A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
June 23, 2019
God has no other hands but ours’, so we need to put them to good use. And sometimes we need to just admire them. Isaac asked me to paint his fingernails purple the other day, so I did. Now he just stares at them multiple times a day, admiring those delicate bones just above the knuckles, delicate as bird’s wings. That’s a God pause—taking time just to admire the beauty of creation.
Today I anointed the called to care team’s hands for ministry. Most often there won’t be much they can say or do to alleviate the suffering they encounter. Their job will simply be to hold a hand in silence. So those hands I anointed this morning are precious gifts of grace capable of great healing when there are no words.
Hands are some of the best things God has ever done.
God made your hands delicate and still strong, capable of kneading dough, holding a heavy head at the end of a terrible day, or scratching a hard to reach place. God made hands that can type letters to the editor, hold a steering wheel, grasp and lift barbells, lay pipe. God made hands that can paint, play the piano, hold a baby, chop wood and vegetables, hammer a nail, sew needle point, perform heart surgery, and pet a cat’s warm fur.
God made hands capable of touching, of caressing, of holding, of healing.
Look at your hands for a moment.
These hands need to rest. These hands need to stop texting on a tiny bright screen, and hold the chubby hand of a toddler on the rail trail. These hands need to stop typing emails and start digging deep into the dark earth, making things grow. These hands need to stop scrubbing toilets and floors and start lazily skimming the surface of the water as you read a trashy novel on a float somewhere.
These hands need rest.
I used to hate going to my family’s lake house on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. We piled into the way back of my father’s Ford station wagon to go there a few times a summer, often with my cousins.
It was a beautiful place—two cabins right on the lake in a cove not far from Alton Bay and Mount Major. There was a dock for boats and a rock to swim to, and a large lawn that some people might have parties and barbecues on. We had a canoe and a row boat, never a speed boat. A true Yankee, my Grandfather built both cabins himself with his own two hands, and continued to work on them for the rest of his life. After my Grandfather died, my Grammy owned it.
Grammy was a rather cross old farmer from Ludlow, Vermont, and like my grandfather, she had no idea how to relax or have fun. And so when we went to the lake as kids (the way I remember it anyway), we spent the entire time doing chores. We scrubbed vegetables and shucked corn. We did endless dishes in the sink. We washed windows and scraped paint. We bailed out the row boat and raked. If we ran out of things to do, Grammy would tell us kids to pick up sticks in the yard. I couldn’t imagine why sticks needed to be picked up from their natural habitat, so I found this activity to be confounding busy work. I didn’t see “Grammy’s lake” as a vacation when we went there, but a job.
I don’t relate much to my Grandmother’s work ethic. My house is dirty, I haven’t washed a window since I was a kid, my garden is full of weeds, I still can’t make a pie crust without getting angry, I have never changed a tire or worked a farm tilling fields. My hands are as soft as a baby’s bottom.
And yet, I have a confession to make on the eve of my five week vacation and study leave. I have been over-functioning in this ministry to the point that I have failed at times to invite your engagement. I’ve been working long hours, saying yes to too much, doing too much on my own, losing a ton of sleep, eating less than healthfully, and all but ignoring my family. I have been depressed, cranky and resentful at times. I have occasionally lost sight of who I am and whose I am.
And I have had interventions by congregants, and colleagues and family members and friends saying: Try exercise. Make sure you take your days off. Do yoga. Enlist help. Shut down your computer and bring your kids on a hike. Take a vacation.
And I give all kinds of excuses why I can’t. I am the only person who can do this thing. If I give it to someone else, they won’t do it right. The world cannot function unless I am posting something inspirational on Facebook five times a day, I’m sure of it. Sure, I can book meetings and visits and softball games and kids’ concerts back to back and still write a board report and a sermon and a funeral today. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Does this sound familiar? It is pure hubris.
And that’s why stopping is one of the ten commandments.
