A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on August 25, 2019 before a three month sabbatical
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
God is abounding in steadfast love. Bless God’s holy name. I know many of you are mourning Jim Harper’s passing today. Still at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
This poem is called ”The Lanyard," by Billy Collins.
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the 'L' section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that's what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
'Here are thousands of meals' she said,
'and here is clothing and a good education.'
'And here is your lanyard,' I replied,
'which I made with a little help from a counselor.'
'Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.' she whispered.
'And here,' I said, 'is the lanyard I made at camp.'
'And here,' I wish to say to her now,
'is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’
This poem reminds me of our covenant with God Isaiah alludes to.
The covenant goes like this:
God gives us life. God promises us water in parched places. God promises nourishment and freedom; a breathing body and a beating heart. God promises us steadfast love, most of all.
We cannot return the gift.
In fact, we are only human and it feels that we have hardly anything to offer in return. Our gift is just to do our human best to love God and neighbor. These small acts seem to pale in comparison to what we’ve been given. Plus, we mostly won’t succeed since we are only human and doing the best that we can.
And yet God somehow makes us sure that it’s all enough to make us even.
Covenant is a word many thousands of years old, which lies deep at the center of the spiritual and political heritage of the western world. It means, “An agreement freely made between different but equal partners and God to respect each other and work together for the common good.”
God says through the prophet Isaiah that we must keep our promises to each other so that we can become light in a dark place. We are to stop fighting, speaking evil, pointing fingers, and instead offer our food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
God says if we can do that, we will become repairers of the breach.
Breach has a very interesting usage in the English language when it comes to our relationship with God. Here is a list of synonyms for “breach” taken from the dictionary: break, gap, opening, rupture, split, alienation, schism.
The first definition of breach is particularly important when it comes to the church: “the breaking of, or failure to observe a law or contract or standard.”
The second definition of breach is: “a breaking of relations; an estrangement; a quarrel; a broken state.”
Our work is the work of repair; to help heal all that has been broken.
What is broken right now? Shout it out. Where do you see a breach? What needs repair?
These are hot mess times. Our country is as divided as it has ever been while the world literally burns. We have separated ourselves from each other and from God. We have demonized and dehumanized those who are not like us.
And so we know we must become repairers of the breach. We have no other choice. We must become practitioners of revolutionary love.
We know that if this revolution is going to come, we need to arm ourselves. Not with weapons, but with a mix of humility, bravery and kindness that is foreign to the current political climate. Here at First Church, we know we do not belong to a political party, or a government. We belong to each other, and we belong to God.
This place of memory and hope is a training ground for covenant mending and tending. You have healed, again and again, all that is broken in me. And I know that is true of so many others.
You are repairers of the breach.
We do this especially well in times of joy and sorrow.
Jim Harper went home to live with God on Monday, and his funeral service is today at one. The Harper family hopes to have their church family in attendance. This church’s outpouring of love and affection for Jim was palpable in the hundreds of prayers, messages, and cards you sent. Jim was nothing short of a hero who saved thousands of lives over the course of his 72 years. He was our tender toddler tender here at First Church for close to twenty years. He took that job more seriously than his professor and veterinarian jobs. And just as seriously as his paramedic job.
He was a repairer of the breach.
School starts on Tuesday, and we blessed the backpacks of our students and teachers so that they might learn to build a world worthy of our children’s promise.
They are repairers of the breach.
And yesterday, I married off Don and Jan Patten’s daughter Sarah Patten to her wonderful new husband Nick Wilder in Harrisville, NH.
What they promised to one another in the vows they wrote themselves could be our church’s covenant (except the kissing part).
They promised one another:
to stand by your side in moments of joy and sorrow -- through the highest peaks and the lowest pits.
to encourage you to pursue your dreams -- celebrating you in your successes and supporting you in your challenges.
to remain hopeful for a better world, and to remind you of your own hope when you forget.
to stay silly, never take ourselves too seriously, and always dance around the house with you.
to strive for a life full of joy, laughter, and adventure - and to permeate that spirit to those around us.
to remember that you are human and to try to practice patience, empathy, and forgiveness when your bad day gets the best of you.
to keep our home a place of respite, tell you that I love you, and always give you a kiss goodnight.
to give you my attention, love, hugs, homemade meals, and strong coffee without seeking a return.
to honor and create traditions with family and always make time for friends.
