A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on October 22, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/ heard
We humans like to set up false dichotomies. We have to choose between either or, black or white, good or bad. It’s true or false. There is rarely room for in between. While it’s easier that way, this lack of nuance is freezing our hearts.
Lately, I’ve noticed that we have political debates in which we are asked to choose between this false dichotomy: the sacredness of symbols vs. the sacredness of humanity. I’ve noticed this most recently in the debates about our nation’s flag. The argument that is set up by liberals is that if you care more about a “piece of cloth” than lethal systemic racism against a group of people, then you are heartless. The argument that is set up by conservatives is that if you care more about a protest than a significant national symbol of unity and the ultimate sacrifice by a specific group of people it represents, then you are heartless. You must choose between black citizens and veterans or black citizens and police officers. You must choose between black lives and all lives.
Well, I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
There seems to be no room for this fact: both symbols AND humans are sacred. Symbols are sacred because they represent something that matters deeply to one’s humanity. Human beings are sacred because they belong to God.
Standing with a hand over your heart for the national anthem in honor of our country’s military is sacred. Kneeling in protest for all of God’s children to be treated with inherent worth is sacred.
I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
What is considered sacred is one of the most important tenets of our faith tradition, debated over millennia. It is written into the second commandment. It is debated in churches and in our nation’s classrooms. It is a complex conversation.
This week, a colleague inquired among my other clergy colleagues about whether or not there were American flags in their worship spaces. “Absolutely not!” They exclaimed. “Thank God, no.” Others said. “Nopiest note. I hate that. Is that a New England thing or something?” Someone suggested.
“I have one in my church,” I said sheepishly. “And I like it.”
I know why my colleagues are uncomfortable at best with the American flag in any place of worship. And no, it is not because they are a bunch of un-Patriotic liberals, although who knows…that may factor in. Many clergy and many people of faith believe that the flag is idolatrous in a house of worship…that in church we worship God, not flags. That our only symbol should be the cross, not the stars and stripes.
Choose! “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s! And to God what is God’s,” my clergy colleagues might say.
But I said to them, “I think now more than ever in this hot mess time in our country, having a symbol at the front of our sanctuary that reminds us of our nation’s highest ideals: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is the message of the Gospel we may need to hear.
Well, I don’t think that went over too well. (I feel sort of proud that I seem to be equally offending conservatives AND liberals lately. Sterling, man. It rubs off on you.) But I have officiated or attended so many military veterans’ funerals in my lifetime, and there is nothing I can say in a eulogy or no words I can utter in a prayer that come close to the careful and prayerful folding and presentation of the American flag to a grieving widow at a gravesite burial, taps playing reverently. It is sacred.
I refuse to choose.
Religion and politics have always been conversational minefields, especially when you mix them. Talking about politics in the church is particularly controversial, even illegal. You can get your tax-exempt status removed for plugging candidates or positions on questions. We all know that doesn’t stop many churches from creating voter guides, and pastors using the pulpits to tell their congregations who to vote for. Even talking about politics when you are a minister of a church on social media can get you in trouble with your congregation and the surrounding community. (Or at least that’s what I hear. I wouldn’t know, personally, of course.)
Talking religion in the political sphere is also a lightning rod. Debates over the separation of church and state have been going on since this country’s founding, and it is often debated whether our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom should be considered freedom FROM religion in the public sphere.
When we meet Jesus in this story from the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees are trying to trick him into ticking everyone off by mixing religion with politics; pitting symbol against God and humanity. They are hoping this is the final nail in his coffin, if you will. They try to fake him out with mock respect: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
They are trying to get him to choose a party, to check a box, to put a stake in the ground. They are trying to trap him in either hypocrisy or something illegal. They want to get either his followers furious with him for choosing the government over God, or the emperor mad at him for choosing God over the government.
He doesn’t have coins in his pocket, but he asks them to take out theirs’ “Show me the coin used for tax. Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer “the emperor.” Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.” Check mate. He refuses to take the bait. He refuses to be caught in a false dichotomy. He refuses to choose. They leave, amazed.
This teaching isn’t just for ancient Jesus times. It is completely relevant for our lives today. As hard as liberals and conservatives try to figure out what Jesus would do in the voting booth, or how he would feel about our current political platforms from gay marriage to a flat tax, Jesus makes it clear that he has much bigger concerns in mind.
