I believe a good response saves lives.
In 2013, I gave birth to my first and only son, Isaac. And because you asked me this question, the other day I watched Isaac tenderly put his baby doll, Megan, down to sleep in a crib, singing her a lullabye. And the realization hit me like a ton of bricks that he would have to sign up for the draft when he turns 18.
The idea that I may one day send my precious child off to kill or be killed was like a knife to my heart. Just like you and Ally, we are teaching our children Christian non-violence, love, kindness, hospitality, to pray for and even love their enemies. We hope these core values make up who they are. And one day, they may be asked to fight on behalf of their country. I don’t believe my children will unlearn the values of charity, mercy and patience as Julia Ward Howe suggests. They may instead feel as though they are forced to betray them.
I know this because I am also the daughter of a Viet Nam vet. And like many Viet Nam vets, the war still haunts my father. He was never comfortable marching in Veteran’s day parades, or being asked to stand and thanked for his service. He never told me much about the experience, but I believe going to Viet Nam is one of the great regrets of his life. It is a quiet, omni-present sadness he carries.
Regardless of one’s religious or political stance on war, I think almost everyone who serves in combat agrees that it is hell on earth. It is common for the experience of war to shake one’s religious faith. In a 2004 Yale University Study of Viet Nam veterans, almost 90% Christian, researchers found that 1/3 of the participants said the experience of war had shaken their faith in God and that the church no longer provided comfort for them.
This spiritual crisis requires a religious response. It is our sacred task as the church to care for and heal the spiritually wounded, and we are too often inadequate to the task. If the Christian church acknowledges war at all, it is often with a shallow patriotism that glorifies it, or a moralistic stance that unintentionally shames and further wounds those who have participated in it.
There is a middle way that honors and heals. First we need to understand the depth of the wounds.
At the Eat, Pray, Learn we had on race last year, I was in a small discussion group. One of you had a friend who served in Viet Nam. He came across a member of the Viet Cong in the path he was walking in the jungle. He had no choice…it was kill or be killed, so he shot and killed the enemy combatant. He realized afterward that the soldier he killed was a 12 year old boy. He came home haunted by this experience. He eventually committed suicide, unable to live with what he had done.
It is estimated that 22 veterans commit suicide per day in this country, an alarming statistic.
William Nash, retired psychiatrist for the US Navy says that it is not post traumatic stress, but “moral injury” that explains the increase in suicides. Moral injury is defined as “damage to your deeply held beliefs about right and wrong. It might be caused by something that you do or fail to do, or by something that is done to you – but either way it breaks that sense of moral certainty.”
Nash says that he has “heard it over and over again from marines – the most common source of anguish for them was failing to protect their ‘brothers’. The significance of that is unfathomable, it’s comparable to the feelings I’ve heard from parents who have lost a child.”
Jesus calls us to care for the anguished and the lost. The church’s job the redemption, love and hope of a God who makes all things new.
It is notable that though Jesus undoubtedly preaches and teaches peace and non-violence, he does not judge soldiers unworthy of his care in the Bible. In fact, he even honors and heals them.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus heals the servant of the Centurion at his request. This is the only time in the whole of the Gospels when it says that Jesus is “amazed” by someone’s faithfulness. This is significant because of who this character is. The Centurion is a Roman soldier of the army occupying Israel—an enemy of the Jews. The Centurion would have been raised Pagan, so he is from a different religion. He may or may not even believe in the God of Israel Jesus teaches about.
Jesus recognizes and is amazed by the special spiritual gifts the soldier has. Because of his service in the military and his rank and authority within it, the Centurion understands and respects hierarchy. He doesn’t even come to Jesus directly because he feels he is “unworthy” to be under Jesus’ roof. So he sends others in his stead to ask for a healing of his servant. His faith in Jesus’ power is so strong that he believes Jesus can heal, even from afar. And Jesus is astounded by both the soldier’s humility, and his desire to care for people far below the soldier’s rank. Jesus says “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Soldiers have much to teach us about the practices of faithfulness.
On Veterans day week last year, I told you that we gathered for a forum with veterans of combat, to talk about how we can take care of their hearts now that they are home.