“I promise all of these things,” they said, “and I promise to come back to these vows when I need reminding, I make these promises to you today, and for the rest of my days.”
They are repairers of the breach.
When I was at the Patten wedding, I met someone who lives in Sterling and is on the search committee for another congregational church in the area where he has been a long time member.
He told us that my name comes up in every meeting they have about what they are looking for in a new minister. They want someone, he said, who can help them to revitalize and grow; and reach out into the community, like in our Eat Pray Learn and Community lunch programs. He was especially interested in pub theology.
I said, “I suspect you don’t need a minister like me, but to become a church like mine.”
I asked him, “How good are you at having hard conversations? About theology and ideology; about stuff that matters in this time and in this place?”
He said, “oh, that’s the one thing people don’t want according to our surveys. No politics from the pulpit.”
“Yeah, that’s hard.” The motto at my church is “we can do hard things.” I said, “We love one another BECAUSE of our ideological and theological differences, not in spite of them. Listening to understand one another has brought us closer to God, whom we know to be Love.”
Our congregation has been gathering since it’s federation in 1947 in the sincere belief that we need not think alike to love alike.
We can do hard things like change. We can do hard things like engage each other in taboo topics such as comprehensive sex education, money and politics.
We have made extravagant welcome a priority and we live it out in the world. We became open and affirming to the LGBTQ community in 2017, which was a statement not so much about who WE Are, but about who we know God to be: Love. We have grown as a result of our moral courage, not our programs,” I said.
And sure, we have grown in numbers over the past five years, welcoming 160 new members, many of whom are families with young children. Our young adult Facebook group has 80 people in it. Our Facebook page has 1500 followers. Our giving has grown exponentially. We have 500 people on the First Church “members and friends” list.
But mostly, I said, we have grown in depth because we are not afraid.
We are repairers of the breach.
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, once said to us that "If your concept of love serves only to reinforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
This is the Good News of the Gospel, the SCANDAL of the Gospel: is that we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether or not we are worthy.
That’s why this Church is rising up as it has over the course of its 275 year history to offer our meager gifts in return to an extravagantly loving God, and succeeding.
We know the Church is made for such a time as this:
rising up to build bridges, not walls;
to give us a new heart for each other and the world;
to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
We are repairers of the breach.
I don’t know if he was convinced. He looked pretty skeptical.
This is my last sermon before my three month sabbatical, a meager offering in response to your extravagant love and care of you have given to your tired and increasingly more middle aged pastor over the past five years.
You have set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
You have taught me to walk and swim in this ministry
and I in turn presented you with a lanyard.
'Here are thousands of meals' you said,
'and here is clothing and a good education.'
'And here is your lanyard,' I replied,
'which I made with a little help from a counselor.'
I just want you to give you this one last lanyard before I leave:
I love you. I bless you, and I will miss you. I will rejoice when I return to you on December 1st.
And I thank you. Thank you for accepting my meager gifts in response to your life giving love for me and for my family. Thank you for toiling in the vineyards with me to create heaven on earth. Thank you for giving me this time away. Thank you for the hope you give me for a broken world made whole again.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
August 18, 2019
Tell me, Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Jesus answers: “Do not be afraid. Treasure it. Pay attention. And give it all away.”
I know it says in the bulletin that my sermon title is “Tidying Up”, and that’s because I have been wanting to preach on Marie Kondo. the queen of giving things away. She’s the organizing guru and best selling author who has a show called “Tidying Up.” Inspired by her Shinto religious practice, she is the reason why Goodwill has stopped taking your clothes: she has encouraged all of America to ask themselves if each of their possessions “spark joy”, and if not, to gently thank them for their service, and throw them out.
