preached on September 30, 2018
at First Church in Sterling
Sermons are better seen.
Please pray with me in the words of our psalm this morning: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Fred Rogers got up to deliver the invocational prayer at the Boston University graduation in 1992 when he was to receive one of his many honorary doctorates. The crowd, all of whom grew up with him in their living rooms, went absolutely wild with screaming and thundering applause. It was as if he was a rock star.
“Will you sing with me?” He said, and beckoned them to sit down. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine? It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood, a neighborly day for a beauty, would you be mine? Could you be mine? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, so. Let’s make the most of this beautiful day, since we’re together we might as well say, “would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?” Thousands of graduates drowned out his voice with their joyful singing.
When they had quieted down, Fred Rogers told them a story about a young child drawing with crayons in a preschool classroom. The teacher came over to her and asked what she was drawing.
“I’m making a picture of God,” the girl said.
“How can that be?” The teacher said, “No-one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl said, “they will now!”
Then Fred Rogers asked the graduates to join him in prayer to the God of their understanding, and led the invocation.
I want to learn to pray like Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers had a public television show when I was a child called Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. He was a man who made a whole generation of my peers feel safe, worthy and seen. He was the closest many of us came to a holy man; a saint in a red cardigan. He is the single most important reason our Pastor Megan was called to the ministry. Which makes sense since Fred Rogers, too, was called to the Presbyterian ministry to teach children all over the country their worth.
The reason he could do this so well was because he lived his entire life as a prayer.
Slowing down, taking time and appreciating silence were part of his daily disciplines. Fred Rogers woke up every morning at 5:00 am and read scripture. He prayed for all of his family and friends and the many people all over the world who asked him to pray for them— by name, including giving thanks for the saints long past. He continued his prayer practice during his 7:30 am daily swim. At the pool, he sang Jubilate Deo out loud (but not too loud) before his plunge into the chlorinated water, which he rose up out of like a daily baptism before heading to the office. He didn’t drink or smoke or eat meat, and he kept a strict 9:30 bedtime. He personally answered every piece of fan mail he ever got.
Fred brought his disciplines of slowing down, taking time and using silence onto his television show. He wanted to give children the safety that comes from routine. In other words, his show itself was a prayer for the children.
His call to ministry brought him to children’s television. He saw television as an opportunity to lead a love revolution starting with children, but he was not interested in evangelism. He did not mention God or Jesus on his secular show. Still, he considered the space between the television and the couch the children sat on to watch it to be holy ground. He said: “When I walk in that studio door each day, I say, ‘Dear God, let some word that is heard be Yours.’” Rogers didn’t pray that the children come to know Jesus, he prayed they would come to know how loved they were. Let them hear a word of Love today, he prayed. And then he told us: “it’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair, but its you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your toys, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like, It’s every part of you.”
There are so many ways to pray. I want to learn to pray like Mr. Rogers.
We’ve been hanging out with James and his epistle for the past few weeks.
In this passage that we read this morning, James seems more optimistic about the use of the tongue than he did two weeks ago, as long as we’re using it to pray. In fact, prayer seems to be James’ answer for everything. You’re happy? Pray. You’re sad? Pray. You’re sick? Pray. You feel bad about something you’ve done? Pray. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he says.
A lot of you have asked me over the years, “if prayer is so effective, why isn’t it working for me? Why isn’t it working for the world? Is it because I’m not righteous enough? Is it because we’re doing it wrong?”
In July of 2016 after the Pulse nightclub shooting, I was asked for an interview with Lex Thomas for the Sterling Meetinghouse News. She wanted me to talk about coping with despair in a troubled world. In my lament about the most recent and deadliest mass shooting at the time, she quoted me as saying “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work.”
Before I even received the newspaper in my mailbox to read my article, I received an email in my inbox from a good citizen from Shrewsbury:
Good morning –
I was reading the article “Coping with Despair in a Troubled World” from the recent edition of the Meetinghouse News and one of your comments had me questioning and I hope you could clarify. You said “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work” – Prayer doesn’t work? He asked. I don’t understand all the different doctrine when it comes to different denominations, but as the lead pastor of a Christian Church is that really what you believe?”
