A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett on
November 26, 2017, Christ the King Sunday at
The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard.
You survived Thanksgiving! Congratulations! It’s time to switch our life speeds from “busy mode” into “CRAZY busy mode.” We will now commence shopping and partying and cooking and squeezing in every family tradition we have between now and December 25th. We will now commence dysfunctional family gatherings, forced merriment, conspicuous consumption, thwarted expectations and going into debt.
But we do it for the children, right? We are so selfless.
My son is at that age when he is far more theologically profound than anyone in our family. The magic of this season is uniquely alive in Isaac, and like many children his age he asks the questions that theologians have been asking for thousands of years.
So, these days I get nervous when the four-year-old philosopher climbs into bed before I’ve had my coffee to ask me what I want to think about. These days the thing that he wants to think about every morning, is “Christmas.”
And so the questions begin. They are often along the lines of “what is Santa doing right now? Why do the elves have to help him make the toys? How do the reindeer fly? Why does he need them to pull the sleigh? How does he get down the chimney? Where on the roof does the sleigh go? Can Santa make Spider man toys?”
One day I asked him rather righteously, “Do you know whose birthday Christmas is?”
“No,” he said. (Whoops).
“It’s not yours. It’s Jesus’s!” I said.
“Will Jesus be coming to our house for his birthday party?” he asks.
“Jesus is always with us. He’s in our hearts,” I answer.
“Where?” Isaac asks, and looks down his shirt.
“You can find him in the part of you that feels sad when other people feel sad, and the part of you that feels happy when other people feel happy. And you can find him in other people,” I say.
Four year olds are far more concrete than that. “Where? I don’t see him. What does Jesus look like? Does he look like Daddy?”
“Yes,” I say. “Except more brown.”
“What does his stomach look like?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “In pictures he has six pack abs.”
“Can I see a picture? Is Jesus God? Is Jesus still alive or did he die? Was God born on Christmas, too? Where is God now? Is God invisible? What does Santa Claus make for Jesus in the toy workshop? Does Jesus play with toys? Is Santa Claus God?”
You can see why I look forward to these conversations with a mix of anticipation and dread.
It’s hard to relay to my son that worshipping Jesus might mean giving the gift of ourselves away, rather than waiting impatiently for Santa Claus to bring us a Spider Man toy made in his workshop of jolly elves who are in all actuality probably child slave laborers in a third world country making a few cents an hour in a factory with deplorable conditions.
The fact that it’s hard is because of the lie we tell ourselves and our children every year that there is any sort of piety in celebrating a month of American greed and gluttony and calling it a celebration of Christ’s reign on earth.
So my sermon inspiration this week comes from my son’s good questions, known to stymie theologians who haven’t had their coffee; from Jesus, known for saving the world; and--I never thought I’d say this, but—from Russell Brand, who is a Hollywood actor and comedian known for being married, briefly, to Katy Perry.
Russell Brand was being interviewed on some British TV show recently. He talks about how he got sober--stopped doing drugs, drinking and watching pornography. He detailed how he spends his days now—praying religiously every morning, doing good things for others and listening to other people’s stories. He does this, he says, not because he is particularly pious, but because drugs no longer work. This new way of life fills the void drugs no longer fill for him—helping others makes him feel good. The interviewer asks him if this new way is more time consuming. And he answers truthfully, “yes. It is time consuming. But the alternative is unthinkable. if I don’t spend my time this way, I will slip into a sort of prison…. Look, you get to a point where individual and collective needs align and marry perfectly because we are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. So when you treat other people with grace and with kindness, you are enforcing something that is very powerfully true.”
And Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life says this: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’
We are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. That is what Jesus and Russell Brand tell us. So yes, Isaac, Jesus is invited into our homes on his birthday, and every time we invite other people into our hearts. Especially those who we don’t understand, or we don’t want to invite. That’s because in order to inherit the kin-dom of God, we live for others. We feed, we give, we welcome the stranger, we clothe, we heal, we visit. Even though it is time consuming. Because the alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is the eternal punishment of separation from one another, God and ourselves—in other words, the alternative is death.
