A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on the Sterling, MA Town Common
July 9, 2017
POEM Gate A4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,"
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend--
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
GOSPEL READING “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37)
The Most Important Commandment
25 One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”
27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[a]
28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”
29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[b]walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[c] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”
Last week, we had a barbeque for our new Syrian refugee friends from Worcester who we met some time ago when we were looking for a way to give out our money from the reverse offering. You may remember that they were expedited to America after two years of vetting so that their 10 year old daughter, Sidra, could get better health care for the burns that cover 60% of her body after a bomb went off in their kitchen, destroying their home and killing their cousins.
We were nervous to host them at our house. We didn’t know what to cook. I attempted hummus and tabouli. We made barbeque chicken and burgers and brownies. My mom came because she wanted to meet them.
They came early because of a miscommunication, the whole family of eight in a van. And there were no translators from the Worcester Islamic Center until 45 minutes later. So we stumbled around trying to think of things to talk about, and trying to communicate in what little English they know. We found out the dad just got a job at Fedex. The kids are loving school. Their English is improving. Sometimes there was uncomfortable silence.
The family has 6 wonderful, genuine, polite, helpful, loving children ages 7-20, living in a small apartment in Worcester. In Syria, they lived in a house with four generations of family, with aunts and uncles and cousins. 20 people lived in the house. They feel so lonely here in America with only 8 of them in an apartment. They haven’t heard from their grandparents in 4 months. They had to leave them behind in Syria because they were too old to travel. The mama assumes that they are dead, but she may not find out for a long time. They told us only about 30% of the citizenry is left in Syria, and most of the people left are old and infirm.
It was the mama’s birthday, so my mom and I sang to her the Birthday song. She had never heard it before.
The translators came, and our conversation was far-reaching. We talked about poetry, and death and dying, and the differences in our religions and cultures. We talked about feminism and Islamaphobia. The Koran and the Bible. We talked about the refugee crisis, and the choice to wear a hijab despite the violence it could invoke for Muslim women here. The kids eventually started playing with each other—including Sidra, who cannot use one of her arms, but the other one works fine. Whiffle ball and tag. Laughing. Everybody loved the burgers.
This is the world I want to live in—the shared world. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Who is my neighbor?
This is the simple question the lawyer asks Jesus. He is expecting Jesus to say, “the person who lives next door. Your fellow Jew. Someone who is like you. Another Sterling resident. Another Christian. Another middle class white person. Another person who shares your love of barbeque chicken and hamburgers.”
But instead Jesus tells the lawyer a story. He tells a story about a priest and a Levite who leave a Jewish man lying bloody in the street. Touching him would make them unclean; would break the law of the Sabbath. So they leave him on the side of the road, cross the street, and walk past.
Finally, a Samaritan comes along and helps the man. Binds up his wounds, puts him on a donkey, takes him to an inn, where he takes care of him. He then gives money to the innkeeper to continue to care for him before he leaves.
The Samaritan does not share the race or religion of the Jews. The Samaritan is not a member of their tribe. In fact, Jews and Samaritans hated each other.
Who is my neighbor? The lawyer asked.
Jesus answers with a story about mercy. Jesus answers with a story about crossing religious boundaries by refusing to cross the street. Jesus answers with a story about saving lives.
And then he asks the lawyer a question.
“Who was the neighbor to the man who was being attacked by bandits?”
“The one who showed mercy,” the lawyer answers.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. “Go and do the same. Be a neighbor to the ones who need mercy. Cross religious and tribal boundaries to do so.”
This is the savior we follow…the one who encourages us to see all of humanity as children of God. The one who tells us that we are all in the same tribe. He tells us through story and example that our job is not to ask “who is my neighbor,” but to BE a neighbor.
There has been a lot of research that suggests that evolutionarily, we humans are prone toward tribalism so that we might survive as a species. We are biologically programmed to fear the stranger as a survival instinct.