“Oh no,” I thought. “What have I done now?” I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth pretty much every day. For those of you who don’t know me, this is well-documented. Sometimes I do it in public. And now I, the Reverend Robin Bartlett, the Senior Pastor of the First Church in Sterling, told everyone in Central Massachusetts that prayer doesn’t work, which in addition to being really hopeless sounding, is also not a good way to drum up business.
His was only the first letter I received.
I put out an all-points bulletin to save my reputation and correct the record:
I said, “if prayer were *all it took* to end these mass shootings, and division in our nation and world, I have confidence that all of those things would be eradicated by now.
Because I have no doubt that we have prayed fervently and earnestly and with great reverence about evil and human atrocities for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. I have no doubt that God has heard our prayers--we have been literally begging God for peace. It is not for lack of praying that the world continues to be dangerous, and that people continue to be oppressed.
So here's how I think prayer works. Ultimately, I don't think prayer changes God. God is unchanging. But, I do think that prayer changes people, and people change things. And it is time for the people to start changing things.”
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. It can transform the world. We, too, can live our lives as a prelude to—or an outcome of—prayer. We, too, can live our lives in relationship to love.
I want to address those of us who don’t believe we are righteous enough, or have faith enough to pray.
What is significant about the phrase “prayer of the righteous” as James sees it, is the experience of one individual, the prophet Elijah. In his case, his prayer was instrumental in shutting the heavens. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the phrase has come to be associated largely, if not exclusively, with dramatic, miracle-like events.
This misses what James is trying to tell us. The reason he uses Elijah as an example is not because of the miracle he prayed for, and the fact that it worked. It is because Elijah himself is nothing special. He is a “human being like us,” James says. He is similarly too busy and too tired. He's sick of being stuck in traffic on route 2 on his commute to work. Elijah’s drinking his extra large Dunkin’s to keep his eyes open on the soccer field on Saturday morning. He, too, has doubts and sometimes doesn’t believe. Elijah’s praying is used as an example because if Elijah can do it, any one of us can do it.
All we have to do is believe in the power of love, ask for something, refuse to be attached to the answer we want, and then act in service to the love that holds us all.
I’m sure some of you wondered if I would say anything today about the Kavanaugh hearings today. I don’t want to say a lot, because I’m not ready to. Orienting our lives toward prayer means listening for a word of Love when there has been far too much talking. But I do want to ask you to join me in prayer. I want to ask you to join me in prayer for our lawmakers from all branches of government. For every person in that hearing room. For Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, for Judge Kavenaugh, for their families who have endured death threats; who have been through so much.
I want you to join me in prayer for the survivors of sexual assault all over this country and the world. Dear God, let the words they hear be Your’s. May it remind them of their worth.
I will say this. It’s too bad that this hearing is happening in the context of Partisan political theater because what I know from being a woman and being your pastor is that there is nothing partisan about sexual assault. Almost every woman and non-binary person I have ever known from every part of the political and ideological spectrum; from every race and religion and walk of life has her own story. And so do many men. Too many of you do, too. So I want to say this to you: I see you, I hear you, I will believe you, me too. If you need to talk, I will listen. I will pray.
Prayer does not preclude action, it precedes action. Prayer changes people and people change things.
Fred Rogers says this: The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile. If you and I want to learn how to pray, maybe all we have to do is continually try to orient our lives toward that which has worth. You are worthwhile to God. Each and every one of the people who surround you in this room are worthwhile to God, and each and every person you encounter outside this building are worthwhile to God. Let’s pray that we all know it. Let’s pray a world with a sense of worth into being.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on September 23, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
“Who is wise and and understanding among you?” James asks.
The answer comes from the story of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. The small boy who isn’t very old either, and 96 year old Miss Nancy are the wisest and most understanding among us. The child and the elder are both memory-keepers. They remind us of something from long ago, of warmth, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, and what is far more precious than gold. In other words, they remind us of who we are.
The most powerful people among us are not those of us who have money and degrees and fancy positions of influence in the church or in the world. They are not the physically strong, or those of us who seemingly have it all together. The most powerful among us are the eldest of all and the smallest of all.
My husband and I were reminded of this two weeks ago when we rushed our five year old youngest child, Isaac, to the hospital. He was having an asthma attack, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It wasn’t until we got to the emergency room that we realized the seriousness of what was happening. As the minutes wore on, I watched wires being attached to Isaac’s little heaving chest and belly, an IV inserted into his small blue veins, and a nebulizer quickly lifted over his head, specialists coming in and out to give him an EKG and look up at his beeping vital numbers’ machine. He looked so small and weak…and I, too, felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Time stopped. Nothing else mattered. Not world politics or our money concerns or climate change or what we do for a living, or our other responsibilities, or the delicious dinner my husband cooked that was still on the stove.