This is Christ the King Sunday, or reign of Christ Sunday. Some folks in the church don’t give this day much credence as it is a rather new feast day in the liturgical year: the last Sunday of ordinary time before advent begins. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius the XI in response to growing secularism after World War I. It is only 90 years old, in other words…not exactly ancient. And it was created because the Pope began to fear that people were worshipping worldly heroes more than Christ: the Kaisers, Kings and Czars on golden thrones and in ivory towers, politicians and presidents, celebrities, and the false prophets of snake oil sales religion. Conquest and power began to be the recognizable markers of the coming Kingdom rather than the blessing of the least of these.
We need Christ the King Sunday now more than ever. We need Christ the King Sunday because our definition of a “powerful person” is too often someone who has made a lot of money, who won’t back down, who’s done well in business, who owns property and rules with a back bone and an iron fist. We worship those who threaten to use the biggest weapons in the arsenal, who use other people for their own gain, who harm and exploit others’ bodies all the while preaching moral righteousness. Our definition of a powerful person is “someone willing to smite our enemies, to defend ‘our’ land, to kill in ‘our’ name.”
But that’s not our God’s definition of Kingly rule.
So we need Christ the King Sunday now. We need to be reminded that the king we worship was born homeless in a manger to an unwed teenaged mother. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who was poor and lowly; who was humble, meek and mild. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who did not wear a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns. We need to be reminded that we worship a king whose throne was not a golden spectacle, but a wooden cross. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who died for all, rather than judge people worthy or unworthy of saving.
We need Christ the King Sunday because frankly, it is hard for us with our poor vision and vengeful hearts to see Christ as a figure worthy of worship. If we are being honest, Jesus is our worldly idea of a wimpy, weak-willed loser. Instead of disavowing the poor as lazy and unworthy, he got to know them. Instead of condemning those sentenced to death row as disposable, he visited them. Instead of letting those without health insurance die, he healed them. Instead of building walls, he built bridges. Instead of letting the poor and hungry starve, he fed them. Instead of fighting back when threatened, he turned the other cheek. Instead of smiting his enemies, he gave up his life for them.
And the kicker is that the king we worship expects the same of the rest of us.
Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” our true king says.
In the upside down kin-dom of heaven where Christ reigns, to become rich, you give your money away. In the upside down kin-dom where Christ reigns, to get back at your enemies, you love them. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to become a leader, you become a servant. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to truly find life, you die to self. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, all people are called beloved children of God, and treated as though that is true.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"
We need Christ the King Sunday because worshipping this humble king might actually mean changing the way we live our lives.
About 10 years ago, a group called “Advent Conspiracy” formed in order to take back Advent from the Doorbuster black Friday sales at Target of this Thanksgiving weekend, and the ensuing consumer spending spree. They function on four principles I have shared with you before, and will share with you again now.
Number 1. Worship Fully
Worshipping fully is noticing the in-breaking of Love into a brutal and awaiting world. We need to slow down to notice; to take time out of our busy weeks of shopping and cooking and parties to be still and wait. This advent, commit to come to church every Sunday to practice noticing this Love and to bow down before it. This is how we worship our king.
Number 2. Spend Less
Americans spend 600 billion dollars during the Christmas season, mostly charged on their credit cards. So we go deep into debt to buy gifts that will be forgotten by New Year’s Eve. Imagine what we could do with 600 billion dollars to feed people, or to house refugees, or to ensure that the whole world had clean water to drink. What if we were to spend less at Christmas, by making our gifts like we did as kids, by writing letters to loved ones about what they mean to us, by spending time with our families instead of money…which is all our kids really want from us anyway. This advent, commit to spending less money, and spend more time. This is how we worship our king.
Number 3. Give More
I know that I just said that you and I need to stop spending so much money and going into debt to buy presents, and now I’m telling you to give more, and that seems like a contradiction. Give more of yourself away. Give more to your loved ones, to your church, to the community. When we spend less on our loved ones, our excess is available to lift up the poor and the needy. This advent, give more of yourself to God. This is how we worship our king.
Number 4. Love All
Fear is the enemy of faith. Other people aren’t the enemy. Fear is. And the opposition to fear is love. So this Advent, find the ones that you fear the most, and get to know them. Maybe invite someone that you disagree with religiously or politically out for coffee. Maybe really make eye contact and smile at someone you would normally over-look or avoid. Maybe visit someone in prison, or give your money away to someone you think doesn’t deserve it. Maybe encountering the darkest part of your own heart is the thing you fear the most. This Advent, Love what you fear, especially yourselves. That’s true bravery. This is how we worship our king.
Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Committing to these four practices is how we to inherit the kin-dom of God. Live for each other, because we are not separate from one another in anyway that is meaningful. Give yourself away in service to Love.
And he shall reign forever and ever.
Preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
November 19, 2017
Thanksgiving Sunday at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by William Stafford
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown.
Any morning can be an occasion for frowning. There is so much trouble busying itself elsewhere; it has so much to do in the world. Any morning can also be an occasion for gratitude. Little pieces of Heaven left lying around can be picked up and saved.
It is not one or the other: trouble or heaven. As always, it’s both. Frowning and joy; grief and gratitude; the desire to save the world and savor it. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to pick between two things. The world is both brutal and beautiful, and anyone who notices the beauty in the world must want to save it from brutality.
In our reading from the Epistles this morning, St. Paul in his letter to the people of Thessalonica gives instructions to prepare them for Christ’s second coming with instructions for their holiness. He says to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
Rejoice always, Paul, really? Even at the DMV, the traffic on the mass pike, the hospital, the funeral home? I am still mourning the death of people I love. I am worried about the uncertainty of the future and my children’s future. We have been plunged into the darkness of the winter this month and the seasonal depression that is sure to come along with it. People are dying every day, and the world is violent and mean. Rejoice always, Paul? Seriously?
Pray without ceasing, Paul, how? Sometimes I have to, like, sleep, bathe and read InStyle magazine. And sometimes it’s hard just to put one foot in front of the other, get my grocery shopping done, get my kids to all of their appointments and pay the bills. I should be praying that whole time? Really?
Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul? Even when I have heard countless stories of assaultive men I once admired in the news this week? This congregation readies itself to celebrate Thanksgiving again this year, and there will be newly empty chairs at our Thanksgiving tables. There will be anger, grieving and loneliness. Some of us are so ill we have lost hope. Some of us won’t be able to afford a turkey. Some of us won’t be able to stay sober or sane. Give thanks in ALL circumstances? These ones, too?
These are seemingly impossible feats Paul is requiring of the followers of Jesus. But he may just be reminding us that there is no other choice but to rejoice, pray unceasingly, and yes, to be thankful in all circumstances though we’ve considered all the facts.
When I was studying to be a minister, I did a summer long chaplaincy internship at Mass General Hospital on the neurological floors. I remember going to my supervisor in a panic before being on call for the first time. I could be beeped to go into any part of the hospital during the overnight shift. I had a 9 month old baby and a four year old at the time. I said to my supervisor: “I don’t think I can go to the NICU or the PICU. I can’t handle it. I’m a mother.”
And she said to me, rather harshly (she was a rather harsh person): “Robin, this is not about you. That’s not your kid in the hospital bed. That’s not your baby. That’s someone else’s. It could be your kid, and it may be your kid one day, but its not today. So today the right response is gratitude. The second response is to suck it up and show up.”
Ann Lamott says, “Sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” I have been thinking about my need for a new prescription as I reflect on my regular failure to be grateful.
A few weeks ago, I awoke to a leak in my ceiling dripping dirty water onto the foot of my bed from the attic floor boards. I got up, walked downstairs and stepped on legos with bare feet as I crossed the kitchen floor, swearing as I realized there was still a sink full of dirty dinner dishes left over from the night before. No one seems to know that there is a dishwasher in my house except me. My head is aching, it’s too early in the morning, I stayed up too late last night, I have to go to the dentist, I am so busy, it is so hard, I have too much work to do and not enough time to do it in, I want to go back to bed. “Ugh. When will I get peace and quiet and time for me and a vacation and a maid!”
And truthfully, too often I say that instead of: “thank you, God, for my life and breath, for the fact of my rising from a warm bed, for the two strong legs that carried me to the bathroom to splash water on my face like a baptism. Thank you for the dawn of a new day, for the healthy, funny, loving children that leave their toys on the floor for me to step on. Thank you for clean water flowing from my sink that I can wash my dishes with. Thank you for the food I have to scrape into the trash before I do. It is a ridiculous blessing that I have so much food I am scraping some of it into the trash.