It’s not our possessions that “spark joy”, after all. Our treasure lies somewhere else, where no thief can get at it, and no moth can destroy.
But things quickly changed since we’ve last met in the life of our church, and I’m going to leave Marie Kondo’s wisdom for another week.
I’ve decided to call my sermon, simply, “how to pay attention.”
There’s a lot happening in our passage from Luke today. He starts by saying that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, which we understand to be here on this earth…already here, but not yet here. He goes on to say that we should sell all our possessions and give them away. And then he talks about being dressed for action and having our lamps lit…to be alert because God is coming back like a thief in the night.
You might not know what one has to do with the other. Luke kind of jumps from one thing to the next, without real clarity on why they are all smushed together in one paragraph.
But this week, it all came together for me:
We have been given the gift of creation by a God who delights in giving it to us. Our task in the small amount of time we have on earth is to treasure that gift by giving ourselves away. Life is fleeting and precious and we don’t know when it will end. So pay attention.
Do not be afraid.
I got a dog yesterday, as Pastor Megan told you. Her name is Holly. She is a rescue, a three year old hound dog, white with brown spots and silky brown ears. She loves humans, belly rubs and lying around all day. In other words, we are soul mates.
When I first told Doug Davis last week that I was doing this thing he said, “Wow. Good luck with that.” It was over text, but I read it as sarcasm. He is a pillar of our church, one of the owners of Davis Farmland and the world’s best animal person, and he knows that I am really not. I mean, I like animals, but I don’t have any idea what to do with them since they don’t talk to me. So I’m just like, “oh, a goat. Hi goat” when I’m at Davis Farmland with my kids.
Ironically, though I’m not what one would call an “animal person”, it has become my signature move to bring as many animals as possible into the First Church in Sterling whenever there is occasion for it.
Though I didn’t have any myself until today, I am a sucker for watching my people love their animals. So I bless all of your pets every October, we have goats at the Christmas pageant. I even made Doug bring a donkey named Fiona into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday against his better judgment. When I asked Doug to bring Peanut the Camel for our Christmas pageant last year, he told me I had gone too far and to stop exploiting my pastoral authority by asking him for ridiculous things.
Anyway, I put Doug Davis down as a reference with the rescue, and they gave me a dog. So he must have lied and told them he has no reservations.
I sent Megan a sweet sleeping picture of my dog Holly last night over text, and she wrote back, “I think she will teach you whatever you’ve been needing to learn on your sabbatical.”
Mary Oliver of blessed memory writes:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Megan knows that unlike Mary Oliver, I don’t know how to pay attention, to be idle and blessed, or to stroll through the fields. I am notoriously bad at such endeavors. As soon as I arrive at the beginning of something, like a vacation, or a relationship, my first feeling is the deep sadness and fear that it will end. I spend much of my time calculating how many days or hours I have left doing a thing that I love, or being with people I love.
So my first thought when I saw our new dog’s beautiful face staring up at me was: “I love you. How long will you live?” After all, our Holly will die at last, and too soon. I am about to spend thousands of dollars on my kids’ first tragedy.
And mine. I love her already. I already feel like a dog person. I have no idea what to do with her when I get home, but I cannot wait to bury my face in her head again.
Megan’s right, Holly has a lot to teach me about paying attention.
Frankly, when I’m not paying attention, I’m paying for THINGS.
The treasure you and I keep in bank accounts, locked safes and 401Ks so often reflects kind of a futile and somewhat depressing hoarding of resources for no good reason. We can’t, after all, take it with us, and we know darn well that money has never bought any one of us happiness.
Thankfully, God promises us a different kind of treasure. God’s treasure comes in the form of loving what will die at last and too soon. God’s treasure comes in the form of people we love and people we are called to love. God’s treasure comes in the form of grace—unearned gifts like forgiveness and the temporary health of our bodies, and the good, green earth we lie down on.
Our only response to these gifts, our scriptures say, is to stay alert, and give everything we have away.
