A Christmas Message
Preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
9:00 pm candle light service on Christmas Eve, 2017
Do you all have a Christmas movie that you have to watch in order for it to be truly Christmas? For some of us it is “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Miracle on 34th St.” or “Elf” or “Die Hard.” For me, it’s not Christmas until I watch the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The Dr. Seuss 1960s version, not the Jim Carrey version.
The Grinch is short because it was made for TV. When you rent it for the exorbitant price of 6.99 on Amazon video, it comes with both the Grinch and Horton Hears a Who, which I am sure was to justify its price tag by making it longer. I am a “no non-Christmas movies in December” purist, so I have always found it odd that they sell those two together.
Anyway, I love the Grinch. I live for the moment when the Grinch puzzles over the Who’s singing and Christmas coming anyway. I live for the moment the narrator says “what if Christmas,’ he thought, “doesn’t come from a store, what if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
It occurs to me now, though, that “Horton Hears a Who” is the true story of Christmas. The story of a very large elephant named Horton taking care of the teeny vulnerable folks who live in a tiny town perched precariously on the thistle of a clover. Powerful, mean animals try to kill off the Who’s because they don’t believe they are real or worthy of saving. The littlest of all of lets out a loud “YAWP” at the end which saves the whole town. The Whos voices are finally heard because of the smallest of all.
The moral is…a person’s a person, no matter how small.
Love means taking care of what is fragile. Anyone who has ever loved a baby or a small animal or a democracy…anyone who has tended a garden, or a faith the size of a mustard seed, or someone’s fragile ego knows this. Anyone who has tended to a marriage of any length knows this. Love is cultivating and tenderly nurturing that which is vulnerable to harm.
It makes sense, then, that God sent us a baby to teach us how to love.
The sky was brighter than usual the night that Jesus was born. The shepherds noticed it because it was far easier for them to keep track of the sheep. And then it got really bright—the sky alit with angels, terrifying the shepherds. You would have thought that all that “glory” shining was the sign the angels spoke of because most of us look for great big obvious clues about God’s presence.
But the angels spoke of something far more ordinary. 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'
There is nothing more ordinary than having a baby. It’s how the species perpetuates itself, after all. It literally happens at the rate of 255 babies born every minute.
And yet a baby! A new born, helpless baby in a feeding trough was it—the sign the shepherds are looking for. God chose to be born into the world not in the form of power and might, but in the form of a poor and vulnerable baby boy.
God decided there was no better way for us to learn about Love than having to care for one as helpless as a newborn. A tiny, tiny person born to save us all by reminding us of our own humanity.
This is the Love that comes down at Christmas. Love in the form of someone vulnerable to care for. Something fragile to protect. Something helpless to hold. Something both human and divine.
One of you came to me once saying that you came back to church because you realized that your kids thought that Christmas was solely about Santa Claus presents, the Elf on the Shelf, and reindeer. You knew that you wanted your kids to have that Grinch moment of realization: “what if Christmas,’ he thought, “doesn’t come from a store, what if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” You realized that you wanted them to know the meaning of this season was something far deeper and more powerful than that.
If you are here tonight because you are in the same boat…if you are here for the yearly reminder that Christmas is about something far deeper and more powerful…good. Here’s the deep and powerful message of Christmas: God’s Love means caring for the fragile.
And therefore, love comes down. Love comes down to our fragile dying planet. Love comes down to lift up those on the margins, particularly the religiously persecuted ones (the Muslims, the Jews, the Sikhs, the atheists). Love comes down to lift up the gay ones, the brown and black ones, the poor ones, the weird ones, the sad ones, the vulnerable ones, the mentally and spiritually ill ones.
Love comes down when we stand up for the bullied.
Love comes down when we fight for those who can’t.
Love comes down when we feed the hungry and visit the prisoner and heal the sick.
Love comes down when we give our money away.
Love comes down when we care for our mortal bodies as houses for God.
Love comes down when we protect what is most vulnerable in us: our hearts, our relationships, our earth; our communities; our country’s precarious unity.
If you want to teach kids the true meaning of the season, teach them that Love comes down.
Don’t tell them that coming down is a sign of weakness. Don’t think for one moment that this kind of love doesn’t hold power and influence over empire. Because this Love doesn’t just come down, it brings down. This love brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. This love has the power to unseat vicious kings and fight corrupt governments. This Love has the power to bless the forgotten people, the least, the last and the lost--with justice and righteousness. This Love has the power to change the world we live in to earth as it is in heaven.