Thank you for the shower I took this morning, in clean drinking water. An embarrassment of riches, I think, after reading about the people all over the world, and even in Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean drinking water; the children who are poisoned, the cholera epidemics. And I am literally bathing in drinking water.
Which reminds me to thank you for excellent medical care, and a mouth full of teeth that chew. Thank you, God, for the floor on which those legos were laid, and the roof over my head that will be patched and then fixed and paid for by people other than me.
Thank you, God, for the husband who gives me his whole heart, for the boy who wakes me up too early to ask me what I want to think about. Thank you for a mind that thinks, and for people who encourage that mind to think differently. Thank you for the girls who are fighting over the television remote right now. Thank you, God, for the gumption they inherited to fight for what they believe to be right…they’ll need it. And thank you for the coffee maker, which makes it all more bearable.
Thank you for meaningful work serving people I love. I am blessed to have too much work. I am blessed to have the best and most loving boss, You.
Thank you, God, for the good earth that created us, that warms and feeds and sustains us; that astounds us with beauty every day. Thank you, God, for all of the extra: we have so much that we can give some away. Thank you for your Church; for a place where our giving can match our deepest held values.
Thank you, God, for the tears of mourning I have shed. I have loved and been loved so fully that loss feels like a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Thank you, God, for the pain of being fully alive because it cuts through the numbness of depression. It cuts through the empty consumption of mindless consumerism. Thank you for all of the memories I have of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, responsible for both deep wounds and deep wisdom. Thank you, God, for good therapists and for Zoloft.
The only prayer on my lips every morning should be “thank you,” because there is nothing else to say in the face of such abundance.
As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables this week to give thanks for what we have, let us remember that our joy comes from Love; our ceaseless prayer is Love in action; our gratitude is the only response.
Beloved: this holiday season, in the words of First Parish in Concord's weekly benediction:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings, especially yourself.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown. But for now, pick up and savor little pieces of heaven wherever you find them.
For now and in all things, enter God’s courts with Thanksgiving, and God’s gates with praise.
A Sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
November 12, 2017
with thanks to Rev. Sarah Stewart and Wikipedia for the inspiration
Sermons are better seen.
I want us to imagine a world in which weapons of war are transformed into tools for healing and harvesting.
What better day to imagine this world than the Sunday of Veteran’s day weekend; the day we welcome 15 new members into our church. Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifices for our country’s freedom. Thank you, new members, for agreeing to walk hand and hand with us in the interest of bringing about earth as it is in heaven.
Our scripture from Micah talks about that heaven on earth: the day when the people of the world shall beat their swords into ploughshares and beat their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
I had a conversation at dinner a couple of weeks ago with one of our beloved veterans, Paul Jones, who said, “there is no one who desires peace in the world more than a soldier. We understand the cost of war profoundly, and war is the last thing we want.” They have walked in the darkest valley in the shadow of death.
Especially for our veteran’s sake, may we continue to pray for a world without war.
Beat swords into ploughshares.
This concept has literal applications, I found in my very scholarly Wikipedia research.
After World War II, military surplus AFVs were sometimes converted into bulldozers, agricultural, and logging tractors. French farmers sometimes used modified versions of the obsolete FT-17 tank, and similar vehicles, based on the T-34 tank, remain in widespread use in the former USSR.
Weapons of war transformed to harvest new crops. Death transformed to life.
From the 1970s onwards, several anti-war musicians play guitars made from military surplus weapons. Jamaican reggae star Pete Tosh famously owned a Stratocaster built around an M-16 rifle.
Weapons of war transformed into music; to beauty. Death transformed to life.
Nitrogen mustard, developed from the chemical weapon mustard gas developed in World War I, became the basis for the world's first chemotherapy drug, mustine, developed through the 1940s.
Weapons of war transformed to heal. Death transformed to life.
Imagine a world in which all weapons have been turned into tools: for harvesting and building, healing and hope. Imagine a world in which the human tendency to tear down is transcended by a divine commitment to build up.
That’s God’s world, our scriptures remind us. Death transformed to life.
We need this now, O God who makes all things new. We are in this cycle right now in America that disturbs all of us, rocks our sense of safety, elevates our cynicism and apathy, and makes us feel hopeless and without agency.
