SERMON “Love is the Boss of Us”
My favorite meme from this week’s Romaine lettuce recall seemed appropriate for Christ the King Sunday. It said:
The Romaine empire is fallen. Caesar is dead. Lettuce pray.
This year at Thanksgiving, pie was better for us than salad. Don’t tell me that’s not evidence that God loves us and wants to be happy.
Please pray with me:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together find their way into the heart of God this morning. Amen.
Today on this last day before the church year ends and begins again with Advent, we celebrate the reign of Christ. Hallelujah, Christ is King! Though some of us might have spent Thanksgiving gritting our teeth and smiling, your mother-in-law is not king, and neither is your sullen teenager….Christ is King! Though we spent all of Friday starting at 1 am trying to find black Friday deals, the marketplace is not King. Christ is King! Though some of us have an internal self critic that we cannot turn off, beating ourselves up from the inside, that voice is not King…Christ is King! Though we live in a country that is increasingly more divided and cruel, the president is not King; Wall Street is not King; the 24 hour news cycle is not King…Christ is King!
Here’s what we celebrate on Christ the King Sunday:
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us.
When Christ is the one in charge, when his Kingdom of Equals is established, when Love is the boss, the world looks completely upside down.
Witness it with me:
Before the sun comes up, the can collector gets to his work. His toe pokes through the hole at the top of his worn left shoe. He pulls on a moth eaten wool sweater and sighs, tired from his fitful sleep interrupted by the noise of the street. He grabs his shopping cart with a bum wheel, and slowly ambles down my block. He is the hardest working person in my Boston neighborhood.
I don’t want him to see me looking at him through the window of my warm apartment. I don’t know if I’m ashamed for him, or for me. The can collector carefully picks through the cardboard and paper digging for gold: the silver gleam of a soda or beer can in my recycling bins and my trash cans. When he finds some, he piles them high into his mounded shopping cart, black garbage bags over-flowing with cans and hung on either side of the hulking metal contraption. On the streets of Boston one can find hundreds and thousands of cans and bottles that can be turned into recycling centers for 5-10 cents a piece if you can brave the weather: digging through snow, withstanding high humidity, waterlogged in the pouring rain.
I lived in several neighborhoods in my seventeen years in Boston, and in each one there was an early morning collector of cans. The can collector was always small, old, weathered, and slow moving; invariably an immigrant of Asian descent.
Perhaps the can collector brings his earnings back to his apartment in Chinatown, that he shares with multiple generations of his family, crammed into small beds and tight corners like the family that lived upstairs from me in my early years in Jamaica Plain. Or perhaps he uses the money he earns to bring cigarettes and food back to the shelter under the bridge where he lays his head. I never knew because I never asked. I never even said “hello.” All I know is that this quiet and industrious scavenger was often refused by drivers on the city buses because he took up too much room or his cans were too smelly; week-old beer is hard on the noses of the morning commuters bound for the Longwood Medical area.
Mostly he went unnoticed. Alone. Abandoned. Rejected. Unseen, even when people passed him by. He is one of the world’s great losers. But in God’s eyes, he wears a crown.
When I worked in downtown Boston, I got off at the Park Street station every day, and passed Michael on my way to my office building at the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street. Michael was a mainstay of the Boston Common, sitting on the bench or on the stairs that leads up to the statehouse. He was tiny with bird-like bones, his black skin made blacker by the grime of the streets he lived on. He had a leprechaun-like black beard sprinkled with wiry gray. His clothes hung off of him, his pants too big, and his belt wrapped tightly around his hips to hold them up. He was elfin, ageless, and he had a gigantic, white smile.
I have rarely met anyone with more charisma than Michael. He called everyone “uncle” and “auntie.” He was rumored to have a million dollars stored away from panhandling, which I never believed, though I do know he was more successful than some of his less hilarious and cute homeless friends.
Michael told everyone that it was his birthday every day, which was a brilliant marketing ploy. He also knew his perch would fill up with bleeding heart state house employees and liberal religious professionals headed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s office building every morning at a little bit before 9 am from the T. I was one of them.