My only important job in this lifetime is to make sure my three children are breathing. So as I watched my youngest struggle to breathe, he held the most wisdom and understanding of anyone in the room.
The X-ray nurse came in to “take a picture” of his lungs. He smiled weakly and said “cheese.” The doctor came in and told him he had to take a ride in an ambulance to another hospital. He nodded stoically and said, “OK. Can my dad come?” When we told him he’d have to stay over night in the hospital he said, “You mean like a be-cation (which is what he calls vacation)?”
When my mom asked him what the hospital was like the day he came home he said, “I was very brave.”
Our wisdom comes not from invulnerability, but our ability to be brave in the face of our powerlessness. We can do hard things despite the truth of suffering. The smallest among us have something to teach us about what matters most: Keeping each other alive. Breathing. And that we can be brave when we feel very small. As long as we are not alone, in the ambulance, or whenever or wherever we encounter the depths of our own suffering.
One of the most oft-repeated phrases in our scriptures beside “do not be afraid,” is “remember.” The smallest and oldest among us are our memory-keepers. They help us to remember truth from long ago, warmth, what makes us laugh and cry, and what is far more precious than gold.
We need the memory-keepers. Jesus urges us so often to remember because he knows we humans are so prone to forgetting. In our text from Mark, the disciples have forgotten a lot.
First of all, I love the disciples because they are just your average bunch of clueless humans. They aren’t special or holy, which is how we know that we, too, can be followers of Jesus. They are just totally and completely hapless sometimes, really: obtuse, bickering, jealous and slow on the uptake.
I mean, aren’t we all?
When we encounter the disciples in this passage from Mark, they have already seen Jesus perform several miracles. They have heard all about the cost of following him. They have seen him transfigured on the top of a mountain. They have heard him begin to talk about what awaits them in Jerusalem.
Passing through Galilee, Jesus is still trying to teach his 12 followers while attempting at the same time to escape notice from the authorities. These guys still do not seem to understand Jesus’ mission, to a comical extent.
Imagine witnessing the miracles of Jesus, listening to him teach things like “blessed are the poor, and the merciful.” Imagine believing that Jesus is the Son of God himself, born to save humanity. Imagine Jesus then trying to tell you that he will suffer and die at the hands of humans, and three days later, he will rise again like a Phoenix from a fire.
And then imagine being too afraid or dense to understand, and not wanting to admit your ignorance. I can. I’m still not sure I grasp fully what it all means, and I know how the story ends.
Of course the disciples don’t get it. The story Jesus is telling them flies in the face of everything they know about the Messiah. Namely, he’s not supposed to die. I’m sure Jesus sounds a little unhinged to them.
So Jesus tells them all this, and the disciples don’t ask a single question. The text says they were afraid to.
Maybe they didn’t want to reveal their ignorance, or maybe they were just plain terrified of what would happen to them. So their response is to bicker with each other. When we are feeling scared and not very smart and powerless in the face of suffering, our response is often to fight with one another.
They fight over which one of them is the greatest. It’s like being in a sports bar full of bros late in the evening when too many beers and dart games have been consumed. They are walking to Capernaum being like, “Dude I’m the best, though.” “No, I’m the best! Jesus likes me the most.” “No, he likes me the most. He thinks I’m the smartest.” “Dude, I’m the smartest!”
“Wanna arm wrestle for it?”
Reminds me of our current political climate. We are just a bunch of scared people fighting about who is right, rather than admitting our own ignorance and fear. Calling each other names, rather than facing our vulnerability before God. Arguing ceaselessly, because we don’t want to face that there will be suffering beyond our imagining. And like the disciples, we have so little faith. We don’t actually believe that in the end, Love will win.
The disciples are embarrassed to tell Jesus what they’ve been fighting about when he asks. But Jesus already knows.
