The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
1 John 4: 16b-21
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Sermon: "Buddy Bench" by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached September 18, 2016 at
The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard, not read. Listen to the sermon here.
These readings we heard today are all about Love and fear. Be strong, let your heart take courage, wait for the Lord, there is no fear in love, whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. And that’s easy, right? We are all fearless, after all.
I went to a conference this week for innovative Christian leaders. I got to go to New Hampshire and eat delicious Greek food and there was bacon for every meal. I also got to listen to this brilliant church-planting pastor from Houston named Marlon Hall talk about the potential for innovation in the Christian Church. He was very inspiring. He told us that the institutional church is too fearful, and too focused on its own comfort. He said that our fears and our need for comfort leave no room for the living God. He said that this is the time in the Church’s history when it’s safer to be risky and risky to be safe. He encouraged us to remember that our lack of courage is killing the church because our fear—of losing people, of losing money, of losing the way things always were—this fear keeps us small, keeps our reach small, keeps our communities insular, insider-ly, boring and purposeless.
He told us that as Christian leaders, our job is to incite a riot of the heart. He said this:
“love is a barbaric response to the fear that domesticates the divine.” And that fired me right up. To me that sentence says we are meant to love with a lack of restraint, and a wild lack of fear if we are to unleash God in the world. I was all READY to dream big and love wildly when I came home. I came home ready. To be BOLD instead of scared. To see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the LIVING, as our psalmist says! EVERY DAY! I was like a cast member of Dead Poets Society standing on my desk at the end. Carpe diem. Or whatever.
And then I came home. And just a few hours later, at 7:00 pm that evening, on Thursday night, I went to Parent Night at the Houghton School in Sterling.
Now, I love the Houghton School. It is fabulous. My kids have thrived there, and the teachers, parents and leadership are incredible. I love them.
And so I don’t know what it is about Parent Night at the Elementary School that brings out all of my fears and sends my boldness into retirement. I don’t know what it is about Parent night at the elementary school that manages to tame my capacity for divinity. I don’t know what it is about an Elementary School gym full of parents just like me that causes my heart to constrict.
I don’t know if it is because I turn into an 8-year-old again, watching the principal and wondering if I’ll get in trouble for chewing gum. I don’t know if it is because I turn into a 15 year old again, experiencing crippling social anxiety in the presence of 200 other parents who are my age. All I can tell you is that all of my school aged and high school aged terror creeps up and chokes me.
I fear what people are thinking of me. I fear that I won’t know anyone. Worse, I fear seeing people I know. I fear seeing people who haven’t been to church for a while because they will look at me apologetically, and I don’t want to be seen as the judge-y church attendance taker…I’m just a parent like everyone else, trying to figure out why the 1st grade math homework is incomprehensible for 40 year olds.
So the internal monologue in my head sounds something like this: “There are so many people. I have no one to sit with. They all know each other. Do these people hate me? They think I’m a loser. Oh, man, here comes the PTO. They are not going to even bother asking me to volunteer this year because I’m such a deadbeat parent. They probably internally roll their eyes whenever they see me. Everyone knows each other. They don’t invite me to parties. Maybe it’s because I am wearing these ridiculous clothes. Maybe they think I’m a freak because I’m a Christian pastor. Maybe I am a freak because I’m a Christian pastor. I wish Andy came with me. Why didn’t I get a babysitter? I’m 40 years old! Why am I so scared. God Robin, get your stuff together. Look down at your phone, and maybe no one will notice you. Or if they do, at least you’ll look like you’re busy with more important things to do.”
The psalmist writes: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Clearly, he never encountered the crippling anxiety and guilt brought on by the failure to participate in the mums sale that the PTO sponsors.
I wonder who else retreats into their smartphone or their knitting or their book or puts on some other armor so Teflon and so opaque, we can’t even feel or see past it.
Fear keeps us so small. Fear constricts love. It leaves no room for God.
When my love seems small and ineffective and my fear looms large, it helps to remind myself just to look up and notice the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, as our psalmist writes.