Imagine lifting the most fragile among us onto the seat of a king’s throne. Imagine peace on earth, good will to all.
So rejoice, for unto us a child is born. And the government shall be upon his tender shoulders. And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father. The Prince of Peace.
Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his Gospel is peace. Bring Love down this Christmas.
Preached on December 17, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
Every angel we encounter in scripture this advent season seems to use “do not be afraid” as an opening line.
For those of us who have been losing sleep, carb-loading, drinking too much--or in my case--reading the internet from the beginning to end in order to try and manage my anxiety about the world, this declaration might not necessarily be helpful. Do not be afraid? Really? Never in the history of calming down has someone calmed down because they were told to calm down, Angel of the Lord.
Do any of you google your symptoms when you get sick, or when some new weird thing pops up in the wrong place on your body? The amount of times in a year I have diagnosed myself with various forms of rare disease has ruined so many days of my life since the invention of Web MD. I wish I could get those days back.
“PUT DOWN WEB MD AND GO TO THE DOCTOR!” My husband always yells at me, which is easy for him to say since he’s young and has his whole life ahead of him.
“I don’t need to. I already know that I have congenital adrenal hyperplasia. It says it right here.” I say, and then begrudgingly make an appointment and find out I have swollen glands from a common cold virus.
“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow,” Leo Buscalglia says. “It only saps today of its joy.”
We need this message this year now more than ever. We have been weighed down in collective worry as a country. You can feel it; I can feel it. Everyone is afraid. It seems like all of the people we encounter are more on edge than normal; anxious and depressed.
That’s because this year was hard. You’re not crazy, it was just hard. I don’t care what political persuasion you are or if you think all news is fake news. I don’t care who you voted for in the last election… 2017 was a hot mess, and I can’t wait to throw it in the dumpster fire of history.
2017 was the deadliest year for mass shootings in 10 years. Hate crimes jumped by nearly 20 percent. The Atlantic hurricane season was among the top ten most active in history. Deaths from suicide have increased 24% from 1999 to now. Trump tweets, Russian collusion, nuclear war with North Korea, sexual harassment and assault, flooding and other hurricane devastation, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, deporting DACA recipients, the spread of high profile neo-Nazi gatherings, the tax plan and its effect on the middle and lower classes, and so much more, flooded the news and crept into our psyches this year.
And we have a contempt problem, on top of it all. Sociologists say we have never been more divided as a country since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
This is all causing actual mental health problems. And right now, the whole country fits the DSM V criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. So if you have felt less joyful this year, there’s a reason. We are anxious and exhausted from worry.
It turns out, I’m not the only one who googles when I’m anxious. And apparently, when we are most afraid, we ask how. The top Google searches in 2017 were dominated by a number of “How to” queries. The top three were: how to make slime (parents, can I get amen), how to make solar eclipse glasses, and how to buy Bitcoin.
Apart from those, Google notes that the world also asked more consequential “how” questions in google searches this year, as well.
Google made a moving commercial about search trends in 2017….
This year more than ever we asked how.
How do wildfires start?
How far can North Korean missiles go?
How much will the wall cost?
How many refugees in the world?
How do hurricanes form?
How to board up a window.
How to calm a dog during a storm.
How to help flood victims.
How to help refugees.
How to help Puerto Rico.
How to help Mexico.
How to help Las Vegas.
How to make a protest sign
How to run for office
How to watch the eclipse
How to make a difference
How to be a strong woman
How to be a good parent
How to be a superhero
How to be fearless
How to move forward.
We are prone to ask “how” because when we are afraid, we want to solve problems. Worry is the illusion that we can somehow prevent tomorrow’s heartache, but it can also spur us into action. We ask “how” when we are trying to fix.
When we live in worry, we live not in the present but our minds keep us tending an unknown future. It is our job with the help of God to repair the world, yes, but when we are busy fixing and solving and fretting and googling, we often miss the joy of what is occurring right now. We miss opportunities to be fully present to others with our attention and support.
Fear and worry are joy-killers. They are an anathema to faith.
And so it makes sense that every angel we encounter in scripture seems to use “do not be afraid” as an opening line.
Perhaps no one needed to hear that more than Joseph.
Everyone who has been told they are about to have a child knows the special combination of joy and worry inherent in this particular news. And so it makes sense that Joseph is especially worried when he hears Mary is pregnant.
First of all, Joseph knows the baby is not his, since they have not yet consummated their love. Those of us who have lived through the revelation that a spouse or significant other was cheating on us know how painful and traumatic that feeling is; the loss of trust, the feeling that your life with one another up to that point had somehow been a lie.