I told you then that there is something that one of our veterans, Gabe, said that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He served in (Iraq) in 2005-2006. “You have to understand, he said, that in combat, we are trained to live together. We are all colors, guys and gals, gay, straight, all religions, all creeds. None of that matters. We sleep together, we wake up together, we eat together. And we are trained to save each other’s lives. We are trained to know that we hold each other’s lives in our hands. We have a sacred duty to keep one another alive. It’s the only thing that matters…the thing we must know best how to do.”
“And then we come home, he said. “And we realize how much we have missed while we were gone. How everything has advanced without us. Everyone has a small phone in their hand that we don’t know how to use, and everyone is in front of a screen all the time, and they are staring at those screens instead of seeing us, and each other. We go from being profoundly connected, our lives wrapped up in each other’s lives, to profoundly disconnected--to everything and everyone. In war, we were holding each other’s lives in our hands, and we come home to a civilian world that is holding screens in their hands. It is the most profoundly lonely feeling I have ever experienced.”
Our veterans know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. Frederick Buechner says: “Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.”
Eric, I hope this answers your question. God is with us when we take risks for each other. God is there wherever people love each other and are true to each other. And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
So, I’d like to make a new mother’s day proclamation, for 2017 by Robin Wilson Bartlett:
Arise, women and men of this day! All women and men who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will neither glorify war, nor denigrate the service of the men and women who serve our country on our behalf. We will welcome them home and enfold them in our care. We will remind them about God who makes even horror into beauty; even hell into heaven. We will honor what they have to teach us about Love, and what they have to tell us about human sacrifice and courage. We will make sure they are never alone.”
Let us teach our sons and daughters charity, mercy and patience. Let us teach them that peace is possible, and that their tender hearts are a sign of strength. Let us teach them love of country, and love for the world. Let us teach them that right and wrong are not always absolute. That there will be times that their deeply held values will be transgressed, and that we will be there to hold them in the love of God when this happens. Let us teach them about forgiveness and grace, redemption and resurrection, rather than moral and ideological purity.
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “justice is nothing to take for granted. So lay down your very lives for it. Seek peace. Learn from those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Risk it all for Love.”
Let people of all genders come together in shared love of God. Let God be amazed by our faithfulness. Let us solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each worshipping God, not country. Let each person learn our sacred responsibility to keep one another alive, to hold each other’s lives in our hands. Let us fight against loneliness and fear as the greatest enemies to humankind.
Let the church who is the expression of Christ on earth love and heal the warrior, and all those who work for peace. Together, let us love the hell out of this world.
Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on May 7, 2017 at First Church in Sterling, MA
I was listening to NPR’s Story Corps yesterday, and heard an interview between two young boys named Josiah and Isaiah and their dad which was funny and beautiful and sweet.
Eventually, after asking him lots of questions about his childhood, Josiah asked his dad, Kevin, “What’s the hardest thing about being a dad?”
“The hardest thing about being a dad is having a drink that you want to drink, and small people put their nasty mouth all over it,” Kevin explained. “And then whatever they were eating is now in the drink, and then you don’t want it anymore. Or buying them food and they don’t want their food, but they want your food. You’re never just satisfied.”
At this point you might think the boys were pondering the heavy burden adults bear, but Josiah asked, “Why can’t I be in charge?”
His brother jumped in before Kevin could respond.
“Because then everything would be a nightmare,” Isaiah said.
Kevin cited a different reason and added some requirements for being “in charge.”
“You cant be in charge because you are missing four teeth and no one’s going to listen to somebody who doesn’t have teeth in their mouth,” Kevin said.
After that, they pelted him with questions. The final question Josiah asked his dad was “Are you proud of me?”
“I am very proud of you,” Kevin said. “You’re both fantastic children and I am happy and proud to be your dad.”
I think this interview sums up the message of the Gospel. We ask God all the time, “Why can’t I be in charge?” And God answers by saying two things: “you can’t be in charge because you’re not me. If you were in charge, things would be a nightmare.” And then God follows it up with “I am happy and proud to be your father.”