Have you all heard of a buddy bench? This was a simple idea someone had to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship on the playground at recess. A school builds a bench, and labels it the “buddy bench.” If a kid is feeling lonely and has no one to play with, she can sit on the buddy bench. If another kid sees her there, he comes over and sits down next to her, and keeps her company, maybe even asks her to play. The Houghton School installed one on the playground two years ago and unveiled it during their peace pole celebration. I cried when they did.
I wish they had brought the buddy bench in to the gymnasium on parent night, but they left it outside trusting the adults didn’t need it.
Sometimes, when I pray, I pray for the kids on the buddy bench. I think about the brave kids that go to sit there…the vulnerability it takes to be that brave. And I pray for the kind kids who go and sit with them, leaving their other friends behind to care for someone who needs them.
I pray we can be like those kids that sit on the buddy bench, every day. All of those kids. They are brave and kind in a way that I am too scared to be myself in an elementary school gym as an adult.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.
I think the buddy bench--that’s what it looks like to create heaven on earth. We are going to have to be brave and vulnerable like those kids if we want Love to be perfected among us. We are going to have to look up from our phones even though we are scared, and offer a warm smile and room on the bench. Because fear is blocking our view of God. The stinginess we have with our love for others directly relates to our fear of getting hurt, or being seen, or risking vulnerability. And only love is the antidote.
As our letter from the apostle Paul to 1st John said: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
Beloved, I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. That’s why I do this work. Though some preachers will tell you otherwise, the purpose of church is not so we can get to heaven some day and see each other there. Religion is for this life—it is to have companions on the journey so that we might help each other notice signs and foretastes of the reign of God. And the reign of God looks like Love in action. It looks like those vulnerable kids sitting on a buddy bench trusting someone else with their tender heart. It looks like these vulnerable souls sitting here in these pews, trusting each other with our tender hearts. Our buddy benches are particularly uncomfortable here (sorry), but we can see here the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
God reminds us, over and over again in our scriptures, “do not be afraid.” It’s one of two most oft-repeated phrases in our texts for a reason. As the psalmist said, we must not fear for God is with us, watching over us, the stronghold of our lives, our light and our salvation. We need to be that light and that salvation for others.
This is a poem by my colleague Bob Janis Dillon called On the Corner of New and Union.
On the corner of New and Union,
The crossing guard asks me where I'm headed.
Now, I'm thirty-eight years old.
I've been across the street and back again,
If you know what I mean.
I mumble my thanks, and wave a hand – hoping to transmit,
In one gesture, both an acknowledgement and a release from duty.
I'm OK, I tell her. Just fine.
No such luck.
She strides into the intersection,
Holding aloft her red badge of courage,
Making of her ordinary frame
A colossus of roads.
She halts the world: in this case,
One, maybe two cars sitting in park,
Their occupants mute witnesses to the spectacle
Of a six-foot-four man being helped across the road.
I'm determined to make the best of it.
As a father, and as an ardent promoter of the public welfare,
I have, I remember, a deep and pronounced respect
For crossing guards
And things of that nature.
I try and give words to my appreciation,
But the crossing guard is out in front of me again:
“They told me to cross the children. Well,
I figure, everybody's somebody's child.”
Sometimes people ask, if God exists,
Where She is, and why
It takes Him so long to pick up the phone.
People ask just how God manages, on top of everything else,
To really, truly, love everyone. Everyone. Even those people.
These are real questions,
Although the answers may be a little bit hard to grasp
In these little hands of ours.
I will say this.
On the corner of New and Union,
There's a crossing guard
Who's looking out for you.
Beloved, remember that everyone is someone’s child, including you. God is with you, looking out for you, in the form of lifeboats and crossing guards. So do not be afraid. Look for the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Look out for others, and try as hard as you can to love them. Be brave enough to show your vulnerability—admit you are lonely. Sit with the people who need a friend. Be brave and be kind. Unleash the divine by banishing the fears that leave no room for God.