“Hey auntie!” He’d call out, “it’s my birthday!”
“Here’s five dollars,” one of his hurried customers would say as they dropped it into his wool winter hat on the ground. “Don’t spend it all in one place, Michael.”
One day I asked him when his birthday really was, and he said, “Today! Give me a hug, auntie.”
The pure grace of being called a family member by someone I would likely ignore if he wasn’t so charming woke me up to my own complacency every morning. It also assuaged my guilt for all of the other nameless, faceless people I passed lying on cardboard on the streets of my city. I was grateful Michael didn’t let me look away. So while I didn’t relish the idea of hugging someone so smelly, I’d hold my breath and hug Michael anyway. The stench of urine, body odor and something vaguely medical would creep into my nose and stay on my clothes for the rest of the day.
I was a 24 year old secretary in an office filled with ministers then. One of the stern male minister bosses in my office saw me hug Michael one day. He took me aside to angrily and paternalistically inform me that this practice was dangerous. “Don’t do that again. You could contract diseases, or he could pick pocket you, Robin. You need to be more careful.”
I sensed that I needed to be more careful around people like him, though, not around people like Michael. People like this minister were crowned with many worldly crowns…given secretaries to manage, his own office to make decisions from, high pulpits to preach from, and a hardened heart.
Though Michael greeted everyone like family, rarely was he greeted like family by the lawyers, corporate executives and Beacon Hill residents who passed him on his path. He was alone; abandoned, really. Unseen, even by people who passed him by. He was one of the world’s great losers, ignored on a daily basis by the world’s great winners.
But in God’s eyes, it is Michael who wears a crown.
They took Jesus early in the morning to Pilate’s headquarters. He didn’t wear a robe and a crown, he wore a mantle: a large shawl which had tassels called tallith, and some dusty sandals. He was exhausted from a sleepless night of feeding his friends and washing feet, filled with dread of the fate that awaited him.
He was heralded as a king earlier in the week as he rode into town on a lowly donkey, with coats to ease his seat and palms thrown down on the ground to soften the path. He knew at the time that he would be denied, betrayed and abandoned by the few friends he had left, so even that celebration was mawkish.
Before Jesus is sentenced to death, Pilate asks him if he is a king. Jesus answers “You say that I’m a king, but I came to testify to the truth,” and “my kingdom is not of this world."
“Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.
The soldiers dress him up like royalty with a purple robe and a crown of thorns digging into his forehead, causing blood to pour down from his sweaty brow. And they mock him. He is whipped, beaten. They say “Hail! King of the Jews!” as they strike him in the face. He is hung on a cross with criminals flanking him on either side. “King of the Jews,” the sign above his head reads, menacingly.
Calling Christ “King” is making a sneering mockery of the man who put the least of all first; who proclaimed his kingdom not of this world where royalty and presidents and politicians and billionaires rule from atop high towers.
People who pass avert their eyes. His friends leave. He is the world’s great loser, crucified by the Roman Empire, sentenced to die by the King. He is unseen, abandoned, left to die alone. But in God’s eyes, it is he who wears the crown.
This is our God, the Loser King, who rose again to remind us all that Love is, was and ever shall be the boss of us.
So instead of celebrating Christ the King Sunday, why don’t we celebrate Christ the Can Collector Sunday? Why don’t we celebrate the birthday of Michael the panhandler, born to save us all? Because the Jesus I know would be much more comfortable collecting cans from the trash with his Chinese immigrant friend, or panhandling on the street with Michael proclaiming his birthday a holy day than he would be on some cosmic royal throne.
This is what the Apostle Paul says, writing to his new churches, in the words of Elizabeth Meyer Bolton:
”I never cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.
I pray that you will continue to grow in wisdom and in faith.
I pray that you will know that you are called to hope.
I know you look around the world, and you get discouraged.
I know you look around and see war, and hear rumors of war.
I know you see the violence, and all the loss.
The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.
I know you look around and see all kinds of people getting left behind,
All kinds of people being abandoned...
But have faith!
For the one who was abandoned,
The one who was rejected,
The one who was left alone to die,
That one God raised from the dead,
That one God seated at her right hand side.