There have been 382 mass shootings so far in America in 2017. 539 dead, just from mass shootings alone this year. On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns.
We are growing numb, helpless and tired.
We have the mass shooting problem in America down to a melancholy script. Headlines shout something about the latest massacre being the deadliest whatever in that venue’s history. We all nervously check to see the race and religion of the shooter to see if the media and politicians will declare that it was an act of terrorism or a “lone wolf” with a mental health problem. Politicians tweet out thoughts and prayers. Liberals declare, “enough of thoughts and prayers. Do something to fix it.” And conservatives declare, “this is not the time to politicize a tragedy.” Gun sales skyrocket for a little while. People fight about whether we have a mental health crisis or a gun crisis or a domestic violence crisis or a radicalized religion crisis, or a crisis of toxic masculinity or all of the above. Nothing is done to change anything. Then it all disappears into the air until the next mass shooting, which will happen so soon that at it will fail to even register properly on our shock and horror radars.
This latest mass shooting--though it happened in Texas--feels close to home to us, though. Twenty-six people mowed down by a man wearing tactical gear and carrying some sort of semi-automatic machine gun. Twenty-six killed and twenty more injured in a small town church during worship in Texas last Sunday. Twenty-six killed on a Sunday while we, too, gathered for the same humble purpose in a small town church here in Sterling. All of that gathered congregation in Sutherland Springs are either now dead or wounded. 4% of the town of Sutherland Springs died that day.
This one hit home. Our congregation wrote to me, stopped by, called, expressing fear that it could happen here. Is no place safe? They asked, tears in their eyes. I wonder the same thing, though that is not new for me. I spent the week making church safety plans with defense experts in the congregation and the chief of police. I deeply resent that it has come to this: that our sense of security has been threatened in our safest, open, loving, welcoming place.
This time I decided to flip the mass shooting script. I decided to cross some ideological boundaries to do so. If we are going to do something effective, the words that we use as weapons must be turned into tools of healing and harvesting and hope instead.
We need the humility to start with ourselves.
As many of you can probably guess, my parents are vehemently anti-gun. We weren’t allowed even to have squirt guns at home, or to pull out our “trigger fingers” to pretend to shoot each other. This was harder for my brother than it was for me, since like many boys, he seemed to come out of the womb with the ability to make that machine gun noise I wasn’t biologically programmed for. I lived in New Hampshire, and many of my friends, I’m sure, had guns, but I was blissfully unaware. As an adult, I lived in Boston where all of my friends were liberal professionals. I didn’t know anyone who used a gun there, to hunt or for self-protection or even to shoot skeet. None of that is very practical in the city.
As a result, I know nothing about guns. I have never shot one or even touched one. I have never hunted and killed my own food. I don’t know how to use them as a tool or for self defense. Like so many liberals, I am uneducated about them, naïve about their proliferation, and frankly scared of them. My whole life I have been vehemently for gun control; one of those people who the NRA warns you about.
So this week I sought out my gun-owning beloveds in this congregation. I sought out my conservative beloveds in the congregation. I talked with the police chief, with our veterans, with our defense experts, our second amendment defenders. What I found is that they are just as disturbed, sickened and worried about the proliferation of mass shootings as I am. We described our fears and resignation with tears of rage in our eyes. I learned that they worry that gun control measures might keep us less safe. They listened as I explained my worries that having more guns makes us less safe. One of you even offered to teach me to shoot at the shooting range, and I’m going to take you up on it.
In the course of these conversations, I realized that our desire to keep this congregation and community safe was the primary value we shared in common. We love one another, and we love our children. That’s why. And love is the way forward.
I want us to practice being a people in which the words we have turned into weapons can be transformed into tools of healing and harvesting. Where we listen to understand; where we search for commonalties. Beat swords into ploughshares. Maybe this is what it means to DO SOMETHING.
Nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy and inaction. As if one is either for prayer, or for doing something . As is usual in our country right now, there is no middle way. As a pastor who believes in the power of prayer and who can see that our fervent prayers haven’t stopped the killing, I think we need both. Liberals and conservatives, gun enthusiasts and gun despisers, if I can go shoot guns at a shooting range, you can take one another out for coffee and listen for understanding rather than argument. We can do very hard things.