“Idle hands are the devil’s toolbox.” That’s what my grandmother used to say. In other words, if you’re not working with those hands, you’re getting yourself into trouble. But God says that working hands that never lay idle are the devil’s tool box.
In addition to such crucial commandments as not killing or stealing, God declares all humans must have a day of rest to live healthy and moral lives. Sabbath, or shabbat means, quite simply, “ceasing.” Stop. Rest. Recharge.
Keep the sabbath holy, God demands.
On that day no one in your household may do any work.
For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth,
the sea, and everything in them;
but on the seventh day he rested.
That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
God doesn’t insist we rest because God is some kind of self-care guru. God doesn’t insist we rest because God wants us to sip margaritas on a beach in Mexico, or get purple mani-pedis. God insists we rest so we remember an important truth: the world is perfectly capable of going on without you in it. Nothing hinges on you.
Rev. Walter Brueggemann wrote a book titled Sabbath as Resistance, and he says: Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms…
That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that God is not a workaholic, (b) that God is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.
If the world can go on while God rests, it can certainly keep going while you do. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you are necessary to the work of creation on your own.
TAKE TIME OFF. Lay your hands down.
My friend Claire came across these gems from Rev. Donna Schaper who charges us with these Sabbath practices, whether we are taking a day off, or a vacation, or a sabbatical:
Lose the guilt early. Rest is a gift from God. When you don’t rest, you more than risk idolatrous behavior. You get too tired to think, much less act.
Find out if you really know how to do nothing. You may not….
Imagine yourself an escapee from the prison of the dominant narrative: “You are what you do.” “If you don’t do it, no one else will.” “Hard work is the route to justice.” Imagine another narrative: “I lift heavy things lightly.” “The Spirit thinks I am precious.” “I am here to enjoy Spirit.” “I am here to relax.”
Bask in the renewable energy of a large narrative. You are a creature. You are not in charge of the universe. You are enough. You are all right. You are the child of a kind parent. You don’t run on power supplied at a cost by a utility company. You are not an extractive resource, like oil. Like solar and wind, you are a renewing resource. There is energy enough for you – and it is free. And finally, Rev. Schaper advises:
Don’t worry about whether you can maintain any of these habits when you are back at your job. Don’t think much about the end time. Treasure the now time. Work is work; play is play. Sabbath is Sabbath. There are six other days in the week, also divine.
Hands were some of the best things God had ever done.
I want to invite you into a space of quiet and peace, to ground yourself by noticing your contact with chair and and the ground, by sitting straight, by becoming aware of your breathing.
Look at your idle hands. They've been through a lot, those hands...they have strengths, scars, beauty...I invite you to remember that it is your hands that do the work of love in the world.
These hands may hold another's hands.
These hands may sign cards of consolation and congratulation.
These hands may patiently teach, quilt works of beauty or write words urging peace.
These hands may bathe children, feed elders, nurse the ill, work the earth, organize communities.
These hands clasp in prayer, open in release, grasp in solidarity, clench in righteous anger.
These hands need rest. These hands need holding. These hands need to remember that they aren’t the only hands.
These hands are God's hands, your hands, our hands; a great mystery of flesh and intention, a great potential of embodied love.
A Sermon for Jesse Lynes
for celebration Sunday on the occasion of his baptism
by the Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
June 16, 2019
You were born to one of my dearest friends on my 43rd birthday. In addition, we share the same “godfather.” I know we have only met twice. We have been letting your mom get to know you before we do. But, you’ll soon realize you’re stuck with me and all of us. We loved you before you were born, just like God did.
On your baptism day, we do what must be a strange and confusing ritual to your baby eyes and senses, though I’m sure everything that happens in your world right now is strange and confusing:
We poured sacred waters on your head to remind you that you are connected to All That Is, and we touched you with a rose that you might live your life as a beautiful unfolding.
Speaking of roses, ever since I found out your name, every time I hear it, I break out into the Christmas carol “Lo How a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung. Of Jesse’s lineage coming as men of old have sung.” (You’ll notice since you’re going to hang out with me a lot that I break into song all the time because I believe my life to be a musical.)