That’s the one who had rule and authority and power
and dominion over everything in this world and in the next!”
We declare Christ King because we testify to this truth:
In the end, the losers will win. The last will go first. The least of these inherit the kingdom. Love has dominion over everything in this world and in the next. So happy reign of the can collector Sunday. Happy birthday to Michael, the panhandler King. Hail to all who are forgotten, rejected, ignored, abandoned and left for dead, for Love will rise onto the heavenly throne. Love is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Love is, was, and ever shall be the boss of us! And He shall reign forever and ever.
HOMILY by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on November 18, 2018 Thanksgiving Sunday
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
In the Market Basket meat section, a woman is picking over all the frozen turkeys. And she's angry. Just steamed. "I swear," she mutters. "These are the smallest, puniest, tiniest turkeys I ever have seen! No way will any of these feed my family."
Just then, a stockboy shuffles by. He's a gawky lad, pencil-thin.
"You there," snaps the woman. "Stockboy!"
He turns slowly. "Who, me?"
"Young man," says the woman, "I am so frustrated with this selection of turkeys. I mean, really! I've looked over them all, and each and every one is unacceptably small! For Heaven's sakes! Don't they get any bigger?"
The stockboy thinks a minute, glances over at the freezer, where they're all piled high. Then says, gently, "No, ma'am. They don't. All these turkeys are dead.”
Like a turkey who isn’t going to grow larger, or a soup that has only a stone for flavoring, we often feel as though we simply don’t have enough to share.
We are on the brink of Thanksgiving. A not so beloved Thanksgiving tradition in my house is for my husband and I sit down to talk about what we don’t have enough of. It’s pretty demoralizing. Our conversation starts like this: “We don’t have enough money to buy the children Christmas presents this year, much less the adults. We won’t have enough saved for vacation this summer. We don’t have enough chairs for Thanksgiving. Our Thanksgiving turkey might not be big enough for 20 people. We don’t have enough room in the refrigerator. We don’t have enough wine, or Zoloft, to survive the dinner conversation. I don’t have enough energy to clean and decorate the house for guests. I don’t have enough time to do all the things we need to do. I certainly don’t have enough patience for pie crusts.
My iPhone app keeps reminding me I’m going to die. I mean, does any of this even matter? Let’s just skip it this year.
This conversation invariably leads to a fight, and my husband and I had the first fight we’ve had in many months on Thursday. This makes sense. When you begin a conversation with “we don’t have enough,” it raises anxiety, fear, and dread. It causes shut down, blaming and shaming.
For religious professionals with divinity school degrees, my husband and I have so little faith.
I see this happening all over the nation right now: conversations about resource scarcity that begin with “We don’t have enough,” and ending with blame, shame, and fear.
The conversation about an unarmed caravan of refugees begins out of a place of scarcity and fear instead of abundance and faith, so it encourages a militarized response. The conversation about immigration in general begins out of a place of never enough, so it encourages wall-building instead of bridge building. The conversation about the poor begins with “they churn out kids on my hard earned dime” which encourages hatred and disdain of the children of God who need our help to survive, especially children. “There’s not enough,” we are told all the time, which scares us, and we are easily scared.
For a religious nation, we have so little faith.
We cannot move toward the mystery of God without first moving toward the mystery of our neighbor. The psalmist says, “I have no good apart from God.” We can have no good apart from each other.
The disciples are having a conversation about scarcity of resources when we find them on top of a mountain with Jesus. Passover was nearing—a time of feasting and festival for the Jews. Word had spread about Jesus’ ministry, so a large crowd of 5,000 was gathering. The crowd had heard that this teacher could heal people. So the crowd contained those who were desperate and sick and disabled and spiritually lost and poor and depressed and refugee and outcast.
And they were hungry.
Jesus’ friends weren’t anticipating this crowd, and they didn’t have enough. They didn’t have enough for themselves to eat, much less enough to feed all of these high needs people. They had just one barley loaf and two fish for the passover meal. So they started to panic and bicker.