This week in yesterday’s Keep the Faith column in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, my friend and colleague the Rev. Sarah Stewart told an old joke:
Once upon a time, a man was shipwrecked and flailing around in the sea. He kicked his feet and waved his arms and cried, "O God, save me! I’m going to drown!” And lo and behold, a helicopter spotted the wreckage and flew in low over the man. A ladder uncoiled from the belly of the copter and a rescue worker made his way down. “Grab my hand!” the rescuer shouted.
“No, God will save me!” the man replied. No matter what the rescuer said or did, the man refused to take his hand and be pulled to safety. The rescuer watched in utter dismay as the man slipped beneath the waves.
The man came to his senses in Heaven. Dry, warm, and comfortable, he walked toward God, who was hanging out in God’s favorite chair by the fire. “Hey God!” the man said. “I prayed! I was faithful! Why didn’t you rescue me?!”
“Buddy,” said God, “who did you think sent the flippin’ helicopter?”
And then she wrote this:
This old joke comes to mind when I hear politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence in America. What on earth do they mean? What do they think “prayer” means?
…..Effective prayer is the hallmark of an effective leader. Prayer brings the community together in shared action to contemplate their behavior. Prayer makes open a way that had previously been closed. Prayer is getting up off your knees to settle the differences you have with someone in your community. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul told the church in Thessalonica, and if we are to follow his example, everything we do should be a prayer.”
Hallelujah. Let’s get off our knees and settle differences. Let everything we do be a prayer.
Jesus didn’t pray with his words very much in the Bible. He healed, he sat with, he loved, he fed. He used his hands; his body. He told his disciples to “go and do.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, he tells the lawyer that the one who helps his neighbor is the one who is living God’s commandments. “Go and do likewise,” he says. When he serves communion on the night before he dies, Jesus says “do this in remembrance of me.”
Go and do. Do this. This is how we pray.
So on this Veteran’s Day, on this new member Sunday, I am grateful for this theologically and ideologically diverse congregation where I am pushed to be better every day. I am grateful for our responsible gun owners and our gun-hating lefties, and the middle ground we are capable of finding. That’s where God resides; in the middle.
So when we unite to beat our weaponized words into tools for healing and harvesting love, this is our prayer.
When we listen to those we disagree with for understanding and shared values, this is our prayer.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end violence, this is our prayer.
When we work for peace among nations, this is our prayer.
When we serve our country in war or in our community’s soup kitchens, this is our prayer.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, this is our prayer.
When we feed the hungry and the lonely, this is our prayer.
When we eat soup, break bread, worship, and learn together, this is our prayer.
When we visit the elderly and the infirm, the lonely and mourning, this is our prayer.
When we unite with people brought together not by being like-minded, but like-hearted, this is our prayer.
When we welcome the stranger, this most especially is our prayer. Our wide open doors is a prayer no act of terror can close and lock.
Beloved, unite in the love of God with those you disagree with. Pray without ceasing by going, and doing. Invite someone you disagree with to talk about guns in America. Listen to understand. Be brave enough to imagine together a world in which the words we have turned into weapons have been transformed into tools of healing and harvesting and hope. And surely then goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Preached Sunday, November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
This All Saints Sunday, I want to tell you the story of one of our saints, who joined our church family just two years ago.
A few weeks ago, on September 19, 2017, Shelly Kennedy-Leonard showed me who she was. Shelly called me at the beginning of September and told me that she wanted to see me. I had been waiting for this phone call. Diagnosed with a terrifying cancer diagnosis at the end of July, I had been trying to check in and give space at the same time.
Shelly texted me on the day we were supposed to meet and asked me to come to her house in Lancaster. I arrived at 10:00. As she applied make up expertly (even with contouring) on her living room couch, she told me the story of painting her living room.
“Matt and the kids were all away, so I painted the whole thing myself. It lightened the whole room. It looks like a magazine now with the contrast wall! I must have had cancer the whole time, but I didn’t know it. Isn’t that crazy?”
She told me what the living room used to look like, that she has so many regrets now about living with a “depressing” brown living room for so long, about trying to make it somehow better by adding rugs and decorations instead of just re-painting it. “Why didn’t I do this long ago?” She mused. “It could have been beautiful all this time!”