Your name, Jesse, came to your mother in a dream. She thought it was strange to dream a name, but it makes sense to me since we all know that you were your mother’s best dream. We also know now that you were a part of God’s dream.
Did you know that Jesse was the father of a very famous King named David, who is important to both Jews and Christians? Of course you didn’t know, you’re a baby. Well, Jesus is said to be a part of Jesse’s family, too.
I love that your name is already God’s family name. I love that everyone you’ll ever meet is a part of that same family. A stranger is just a piece of us we do not yet know. The water we blessed you with is just an outward sign of that inward grace.
Jesse, your name and your baptism is simply our way of telling you who you are:
a precious, dreamt for, worthy and beloved part of God’s family you were welcome in all along.
Jesse, I want you to know that you were not born just to watch TV, eat, and consume products sold to you by people peddling fear.
The task of your living is growing wise.
The reading we heard this morning says two things that I want you to know about Wisdom:
we grow wise through joy, and
we don’t grow wise alone.
Our book says that God created wisdom before God created anything else.
Wisdom is like your Mama Megan. Wisdom is a Woman who plays with God.
Mama Wisdom has been there since the very beginning beside God, like a master worker. Mama Wisdom has been dancing in the ocean. Mama Wisdom has been lying in the grass staring up at the sky. Mama Wisdom has held a cedar waxwing in her hand. Mama Wisdom leads children in parachute games on the common. Mama Wisdom has been counting the stars before falling asleep at night, just like you will be on Star Island this summer as you are rocked to sleep on a rocking chair.
Mama wisdom delights in the beauty of creation, just as we are meant to. Louise Glick says, “we see the world once, in childhood.” She’s right. You get to see a world we don’t see, and so you are already wise.
The common English Bible translates verse 30 this way: “I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with this inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.”
Jesse, as you grow please remember that having fun is an expression of wisdom. Smile before God.
Delighting in your play; learning to laugh at what’s sublime and ridiculous…this is all part of becoming wise.
This group of people that surround you now…they will go way out of their way to have fun and make you laugh.
Once they created a bobblehead doll of me, kept it a secret, and flew it all over the world to take pictures of bobble headed me in strange and wonderful places like a crocodile’s mouth and the Dominican Republic. I broke it and Jon drilled it back together. These folks fix what is broken with joy.
They have bouncy houses, face painters, and karaoke dj’s, throw galas and Caribbean dinners and friendship Sundays, and they just laugh a lot.
Please don’t ever think that fun and laughter is not spiritual or religious.
Life is not all joy, dear Jesse. Life has just as much sorrow. Human pain is sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual and sometimes existential.
Sometimes its all of those things at once. We get sick. People and institutions fail us. Things break. We struggle with meaninglessness. Someone we love dies.
Sometimes we get hard and mean because we are in pain.
The world can be as brutal as it is beautiful; as terrifying as it is exhilarating.
That’s why we go to places like this. We wouldn’t survive were it not for joy, beauty, each other, and creation itself.
And we come because we can’t get wise on our own.
The vision of Mama Wisdom in Proverbs suggests that God does not create alone. No one ever does. Your mama did not create you alone, and she will not raise you alone.
And so your baptism, Jesse, was not just a welcome into the whole world’s family, but into the family of this specific congregation, in this wonderful small town full of character and characters.
Today, on this most auspicious of all days, I want to tell you what all of us have helped God to create before you arrived; to prepare a place for you.
First, it’s important to know that this place and this collection of people didn’t start with the people in this room, and it won’t end with us either. That’s how life is…we are always the dream of the people who came before us.
This congregation has been becoming wise together in this spot since 1742. It recreated itself in 1949, when all three of the Protestant churches in Sterling decided they were better together than they were apart. They were becoming more wise: they knew they were children of the same God. They also knew that together they could do hard things: like disagree, and love one another all at the same time.