“We will never have enough. Our offerings are unacceptably small, and they aren’t going to get any bigger. There are so many hungry people approaching. And I am hungry too. If they come here, they will take my food and my money and my job and my healthcare. There will never be enough for me, much less all of them.”
For followers of Jesus, the disciples had so little faith!
Jesus tests them by asking a rhetorical question: “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”
The disciples fail the test. They answer Jesus’ query with a budget concern. “Not even six months salary will buy us enough,” they say.
They just don’t get the kind of God that they serve.
So Jesus says, “Make them sit down.” Then Jesus takes the loaves, and when he had given thanks to God, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” There was so much food that they had left overs.
Some people just think this is a story about Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, and, well, it is. But I often picture the crowd gathered looking in their coat pockets and saying, “Oh! I have a potato, which isn’t enough for everyone, but it’s something, and I have a celery stalk, and I have a carrot! And I have a little spice, and some garlic,” And I picture the moms fishing in their purse for an old piece of gum, or some peanuts they saved from last month’s airplane ride coming home from Florida. And I picture people shaking hands, and saying “how do you do?” instead of eye-ing each other with suspicion. And I picture that the real miracle that happens here is the realization that together, we have everything.
Jesus teaches us this: If you have less than what you think you need, give thanks to God for it. And invite all those who hunger to dine with you anyway. Build a longer table, not a higher fence. The crowd responds with generosity instead of fear.
We believe in a God who creates this kind of abundance from scarcity; who can build a soup from a rock. A God who says, “not enough is the best place to begin.” A God who reminds us that none of this is ours, and that the correct response when someone’s tummy is rumbling is to say, “I can help!”
This God reminds us that we can’t go it alone. We need one another to make the feast. That’s why there’s more religion at a church potluck than in the worship service. At the church potluck, we start with just our puny offering—a sad bag of scoops Tostito chips from Appletown Market (which is my go to). And like magic, when people bring their potato salads and jello salads and pasta salads and cookies and pies, it expands into a feast of carbs to ruin a thousand people’s Keto diets.
Our offering may be unacceptably small, but together, we have everything.
Alice Walker, in the Color Purple, says, “Have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.”
Beloved, we come here to share God, not find God. if you’re waiting around for God to show up, just look around this room and share. Look at your neighbors, and friends, and the people you haven’t met yet, and the children and their tired parents, and all the grammys and grampys. If all you have to give them is a smile and an encouraging word, that is more than enough. Forget your perfect offering, just share what you have.
This Thanksgiving I am grateful for the ways you share God with me, beloved. Thank you for bringing God’s abundance in with you, because it means my puny, already dead contribution is enough for a feast. I have no good apart from all of you.
Happy Thanksgiving and amen.
A sermon preached on Veteran's Day
November 11, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard/seen.
According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.
I’m much more terrified of being in the coffin than doing the eulogy (obviously). Though I spend a lot of my life as witness to death and dying, I also expend a lot of energy in an attempt to forget that I await the same fate.
Many of us spend our lives similarly, buying medication and wrinkle treatments and surgery and eating the “right” foods and compulsively exercising, worshipping at the God of busy-ness…thinking maybe we will be the ones to finally cheat the inevitable.
Our psalmist says “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish."
My plans will one day perish, my breath will depart and I will return to the earth. It’s too bad we work so hard to forget about death, because our mortality has the power to keep us humble, grateful, justice-seeking and right-sized. We desperately need our mortality as a check on our arrogance; a reminder of who is really in charge.
We also need this reminder: Money won’t buy our way out of the grave; power won’t buy our way out of the grave; the right, most ideological purity won’t buy our way out of the grave; religion and right belief won’t buy our way out of the grave…nothing will.
After I read an article in the Christian Century this week by Matt Fitzgerald about an iPhone app called “weCroak,” I immediately downloaded it. WeCroak was inspired by a “famous Bhutanese folk saying” that “to be a truly happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily.” “Because we are either unable or unwilling to live a rural life in the picturesque Himalayas where time for contemplation may happen more easily,” an ad for WeCroak explained, the app’s creators had developed the next best thing: a 99-cent app that would “foster happiness” and “cultivate mindfulness” by pestering users with reminders about death. The app sends you a text five times a day to your smartphone at random times to announce that you're going to die.