Our beloved long time congregant and friend Jim Harper has always known this. We’ve been sitting vigil by his bedside this week, storing up treasures in the stories people tell. Jim spent his life paying attention, and giving himself away.
He is a saver of lives:
A life-long lover of animals and a veterinarian, Jim saved so many animals’ lives. He also helped them die peacefully, and with dignity. His family marvels in the fact that he put down all of the family’s animal companions himself when it was their time to leave this world, too; a final act of deep and abiding love for them.
Jim saved countless human lives as well, and trained other people to save countless more. Jim was a devoted and tireless EMT in Sterling literally in his spare time, and trained perhaps the entire EMT force, refusing to take a paycheck for the thousands of on call hours he worked.
He saved our lives. At church, he has worked with our babies and toddlers in our kinderwatch every Sunday morning for close to 20 years. He sits in his favorite rocking chair every Sunday, and simply delights in the creation God has the pleasure of giving to us in the form of our youngest children.
He gives his money away lavishly, with no need for thanks: to the church, to causes he supports, to the deacons fund in anonymous envelopes full of cash. He even sponsors several children from those “save the children” commercials in the ‘80s and still sends them all money monthly.
Jim gives his love away lavishly: adopting his wife’s first child from her first marriage when he was a toddler, and raised him as his own, in addition to the beautiful child they had together. And then Jim opened his heart and home again to adopt and raised two children out of foster care with that same abundant love, as well.
Jim did not hoard his treasures, he gave them away. His whole life, he gave away.
I have been with the Harpers for the past few days as our beloved Jim lays dying. Last Sunday, he was here at church with us, giving us the gift of his heart in our conversation on guns. On Tuesday, he had another stroke, his fourth. As the EMTs he trained himself transported them to the hospital, he told them what to do and what they were doing wrong. And then he began to give away his life, and fast. He was in the ICU for three days and yesterday he was transferred to Rose Monahan hospice. Today, we pray that his transition home to live with God is as gentle and large as Jim is.
My time with Jim’s wife, the other Robin, has been precious this week. She is a woman of valor who does not want to let him go, but has the strength to just the same. He has given her so much that she knows she can’t live without him. She also knows she has to let him go. This, too, is a gift: this last loving act of living out her marriage vows by respecting his wishes to die with dignity; to tell him that it is OK to go, even though it’s not OK at all.
Even as Jim slowly ran out of all his speech, two days ago, he could still say, every time the doctors asked him:
“Who is this lovely woman?
“That is Robin, my wife, as opposed to Robin, my minister.”
Who is that man sitting over there?
“That is Dr. Carl M. Harper, my son.”
Jim couldn’t smile because his left side no longer worked, but he could still beam with pride. “Over there: that’s where my treasure is. That’s where my heart is also.”
Everything dies, and far too soon. Pay attention. Give it all away. Do not be afraid.
Beloved, the kingdom God happily gives us does not look like a King’s or a megalomaniacal politician’s or a Wall Street Executive’s, or a Football Star’s version of a kingdom. It doesn’t have golden thrones and limousines and waving throngs of adoring public begging to kiss golden rings. God’s kingdom does not look like several boats and vacation homes and beautiful cars with leather seats and designer clothes and stock options, although that’s the lie we are taught by consumerism.
The kingdom it is God’s good pleasure to give us looks just like this. A group of rag-tag, perfectly imperfect, lovable and sometimes hard to love people gathered together from all different walks of life, gathered around a table where the food never runs out. We make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, that thieves cannot steal--when we simply pay attention. When we fall down in the grass. When we give everything we have to Love.
When we are asked “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
May we know how to answer. May we be the people God finds alert in the kingdom. May we be the people who know how to be idle and blessed. May we be the people who can beam with pride because our treasure and our hearts are not in what we have kept to ourselves, but the love we’ve shared with others…
…so even as we go down to the grave we make our song “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Do not be afraid, little flock. Life is fleeting and precious. Pay attention, and give it all away.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
on August 11, 2019
We all know that nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America quite like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy coupled with inaction.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough!” is the rallying cry we all have become accustomed to in the macabre mass shooting script we know by heart.