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
She showed me the hundreds of cards she had received since her diagnosis, hung up around the entry way so she could be “literally surrounded by the love of her friends.” She said, “Can you even believe all of these cards? I can’t believe how much love there is out there for me. This is the thing that keeps me going. My favorite card is the one from the Davises. They weren’t too hand-wringing, they just told me they’d bring baby goats over to my house! That’s the best. People bring me things every day. T-shirts, socks, books about making cancer sexy, because I’m doing this thing, you know? You gotta make this funny. I’m so lucky to have all this love. I wouldn’t have even known the power of all this love if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. I just can’t believe how much love there is.”
After the home tour, Shelly told me to follow her car because she had more to show me. I followed her to Drumlin Hill in Lancaster, where I had never been. We got out of the car. It was a drizzly day, but Drumlin Hill was one of the most breath-taking sights I have seen in Massachusetts.
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.
Shelly brought me to the edge of the path up the hill, and pointing up, told me that she came there almost every day, with different constellations of her family or the dogs, or by herself to pray.
“This is the place where I feel close to God. I go to the top of the hill, and I’m sure I can feel God’s presence all around me; surrounding me. I come here for prayer and quiet…the kind you can feel wash over you. When I’m here, I feel surrounded by God’s love and peace.”
She described Drumlin Hill to me in every season. “It never stops being beautiful. It is always peaceful. You can see deer here, in the meadow, and the calliope of fall colors in the fall, and the kids sledding down the hill in the winter, and if you come here early in the morning, the mist rises off of the hill, and it is like a magical heaven, and all of creation is in concert with God. When I pray here, I just feel deep in my bones that all will be well. I am sure of God’s love because of all of this beauty….”
She looked at me as my eyes filled with tears. “Is this weird? Is this too much?”
“No,” I said. “I can see why you know God’s presence here.”
“Good. I just wanted you to know who Shelly Kennedy-Leonard is. I love you, Robin, and so I want you to know who I am.”
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
We got back into our cars, and I followed Shelly’s car to St. John’s in Clinton. She was talking animatedly on the phone to a friend or family member…I could see that million-watt smile in the rearview mirror.
We arrived at the door at the front of St. John’s in Clinton, near the altar. Shelly put holy water on her forehead, made the sign of the cross and genuflected as we walked over the threshold. Shelly went to find the lights in the sacristy. “I want you to see it all lit up! It is the most beautiful sanctuary I have ever seen. Look at the stained glass! The beautiful carved wood. The pictures of Jesus. The balconies, which are overflowing with people on Easter. The music that plays out from the rafters from the back fills this whole space. It pours over you. God is present in this space. You can just feel it. Can’t you? The power and majesty of this place. I have always felt as though God is in every beautiful thing here.”
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.
After we kneeled and prayed she said, “I wanted to bring you here, Robin, because I wanted you to get o sense of my family’s journey. I want you to know where we came from.”
She told me the story of re-discovering the Catholic church as a 20-something, needing to make some kind of meaning in her life, feeling generally lost. She told me about taking the confirmation classes at St. John’s as a young adult.
She told me how hard she had worked, how proud she was on the day she stood on the altar to get confirmed the congregation beaming back at her; how proud her parents were. She felt as though something powerful had made a claim on her life.
She told me she came to church there every Sunday, and felt profoundly at home. She was an irreverent Catholic. She told me about laughing uproariously with Matt after marriage classes in the vestry, how fun it was to share that experience with him which they both took seriously and lightly at the same time; a metaphor for their love and marriage.
She told me about her wedding day in that space. “Here’s where Matt and I stood on the altar.” She told me about the love she felt from her family and friends gathered, how hot she and Matt looked “before kids.” She talked about how proud she was to marry Matt, what it felt like to be up there making those promises to him.
She continued to take me on a visual tour of the church’s space.
“Here’s where we sat when my children were babies, so Matt could rock that car seat back and forth with his right arm to keep them from crying. So embarrassing. It’s so echoe-y in here!”
“Here’s where Sadie and Harry were baptized. Here’s where we were sitting when Sadie took her first communion. She put out her two hands in front of her like this. Her little hands were trembling. I was so nervous for her.”