Just five years ago, I came here after the very very long and beautiful ministry of a man named Pastor Jonathan. I was really lucky to be in a place where it is OK to be exactly who you are, because these people accepted me and loved me right from the start even though I was a whackadoo liberal and some of the congregation really wasn’t.
This group of people is not always like-minded, but they are like-hearted.
And still, together, we expanded our welcome enough that your mama felt like she could have a place here, too.
One day in 2017 we said out loud together FINALLY and with one voice that “love is love is love is love.” Without that declaration and affirmation, we might not have gotten to know and love you. I shudder at the thought, dear Jesse. Co-creation with God creates expansive welcome. We are getting more wise.
Jesse, I know sometimes we can only learn by seeing, so I want to show you what co-creation with like-hearted people looks like. I’m going to ask the congregation to rise in body or in spirit when I ask them to.
Please rise if you are on the
Ministry Leadership Teams
Please rise if you are the
Please rise if you are on the staff, or are one of the pastors at this church
Please rise if you sing in the choir
Rise if you taught or assisted in Sunday School
Helped out, cared for kids in kinderwatch
Provided childcare for events
worked with our high school youth
Stand if you were a student in a Sunday School class
homework and hang out.
Please rise if you are on the Called to Care team
Eat, Pray, Learn team
Saturday meals team
La Romana Mission Team
Treasures of the Community auction team
Green transformation team
Stand if you
volunteered for IHN
for Habitat critical home repair
Walked in the Palm Sunday promenade
Served at a community lunch
Performed in a SCT performance
Serve on the Village Green Preschool board
Helped make pies for Thanksgiving
Volunteered at Worcester fellowship
Helped with the Holly Berry brunch
Caroled on the common
Helped out with Eat Pray Learn or presented there
Came to Eat Pray Learn
Led the book group, participated in book group
Planned the co-ed adult retreat or women’s retreat
Went on retreat
Did yoga with Lindsay
Participated in aging gracefully
went to pub theology
Rise if you hosted a coffee hour
If you prayed for people on the prayer list or on Facebook
Participated in meal givers
Helped bake for a collation
Brought flowers to shut ins
Made a prayer shawl
Stand if you are a head usher or if you ushered this year
Offered your musical gifts in worship
lay read in worship
assisted with communion
Delivered a testimonial
Had an animal or a backpack blessed
Served on the welcome team
Counted the offering
Provided flowers for the chancel table
Rise if you are here for the first time.
Now rise if you have been here your whole life.
Rise if you attended worship at least once this year. Now stay standing.
Look around this room, Jesse. That’s what I mean by co-creation with God.
There is a translation of a poem by Sufi mystic Rumi that says:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I pray you become wise. I pray you co-create something beautiful with other people and God.
I pray you learn to make good coffee, good friends, and a good and kind community.
I do not require you to pray in a certain way. There are so many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
But I do pray that you find a collection of faith-filled, grace oriented people who will Love you; who will co-create with you in the spirit of Jesus, which simply means Love.
Let the beauty you love be what you do.
You are a part of the beauty God has dreamed for the world.
Delight in it, as we delight in you.
I love you, God loves you,
“Can these bones live?”
A sermon for Pentecost Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at First Church in Sterling
June 6, 2019
I parked outside this morning behind a car that had a Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster sticker on it, made to look like a Christian fish. That’s a tongue in cheek symbol for atheists to poke fun of believers who worship a supernatural God. And I thought, how awesome. A church of the flying spaghetti monster parked outside the Christian church. It’s gonna take all of us to make it. And so we better learn one another’s language. Church of the flying spaghetti monster adherents need to hang out in Christian churches so we can learn each other’s language. Believers need to learn the language of non-believers. Muslims need to learn the language of Jews. Jews need to learn the language of Buddhists. White people need to learn the language of black people. Elders need to learn to speak the language of teenagers. Americans need to learn languages other than English that are already spoken here. Powerful folks need to learn the language of marginalized folks.