"Don't forget, you're going to die," my phone now buzzes at me. (As if I needed this. I mean, I live with Andy, who is already a walking/talking existential crisis.)
But on Friday, I was reading a Facebook bickering match between two colleagues, and I was about to jump into the fray with my very important and carefully worded opinion when I was interrupted by my phone. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” it chirped.
I was ignoring my children’s pleas for attention while online shopping about three hours later. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone told me.
The next day I found myself thinking about a friend who I felt had wronged me recently, and the fact that its been a long time since I visited my dad. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” my phone buzzed at me.
My life is probably at least half over, and I waste a lot of time, miss a lot of tender moments with my people, and I still haven’t learned to knit, play the guitar, or reliably send thank you cards.
Matt Fitzgerald says "a microdose of mortality can make the day glow." I know what he means. The fact that I will one day perish from the earth makes the sun shining through my window all the more shimmering; the people I love more precious to my life; the grudges I hold all the more pointless. I can't take any of it with me.
Mostly, I spend my waking hours fretting about the state of the world, my country, my helplessness to effect change. “Don’t forget you’re going to die,” my phone chirps happily.
Only God is eternal.
Hate may be having one of its shining historic moments right now in this hot mess of a world, but in the end, only Love will reign forever.
Since we last met, we have had a tumultuous week in the life of America, which at this point is business as usual. There was an election. Some people won, some people lost. There was no clear mandate from either “side,” though both sides wish there had been.
There was more fear-mongering about the stranger, the demonization of the poor and powerless, and more attempts to pit “us” against “them.” There was corruption and greed. There were wealthy power-brokers on either side of the political spectrum controlling the conversation while the exhausted middle became increasingly more exhausted. There were rich people showing off their riches, expecting to have the best seats in the house and senate, meanwhile devouring the houses of the poor. There were poor people giving everything they have because they have no other choice. In the midst of all of that, another mass shooting in California barely hit our radars. Now California is burning.
Yes, these are hot mess times. Our scriptures remind us that Biblical times were also a hot mess. There were intense political, religious, social, and tribal divides, just like there are for us today. And compounding all of that was the vast economic disparity between the have and the have nots…the ones who get to control the conversation, and the ones who have absolutely no voice at all.
Our psalmist says that the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. There is nothing new happening right now…our eyes are just being opened to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or silenced. These United States, it seems, might have been more aptly named these “divided” states. But that’s just not new. God is just opening our eyes to the truth.
We will perish from the earth, yes, but this doesn’t give us permission to tap out of the fight for justice.
There was a bumper sticker that was popular in the eighties that said “God is coming, and she is pissed.” Our story from the Gospel today about the widow’s mite has a similar message: “Jesus is watching, and he is pissed.”
In our reading from Mark, Jesus plunks himself down across from the treasury in the Temple and simply watches what the people add to it. This is not one of his confounding parables, Jesus is just commenting on what he’s observing. Jesus is restoring sight to the blind…he is showing us. He is showing us those who have no social safety net, who are cast aside by economic systems that prey on them – even as their leaders parade about in rich clothing. Jesus is simply observing, and lifting up the poor widow, who gave everything she had while her oppressors pompously postured.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
Jesus is still watching what we put into the coffers with a noisy clunk, and what our motivations are for showing it off. Whether our addition to the treasury is a virtue-signaling Facebook post share or dumping our excess into the oceans or the trash piles slowly taking over Camden, New Jersey…Jesus is watching; re-focusing our attention on the least of these.
Jesus shows to us the voiceless: the migrant, the refugee, the transperson, the black teenager, the Muslim, the gay couple with kids, the Jew, the homeless vet, the working poor, the battered woman…and Jesus re-humanizes all those who have been de-humanized.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
“They are giving all they have,” he says. “Watch.”
Our psalmist says: I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever.
