Having Nothing but Possessing Everything: A Letter to the Children of First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
June 21, 2015
Readings: 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13
Mark 4: 35-41
Hi all. I’m going to preach to you this morning like Saint Paul was wont to do, through a letter. He says in his epistle we read today, “I speak as to children” which inspired me to, well, speak to you as children. Since it’s father’s day and parenting is on the brain, and we are welcoming new members, I thought I’d address this letter I wrote to our children, but this letter is really to every one of you, especially to you who are new to us. So think of this is an epistle from St. Robin to the Church in Sterling on the occasion of my one-year anniversary as your pastor.
Dearly beloved children of First Church,
I often write letters to people I haven’t seen in awhile at church to properly guilt them into coming back. Just kidding. To invite them to have a conversation with me. Kids, I am writing you this letter because I have been here exactly one year now, and I wish that I saw more of you. I don’t get to see you that much because you go off to class during church, and I stay with your parents and the other old people like me. It makes me sad each time you file out of this space, like a part of the body is missing—the most important part. I want to know you, and I want you to know me. I want you to feel yourself a part of this body of people, and to be loved the way you deserved to be loved—by multiple caring adults and by your pastor.
And I worry, beautiful children, that you are almost gone and aren’t coming back to church. I mostly worry about that because it’s what the statistics say, and it’s what our attendance sheets say. You are so busy on Sunday mornings that you can’t be here a lot. Church is not on a lot of people’s priority list these days, and I know why. I understand why.
But I want to tell you that it matters so much that you are here.
I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it matters to me and to us sometimes. I am sure it feels sometimes like you are an after thought, or like our church isn’t made precisely for you and what you like to do. I am sure it feels as though soccer is more important because the coach says you have to practice if you want to win games, because that’s true. And I’m sure that some days you are just tired out from all of the activities that you do and you don’t want to do one more. I don’t blame you. Staying home for pancakes is something that I wish I could do on Sundays more often, too. So I get it. I love pancakes, too.
But I want you to come here to this church, because this is a community in which we learn how to be brave and kind. And kicking a ball perfectly into a goal may be important to you now, but your learning to be brave and kind will make this world better and safer and more beautiful, and your friendships more rich and full. Church isn’t the only place where we can learn to be brave and kind, but it is a good one. We take time to be still here, and sing here, and care for each other here. It is especially good because there are like 100 grandparents here to teach you how, and everyone could use an extra set of grandparents, never mind 100.
Today we heard a scripture reading from our bible like we do every week that was a letter from a man called Saint Paul to a church that he served in a place called Corinth, and it was a letter that said something strange: that you may have nothing, but you possess everything.
I want to tell you what I think that means. In some ways, the church just doesn’t have anything much. It doesn’t have fancy technology like your video gaming system, or highly trained professionals teaching you math and science like at your school, or beautiful and colorful things to buy like the mall, or sparkly productions at the end of the year with fancy lights and staging like my daughter’s dance recital at Paula Meola’s.
Our church is maybe simpler than the other things in your life: it has imperfect people, and untrained volunteers, and some pretty old classrooms, and state of the art nothing. But it possesses everything. It holds you, beautiful children of God, and it holds these other beloved people who are your people, and it welcomes all. It brings a random assortment of interesting and different and tough and ragtag folks together so that we might learn to love one another better. It has a table of just bread and juice where everyone is fed. It defines success with words like “forgiveness” and “love” and “welcome,” instead of with words like “A+ or “homerun” or “perfect”. Church takes patience and hard work, and it’s boring sometimes. Just like life. But it contains a group of people inside of it who seek to make themselves and the world better with kindness, and stillness and strength—the kind of strength that requires softness and open-heartedness, not the hard body you get from lifting weights at the gym strength. And this kind of open-hearted, soft strength isn’t always valued in very many places anymore, but it’s the most important kind of strength there is. And it matters. It matters so much. We have nothing, and possess everything.