Because we are prone toward avoiding danger, we make decisions based more on feeling than fact. We form opinions based on what validates our feelings of safety in our group, rather than take in new factual information that might change our minds. We are more apt to seek out other members of our tribe who high five us when we parrot what we have heard on our news station of choice, or from our political pundit of choice. When the fear zone in our brain is triggered, we are apt to get angry at those we perceive to be enemies. We are sometimes apt even to be violent. Rather than choosing curiosity, or listening for understanding, we dig in and stay entrenched in our positions.
This goes for liberals and conservatives, atheists and agnostics, Christians, Muslims and Jews, black people, white people. None of us are more evolved. We are biologically programmed to fear people who aren’t like us. It isn’t our fault.
But there is something we can do about it.
We can look for what connects us, in order to slip the trigger on the fear response. We can listen for commonalties. Oh, you have kids, too? You love re-runs of the Brady Bunch, too? You like BBQ chicken, too? You like to sing, too? Anything. It’s harder to cross the street when there is something concrete and deep that connects us. It’s harder to see an enemy when we see ourselves in another person.
And then, we can train ourselves in humility: we can go into every conversation we have with the belief that we might be wrong. We can be willing to be changed.
This is what a life of faith calls us to: crossing boundaries, cultivating humility, and the willingness to be transformed.
We need those skills now more than ever before.
Rev. Dr. William Barber says:
Jesus, a brown skinned Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken, and the bruised, and all those who are made to feel unaccepted.
Our constitution calls us to commit our government to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to provide for the common defense and to ensure domestic tranquility.
Now, to be true, we've never lived this vision perfectly. But this ought to be the goal at the heart of our democracy. And when religion is used to camouflage meanness, we know that we have a heart problem in America.
There have always been forces that want to harden and even stop the heart of democracy. There have also always been people who stood together to stir what sister Dorothy has called “the revolution of the heart” and what Dr. King called a “radical revolution of values.”
[M]y friends, they tell me that when the heart is in danger, somebody has to call an emergency code. And somebody with a good heart will bring a defibrillator to work on the bad heart, because it is possible to shock a bad heart and revive the pulse.
In this season, when someone tries to harden and stop the heart of our democracy, we are being called like our foremothers and forefathers to be the moral defibrillator of our time.
The watchword of this democracy, the watchword of faith is “WE.”
We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever!
Beloved, we are called to be the moral defibrillators of our time. We are called to see all people as part of our tribe—all people as our neighbors. This is the world I want to live in—the shared world.
This can still happen anywhere. Even in Sterling. Even in the airport. Even in our own backyards.
Not everything is lost.
I end with a prayer based on the Koran.
In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.
Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other. If the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in God, for the Lord is the one that heareth and knoweth all things. And the servants of God, Most Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say “PEACE.”
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
inspired by Rev. Mara Dowdall, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, and the city of New Orleans
based on "On the Night You Were Born" by Nancy Tillman and Matthew 10: 24-39
preached July 2, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Do not be afraid for you are loved. That is the heart of the Gospel.
When I was a new mom of my first born child, I read all the books. I had a pretty dark bout of un-diagnosed post-partum depression for a short time there, and I was convinced I couldn’t keep my tiny newborn alive. So I figured I’d have a better chance of her making it to her first birthday if I knew everything there was to know about babies. I think I’ve told you before that I feel like I can exert some kind of control over the world if I read all the things. And so I read every book and article on feeding and sleeping and disciplining and development. The books had dorky names like “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer.” I googled my brains out. I even went back to my old text books from my first masters degree in developmental psychology.
All of the books-- both academic and practical-- said virtually the same thing: love is what keeps babies alive. Responding to a baby’s cries helps them feel secure enough to develop as a separate person. If a parent doesn’t respond to a baby’s cries and coos with love and holding, babies become anxious and fearful and easily rattled. They don’t eat well or sleep well. Without a foundation of attachment to their care-givers, babies don’t grow because they learn to fear the world. Essentially, it is the assurance of love that gives them enough faith to live in a terrifying, big, and insecure world.