God is watching us, restoring our sight, and reminding us that we, too, will die. So this morning, just like every morning, I'm grateful that we love and serve the Lord. I'm grateful we do not primarily serve ourselves, or a denomination or a "movement" or a political party or a president or even a church. We serve the Lord, who is Love. Who opens our eyes to see.
People often ask me what holds this church in all of its theological and ideological diversity together. The answer is always Love. One of our folks came up to me after a sermon I preached a few weeks ago to tell me he didn't like a term I used when describing an immigration policy. He had shouted out “no!” during my sermon, so as he approached I said, "are you coming over here to yell at me?" And he said, "of course I wouldn’t yell at you. I love you. But you're wrong."
I was, of course, right. I always am. But here’s what’s important:
Love is much more important than being right. We are mortal, and our righteousness will die with us. We are all so very human. It’s easier to be right than it is to be kind. It’s easy to be hard. It's harder to love. But we do hard things every single day. We disagree, but we preface it with “I love you.”
Psalm 146 tells us this: do not put your trust in mortals. When their breath departs, they return to the earth, on that very day their plans perish. Princes and presidents and politicians and murderers and words made into weapons and weapons made into idols will all perish from the earth. Love stays. So put your trust in Love. It’s only love that never ends.
Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord their God.
God’s Love will reign forever,
for all generations.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on All Souls Sunday, November 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
43 women from this church were at the women’s retreat last weekend. I’m probably confirming every stereotype that you have in your mind about women’s retreats, but simply saying who we were and what we needed during introductions on Friday night was enough for the tears to start flowing, and they didn’t stop.
Cindy Popp-Hager told us about her mentor who said “God made bodies to carry water.” Ours were just overflowing, that’s all—it’s what we were made for.
We had #metoo conversations and told stories about surviving cancer and abuse and mental illness and the death of so many who we loved. We expressed all the love we had in our hearts for our people and our animals and our earth.
"What does your heart break for?" We asked each generational cohort. The millennial women answered the question with the word “everything.” As our beloved women fell apart one after the other under the weight of everything, it became clear to me that we have been holding our breath for two years.
On Saturday, we got news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh by an anti-semite who declared “death to all Jews.” It came on the same week that pipe bombs were sent to democrat leaders; the week that a gunman tried to enter a black church in Kentucky, failed and murdered two black folks shopping at a Kroger’s instead. A man held up his hands when the gunman approached and said, “stop, don’t shoot.” And the gunman said, “white people don’t shoot white people.” A man who has a long history of misogynistic and anti-immigrant sentiment on-line shot two women in a yoga studio this week, as well.
White Supremacy is rising up, and it is poisoning this land with death. The dehumanization we are immersed in has taken a bitter toll. If we want to become Saints worthy of our ancestors breath, we need to engage the process of re-humanization.
Our scriptures from All Saints day are full of the rising tide of evil:
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
And our scriptures are full of the confidence that God will rise us up higher than that which seeks to destroy us:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
“My head is lifted up above… my Lord will take me up…on the mountain, the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”
Beloved, this is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns death to life. This is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns hate to love, who pierces darkness with light. We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and we will rise.
Some of you remember this story. Two years ago, the War on Christmas came to Sterling. A Facebook post went viral about the Sterling elementary school's principal declaring that students would no longer be writing letters to Santa or using Elf on the Shelf in the classroom, in order to be more inclusive of the children who didn't celebrate Christmas. Parents were outraged. "Political correctness has taken over our school!” Parents cried on Facebook, on a thread that was shared over 100 times, and all over the country.
Comments said things like: “This is America! We celebrate Christmas here! The minority has taken over the majority and we’re not gonna take it anymore. Go Trump! This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, homeschool your kids.” When the debate meandered over to the Fox 25 Facebook page, someone blamed the downfall of America on all those Muslims.
There were hundreds and hundreds of comments. All talking, no listening.
Kate Pietrovito, who had never come to our church before and who I had never met, wrote to me. "A reporter wants to come to Sterling to interview someone about the War on Christmas. Will you talk to him? I want you to nip this story in the bud because this is the last thing we need." I said, “sure."