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
A Sermon for Homecoming Sunday
First Church in Sterling, MA
delivered September 11, 2016
It is so good to see you. I feel like we’ve been gone for a long time, and I hope you had good, restful summers. I did. I took three weeks of vacation! I go to Star Island every summer, a little island 10 miles off of the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. Star Island is a religious conference and retreat center in the isles of shoals, and it is beloved by many in this church. In fact, your former pastor Jonathan met his wife Shantia there. So it’s apparently quite romantic, too.
Star Island is filled with island lore, as it was a fisherman’s village in the 19th century, and a home to Indians and pirates. And it’s old and wind whipped and the buildings are creaky, drafty and sideways, and there are graveyards for the many families who used to live there year-round when it was a fisherman’s village. The island can be a little spooky because of all that. And there are TONS of island ghost stories.
There’s a ghost story about Black Beard’s wife that is perhaps the most beloved island story. So get ready, kids, because Halloween is coming early to First Church. I’m going to tell you a ghost story today. I promise its not that scary.
Apparently, the pirate Black Beard and his wife were out on the Isles of Shoals after he stole a bunch of treasure and hid it on the island far beyond the reaches of the law. Eventually, Blackbeard had to leave his wife on Star Island to go back into Portsmouth. He was going to the bank or to get some food, or some other such errand. He left on a boat, and he never returned. The legend is he was caught and jailed for his crimes on the mainland, and his wife never received word.
And so the story goes like this: Every night while she waited for him to return: Blackbeard’s wife went out onto the pier on the edge of the island in all seasons of the year in her white night gown, staring off at the boats in the distance with hope in her eyes, and chanted wistfully across the ocean waters, “he will come back, he will come back, he will come back.” She did this every night until she died. He never came back.
And the ghost story is that she still haunts the island. People see her in her translucent milky white nightgown still on the end of the pier, and have heard her chanting, “He will come back, he will come back.”
So still, to this day, whenever people arrive at Star Island on the boat for a week-long conference, the people who live on the island don’t say hello. Instead, they chant as the boat reaches the pier,
“YOU DID COME BACK! YOU DID COME BACK! YOU DID COME BACK!”
And the people on the boat chant “we did come back, we did come back, we did come back.”
It is a chant of profound jubilation.
And when a conference leaves on the boat at the end of their stay on the island, the people who live on the island don’t say goodbye to the conferees. Instead they chant,
“YOU WILL COME BACK! YOU WILL COME BACK! YOU WILL COME BACK!”
And the people on the boat chant back “we will come back,” as the boat heads back to Portsmouth.
It is a chant of profound hope.
I know this hope well. Like the lady ghost, I have to remind myself that you all will come back over the summer. The summer days are the ghost town days at First Church in Sterling. Sometimes I wonder if I’m all alone here. Especially when I send emails out to leadership teams and they go spookily unanswered, or we have Sunday worship and a third of our regular attendance is counted. I have to say to myself over and over again: “It’s OK. They will come back, they will come back. Wait, they will come back, right?”
And then…AND THEN on this, the second Sunday in September, HOMECOMING SUNDAY, I feel again the profound jubilation I feel every year. And so I want to shout at you with great exuberance, “You did come back! You did come back! You did come back!”
[You’re supposed to shout it back at me, “We did come back, we did come back, we did come back!”]
This is why I love this day. It’s like Christmas. It’s my confirmation that even though I thought you might all be lost forever on Cape Cod, you do all, in fact, eventually come back. Hallelujah!
I rejoice in your return!
And our scriptures today are about God rejoicing in our return. God’s love is like the love of the Lady Ghost. God never gives up on us, or on our homecoming. “You will come back, you will come back, you will come back” God chants wistfully over the waters, and into our ears whenever we have separated ourselves from each other and from God.
Our two parables that we heard today are stories about God’s tenacious love for us…the kind of Love that never gives up; the kind of love that goes out looking on a search and rescue mission for the lost until we are found.
On first read, the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep behind to go after one sheep who has wandered off makes it sound like God is just a really bad shepherd. But those of us who have loved or taught or parented kids know that if one of them was lost, we would do whatever it took to go find the one who went missing. If my youngest child Isaac wandered off, my husband Andy and I wouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and give thanks for the other two kids and for the quiet. We would move heaven and earth to find him. Likewise, this parable tells a story about a God who will leave the rest of us behind to find the missing child and bring him back home where he belongs. You did come back!