Or in more simplistic words, God says: I’m in charge. Follow me. You are loved.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
The truth is, there are too many people trying to be in charge. But abundant life, Jesus says, comes from following the sound of Love’s voice: “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
EJ and Grace, today is your baptism day. I wanted to tell you something about what it means to have abundant life through your baptism. The truth is, abundant life is really a gift that you already possessed much before this day. Abundant life can be found in following Love’s voice. You learned that skill before you were born, when you could hear and recognize the sound of your parents’ voices from the womb. And I’m sure, EJ, you have learned that lesson over and over again during adolescence. Your mom tried to remind you countless times when she said things like, “If John told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?”
Following Love’s voice is one of those lessons we have to learn over and over again before we truly get it. The adults in this room are still trying to master it.
So today I want to teach you a song. I want you to sing it in your head when you need to. Sing it to your future boss, or to a bully on the playground, or on the picket line someday, or when you are suffering in body or in spirit, or when you are trying to psyche yourself up for that next, big, bold thing someone’s telling you you can’t do:
If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. We recognize Good Shepherd Sunday every year, and read scripture texts about the Shepherd metaphor for God. We say in the words of the 23rd psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. Or, as Bobby McFerrin interprets it: The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need.
In our Gospel text today, Jesus uses mixed metaphor, which probably drives the English teachers in the room crazy. (We need many metaphors to touch the ineffable, English teachers, so leave Jesus alone.) He says that he is both the shepherd and the gate. The sheep know my voice, he says. And whoever enters by me will be saved.
Not all of us like to think of ourselves as sheep needing to be led, or as people needing to be saved.
But sheep are apparently smarter than we give them credit for. They are followers, but they are smart followers. They know the voice of their human caretaker, and they follow him or her. They can listen above the din of all of the voices trying to lead them astray and hear the voice of the one they should follow. They know there is strength and safety when they are following the right voice. Perhaps that’s what salvation looks like in this lifetime: harnessing divine strength to do hard things by following the voice of The One who Loves.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
But here is a caution, also from our Gospel text:
There is a different voice in our head that leads us astray—it is the voice of the thief or bandit. This voice is a thief because it tries to steal who we are. This voice tells us we aren’t good enough, or beautiful enough, or thin enough, or powerful enough, or normal enough, or strong enough or smart enough. Sometimes that voice comes from the echoes of an abusive parent or a bully or depression or addiction or from racism or sexism or homophobia, or from a world that tells you there’s never enough, and that there is everything to fear.
That voice is usually loud, and it’s an evil liar that comes to kill and destroy.
Tony Morrison, in her beautiful novel, “Beloved,” writes about knowing the voice of God, and letting it drown out the voices that come only to kill and destroy. She writes about the experience of slavery:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don't love your eyes; they'd just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don't love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain't in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don't love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I'm talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I'm telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver--love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
EJ and Grace: Love your heart. For this is the prize. This is the place where God lives, where the Good Shepherd’s voice whispers to you: you are Beloved. Follow me.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
If any voice, internally or externally, tries to define you:
As a body limited to its parts
As a thug
As a trouble-maker
As stupid or ignorant
As too old or too young
As wrong or bad or un-holy
As a racial or homopobic slur,
As a pre-existing condition,
As a stranger or an enemy,
As anything less than human,
As anything that steals your worth,
Or if anyone tries to sum every part of you up with essentialist labels like woman, man, gay, straight, fat, thin, ugly, deserving or undeserving, young, old, poor, rich, democrat, republican, handicapped, immigrant, black, white, brown,
IF ANYBODY TRIES TO DO THAT.
Don’t let them tell you who you are. Tell them you’re a child of God.
Listen to the voice of the good shepherd instead, who reminds you of your worth and your call, and follow that voice. God loves your flesh: flesh that weeps, that laughs, that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Listen above the voices of thieves and bandits to the One who calls you beloved, who is happy and proud to be your Creator.
How bold one gets when one is assured of being loved.
If anybody asks you who I am, who I am, who I am, if anybody asks you who I am, tell them I’m a child of God.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.