“True greatness,” Jesus says, “is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status.” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher)
Jesus uses a child as an object lesson. "See this kid?” He says, holding a small child in his arms. “The person who cares for this kid cares for me. The person who cares for me worships God. Therefore the person who loves this kid, loves God. A small boy who isn’t very old either is the most powerful among us. Not because he isn’t vulnerable or innocent, but because his power comes from his fragility. He is a memory-keeper. He reminds us of who we are, and whose we are.”
In God’s upside down kingdom, we prove our power by caring for the powerless. Our salvation is collective. And it comes from our willingness to care for the least of these. No one is saved until all are saved. The last will go first.
In 1976 at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him.
Without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other competitors struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line.
By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering and crying. The crowd had been reminded of warmth, of what makes us laugh and cry, about what is far more precious than gold. By turning back and helping the boy who fell, the other competitors lost their own chance to win the race, but the triumph was in crossing the line together. Their greatness was realized in that moment.
True greatness is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. True greatness comes from our ability to ask, “And how are the children?” True greatness comes from admitting that we are vulnerable, and being brave in the face of our powerlessness. Do not be afraid. Remember. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Amen.
Our tongue is a fire, James says, that sets a forest ablaze. I think we know what he’s talking about. Our lives are literally filled up with an onslaught of words, many of them harmful and vitriolic. We are besieged by explosive rhetoric every day from our computers and our TV sets.
As our reading from James says, all of us make many mistakes. Because we all have this remarkable little tool in our mouths called the tongue. James says that this tiny little organ has more power than any of the other organs. He compares the tongue to the small rudder of a very large ship. The tiny rudder can guide gigantic ships through wind and rain upon the vast ocean. James says that small and powerful tools like the tongue can also be shaped into weapons. The tongue is like a match. The entire forest can be set on fire by a tiny flame.
Well, beloved, the forest is on fire. Rhetoric alone can burn down the whole republic if we let it. Our words can be used to deny the God-given inherent worth and dignity of every person. To destroy.
All you have to do is read a comments section on the internet, where humanity goes to die, to know this. All you have to do is turn on Fox News or Samantha Bee. Even our world leaders incessantly tweet out insults in 280 characters or fewer. We live in an increasingly connected and yet disconnected, digital world in which we can so easily dehumanize those we cannot see and touch.
When we observe and participate in this world of weaponized words, we feel hopeless, depleted, and exhausted. Too often, we respond with cynicism, apathy and despair.
That’s why we need real, face to face community like this one. This is why we need to COME TOGETHER with other real flesh and blood people who do not need to think alike to love alike. That’s why we need children filling our church building every Sunday. Our children can still close their eyes and see a million dreams for the world we are going to make.
Not everyone should be teachers, our scripture says. Because teachers will be judged with greater strictness. But you and I…everyone in this room…we are all called to be the teachers. We aren’t called to be perfect, but as a church community that spans multiple generations, we are called to be teachers. The children are watching.
And teachers dream a world with their students. So, on this first day of Sunday school and high school youth fellowship, on this week when we welcomed the parents of almost 30 middle schoolers from the community into our “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality program into our church…
Close your eyes for a moment and dream a world where the reign of God has become real. A world in which heaven has touched down to earth. A world in which all are fed. A world in which our children are safe from harm. A world where all are free to be exactly who they are. A world in which all are loved. A world in which we walk before the Lord in the land of the Living, as our psalmist says.
We come to church to dream this world together. Your dreams should be darn near impossible on your own power. Otherwise, they aren’t dreams…they are just reasonable goals. We don’t exist to think up reasonable goals here in the house of Love, we exist to dream impossible dreams for the world we’re gonna make.
Because we worship a God who makes the impossible possible. Who makes a way out of no way. Who takes human imperfection and makes it Holy.
Because we worship a God who created us and called us “good”, who promises extravagant love for us and everyone else, we need to treat ourselves and one another as though that were true. As if our goodness and lovableness is inherent and inerrant.
Here’s perhaps the greatest lie we were all told in grade school: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Those of us who have suffered the wounds of bullying or emotional abuse know that words can sometimes hurt far more than fists. Those of us who cannot shut up the inner critic inside of us telling ourselves that we are not good enough; that we are worthless…We know how much harm words can do. Those of us who have spent the past few years watching the unity of our republic be ripped to shreds…we know that words can bring down empires.
We know that it matters what we say, and how we say it.
And we are all hypocrites. As James writes in our scriptures, we all bless the name of God who’s other name is love, and with the same tongue we curse those made in the likeness of God, which is every single person we encounter.