What was happening to Joseph was the stuff that ruins lives. As a man in that culture, he had all the rights to abandon Mary and preserve his dignity. He is called "righteous" in our scripture, which means “just” or “law-abiding.” And so it is significant that he is unwilling to “turn Mary in” to the authorities for the crime of adultery. He knows that she will be publicly humiliated and then stoned to death, so he plans to "quietly" leave her to save her dignity and her life. We can tell already that he loves her more than he has need for retribution. Joseph, even in his anger and sadness, chooses the law of love over the letter of the law: a foreshadowing of God’s grace born into their soon to be son, Jesus.
And then the angel intervenes in a dream, telling Joseph not to be afraid. He instructs Joseph to take Mary as his wife. The messenger assures Joseph that he will be helping to birth God into the world. He tells Joseph to stay and name the baby “Emmanuel,” which means “God-is-with-us.” He asks Joseph to be God’s stepfather—and to hold this God-with-us tenderly in his arms and raise him as his own.
Joseph chooses to believe the angel messenger despite his doubts. He chooses to believe that things would be alright. He chooses to stay with Mary and help bring God to birth. That’s faith.
The stakes were high– but Joseph chose joy over worry; faith over fear.
And you and I have this option every day, because every day we have the chance to help birth God into the world. Every day we have the opportunity to choose joy over worry; faith over fear. Every day we have the opportunity to see God-with-us.
Thomas Merton recalls an experience he had one day when he needed to leave the monastery he lived in for a medical appointment in Louisville, KY, and found himself in a crowded shopping district:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being (hu)man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
We cannot stop the in-breaking of God in the world. Joy happens anyway, despite, in spite, like the bubbling up of God in the most unlikely places.
Yes, 2017 was a hot mess. But, also in 2017--JOY.
Babies were born, most notably among us: Hannah, Nathaniel, Ryan, Arrow.
We added 37 new members to First Church in Sterling’s roles.
We gave away $5,000 in a reverse offering—money that literally spread all around the world and inspired other giving to match.
We fed hundreds of people in our community lunches. We gave away thousands of dollars from our deacon’s fund to people who need it most.
We brought 40 women to the women’s march in Boston, and 40 women on retreat in the fall. We became open and affirming to the LGBTQ Community by unanimous vote, eliminating that barrier to our welcome in joyful celebration.
We provided water filters and medical care in the little town of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Lives were changed as a result of our presence there.
We baptized babies and we married young couples, and we married couples brave enough to try this marriage thing again.
We greeted the sun in the cemetery on Easter morning next to Jeff Cranson’s stone bench, and shouted Alleluia despite the fact of death. We had brass and tympani in the sanctuary. We declared that Love wins.
Our young adult group grew to 71 on Facebook. We found a new bar to have pub theology in, and the amount of laughter at the Mill far surpassed the seriousness of the subjects we studied.
We learned together at Eat, Pray, Learn: about opioids and oceans; listening for understanding and our collective tendency toward cognitive bias.
We planted and tended gardens that would die and return again in the spring.
We raised $30,000 in our treasures of the community auction, and we got to see each other dressed up in our fanciest attire.
Our youngest Sunday School class grew from 15 to 45 children, and the joy that we receive from this sanctuary literally crawling with kids is alit on our faces.
We confirmed six young people in the Christian faith, asking them to help us build the world we dream about.
We filled our bellies full of ice cream and watched children bounce with glee in bouncy houses. We hired a new full time Pastor for faith formation who will start next month.
We celebrated two 100th birthdays of two congregants!
We blessed a slew of animals including alpacas and sugar gliders; snakes and dogs.
We caroled on the common and partied hard. We sang. We ate. We ate a lot. We laughed. We laughed a lot.
Crosby Stills and Nash sings one of my favorite lines in rock music: “rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice.” Joy anyway. Joy despite. Joy in spite of. Joy beside. Joy although.
Beloved, I know you are afraid. I know there is good reason to be. I know that right now is very, very dark. But remember what Valarie Kaur asks: “What if. What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if this is our great transition?” What if God is getting ready to be born, yet again, in a most unlikely place? Look! this year, just like every year, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and we shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not over come it.
So, as we roll into Christmas week, choose joy. Like Joseph, choose joy over fear; love over retribution. Choose joy because worry does not change tomorrow. Choose joy because our loved ones we have lost would want us to. Choose joy as revenge. Choose joy as resistance. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice.