On first read, the parable of the lost coin just sounds materialistic to people. So this lady has ten coins and she loses one, and searches desperately to find it, finally does, and then has a party to celebrate. But this is a story about how much we are valued by God. God values each one of us so much that God will turn over every rug and every chair, search every nook and cranny among the dust bunnies of the dustbin until we are found again, and counted among the many. And then throw a party upon our return. You did come back!
We are each and all necessary to God, of inestimable value and worth. And because we are each and all part of the body of God, we need one another to survive. God knows we are just as valuable to the other sheep in the flock, and the other coins in the purse, as we are to God. And that’s because we know the Love of God through human beings. We bring God to one another.
There is an old joke that goes like this: once there was a preacher who fell off a cliff into the ocean and he couldn’t swim to shore.
When a boat came by, the captain yelled, "Do you need help, sir?" The preacher calmly said "No, God will save me."
A little later, another boat came by and a fisherman asked, "Hey, do you need help?" The preacher replied again, "No God will save me."
Eventually the preacher drowned. When he got to heaven the preacher asked God, "Why didn't you save me?"
God replied, "Fool, I sent you two boats!"
We are each other’s life boats. We bring one another hope when hope is hard to find. We are the search and rescue team for the lost, and at one point or another we are all lost. If you’re lost and wondering why God hasn’t shown up to look for you yet, look no further than the hand holding yours’, or the phone call from someone who was just wondering how you were, even the smile from a stranger at the supermarket. Those are the lifeboats.
We need one another to survive.
We need to look around for a moment at the faces in this room. Just take a moment. You need these people to survive. Young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, believers, questioners, questioning believers…you need one another. I don’t care if you’ve never seen or met or known one another intimately. It doesn’t matter. These are your life boats.
Look around again. I want us to look around and figure out who isn’t here, because we need them too. And I don’t just mean our members who we haven’t seen in awhile, or the people who are at the pancake breakfast at the Sterling Fair.
Who are the people that we have yet to welcome, who we have yet to find? Who are the people your heart breaks for? Who is in the most need of a community like this, and what are the barriers to their entry? Who are the people who need our love the most, our acceptance the most, our saving message the most? Those are the people who matter most to God—the people who aren’t here yet. The people who are missing. Our job is to go out and find them, and then make a place for them.
May we become a church of wide open doors, and wide open hearts, worthy of the promise of those who are not yet here.
Because, beloved, this is the kind of church we are called to be, a place of welcome, of welcome back, of welcome home. A place of profound jubilation and profound hope. A home for the least, the last, and the lost. Here there are lifeboats in the form of people to remind us what God’s love is like. Here is where we celebrate your return, every week.
And this is the kind of home I want to welcome you to, and welcome you back to.
Welcome home, beloved. You did come back!
READING FROM THE GOSPEL (Luke 14: 25-33)
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
SERMON “Estimating the Cost” by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Listen to the sermon here.
So the gospel text we just heard upsets people, particularly people who are convinced that Jesus is the purveyor of “traditional family values.” I don’t care what people have been telling you, there ain’t nothing traditional about Jesus. In fact, in this passage from Luke, Jesus says that in order to be his disciple, you must hate your mother and father, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself.
Holy smokes, Jesus. HATE your own mom and your whole family? What does that even mean?!
I’ll be honest, I don’t really know. I was really good at hating my little brother when we were kids, but I don’t think my behavior toward him was particularly Jesus-like. Quite the contrary.
There are a lot of preachers who will tell you definitively what Jesus means about everything he said as if they talked to him personally and he clarified it over a beer and a couple of foreshadowing scriptures from the Old Testament, but I’m not one of those preachers.
So I’m just guessing that at the very least, when Jesus tells us we should hate all of our family members, that’s some serious hyperbole to show that he is not kidding when he says that there is a COST to discipleship. He wants to make it clear, that we truly may have to give up everything we love to follow him—even our families, even our lives. I don’t know many people who have the temerity to do that. Myself most especially included. But it drives a point home, doesn’t it. Jesus is good at that.