We see evidence of this hypocrisy every day.
We all know Christians who denigrate gay folks and undocumented immigrants and people who kneel for the national anthem before NFL games and Christians who express disdain for food stamps recipients and Christians who protest transgendered folks just trying to use the bathroom in peace. We all know those who condemn others made in the likeness of God, by those who proclaim to be speaking for God.
But you and I—we are just as prone to condemn those who are made in the likeness of God with the same tongues we use to bless.
Maybe you curse those who don’t put the shopping cart back or the kid at school who relentlessly teases your son, or the telemarketer just doing her job, or the neighbor with the wrong political sign.
I literally bless people for a living. I say blessings over babies and marriages and intern ministers and lay leaders and Sunday School teachers and the ill and the dying. And then I get behind the wheel of my car during rush hour on route 2 just like the rest of you. Just saying.
Luckily, we have an example of perfection in Jesus. We know what a blessing is because of Jesus. We know what a good word sounds like. The whole of the Gospel, or “Good News of God” can be summed up in Jesus’ first ever sermon in the synagogue, which he reads directly from the Hebrew Scriptures, drops the mic, and sits down:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
James says our tongues are untamable. I say we can challenge each other to use the Gospel test.
We can ask ourselves:
Is the spirit of Love reflected in the words I am about to say, type, think?
Does what I am about to say lift up the poor (myself, the impoverished, or the spiritually impoverished, the immigrant, the widowed, the grieving, the losers, the maligned, the outcast)?
Is what I’m about to say enlightened and enlightening to others?
Is it a word of freedom for all who are held captive by oppression and greed and what the Jones’ think?
Is what I’m about to say reflective of the million dreams I have for the world?
Or, in simpler language, before I speak, am I applying the “THINK” acronym principles?
Is it True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspired?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?
We are called to be teachers. We will never be perfect, but we can think before we speak. Though it may sound naïve and out of style and hard sometimes, we’re not giving up on the Gospel.
Today I’m going to ask us to practice using our words to bless someone else who needs a blessing. Our Becky Conway, our Judy and Jim Conway’s daughter, our Emily and James and Laura’s sister, our Charlotte’s mother, needs a blessing. She has accompanied her 18 month old daughter, Charlotte, from Boston Children’s—where she lived for the past two months near her loving family,—to Baltimore where Charlotte is receiving treatment for a rare disease called Acute Transverse Myelitis that has left her paralyzed from the neck down. Becky feels lonely and depleted without her family and friends and partner and parents by her side. She is strong, but she’s so often alone and falling into despair.
Becky says: “I have never experienced a pain like this. a feeling I can’t even begin to describe. As (Charlotte’s) mom I feel as though I should be stronger and doing more. That’s where it gets emotional because there’s nothing more I can do. I give her all my time and all my love and I know it makes a difference i just wish it was more.
i’m going back to being in that “angry phase”. Why do things like this happen? Why are we given such hard battles? I know most will say “God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them” but that’s just hard to hear now. Why do I now question God? all my life I grew up with my own beliefs, I didn’t ever change them. Now, I don’t know what i think anymore.”
Becky needs our words of blessing; an assurance from us of God’s favor and protection. She doesn’t need to be told that God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them,” but that in the words of the Psalmist, when we are brought low, we are saved by Love. Let’s show up for Becky with our words. Let’s help deliver Becky’s soul from death, her eyes from tears, her feet from stumbling. Let’s do this by writing cards, found in your bulletins with prayers of grace for her and for Charlotte. It doesn’t matter if you know this family or not, they are part of your family. We are calling this a First Church grace bomb. We will collect your cards, and put them in a box Paula Fogerty kept all of her cards of support in when she was going to chemotherapy. It says “With God all things are possible.” We will send along a prayer shawl, as well. You can place your prayer for Becky and Charlotte in the offering plate during the offertory, or in a basket on your way out of church. Let’s use our tongues to bless.
Beloved, we can become our dreams for the world. We can be worthy teachers for our children. Love is the weapon we have in our arsenal to fight the devil threatening to win our hearts and to control our tongues afire. We can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be. The moral revolution this country needs is here. Right here in this room. It foments inside of each of us. It starts with being kinder to ourselves. Make haste to be kind.
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.