And do not be afraid. You are all walking around shining like the sun.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached Sunday, December 10, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard.
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This advent, we are listening for the messengers among us in this hot mess time saying “do not be afraid.” We are looking for light in the dark.
So sing with me.
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing there in front of me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
“Let it be” Mary says, when given the news that she will carry God in her womb, incubating the light of the world inside of her body. “For nothing is impossible with God.” From age to age, to all who fear, such mercy love imparts.
This was Mary’s hour of darkness, though we rarely remember it that way.
Now, we look at Mary as the picture of virtuous living. She is portrayed that way: as a pious virgin; pure and holy; clean and wholesome; a vaunted saint among women.
What we forget is that in her time, she would have been seen as the opposite. A poor unwed teenager who by all appearances betrayed her soon-to-be husband, Joseph. Mary would have been called a whore for her assumed crime, and punished for it.
In this story of a birth foretold, the messenger who shows up in her house says she is favored by God; blessed among women. Then Mary is told that she will become pregnant out of wedlock, with a baby that is not her fiance’s, but God’s. The scripture says she “was much perplexed and pondered this in her heart,” which, in polite Bible speak, must mean she had a total panic attack and wigged out.
Mary would have known that she would be both a target for violence and abandonment by Joseph, who would have seen her as his property, now damaged goods.
The punishment for women who committed adultery was being stoned to death by mobs of angry men. This “Good News” the angel brought would have meant living the rest of her life in deep shame, if not an immediate death sentence by execution.
But Mary screwed up her courage. “Let it be so according to your word, for nothing is impossible with God” was her response to the angel.
Peace doesn’t come only when the conditions are perfect for it: like at the spa during a full body massage with the sound machine turned on to the beach sounds setting. True peace is the ability to center oneself, especially in our hour of darkness. True peace is not knowing the outcome or the end of the story, and saying, “let it be” anyway.
That kind of peace is not passive. It takes courage; guts; grit. And we need this kind of peace in this hour of darkness. I want to encourage us to see Mary’s “let it be,” not as weak-willed surrender, but as defiance.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, in this moment Mary chooses to “take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.” She agrees “to smuggle God into the world inside her own body.”
Mary chooses defiant peace. She stares shame in the face and doesn’t allow it to pierce her heart.
You and I cannot have the courage to live wholehearted lives without staring shame in the face, and refusing to allow it to pierce our hearts.
But first we need to define shame.
Sometimes used synonymously, guilt and shame are different.
Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad.”
Shame says, “I am bad.”
Guilt is a useful emotion, propelling us toward the Good. Shame is a toxic liar.
Since God created us in her image; since God created the universe and called it good; since Jesus died rather than be in the sin accounting business anymore; defying shame is Godly. It is the work of Love.
Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher who has written a few books, the first of which is called “Daring Greatly.”
Brown consistently finds in her research that the only way to defy toxic shame is to acknowledge and be at peace with our human vulnerability.
I know I have shared this list with you in a sermon before, but it bears repeating.
In her research, Brown asked people to finish this sentence stem: “vulnerability is________”
Here’s how some people finished the sentence:
• Sharing an unpopular opinion
• Standing up for myself
• Asking for help
• Saying no
• Starting my own business
• Helping my thirty seven year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
• Calling a friend whose child just died
• Signing up my mom for hospice care
• The first date after my divorce
• Saying “I love you” first
• Getting fired
• Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
• Waiting for the biopsy to come back
• Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
• Admitting I’m afraid
• Being accountable
• Asking for forgiveness
• Having faith.
Do those things sound like weakness to you? Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Brown says “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Do not be afraid.
Mary’s pregnancy might have made her vulnerable, but it didn’t make her weak.
At pub theology this week, I asked our folks to discuss a time they witnessed someone being “intentionally vulnerable” in a way that was courageous.
One of the groups talked about the #metoo movement: the women (and a few men) who have recently come forward to report sexual harassment and sexual assault by more powerful men in the past months.
We have all watched in some shock as many of these men have faced firings, or forced resignations, one by one: Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, my favorite comedian Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Senator Al Franken stepping down this week, to name a few. And the one that really just wrecked me yesterday: Tom Ashbrook was just put on leave from On Point on NPR pending an investigation. I adore Tom Ashbrook; he is my voice of sanity; a light in the dark.
The news is so relentless at this point, we are sitting not with the dreaded question “whose next?” but the cynical one: “who hasn’t?” We have all started praying that Tom Hanks, Mr. Rogers and the Pope don’t one day make the list.