Love makes us brave; it keeps us alive.
God made us to love and to be loved. It is uniquely true of the human species that a lack of love can kill us. We know through developmental psychology that without love, in extreme cases, human babies can actually experience psychic and even physical death. Babies who have all of their physical needs met in over-crowded orphanages but are never held can die, simply from a lack of love. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
Without love, we all fail to thrive.
There have been studies that show that those who are partnered live longer, that those who have children live longer, that those who have a network of close friends live longer, that those who have PETS live longer. And conversely, loneliness is shown to increase the concentration of cortisol levels in the body. Prolonged, high cortisol levels can cause anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, deadly addiction, and weight gain. Loneliness and social isolation increases disease progression and hastens death.
If you wonder why I always say that this church saves lives, I mean that quite literally. Human beings can die from a lack of social connection, of human touch. Church can make us brave enough to survive in a broken, divided terrifying world simply by reminding us of our belovedness.
The poet Raymond Carver wrote as he lay dying from cancer at the age of 50:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Do not be afraid, for you are loved.
The passage we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew is challenging in many ways. It is not really the warm fuzzy Jesus we love in some of our other gospel texts. In it, he is warning the disciples that they will be harmed, maligned; that they can even be killed for following him. In it, Jesus tells us that he comes to bring not peace but a sword. That we are to deny even our families for his sake.
This passage is an important reminder that the Gospel calls us outside the zone of comfort into the realm of risk. The Gospel demands that we love even those who could harm us. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus says. Do not walk around fearing death and other people…fear only losing your soul to a soulless world.
Importantly, in order to quell their fear, Jesus reminds the disciples how valuable they are to God. Jesus says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Do not be afraid for you are loved. Do not be afraid, for your value is limitless to God. Every hair on your head.
On the night you were born,
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
Because there had never been anyone like you…ever in the world.
So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain
That they whispered the sound of your wonderful name.
Love may not always be able to keep us alive, but letting fear win out can certainly keep us from living.
This past week I was in New Orleans for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. It was my first trip there. An author said she expected New Orleans to be “Girls Gone Wild” but instead found it to be “haunted and decadent,” which in my experience is such an apt description of what I expected versus what it was.
New Orleans feels haunted. Haunted by the legacy of slavery. Haunted by the racism and poverty inherent in the geography itself. Haunted by the cries of Katrina; by the dilapidated buildings in the lower ninth ward. New Orleans is a decadent party anyway. Music anyway. Oh, Lord, the music. New Orleans is food anyway—rich and sultry food. New Orleans is drinks anyway, mixed to perfection, at all hours of the day. We went to have breakfast one day at 7 am, and the drink menu had a drink called “early bird gets the whiskey”, and another drink called, “my drinking is only a problem for you.” I was exhausted just looking at it.
A dangerous tropical storm was blowing through last week, so the people of New Orleans just put on ponchos and danced in the streets anyway, live brass jazz bands blaring out of every bar and nightclub. I hear that’s a thing: the hurricane party. The world might be ending, so we might as well dance. Faith over fear.
I loved all of it.
The Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly came to New Orleans to have a denomination-wide conversation about confronting our denomination’s own history of racism. We came to begin a healing process after a destabilizing spring filled with controversy over the association’s hiring practices, a rash of resignations in upper level management, the sudden death of our board’s moderator, and a growing and orthodox insistence on ideological purity that is threatening to destroy the fabric of the organization itself.
On the last evening, at 9:00 pm, as if the Unitarian Universalist Association’s staff hasn’t had enough heartbreak for one year, two of our information technology staff-people were walking back to their hotel in the relatively safe touristy area in the well-populated French Quarter. They were jumped from behind by four men, and beaten so severely that one of them almost died. One—James Curran-- is home in Boston, recovering, and the other—Tim Byrne-- remains in the hospital in New Orleans, recently stepped down from the intensive care unit. I hear from my friends that work at the UUA, that the two of them are just the most kind and gentle men. They were beaten for their wallets. If asked, my friends said, they would have handed their money over, so eager are they to help those who need it.