I don’t know about you, but I admit that sometimes I just feel resigned to living in a world in which evil is allowed it's own tools of rage.
And so as a small town pastor, sometimes I feel that all I have are thoughts and prayers, and the knowledge that they aren't enough.
And I cry “how long, O Lord?” And God asks me the same question.
I came home from my four week vacation on the day of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. It was a harsh re-introduction to Facebook, which I hadn’t read in 5 weeks. My feed looked like yours’ that day: heartbreak, thoughts and prayers, anger and fury, calls to “do something,” lots of talking past each other and fighting over the 2nd amendment while the bodies were still warm.
And I was so relieved and heartened to be back in church last Sunday, just hours later. Seeing all of your faces helped me to remember that we can do hard things because we have each other. Not just in the virtual space of political posturing, virtue signaling, and bluster, but in real time.
And then on Sunday afternoon, a townsperson from Sterling who is not associated with this church wrote a Facebook status on her page and in our First Church Facebook group criticizing me and all of the religious leaders and churches for not doing enough to end racism in the town of Sterling, and being silent about mass shootings and gun violence in the United States. I know a bunch of you saw this before she took it down.
On her page she said something like, “the deafening silence coming from our ‘religious gurus’ in the town of Sterling in the wake of El Paso is disgusting. Praying about racism isn’t doing anything to stop it. Tax exempt status must be nice.”
And on our page, she said something like, “What are you people DOING to stop white supremacist gun violence besides praying, exactly?”
And I got awfully defensive.
“As one of the ‘religious gurus in your town’ I want you to know that I was not silent on El Paso today,” I said. “I preached on both racism and gun violence. Here’s video proof.”
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” she said.
“I agree,” I said.
And I listed the other things we have done as a church: vigils, protests, sign-making parties, Keep the Faith articles in the Telegram and Gazette, educational events at Eat Pray Learn like conversations on race, and on the impact of gun violence in our community.
She didn’t back down or apologize. After criticizing me and the church’s lack of action some more, she had a specific assignment for me. “Come to the black lives matter conversation in Cambridge next week with me, and the counter-protest at the Nazi rally in Boston on August 30th. Walk your talk.”
I told her that I was busy that day and suggested that a better way to partner with religious communities in our town would be to get to know us better before making specific demands of us.
She de-friended me on Facebook.
But she still didn’t give up. She called me on the phone the next morning, and then the day after that to demand that we show up in Boston on August 30th.
“Every community needs to show up and walk the talk. The religious communities in Sterling need to stop praying about racism and do something.” she said.
The speech of prophets is sometimes harsh and unskillful, but it is not wrong.
So you can imagine how quickly the self-righteous defense of my religious leadership was quieted when I read the lectionary texts from this week. In them, God’s Word spoke through the mouth of Isaiah:
“Your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE NOT ENOUGH! God says.
“Leaders of Sodom ... People of Gomorrah! Listen!” Isaiah begins. Admittedly, that’s when some of us tune out. After all, you and I aren’t the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah was burned to ash by God for the sins of the people who resided there in ancient times and ancient lands, long long ago.
Many of us know that story well. It is a story about two angels disguised as travelers who arrive at the gates of Sodom. Lot, who is a relative newcomer to the town as well, does what he imagines God would demand of him. He takes the strangers in and he feeds them a glorious feast. He insists they spend the night in his house. In other words, he provides them with lavish welcome and hospitality.
When the rest of the men of Sodom hear about the uninvited guests in their town, they storm Lot’s house. They demand that the guests are turned over to the men so that they can gang rape them.
Far too often, when we hear about Sodom and Gomorrah from some preachers, we are led to believe that God burns the city with fire because of the sexual sin of its inhabitants. In fact, we are often led to believe that homosexuality was the sin of the Sodomites.