He says, essentially, that governments and taxes and leaders are necessary, so obey the law of the land. But don’t defile the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? We do. The earth and all its people. Liberals and conservatives. Tax collectors and Pharisees. Black people and white people. NFL protestors, veterans and police officers. Jews and Muslims. Women and men.
The whole world is God’s and everything in it. Including us. Especially us. We spend too much time trying to decide what matters more to God: symbols or humanity. Maybe Jesus is trying to tell us they both matter.
We laid Shelly Kennedy-Leonard to rest yesterday at her previous Catholic Church, St. John’s in Clinton, and now she surrounds us with the saints in light.
This week, with her family’s permission, I explained in an email a little bit about Shelly’s spiritual journey to you. She testified last year that she left her Catholic church largely because the conservative politics preached from the pulpit she found to be an anathema to her faith in a loving God. She found God here in this in this church’s welcome for all; in the people who radiated warmth and kindness; in the love that flowed so freely.
And yet, the symbols of the Catholic church didn’t leave her.
She went to St. John’s every day of her illness to sit surrounded with the symbols of God’s love carved into the wood there; painted onto the stained glass; emblazoned on the icons of Jesus. The empty church was safer than the people…the symbols didn’t talk back. She was alone with God.
I came with Shelly to pray at St. John’s in Clinton a few weeks ago when the people weren’t there. She was trying to figure out a way to come back here to First Church, now that her cancer diagnosis was public; now that she was raw and her family was skittish and fearful; and she wanted some control over what well intentioned people at coffee hour might say to her kids and her husband.
She wanted to explain her faith to me…how much the Catholic church had meant to her, why she had to leave, why the practices and prayers called her back in her time of illness. “Robin, I left this place because of my kids. I left this church because I remember squeezing Matt’s hand and gritting my teeth and sweating trying to get through the sermons. I left this place because the men who represented it didn’t represent God. I didn’t want my kids to hear what they were saying because it wasn’t about Love, it was about judgment. But the priests are just men. They aren’t God. God is still in this place. God fills this place. I still find God here. So I come here when the people aren’t here mucking it up. Do you understand?”
“You leave your home but it doesn’t leave you,” I said. I thought of my ex-pat friends living in Europe who described weeping at the first bar of the national anthem, every time it played. Your home doesn’t leave you. Symbols matter.
She asked if we could pray. She kneeled on the kneeler, and I joined her. From my position, I looked up at the impossibly high ornamental ceilings of that beautiful Cathedral of a church, where she saw God in every beautiful thing there: stained glass, carved wood, the castle-like altar, the candles, the holy water she crossed herself with as she genuflected, and I, too felt awed before the mystery of God. I finally closed my eyes. We rested our hands lightly on our foreheads as we knelt in silence.
“What do you pray for when you pray?” I asked when we were done.
“A miracle,” she said. “For God’s love to surround me and heal me.”
She asked me: “can I kneel when I pray at First Church? Will that offend anyone if I do that?”
I said “I think it will give others permission to.”
And so Matt and Harry, Shelly’s husband and 9-year-old son, made this kneeler for her, to bring a little bit of St. John’s with her to First Church. And on October 8th, the last Sunday she came here, she sat in the front row, and kneeled on this kneeler for the prayers. One of her last wishes was that Matt and Harry make more kneelers for the people of First Church so that we could join her if we wished.
I could never find kneeling disrespectful after this conversation.
Shelly kneeled because that was how she gave herself over to God. It was an act of humility and respect in the vastness of God’s love for her.
Kneeling is an act of humility that few Protestants participate in when they pray in church. Like everything that has to do with the cultural and religious markers of showing proper respect and humility before God, the dichotomy between the sacredness of symbol and and the sacredness of humanity is contentious between Catholics and Protestants. I read this from an anonymous Catholic:
When my son was about 5 years old we went into a Catholic Church where the smell of incense hung in the air. We were protestants at the time.
The priest came out and was talking with us about the beautiful church. My son was sniffing the air and smiling. The priest asked him what he thought of the church.
“It smells holy.” He replied.
The priest then asked him what his church smelled like.
“Coffee.” Was his answer.