Did you notice what happened when we read the scripture?
Last time I did that a few years ago on Pentecost, everyone got mad at Helen Hill, our office manager. They thought she messed up the bulletin. So I just wanted you to know that I did that on purpose, so leave Helen alone.
Last week was ascension, when we overheard Jesus praying that we all may be one. Then he left, officially, to sit at the right hand of the father, and left us down here to our own devices. He promised us that he would send us the Holy Spirit to help, but we didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
In our scripture from Acts, the day of Pentecost comes, and just like Jesus said it would, the Holy Spirit fills all the people. When the Holy Spirit enters, a transformation occurs. It’s scarier than the disciples imagined.
It involves a roaring windstorm, and a STRANGE FIRE.
And all of a sudden, all people of the world have the presence of God inside of them, and can actually SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER and understand one another, even though they are speaking different languages. They were speaking in tongues.
This looked and sounded just as crazy to them as it sounds to all of us.
The text says they are “perplexed.”
They look for an explanation: “maybe they are filled with new wines,” which is Bible speak for “maybe they are trashed or on something.”
And Peter says: “That’s not possible, it’s nine in the morning.”
Peter says “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
It’s supposed to look like this: seeing visions. Speaking a new language so that this messed up world can become more like God’s dream for it.
It is notable that the people gathered around the disciples don’t learn to speak the disciples’ language. Instead, it’s the other way around. The Holy Spirit gives the disciples the ability to speak in the language of the international crowd who have gathered around them.
All of a sudden, differences are stripped away and the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, residents of Rutland, Holden, Sterling, West Boylston, Leominster, and Worcester, France, England, Syria, India, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Iraq, and the United States of America, are no longer strangers who speak strangely, they are all simply children of God.
All of a sudden black people and brown people, transgender and cisgender people, MAGA hat wearers, and co-exist bumper sticker owners, immigrants and natives, poor people and rich people, CEOs and farmers, young people and old people…They all share the same language:
God’s word of Love is all they know to say.
PENTECOST. The day we found our voices.
Pentecost. The birthday of the church.
God has placed us in the valley of the bones to show us why we need a re-birthday of the church TODAY.
God has placed us here
in the valley of rising health care costs and crushing student loan debt
the valley of irreversible climate change
the valley of white nationalism and ‘straight pride’ rallies
the valley of mass shootings
the valley of poverty
the valley of meaninglessness
the valley of despair
the valley of violence
the valley of over-consumption
the valley of addiction
the valley of racism and ethnocentrism
the valley of division
the valley of hatred
the valley of demonization and dehumanization
God asks, “mortal, can these bones live?”
We don’t know what to say to that because we think we are alone here in death valley.
We think we can pull ourselves up by our own boot straps.
We think we are meant to be self-made and self-taught and self-righteous.
We think we can find salvation by having a personal relationship with Jesus,
or a personal relationship with the beach,
No need to show up for one another.
We think that we should concentrate
We think we are meant to go it alone in the valley of the bones.
No wonder we are shouting:
“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely!”
We are shouting into our echo chambers on a dying planet, the Good news of the Gospel choked out by the fake news on our news feeds; the language we use getting smaller and meaner.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God is asking.
We reply, “we just don’t know.”
And so God says: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord….”
Speak, CHURCH, God says.
Speak the word of Love and God’s breath will enter your lungs. And you shall live. COME UP out of your GRAVES.
CHURCH: “Can these bones live?”
YES YES YES.
But only if we speak. PROPHESY TO THE BONES.
I saw one of the greatest prophetic leaders of our time at the festival of homiletics in May, Rev. William Barber.
He says “we must not speak from the left or from the right but with the voice God calls us to speak from. Because it’s not about right and left, it’s about right and wrong. And some things are just WRONG.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
He says: “We can no longer use the language of Caesar. It’s too puny to challenge the extremism we are facing now, things that are wrong and just plain mean. We must claim the deep moral language of faith, and silence is not an option.”