In fact, the real sin was the failure to lavishly welcome and love the strangers in their midst without inquiring as to whether or not they were worthy. The real sin of Sodom was the attack on those deemed “other” using common tools of war: rape and terror. Rather than welcoming traveling sojourners into their home, the men of Sodom desired to exert their power over them. The sin of Sodom was radical inhospitality. The sin of Sodom was failing to recognize the stranger as a piece of ourselves we did not yet know.
The Bible itself expressly describes the sin of Sodom elsewhere as the failure to extravagantly welcome travelers in our midst. According to the prophet Ezekiel, the real “guilt” of the Sodomites was the fact that, although they had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” they “did not aid the poor and needy” and were “haughty” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
The Letter to the Hebrews warns Christians by alluding to the true sin of the Sodomites as inhospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
The sin of Sodom was a terror attack on migrants. So when Isaiah says, “People of Sodom and Gomorrah, listen!”
God’s voice is saying:
“Americans! Yes, you! LISTEN.
The blood is crying out from the ground from El Paso and Dayton and Orlando and Charleston, and Pittsburgh and everywhere terror is inflicted as a tool of war against the stranger,
You are your brother’s keeper!
Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Beloved, I know that you, like I am, are paralyzed by the enormity of the world’s grief. Henri Nouwen says that your faithfulness to small tasks is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.
Our psalmist reminds us that you and I are not helpless because we are not hopeless. God’s steadfast Love—God’s chesed, will not leave us. Our soul waits on the Lord. God is our hope and our shield.
And the psalmist says that God looks down from heaven, and sees ALL of humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth--
he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
Rich and poor, black and white, old and young, European and Asian, African, North, South, Central American, straight and gay, male, female, trans and cis, disabled and temporarily able bodied…
God sees us.
God sees the migrants fleeing, knowing that no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, as Warsan Shire says.
God sees those children in border detention centers, crying for their mamas and trying to keep warm under a blanket made of foil, under the fluorescent lights of a warehouse.
God sees the MAGA hat wearers in the flyover states and the Bernie Bros at the hipster coffee houses in Brooklyn.
God sees the trans kids forced to live a lie and the teenage girls starving themselves so they can disappear.
God sees the homeless drug addict who lives on the street and the wealthy white collar alcoholic who lives in an endless stream of business travel.
God sees the pious Muslim facing Mecca to pray five times a day and the mega-church attender raising up their hands in praise as the rock band sings of the Lord’s salvation on Sunday morning.
God sees us.
God sees you and God sees me.
And God has fashioned ALL of our hearts.
No matter what our political persuasion or our thoughts on the second amendment, God fashioned each one of your hearts. And I know your hearts cannot endure another shooting. Not one more. God fashioned our hearts to break. And our broken hearts will teach us more about what we are called to DO next. Trust your broken, God-fashioned hearts to do the next right thing.
After church, we’ll share thoughts and prayers in room two so that we can discern together what we might do. Small things with great love, informed by our God fashioned hearts.
I want to close with this poem by Danusha Lameris:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Let your steadfast love, O God, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on August 3, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Jesus’ parables don’t always remind me of George Carlin routines, but when they do, I should definitely tell you about it, right?
George Carlin has this famous routine in which he comes out onto the stage and says:
I would have been out here a little bit sooner...
...but they gave me the wrong dressing room...
...and I couldn't find any place to put my stuff.
And I don't know how you are...
...but I need a place to put my stuff.
So, that's what I've been doing back there...
...just trying to find a place for my stuff.
You know how important that is, that's the whole...
...that's the whole meaning of life, isn't it?
Trying to find a place for your stuff.
That's all your house is...
...your house is just a place for your stuff.
If you didn't have so much stuff...
...you wouldn't need a house.
You could just walk around all the time.
That's all your house is, it's a pile of stuff...
...with a cover on it.
You see that when you take off in an airplane and you look down...
...and you see everybody's got a little pile of stuff.
Everybody's got their own pile of stuff.
And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up.
Wouldn't want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.