This man wrote this to be disdainful to Protestants, of course. But to me, coffee smells like God, too. And not just because it consists of magic beans that turn into a warm comforting liquid helping me to refrain from selling the children on Craigslist every morning. But because the smell of coffee reminds me of gathering in love, of hospitality, of coffee shop conversations, and connections with people, which is one way I know Christ.
Both are sacred. Both symbol and humanity. Both belong to God.
On the day she died, Shelly had the priest come to the hospice to do the sacrament of the sick. Some of her last words were the Hail Mary. And her pastor (I) came to comfort, and to bring the love of the community that knew her name.
All of that was God. Shelly refused to choose.
Beloved, give to God what is God’s. Give yourself to God by serving in your community, by raising good kids, by showing up at church. Give yourself to God by serving your country in war or Americorps; in soup kitchens or on mission trips. Give yourself to God by protesting for our country’s highest ideals, or fighting for its freedom. Give yourself to God by taking a knee, or by standing and saluting the flag. Give yourself to God by standing and bowing your head, or kneeling and genuflecting before the cross.
Give to God what is God’s: YOU. It is to Love you belong. Give yourself to the people of God because God ensures that we belong to each other. You don’t have to choose between the cross and the flag; between incense and coffee; between standing and kneeling; between tribes and symbols; between the nation and the Holy. Choose all of the above. Choose love.
A Homily by Doug Davis and Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached, with a baby alpaca afoot, at the Blessing of the Animals Service
The First Church in Sterling, MA
October 15, 2017
Growing up on a farm, animals have been an integral part of my life since I was a small child and I helped my dad milk cows in our milking barn. And of course they became even more a part of my life in my current line of work at Davis Farmland. When I think of why animals are such a blessing in my life, I have to start with this fact: I believe that being around animals makes us all better humans. I have learned responsibility from animals. I have many animals in my life and it is such a feeling of responsibility and devotion to deliver a newborn baby, to stay up nights nursing or caring for them, to raise, train, watch them grow and mature, give them medical treatment and even sometimes make the tough end of life decisions that we all eventually face with our loving companions. I can only relate it to being a parent to each of them.
Animals have actually taught me how to relate to people better. When you try to truly understand why an animal does what it does, the particular personality of this animal compared to that one, and have a deeper understanding through this wordless communication between species, there is a feeling of being one with our fellow animals, in communion with them. I have always loved the challenge of meeting new animals, observing them and learning through interaction how to care for them better. Just like with God, it takes a willingness to let go of the illusion of control and open yourself up, to truly begin to understand your fellow animals.
For many years I preferred the company of animals and could relate to them better than my human counterparts. Animals are unique: they are willing to share their true spirit with you without any angles, agendas or hidden motives. Their openness and personality can seem so often like a young child’s, but with glimpses of an elder's wisdom. Throughout my life, I have learned to relate to people on a deeper level because of having learned how to relate to animals. I have used this to help me realize that people have all the same wants and needs as many animals and that truly paying attention to people lets me understand, empathize and connect with each person, with or without verbal communication.
This unspoken understanding, devotion to and love of animals makes me feel closer to Nature and to God. It is through this love of my animal friends that I feel my closest comparison to how God must love each of us. We are all his flock and he is devoted to each and every one of us.
The act of blessing is the act of invoking God’s favor upon a person or a creature. Today we invoke God’s favor on all of creation. We praise God in chorus with our animal companions. Today, we bless the animals. We bring them into God’s house, and we raise our voices in concert with theirs. Praise the Lord all the earth!
I love Marilynn Robinson’s story from Gilead of the preacher’s son baptizing barn cats with friends. When the pastor father is asked by the son what would happen if one were to baptize cats, the father answers by saying that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. “That wasn’t really an answer to the question,” he said. “We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats………Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.”
Why do we bless our animals? We think the whole world of them.
And our animals bless us.
I saw a kinda creepy ad this week. I forget what the product was called, but it was essentially an ad for a cat simulator. It was a big fluffy furry headless stuffed animal, about the weight of a cat. You put it in your lap, and it wags it’s tail when you pet it. It also wags it’s tail when you haven’t petted it for awhile. The product says that it is for anxiety, because those of us who have pets know that petting a furry thing that wags its tail helps ease anxiety. So even if you have allergies, or you don’t feel like changing a litter box every week, you too can reap the anti-anxiety benefits of having a (headless) cat to pet. Petting cats and other animals releases that love hormone oxytocin, which helps stave off the depression some of us have to take pills for.
Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of receiving a blessing from it, is a very different thing.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
When I was visiting Sue Quinn last year as she lay dying from cancer, I will never forget how her golden doodle, Gracie would lie in her lap, keeping her warm, staring up at her with concern and love. Wherever she went, Gracie would follow. That dog was sent from God to be her angel and comfort.
Why do we bless the animals? Because God has blessed us with our animal companions as angel and comfort.
Every year, when I do this service, I am amazed at the emotion of it. The tears shed when people come forward to light candles for pets who have died. The pure joy in people’s faces when they get to introduce beloved members of the family to their church.
Why do we bless our animals? Because they bless us.
So some of you may think it’s crazy that Puerto Rico is in a humanitarian crisis, and a part of California is burning down, and we may be on the brink of a possible war with North Korea, and we’re over here in Sterling whimsically blessing animals.
Well, we have no other choice. We must celebrate the wonder of creation, especially when it is threatened. Anyone who notices the world, Rebecca Baggett says, must want to save it. We choose to bless this broken world. There is nothing else to do but bless it.
So today, as we worship in chorus with our church family’s animal companions, let us remember to touch everything worth saving with the pure intention of blessing it.
The whole world, and every living creature, deserves a sacrament.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
“Shoulders” Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on October 8, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard/seen.
We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to treat one another like precious children of God. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
You and I woke up Monday morning to news of another mass shooting, the deadliest in recent history by a single gunman, this time at a country music concert in Las Vegas. 58 people died and close to 500 were injured. It’s a breath-stealing, incomprehensible number. Our Sofie Hopkins, who has lived just 18 years on this earth, texted me that day and said, “You know what’s weird? In my lifetime the headlines of a shooting being the largest in US history has appeared like four times.”
All I could say was “I’m sorry.”
If you’re anything like me, you woke your kids up on Monday, and pretended you weren’t numb or grieving or angry. You woke your kids who greet each day with a wonder and an innocence you prefer to maintain, and you smiled, made them breakfast, and pretended that you weren’t worried sick every day about the world you brought them into. You resisted the urge to apologize to them about the state of the world still flooded and groaning and divided and on the brink of nuclear war, and you shuttled them off to school, praying for their safety.
If you’re anything like me, you resigned yourself to the inevitability of the next “deadliest shooting” headline in Sofie’s lifetime happening again, and soon.
If you’re anything like me, you held your breath when the Wachusett Regional High School was on lock down on Wednesday because of a school shooting threat. Xan described it to me last night at Harvest Grille. Bomb sniffing dogs were brought in, and a gun was found in a kid’s backpack, with detailed threats. The kids aren’t sure if it was a bee bee gun, or a real one. One upside of the lock down, Xan said, was she got to miss math.
Yesterday, my seven year old came into my office and said, “what’s a terrorist attack and why do they happen?”
God bless all the teachers and administrators keeping our children alive. They are all so vulnerable. God bless all of the parents who are trying to answer questions we don’t really know the answers to.
The world’s most precious cargo is contained in these classrooms; these homes, asking unanswerable questions.
The hum of our collective dreams is contained within these walls. And the road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
I don’t have anything to say this week about gun control or mental health screening or the lack of prayer in schools, or any of the rest of the talking points that so many have something to say about. That’s all far above my pay grade.
What I have something to say is about is the mass dehumanization of God-imaged people.
What takes my breath away is the ability this man in Las Vegas had—whether you call him a lone wolf or a terrorist-- to treat God-imaged human beings like targets in a video game. The fact that a fellow human can forget that all people have sacred worth is an evil that terrifies me far more than his weaponry.
It scares me because I recognize this tendency to dehumanize everywhere I go.
In this age of 24-hour connectivity, we are more isolated in our homes and our carefully cultivated news feeds. We are less likely to know our neighbors, to go outside in our neighborhoods, to go to church, to interact with real, flesh and blood community, to encounter difference of opinion, culture, religion or ideology. We are less likely to grieve each other’s losses; to celebrate each other’s triumphs. It is no coincidence that we are more divided as a nation than we have been since the Civil War. The mass dehumanization of God-imaged people will keep happening as long as we suggest those we disagree with are less than human.