Speak, Church. God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
Have you heard about 16 year old Greta Thunberg yet? She explained in a speech at the COP24 climate talks in 2018 that while the world consumes an estimated 100 million barrels of oil each day, "there are no politics to change that. There are no politics to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.”
"So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future," she declared. "They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge.”
That is the message of Pentecost: the people will rise to the challenge. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.
Speak, church, God’s language has been placed in our mouths.
The Chinese character for crisis, we are told, is a combination of danger and opportunity. Right now, the world has reached a dangerous crisis point for humanity. And those of us who are called to be the Church have a unique opportunity to lead us through it by teaching a common moral language.
Leading climate change scientists reported to the UN this year that we have twelve years by conservative estimates to stop irreversible damage from climate change. Those of us who have been paying attention know that we can’t recycle our way out of this, buy the right electric car, or take the air conditioners out of our windows and solve the problem.
Our friend Katy was just telling me that she read a study that said that the more people believe they can effect climate change by doing individual things like recycling, the less likely they are to push for legislation that would stop climate change on a large scale.
In other words, the more that we are under the illusion we can do this on our own, the less likely we are to work together.
We are in the Valley of the bones together. Together, we must learn to prophesy.
On Monday night, 25 or so of us gathered at the Mill in West Boylston to talk about Green Transformation. Led by our fearless leader, Katy Fazio, we had a deep, at times hopeful, at times despairing conversation about the Christian Church’s role in the midst of the climate crisis.
Here’s what we determined:
The church is in the unique position.
We have the skills, and the depth of ritual to help one other grieve:
an uncertain future for our children,
the loss of ways of life we love,
the parts of the planet that may become inhabitable,
the species that have gone extinct.
But we need to turn our grief into action.
We need to start focusing less on self-care and more on community care.
We need to build up communities of resilience.
And we need to use our voices loudly and publicly, filled up with the breath of God.
We need to be voices of urgency, and voices of hope.
We need to teach a shared moral language, one that doesn’t come from the left or the right, but from our God who is Love.
Today, my friends, is the RE-birthday of the church. Some say that the church is dying, but we know a different story.
The Church was made for such a time as this:
Because we believe.
We believe these bones can live.
We believe our lungs are filled up with the breath of God.
We believe God’s spirit is poured out upon ALL flesh.
We believe that Love’s language has the power to reach all nations, all abilities, all genders, all sexualities, all races, all ages, all believers, questioning believers and non-believers, all of HUMANITY.
We believe in the power of Love to put us back together, bone to bone, sinews and flesh,
We believe in the power of God to breathe life back into us mortals so that we might live, stand on our feet, as a VAST MULTITUDE and PREACH THE GOOD NEWS.
And we will rise again up out of our graves:
to build bridges, not walls;
to give us a new heart for each other and the world;
to teach God’s language not of right and left, but right and wrong;
to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
Speak, church. God’s breath is in your lungs.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
June 2, 2019
Long before my conversion to Christianity, I was visiting prisoners. I wish I could tell you this was an act of pure piety. But it was really because I had a thing for “bad boys” as a teenager. I thought that I could save them. (I had a savior complex from a young age.) My mother banned me from hanging out with one young man in particular, which made him all the more appealing.
In 2014, when I was 38 years old and I had just moved the piano my mother had for my entire youth into the parsonage. My stepfather turned over the piano bench onto my dining room table to fix a ding in it.
Underneath the piano bench it said the name of that forbidden high school bad boy in pen, followed by the date, 1994. And then the inscription: “when Robin’s mom is away, we play.” My mom really shouldn’t have left me alone for the weekend so often.
I heard her screech from the dining room, “Robin Wilson Bartlett! You’re grounded!” She grounded me in front of my own children.
Eventually, during my senior year of high school, that same bad boy went to jail for petty larceny, and I wrote him letters and went to visit him every weekend. (Don’t tell my mom.)