We elected a new president of the association on Saturday—the first woman! Susan Frederick-Gray. Her first act as president was to pastor to the men and the families in the hospital all night, and then to announce to the 4,000 gathered for Sunday morning worship that this heinous crime had been committed, and to lead us in prayer for Tim and James.
Because the crime was so severe, and because it was entirely caught on security cameras, the news story and the video circulated across the country. Two of the perpetrators almost immediately turned themselves in after confessing their crimes to a priest. All four have since been reprehended. They are all black men between the ages of 18 and 20, and were living in a homeless shelter for at-risk youth called Covenant House.
The mission statement for Covenant House says: "We who recognize God's providence and fidelity to His people are dedicated to living out His Covenant among ourselves and those children we serve, with absolute respect and unconditional love. This commitment calls us to serve suffering children of the street, and to protect and safeguard all children. Just as Christ in His Humanity is the visible sign of God's presence among His people, so our efforts together in the covenant community are a visible sign that effects the presence of God, working through the Holy Spirit among ourselves and our kids."
Do not be afraid for you are loved.
I read several articles about this robbery, which was shockingly brutal, and senseless. The comments section made fun of the Unitarian Universalists. “Serves them right for making excuses for criminals because of the color of their skin.” “Those Unitarians are a bunch of liberal snow flakes who deserve to know what these thugs are really like.” They called the perpetrators human trash, and racial slurs. They called us stupid and naïve for protesting the conditions under which they live.
The new president of the UUA, Susan Frederick-Gray, sent us a challenging and faithful pastoral letter that said this:
“I want to acknowledge the sorrow, fear, anger, and heartbreak of seeing a loved one, a member of our community, violently attacked. I have experienced all of these emotions in the last few days, as have so many of the UUA staff and wider UU community. Throughout the General Assembly, we reflected on the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence. This week, those reflections became personal and proximate.
As I have listened to Unitarian Universalists reflect on this situation, I have been moved by the connections made to Bryan Stevenson’s powerful message to us at General Assembly that “simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” May we hold the young adults who are accused of carrying out the robbery, Rashaad Piper (20), Nicholas Polgowski (18), DeJuan Paul (18), and Joshua Simmons (18), with the universal love that we hold Tim Byrne and James Curran. This is so very important. Many voices have lifted up hope for a process of restorative justice.
These are our Unitarian Universalist values calling us to live in the reality of the heartbreak of our world, while remembering that no one is outside the circle of love – that compassion is always our guide, and that as a religious community, we seek the well-being of all people and the dismantlement of systems of oppression that undermine our collective humanity.”
This is the message of the Gospel: Faith over fear. Love over retribution. Do not be afraid for you are loved.
After checking to see if it was OK with the families of the victims, Unitarian Universalists in New Orleans attended en masse the bail hearing for the four young men, urging mercy from the judge. Some of them wore “black lives matter” t-shirts. Maybe you think that’s naïve and “making excuses for criminals.” But if God’s extravagant love includes all of us, surely it has to include Rashaad, Nicholas, DeJuan and Joshua. Surely, every hair on their head is numbered by God, as well. Certainly heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn on the marvelous night they, too, were born.
Listen: Love does not deny the existence of evil. Love makes us brave in the face of it. Love allows us to live into our full humanity. Without love, we fail to thrive. So do not be afraid. However haunted we are by the legacies of human suffering, play glorious music. Dance in a hurricane. Dare to demand mercy, even for those who hurt you. Do not fear those who can harm the body; fear only losing your soul in a soulless world. Call yourself beloved, feel yourself beloved on the earth, for you have sacred worth. Every hair on your head. Let this Love make us brave enough to live in this broken world. Let this Love make us brave enough to heal it.
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.