She beamed that smile made of light when she pointed to the back and said: “Here’s where the kids would be penned up before the Christmas pageant. It was like letting the animals out of the zoo. We always helped out because it was pandemonium. Here’s where we sat when they came in with all the hundreds of other sheep and angels, on the aisle so we could see.” She told me every character Sadie and Harry were in the pageant. “Harry made a great donkey!” She said.
Shelly told me about the day she left the church for her children’s sake. She was sure that the priests were not preaching God’s Love as she understood it. She wanted Sadie and Harry to know God as she knew God.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
And then she said: “Here’s where I’m going to cry, so I’m sorry, Robin.” She continued, “I know that God loves me. I know that God loves my family. I have never felt more sure of God’s love. I feel certain that it is not my time to die…that God still has more for me to do here. I’m getting treated, and I have hope. Because the only way to approach this is to believe that I am going to beat this. And there are new experimental treatments every day. But if by any chance that goes wrong, I wanted you to see where my family has been. I’m going to need you and First Church to take care of them, so I need you to know who we are.”
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.
Then Shelly told me the story of when she was diagnosed with cancer…the way she and Matt were told, the shock of it; the disbelief. The terrible bedside manner of the doctor who announced the presence of her tumor to them matter-of-factly, like a stealth bomb.
She talked about her kids and how they are coping.
“You can ask us any question you want,” she and Matt said to them. “No questions are off limits.”
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?
And Shelly was filled with hope that God would heal her.
“I have an icon of Jesus from the chapel downstairs where I pray that I visualize in my prayers. It is an image of Jesus with rays of light shooting out of his heart. And when I pray, I pray that the cancer is leaving my body like those rays of light, healing me, and dissipating into the air as it leaves my body so that the cancer cells can disappear from my body…but not just that… I pray that they harm no one else. And then I picture God’s love radiating into me in its place, filling me. And I picture those rays radiating out from my own heart and back into the world. That’s what I want: to be filled with God’s love, and to give that love back.”
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
We left the church, and Shelly and I walked to Bushel and Peck deli. She cracked jokes with the staff and the people in line. Winking, she insisted on buying me my salad and told her I owed her for next time. We sat down inside since it was drizzly outside. “How are you?” She asked me, and meant it.
“Robin, we’re scared of coming back to church. We are skittish and sensitive. We’re scared to cry. We’re scared of what people will say in front of the children. But I am determined to get my family back there. What I want the church people to know is that I am not my illness,” she said. “I am being treated. I’m not lying in a bed somewhere. I’m alive!”
We talked about strategies for well-intentioned questions and comments. We talked about how to care for her family. “My mom and dad are my rock and strength.” “Don’t hug Matt, he is trying to be strong and he doesn’t want to cry in front of you.” “Sadie doesn’t want to be singled out or pitied. No hugs for her either…high fives are fine. My strong, funny girl. “Harry needs lots of hugs and love and care. My sweet, sensitive boy.” She knew her people so well; she knew them by heart.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
She told me that the time since she has been diagnosed in many ways had been a gift. She had to take off from work, allowing her to realize how much she had been needing to slow down. She could make sandwiches for her kids every day in the morning, which was a loving spiritual practice she re-discovered when she was home. She could be home every day when they came home from school. “I’m soaking up every moment with my crazy family,” she said.
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Before I left her to return to the normalcy of my day (as if anything could be normal after this conversation), she said to me, “Robin, I want you to know something else about me. I need to find a way to return all of this love I have been getting. And there’s no reason why I can’t, just because I have cancer. So please, if you can think of something that I could do to give back to the church or the people, please tell me. I don’t want to just receive, I want to give.” I told her that she had already given me the best gift I have ever gotten as a pastor. And I left.
Shelly Kennedy-Leonard came back to church on October 1st and October 8th she volunteered to teach Sunday School so that the love of God that pierced her heart might radiate back out into the world. The next Sunday, October 15, 2017, Shelly went home to live with God, who she knew with every fiber of her being loved her, and loved her family.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us rejoice in his salvation.
May light perpetual shine upon Shelly, beacon of hope, lover of life, giver and receiver, believer in God’s goodness. Well done, good and faithful servant.
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.