Yes, much of my motivation for this was a gigantic crush and a penchant for drama. But in defense of my teenaged self, I did have the strong, deeply-held sense that there wasn’t anything that separated him from me except some really bad choices and two vastly different childhoods he and I had no choice at all about.
The psalmist speaks of a God who “looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.”
I felt a call to visit the prison from childhood, because I could hear the groaning. Nothing human felt foreign to me. I had the sense that I was captive as long as my friend was.
You and I don’t have to reside in the state penitentiary to be held captive.
We are locked in chains:
the chains of our childhood experiences and trauma
the chains of poverty
The chains of unmet expectations
the chains of student loan and credit card debt
the chains of our own hoarded wealth
the chains of our addictions
We are chained
to endless consumption
to the rat race
to keeping up with the Jones’
to the beauty industry
to the diet industry
to the marketplace
to our fears, our insecurities, our shame…
YOU ARE NOT ALIVE TO PAY BILLS AND LOSE WEIGHT
We are imprisoned behind the barbed wired brick walls we put up to keep ourselves separate…
from our neighbors
from the stranger and the foreigner
from those who scare us
from those who don’t think like us
or vote like us
or watch the same news as us
from those who don’t look like us
or act like us
or speak like us
or pray like us…
We are imprisoned. And so we need to GET FREE.
Our collective liberation requires first that we acknowledge our connectedness.
And so it is fitting that our scriptures from the lectionary this week are about unity and a jail break.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus prays for his disciples at table before his arrest. He prays out loud so his friends can hear him.
“Father, I pray that they are one as we are one.”
He doesn’t pray this tender prayer for just the disciples, but for all those who will believe in him. Jesus prays that we do not see ourselves as separate from one another.
He prays we are both bound and free.
The Bible’s definition of freedom is the opposite of the American definition of freedom: fierce independence, an unfettered marketplace, a small government for the people by the people, or pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Christian freedom means freedom from the chains that keep us bound to empire, to power over, to war.
God’s “freedom” means total independence from the stuff we’ve accumulated, the wealth we hoard, the status we’ve climbed the ladder for.
God’s freedom is from self-interest. God’s “freedom” paradoxically means dependence on God and one another as our only source of liberation.
What we also know from our Bibles is that God abhors a jail.
There are no “good” prisons in scripture. Prisons in the Bible are always part of a larger system of injustice, death and oppression. Our biblical heroes are often kept in jails—tortured in dark, dank dungeon cells.
Joseph is sent unjustly to prison. John the Baptist is thrown in jail and beheaded. Paul and the other apostles are jailed at one time or another for preaching the Gospel. And Jesus himself is arrested for trying to foment a love revolution. He is sentenced to death row, stays overnight in jail and is executed by the state the next day.
Christians worship a death row inmate.
Prisons in biblical times are used not to rehabilitate or even to punish…but to silence and oppress religious and political dissidents. Prisons in the Bible are the means by which the power of the state attempts to stifle, lock up, and kill God’s Word of Love and freedom.
Our scripture from the fifth book of the New Testament: the book of Acts this morning tells a rich and complex narrative about a jail break. The Acts of the Apostles is presumably written by Luke around 70-90 AD. It tells the story of how the apostles spread the Gospel and built the church in the time of the Roman Empire.
In the story, Paul and Silas are taking their act on the road. They heal an unnamed, demon-possessed slave girl who follows them around, essentially because because she annoys them with her persistence.
The girl was a fortune teller who made money on behalf of her masters. When Paul and Silas healed her and cast the demon out, she was no longer able to tell fortunes, and was therefore forever after worthless to her owners.
Paul and Silas were dragged before the authorities in the marketplace for the crime of healing her. The mob turned against them and they are stripped, beaten, and thrown in prison. They spent their time deep in the dungeon singing hymns and praise to God. The other prisoners, the scripture says, listened. “Ain’t a scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom….”