They always take the good stuff.
They don't bother with that stuff you're saving.
Ain't nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.
They're looking for the good stuff.
That's all your house is, it's a place to keep your stuff...
...while you go out and get more stuff.
Now, sometimes, sometimes you gotta move...
...you gotta get a bigger house.
Why? Too much stuff.
You've gotta move all your stuff...
...and maybe put some of your stuff in storage.
Imagine that, there's a whole industry based on keeping an eye on your stuff.
Enough about your stuff, let's talk about other people's stuff.
Did you ever notice when you go to somebody else's house...
...you never quite feel 100 percent at home?
You know why? No room for your stuff.
Somebody else's stuff is all over the place...
...and what awful stuff it is.
Where did they get this stuff?
Now, now, sometimes you go on vacation...
...you gotta bring some of your stuff with you.
You can't bring all your stuff, just the stuff you really like...
...the stuff that fits you well that month.
Let's say you're gonna go to Honolulu...
...you're gonna go all the way to Honolulu you gotta...
...take two big bags of stuff...
...plus your carry on stuff, plus the stuff in your pockets.
You get all the way to Honolulu and you get in your hotel room...
...and you start to put away your stuff...
...that's the first thing you do in a hotel room...
...is put away your stuff.
Now I'll put some stuff in here, put some stuff down there...
...here's another place some stuff here...
...I'll put some stuff over there.
You put your stuff over there, I'm putting my stuff over here.
Here's another place for some stuff.
Hey, we got more places than we've got stuff.
We're gonna have to buy more stuff.
And you put all your stuff away, and you know that you're...
...thousands of miles from home, and you don't quite feel at ease, but you know that you must be okay because you do have some of your stuff with you.
And you relax in Honolulu on that basis.
That's when your friend from Maui calls and says "Hey...
...why don't you come over to Maui for the weekend...
...spend a couple of nights over here?"
Oh, God no.
Now what stuff do you bring?
Right, you've gotta bring an even smaller version of your stuff...
...just enough stuff for a weekend on Maui.
And you get over, and you are really spread out now...
...you've got stuff all over the world.
You've got stuff at home, stuff in storage, stuff in Honolulu...
...stuff in Maui, stuff in your pockets...
...supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain.
But you get over to your friend's house in Maui...
...and they give you a little place to sleep...
...and there's a little window ledge...
...or some kind of a small shelf...
...and there's not much room on it but it's okay...
...'cause you don't have much stuff now.
And you put what stuff you do have up there...
...you put your imported French toenail clippers...
...your odor eaters with the 45 day guarantee...
...your cinnamon flavored dental floss…
...and your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you know you're a long way from home...
...you know that you must be okay because you do have...
...your Afrin 12 hour decongestant nasal spray.
And you relax in Maui on that basis.
He goes on, but he gets a little too PG13 for church, so I’ll end there.
“That’s the whole meaning of life,” George Carlin says, “trying to find a place for my stuff.”
“One’s life does not exist in an abundance of possessions,” Jesus says.
In our scripture from today, Jesus does his own stand up routine about “stuff.” He tells a parable about a rich land owner who desires simply to build larger structures to fit his hard earned possessions in.
For that, God calls him a fool.
Now, one could argue that the rich man is a wise and responsible person, and not a fool at all. He’s doing well for himself. He’s worked hard, and has produced a lot of stuff presumably through succeeding in business.
It makes sense that he’s gonna need a bigger barn to put it all in. That’s all a house is: a pile of your stuff with a cover on it.
So he decides to knock down his current small barns and build ones large enough to store all of his grain and goods in. With that, he can save for his future so he’ll be able to enjoy his retirement, and live off the fruits of his labor for the rest of his life.
Perhaps most Americans would pat this smart capitalist on the back and say that he earned his life of leisure.
The problem is, the rich farmer appears only to live for himself. He decides to build a home with a four car garage big enough to fit all of his luxury automobiles and boats, and a yard big enough for his swimming pool and his tennis courts.