Discipleship is a big Bible word, isn’t it? I define discipleship as attempting to be as much like Jesus as I can, and then trying harder next time. I define discipleship as doing my part in my small human way to help create heaven here on this earth. I define discipleship as figuring out what my way of being God’s hands and feet in this world looks like, and then trying like heck to follow up with my actions. I mostly fail.
And I have been thinking all week about what it has cost me to be a disciple so far in my adult life, at age 40, and it hasn’t cost me much.
My discipleship in this world so far has not put my body in any particular danger. It certainly has not cost me my mother and father and husband and children. And thank God for that, because my mother still folds my laundry for me on Fridays, and I couldn’t be a parent to my children, or sane, without my husband who also makes me gourmet dinners every night. And if I had to give up my children, I don’t even want to talk about that.
I certainly have not given up “all my possessions” for discipleship. Even if I did sacrifice gel manicures for our stewardship campaign, I still have a car, plenty of cute clothes and a regular appointment with my miracle worker hairdresser in Jamaica Plain.
The fact is, I haven’t given up too much at all for the cause of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. My life is given to the church, but it is a comfortable life.
We are all pretty comfortable by Jesus standards, in fact. So I think Jesus, in all his hyperbole about how we must “hate” our families and lives, is ultimately saying that we are too comfortable. He is asking us a question: what is worth giving up your life for? We’re not paying enough for discipleship if we can’t think as brave and as hard as that. What is the highest cause or biggest dream for the world you can think of, and how far will you go to realize it?
I think those of you who have served in the armed forces have asked and answered this question with your lives, as have the great civil rights martyrs like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s labor day, and the folks in the labor movement brought us the weekend with not a small amount of terror and bloodshed. Even that football player this week who keeps sitting down for the national anthem is sacrificing advertising contracts and popularity, and getting death threats for the sake of a cause larger than himself. People are tarring and feathering that dude, and he’s still doing it.
And of course, we know that our Jesus died a violent death rather than let the love of power win over the power of Love.
That’s what giving it all up for discipleship looks like, and all of that looks pretty hard to me.
I think the reason why I haven’t given too much up in the scheme of things is not just because I fear giving up my possessions and my life, but also because I am so distracted by other stuff. So when estimating the cost of discipleship this week, I had to factor in what economists call “opportunity cost.” Because so much opportunity cost is wasted in my distraction from what actually matters. The amount of time we spend shopping for things we don’t need alone is opportunity cost wasted, much less the hours we while away playing candy crush. But I also try to factor in the amount of time I spend worrying and fretting over the small stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter, and that’s when I feel particularly wasteful.
And we can be wasteful like that doing the business of the church, too.
Now this church is blessedly not particularly oriented toward petty fights at all. It’s one of the things that I love about this church, and one of the things that keeps me engaged with this place. Mostly, we are a beloved community with a sincere focus on our mission.
We can sometimes still be distracted by outrage about the small things every now and then. It can cost us a lot of time that we should be spending on our collective discipleship, but we are only human and doing the best that we can. Amen?
Last year in the fall, we were creating a new website, and new “branding” for the church. During that process, we hired a website designer who created a new logo for our website—a rendering of the church building that was both modern, and “clean”—it was meant to bring us kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I didn’t feel particularly attached to it, but it was serviceable and attractive enough. And we put it on many things, including the cover of the bulletin for a while, in the interest of creating a noticeable brand. And there were multiple complaints about it, and a call to change it, and a committee formed to make a new logo because it “didn’t look like us”. I ended up just removing it from the bulletin cover altogether, so you won’t see it now if you’re looking for it there.
I was incredulous about this whole thing, and a little dismayed.
I said, rather self-righteously (which is one of my greatest sins, so help me God) “this discussion about the logo is a lost opportunity—a complete distraction from doing the real work of creating heaven on earth. Of feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and releasing the prisoner. There are people dying, and this is what we are spending our time talking about? We are all going to die soon. Will we look back on our life on our deathbeds and say, “well, I won the big 2015 fight about the cover of the bulletin at my church…that was my greatest triumph!”