And so a reporter from Fox 25 came to interview me on the day of a bomb scare at the school, soon after the children were evacuated. And I was interviewed saying that Christmas has not left our little town, that my children did not come home and say that the principal had cancelled Christmas, that we still celebrate Christmas with gusto in our house and church, that the real story is a bomb scare. I invited everyone to church (of course, because I’m always marketing.) I also said that this was a time for measured calm. (An angry parent who thought the “other side” was not well represented called me a “very soft spoken pastor”, which is the first time I have ever been called soft spoken in my life.)
I told all of you that Sunday that the mosque in Wayland, MA received a letter that was sent to mosques all over the country. The letter calls Muslims “vile and filthy people” who face a “day of reckoning . . . there’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump....."The president-elect," it said, will “do to you . . . what Hitler did to the Jews.”
I said to all of you: Make no mistake about it, this letter is part of the real war on Christmas. Because the real war on Christmas is the war on Christ, who taught us that God is Love, and that all are one in God.
And you and I from all over the political and ideological spectrum made a pact to be revolutionary love in the world from that day forward. And we sent our prayers to the mosque, and we wrote cards to the school principal, and we promised to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world whenever we encountered hate.
And the next day, a mother I had never met before named Becky wrote to me. "Dear Rev. Bartlett: This week I saw the clip of you on the news about holidays at Houghton. This beautiful season can be about learning each other's customs and then celebrating with our families at home. I hope that people will take your words to heart and embrace everyone with love. Since they are being raised Jewish...my only hope is for my girls to always feel comfortable at school." She said. “As long as I am a religious leader, I will stand for your daughters,” I said.
Becky is a member of the Congregation Agudat Achim, a Jewish synagogue in Leominster. She invited me to an interfaith service there and we became fast friends.
Last Sunday, Becky was scheduled to come to our church to speak to our children in the "Building Bridges" class, to teach them about Judaism. I was at the women's retreat when she texted me early in the morning. "What a day to build bridges," she said. 11 people were murdered as they prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue, just the day before. What a day to build bridges, indeed.
I told the women at the women's retreat that we stood for Becky's daughters in 2016, and we will stand for them now. We sang "Peace, Salaam, Shalom" which means peace in English, Arabic and Hebrew. We prayed for peace. We prayed that our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and all over this country be held in love as they grieve.
Peace Salaam Shalom…..
On Friday night, 25 of us went to the synagogue in Leominster to be with Becky and her congregation, to pray the prayers of the martyrs, and to call on the name of God together. Megan asked them what we could do to be truly good neighbors and friends to the Jewish people, and one congregant told me that he breathes a sigh of relief every time he sees our “no place for hate” sign when he drives by the church.
Beloved: This place needs to be more than just no place for hate. That’s too low a bar. This church must be the frontline of the Love revolution, now more than ever. There is a war on Jews, a war on Muslims, a war on women, a war on our children, a war on immigrants and refugees, a war on people of color, a war on veterans, a war on our trans siblings, a war on the poor, a war on the press, and so there absolutely is a war on Christ. The frontlines are right outside your doors. Let’s not hide our heads in the sand. Let’s not eat or drink our feelings, or numb them away scrolling through our phones. Let’s feel them all. Let’s go straight to the cross like our God did for us and feel the pain of ALL of our brothers and sisters. And then, like Jesus, let’s rise. On this all saints Sunday, our people are literally dying, and we are called to be the rising while we are still alive. Do not wait until death to become like the saints.
Until there is justice, there is no peace, so be the rising.
We can turn death to life, so be the rising.
The voting booth is a place for grace to sweep over this broken land, so vote on Tuesday to be the rising.
All are one in God for all are God’s, so be the rising.
Faithfulness requires building bridges, not walls, so be the rising.
A broken heart still beats, so be the rising.
Creation is beautiful and shimmering and fragile, so be the rising.
Heaven is here on this earth so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, be the rising!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so be the rising!
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other, so be the rising!
A life with love is a life that’s been lived. If your heart breaks for everything, that’s God reminding you that you still have a heart. Use it. Become saints while we’re still alive.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org