And he tells his soul, “you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry. Go on as many European vacations as you want and splurge on the good wine.”
Now, I don’t think that Jesus demands we live joyless, sensible and sober lives. We all know that Jesus likes to relax, eat, drink and be merry with friends himself. We can think of plenty of instances in the Bible in which Jesus is found partying and drinking good wine.
But the farmer doesn’t choose to thank God for this abundance, or give the extra to the workers who helped him get where he is, much less to people who are starving and homeless. He has way more than he could ever even use, but he doesn’t ask how he can share it, or what God might require of him. He just decides to hoard it all in a bigger barn.
“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you!” God says. “The things that you’ve prepared…whose will they be?”
A wise person said that people were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.
Love demands more of us. We are not put on this earth to amass money and power. We are not here to keep the dieting and beauty industry in business. We are not here to buy every new version of the iPhone. We are not here to acquire more land and real estate than we could ever use.
We are put here by God’s grace to embody revolutionary Love.
I don’t have anything particularly new to say about the latest mass shootings yesterday and early this morning that you haven’t already heard me say about the hundreds of mass shootings that have happened in this country in the five years I’ve been preaching in this pulpit. Since Sandy Hook, there have been 2,189 mass shootings, to be in exact.
Today, 20 people are dead, and 40 are injured in El Paso because of a white supremacist motivated by hate and radicalized in the bowels of the internet, who drove 10 hours to El Paso to kill Mexicans and Mexican Americans. As of one am, nine are dead and 16 are injured in Dayton, Ohio. We don’t yet know the motive of that terrorist.
Every couple of months, I have to decide whether to preach on a mass shooting motivated by dehumanizing political rhetoric and the accompanying objectification and demonization of groups of human beings amid a culture saturated with guns and gun worship. A disgusting and macabre tradition.
I’m sick of it. I’m physically sick of it.
Our response as a country is always to amass more weaponry. To build bigger sheds for our guns.
And I want to shout “Fools! This very night our lives are being demanded of us. One’s life does not exist in an abundance of firearms.”
When we love our stuff more than we heed the call Love demands on our lives…when we make things into an idol…we are prone to see other people as competition for wealth that we believe to be rightfully ours.
When we turn people into objects…when we refer to fellow God-imaged human beings as “animals” or “illegals” or “infestations”…when we suggest that Americans need to be protected from hordes of dark skinned intruders…when we fan the flames of fear and hatred….evil manifests, violence flourishes, and death is the result. It is the death of all humanity.
When will we wake up and realize that our true security lies in God, each other and the earth, to whom we belong?
Jesus weeps over our sin-sick nation.
This very night, our lives are being demanded of us. God is demanding that we be rich towards God. That we embody revolutionary LOVE.
When we fight racism and ethnocentrism and Christian nationalism in ALL its forms—especially where it manifests itself in our own hearts, this is the spark of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, we co-creqte the training ground for the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we open our doors to those who have been cast out of the Church, this is the beginning of the LOVE REVOLUTION. When we love each person exactly as they are once they get here, this is the ETHIC of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we seek to unite with people of all faiths and no faith in shared service to our communities, THIS is the enactment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we offer comprehensive, inclusive and body-positive sexuality education to an entire community of middle schoolers, this is the embodiment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we welcome the undocumented or documented immigrant, the refugee, the asylum-seeker, THIS is the ESSENCE of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end white supremacist and other terrorist violence, this is the WORK of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we create green transformation in an effort to plant seeds of HOPE in the midst of climate change, this is the manifestation of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
When we share our excess wealth with those who do not have enough, this is the fulfillment of the LOVE REVOLUTION.
Beloved, Love is demanding our lives this very night. Stop worrying about the things you’re going to gather, or keep, or hide, or hoard, or bring with you. Stuff won’t keep you safe. Don’t build a bigger barn, bust the doors open on the barns you already have and share what’s inside. You will feel far less alone.
Let the treasure we store up on earth be beautiful, shimmering, brave acts of revolutionary love.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org