The mass dehumanization of God-imaged people will keep happening as long as we worship idols more than God, whether those idols are politics, material goods, money, weapons or the flag.
But God is still here, present in every person we encounter:
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; Love will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; Love utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of Love is with us; the God of Love is our refuge.
If you’re anything like me this week, you felt lucky that you have a community like this one to grieve and pray with on Sunday morning, reminding you that you are not alone. If you’re anything like me, you felt lucky that you have a community like this one that reminds you to be still and know that Love is there, as a refuge and a strength. You are not alone.
If you’re anything like me, you looked for the helpers this week to find God. You found God in the first responders, the police officers and fire fighters who run toward the sound of gunshots rather than away.
If you’re like me, you found God in the administration of the Wachusett Regional high school and Holden police department, who swiftly locked down the high school, kept the students calm and the parents informed.
If you’re like me, you found God in the music teacher and principal at the Houghton elementary school in Sterling who plan a peace pole celebration every year, the kids dressed in rainbow colors singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River in my school.”
If you’re like me, you found God in the Sterling fire chief and town administrator who made a difficult, heart-wrenching decision to fire an employee of the department. They took a stand for the dignity of each human life that day, as the fire department and police force and EMS in Sterling does every time they walk into a burning building, or revives a dying patient in an ambulance.
And if you’re anything like me, you found God in the many beautiful stories of simple human heroism in Las Vegas.
This is the one that stayed with me (from CNN.com):
Jordan McIldoon, a 25-year-old from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, died holding the hand of a stranger at the concert.
Heather Gooze told CNN she somehow ended up next to McIldoon. Even though she didn't know him, she held his hand during his final minutes. She felt a squeeze from his fingers, then felt his hand go loose.
Gooze said she knew there was nothing more to do. Yet, she stayed with McIldoon for hours. When his phone rang, she answered it and learned his name and told the caller everything was not OK.
She relayed the news of his death to his long-term girlfriend and his mother, all the while staying by his side, she said.
"I didn't want Jordan to not have somebody with him," she told CNN through tears. "I didn't want him to just be a no-named body. I knew who he was, and now I had an obligation to make sure that everyone knew who he was."
I knew who he was, she said… Jordan died holding Heather’s hand; someone who knew his name; who felt obliged to make sure everyone else did, too. He died knowing he was not alone.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what she’s doing
with one another.
So what do we do when we can’t hear Love’s voice over the uproar of the nations, the tottering kingdom, the mountains trembling, the waters roar and foam, the political posturing, and the sound of bullets shattering the night sky?
Be still. Be still and know.
There is this funny word that shows up in the psalms 71 times, including the psalm we read this morning. Usually people skip over it when they are lay reading, I notice, which is probably appropriate since no one really knows what it means. The word is “Selah.” Scholars think that it is an ancient musical notation, because the psalms are meant to be sung. They guess that it is a pause or a rest. They think it means that we should pay extra special attention to the verse before, and meditate on it. They think it means “stop and listen.”
He utters his voice, the earth melts, the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Stop and listen.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah. Stop and listen.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him. Selah. Stop and listen.
I keep imagining what the world would be like if we truly stopped and listened to one other and to our children for God’s voice; for God’s dream deep inside each of us.
Our Kristin Turner--who is a history teacher I am so glad is teaching our children-- writes this about the recent NFL controversy last week:
Today there are many groups looking for empathy and understanding. Some of those groups have vastly differing political beliefs and values – but I would argue their desire to be heard and understood is a commonality that is greater than their differences.
Today, if you struggle to understand why people kneel – ask to understand.
If you struggle to understand why people are hurt by those kneeling – ask to understand.
Listen for understanding, not for outrage, or to respond. Listen.
If someone tells you they are hurt by something - don't tell them that they're not, instead just listen.
Selah. Stop and listen. Maybe this is how we transform the world. Maybe this is how we withstand the storm. Maybe this is how we protect the children. Maybe this is how we understand something of who God is.
Adrienne Rich writes:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.
Beloved, We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to treat one another as precious children of God. Every single other. The road will only be wide. The rain will never stop falling.
Stop and listen. Let our hearts be moved by all we cannot save; by all that has been destroyed. And then let us build a community of hope and love on this earth. I cast my lot with all of you, who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
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.