This is the kind of strength that instructs us when we are in trouble to ask for help. I think sometimes when we think about strength we think of Superman, who can leap buildings all on his own in a single bound. But this week the adults are reading a story about Jesus in a boat. Jesus is on a boat with a bunch of his friends, and a big storm comes, and the storm starts rocking the boat, almost sinking it. And Jesus’ friends are really scared, and they don’t know what to do. And guess what? Jesus is asleep. He’s sleeping through it. I don’t know why he can sleep in a boat on a very stormy and rocky sea, but he can. He’s Jesus, I guess that’s why. So his friends have to wake him up to ask for help. They panic and they say, “Jesus! Jesus! Wake up and save us.” And he wakes up and tells his friends, basically, to chill out. He even seems kind of annoyed that they are so worried. “Why are you afraid?” he says. “Have you no faith?” Maybe like me, he hates it when people wake him up, sort of like when my five year old wakes me up by sticking her face in my face and asking me if she can have Oreos for breakfast. Anyway, when Jesus wakes up he says “Peace, be still” and the ocean is suddenly as still as glass and everyone’s calm again.
That’s the kind of strength we learn about in church—the strength it takes to wake up God and ask God for help instead of taking everything on ourselves. That’s the kind of strength that comes from stillness, and faith.
I want to tell you that there will be times in your life when you feel as though a storm is rocking your boat. Maybe you get into a fight with your friends or your siblings, or your parents get a divorce, or you get into a scary accident, or you get in trouble, or you tell a lie and make a real mess of things. And I want to tell you in those moments, sometimes it feels as though you are all alone and God has fallen asleep. And it’s scary.
A really smart man who I admire named Frederick Buechner said once, “here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” I know that there are a lot of parents at church who would rather you didn’t know about the terrible things that happen in the world, because they want to protect you, and they don’t want you to be afraid. They want you to remain innocent for as long as possible. I’m one of those parents, truthfully. But I don’t think that is good for you in the end. I think we come to church to look at the beautiful and scary things of the world together—to really look at them, and feel them fully, and then to ask God for help, and to find strength and peace in each other. I think we need to learn how to do this together, especially as children. Jesus is always telling us not to be afraid. It’s easier when we have each other for help.
Another really smart man named Mister Rogers said that whenever something terrible and scary on the news would happen, his mom would always tell him to “look for the helpers.” Sometimes, when we think God has fallen asleep and we feel very scared, we realize that God is actually awake and showing up in the people who help. That’s the other reason I want you to come to church. The helpers are here.
This week a really terrible thing happened in South Carolina; something that adults don’t know how to explain very well, because even adults don’t know why terrible things happen, including me. A man went into a place of peace—a place where God is—a church. This is a church called “Mother Emmanuel”—a church that has been burned down before because it is a church that for a long time has worked for equality and justice among all people, particularly black people. The truth is, some people fear equality and justice, as if it means less equality and justice for them—as if lifting others up means they will get the bottom of the barrel.
And this man who was scared killed people in their place of peace and safety because the color of their skin was different than the color of his skin. These people were our brothers and sisters in faith, and these people were God’s beautiful children, created in God’s image, named and known, just like you were. And sometimes in moments like this even I feel as though God is asleep, because this is one of the saddest and most frightening things that I remember happening in a really long time. And I cried more than once this week, and I know your parents did, and so did your 100 grandparents. Sometimes we have nothing—and the tears we possess are everything. Sometimes our tears are the expression of our strength. People will tell you that strong people don’t cry, and they are exactly wrong. The opposite is true. Tears are holy expressions of the God inside of you. They are your proof that God is awake inside of you.
The tears we shed are the God inside of us waking up to help us calm the roiling sea. And those tears are telling us to do something to make racism and violence and fearing people who aren’t like us stop. And this is going to sound like it can’t possibly be true, but the best thing we can do is to keep going to church, especially when we’re scared. To open our doors wider, and let more people in. To have hard conversations about beauty and terror, and to find strength in stillness. To try to understand what it is like to live in the world in a different skin, or a different religion, or a different kind of house or a different country. To ask our neighboring communities of faith if we can join them to light candles and sing; to get to know one another as brothers and sisters, and refuse to be afraid of one another. This is strength—our showing up, our listening, our stillness--this is bravery. We will call on God who is our rock and our redeemer to wake up inside each of us. Do not be afraid.
I love you, and God loves you. The truth is, you are special and beloved. The truth is, so is everyone else. I promise that I and the grandmas and grandpas and your parents and the teenagers and the other kids here will help each other behave as though that were true. It’s going to be hard work, so we need your soft, open-heart to show us the way.
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.