Suddenly, there’s an earthquake, and the prisoners’ shackles come off. The doors to the prison fling wide open. But the prisoners don’t leave. They stay put.
The jailer wakes up and assumes they have all escaped. He proceeds to attempt suicide, so fearful he is to be caught by the Romans having let the prisoners escape on his watch. The jailer, too, suffers under the oppression of empire. There are no bad guys and good guys in the story of God’s people, only humans.
Prisoners Paul and Silas do a peculiar thing: they stay there to save the jailer. "Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!” They say. And the jailer falls down before them in the dungeon. Paul and Silas tell him about the Love of God that unifies them.
They baptize him, and the jailer, too, is free in the knowledge that we belong to one another.
It is important to note that we never find out what happens to the slave girl. Paul and Silas, as far as we know, don’t go back to baptize her. She remains nameless and enslaved. Ultimately, our liberation is connected to HER freedom, too.
We won’t get free until all are free.
Jails in the United States are a little different than during biblical times. We have a better understanding of human rights, perhaps, and our justice system is certainly more advanced. But make no mistake about it, people are still imprisoned every day in the name of silencing political and religious dissidents.
On Wednesday, May 29, the trial of geologist Scott Daniel Warren began. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. What heinous crime did Warren commit to warrant such severe punishment? He exercised his religious freedom to provide water, food, and clothing to those facing danger as they trekked across the desert. Warren took the words of Jesus literally, “For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me”
Warren encountered Kristen Perez-Villanueva and José Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday in the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where the two had lost their backpacks containing food and water while being chased by border agents. Traversing the desert without food or water can be deadly. According to the Pima county medical examiner, 2,615 human remains were recovered between 2001 and 2016. Warren discovered 18 of those bodies. So Warren brought Kristen and Jose to a shed and gave them food and water.
What makes this land “sacred,” as Warren calls it, is the death of migrants upon it. According to Ryan Devereaux’s exhaustive account published by the Intercept earlier this month, Warren testified that “The entire desert is a sacred place. It’s a graveyard.” For Warren, leaving water becomes a religious act of remembrance and solidarity. He was arrested on April 17, 2018, and charged with two felony counts.
You and I are not free to practice our religion in this country, and it’s not because Walmart employees wish us a Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Christians are all for a literal interpretation of the Bible when we want the “freedom” to not bake cakes for gay weddings based on a few questionable sentences uttered by Paul, but we jail people for following Jesus’ words literally.
Here’s the Truth as Jesus taught:
We are not free until people are free to marry who they love.
We are not free until Scott Daniel Warren is free.
We are not free until the migrants who die in the graveyard of the desert are free.
We are not free until children caged at the border are free.
We are not free until black lives matter as much as white lives.
We are not free until poverty is no longer considered a crime, and prison is no longer the first resort to social problems.
We are not free until combat veterans stop dying by suicide at alarming rates.
We are not free until our Jewish and Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters can worship in their mosques and synagogues and churches without fear of violence.
We are not free until our children can go to school without fear of a mass shooting.
We are not yet free until all of us are free.
So let’s get FREE.
There is freedom in recognizing that we are bound to one another.
There is freedom in following a man whose first sermon said to free captives and whose last act of ministry was telling the prisoner who died with him that he would be with him in paradise.
We don’t know if Joshua or Ezekiel or Nehemiah are in heaven. We don’t know if Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are in heaven. We don’t know if Paul is in heaven. But we DO know there’s a death row inmate with Jesus in heaven.
There is freedom in worshipping a God who was sentenced to the death row, was killed by the state, buried and who broke out of the tomb we tried to jail him in.
Jesus always breaks out, and so can we.
There is freedom in singing hymns to God despite our chains.
Maya Angelou writes:
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Beloved, don’t ever lose the longing. Sing hymns and praise to a God who prays for our unity. Because the tune is heard by the One who looks down from his holy height, from heaven…to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die.
Let’s get free, so we might LIVE.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org