I was discounting how important signs and symbols can be to one’s very identity. I was discounting that with change always comes loss.
And so with humility and in the interest of confession, I want to tell you a story about my week this week.
On Monday, the day I came home from vacation and my thoughts were turning to homecoming and getting the church ready, I sent an email out to the operations team leadership saying, “Hi all! When is our new sign going to be installed on the front lawn?”
And Doug wrote a “reply to all message” that said, “I saw the sign! It is amazing. Probably installed Wednesday.”
This was in the evening and I was in my house, and I swear to you I was fully sober. And I was so excited to see it, that I ran immediately over to the church to witness with my own eyes the newly installed church sign Doug was talking about.
What I saw looked exactly like our old sign. Forest green, with just the words “The First Church in Sterling”, barely visible, and back from the road, fading into the green bush behind it like camouflage.
At first I was confused, and then I was just mad. In fact, I have never been so furious with this church in my over two years here. My belly was in KNOTS. I considered going back to therapy.
“We spent all this money on the sign, one that was supposed to stand out and SAY WHO WE WERE, and the new sign we made is exactly the same as the last one!” I yelled at my husband.
I wrote to my best collegial friends: “They changed the sign plans without telling me. And it fades into the bushes and doesn’t have our denominations on it, and doesn’t have my name on it, and it was supposedly going to! What do you think this MEANS?!”
My colleague friends said, “maybe they are trying to tell you that they don’t want too much change too fast. Maybe they figure they are the town church, and they should go for small and tasteful. You got too much press last year! They didn’t like it. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity for conversation about communication and mission and change.”
For a full hour, I was enraged. “I’m just curious,” I wrote in an email to the church leadership who worked on the sign. “Did something change with our sign plans? This new sign looks just like our old one. Did I miss something?”
Chris Roy finally wrote back, after I had slipped further into the abyss until there was practically no return. “You missed something alright. The sign is not going to be installed until this Wednesday.”
And Jon Guild replied, “in case folks don’t know, Doug saw the new church sign yesterday…on a smartphone (the same company does signs for Farmland). If the “new” sign is green, has peeling paint, and looks very similar to our existing sign…that’s probably not the new sign.”
Sometimes the cost of discipleship is one’s sanity.
“Whoops,” I said to my colleagues. “It turns out that was the old sign I was looking at.”
And they died. “Thanks to your nervous breakdown, Robin, we have sermon fodder for WEEKS,” they said. We will call our sermons, “I saw the sign,” “signs and wonders,” “Signs, signs, everywhere are signs”.
And here’s the honest to God truth: I was more furious over this supposedly “new” old sign than any one of you have ever been about the bulletin cover. I promise you this. And this rage and angst about the sign was a complete distraction. From feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and releasing the prisoner. “There are people dying, Robin, and this is what you are spending your time talking about? Will you want to look back on your life on your deathbed and say, “well, I won the big 2016 fight over the sign at my church…that was my greatest triumph!”
That is what lost opportunity cost looks like. That was an hour of my life that surely wasn’t focused on making earth as it is in heaven.
The purpose of my life and yours, is not getting exactly what we want. Our call is service to something so much greater, at high personal cost.
So you and I need to sit down and estimate the cost of discipleship by admitting to distraction. By calculating lost opportunity costs, and vowing to rise above them together. We need to ask ourselves instead what we are willing to give up. We need to lay down our attachment to our small ego needs, and ask ourselves instead how we might work together to save the soul of our nation; our world--with our money, with our sweat, with our blood. We need to ask ourselves and each other, “what would we lay down our lives for?” and keep digging into our broken hearts until we find a cause bigger than even our own children and spouses and families.
Beloved, that’s why we come here to this church: to challenge one another to service the greatest Good, which is God, which is Love. We come here to this place because at our best, we are focused together on something much larger than our human concerns. We come here to this place because we belong to one another and to God, and that fact in and of itself is something to lay down our lives for. This place, at its best, names and claims us, so that we might learn to be disciples of Love on this beautiful and broken earth.
We need one another to Love the Hell out of the World. And by my calculations, Love is worth the cost.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org