The folks at pub theology asked me what the church’s response should be to this kind of public witness. How do we protect victims? they asked. How do we hold people accountable? They asked. What is the Christian response? Where does forgiveness fit in?
These are all important questions. Like many of you, I have very mixed feelings about what sometimes feels like a witch hunt that has no end, since human frailty has no end.
And yet, me too. The first time I was sexually harassed by adult men, I was ten years old. I was tall for my age, it was the eighties, it was Halloween and I was proudly dressed like Elvira. I learned far too early that even young pre-pubescent girls have to be careful about what they wear.
There have been countless #metoo stories since, in just about every year of my life—as a teenager, as a young adult, in my middle age. On the street, in the bar, in the workplace, by colleagues and community members. Yes, as a pastor, too. All varying in severity from harassment to assault.
As a child, I watched the Anita Hill hearings and then I watched Clarence Thomas sworn in to the supreme court. As a teenager, I watched Bill Clinton lie about taking advantage of a young intern half his age, and I watched Monica Lewinski shamed and blamed for it as a result.
My 10-year-old daughter came home last year from school having expressed worry to a friend on the bus that the president of the United States “brags about grabbing women without asking,” and her peer said that it was OK because “all men do that.”
I had to assure my Cecilia this wasn’t true, and use her grandfathers, her father, her stepfather, the many wonderful men in her church as examples. No, not all men grab women without asking, nor do they brag about it.
This culture terrifies me for my young daughters, yes, but also for my son. The normalization of sexual assault hurts all men almost as much as it victimizes all women. I fear for my son, and the limited definition of “masculinity” he’s inheriting.
I know the statistic for women who have been sexually assaulted is 1 in 4, but in my experience in my peer group and as a pastor, as far as I can tell the statistic is just about 4 in 4.
Time Magazine just named the women who have come forward this year to expose sexual harassment and assault in all levels of industry as “Persons of the Year”, calling them the “The silence breakers.” The silence breakers are black, white, Asian, Latino, women, men, conservative pundits, liberal congressional aides, hotel industry maids and Hollywood actors.
They have been criticized; they have been shamed and blamed. But they would not and will not be silenced. They knew what was at stake, and they spoke anyway.
So what should be the church’s response?
Well, the church doesn’t exist as a court of law, it exists as a silence breaker.
The church exists to proclaim this Good News: Do not be afraid, for the Lord is with you.
The church exists to defy shame.
The church exists to forgive sin, yes, but the church also exists to protect all bodies and all parts of the body as sacred and belonging to God; to lift up the lowly and scatter the proud; to put down the mighty from their seat.
Too often instead the church has been a source of sexual shame, at the same time famously complicit in the sexual abuse of innocents. From the priest scandal in the Catholic church to the support for Roy Moore in the evangelical church.
But the church was made by Jesus to teach us a different way.
His way is The Way of the messengers. His way is the way of the truth tellers. His way is the way of the silence breakers; those who hold us accountable to God’s Love even when it is uncomfortable.
So in this hour of darkness, I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, full of grace, who raised a son to honor women; to call them blessed. I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, who stared shame in the face and said “let it be with me according to your word.”
I imagine her saying:
Me, too. I am scared, and I have no idea what is going to happen to me. But, I have finally found my purpose, and I refuse to live in fear of it. Let it be so, for nothing is impossible with God
Because I hear Mary singing:
My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices that God is my savior.
For it is He who truly sees me:
The poverty, the oppression of my gender, the quiet strength it takes to live my life, my bravery in the face of overwhelming darkness and fear,
And yet, behold, from now on: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he is God and he has magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And he loves us all, throughout all generations.
He is strong: he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent away empty.
Remembering his mercy, he has helped his servant Israel :
As he promised to our forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy of Holies;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow
Let it be
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Speaking words of wisdom let it be.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Sermons are meant to be seen.
“Do not be afraid.” That is what the angels say before they deliver a message from God. The word angel, derived from the Greek, simply means messenger. Angels are God’s messengers in our scriptures. God’s messages are often not messages of comfort and peace, but of change and growth. There are angels among us. God’s message sometimes comes from a person we least expect to deliver it, and the message isn’t always a welcome one.
When we picture angels, we often picture beautiful feathery winged creatures with harps lounging on clouds above us and singing “alleluia” beatifically. We picture our five-year-old in her acting debut wearing a halo in the Christmas pageant.
But the angels in our scriptures aren’t like that at all. I mean, people are always “terrified” or “sore afraid” when angels arrive in our gospel texts, and who would be afraid of a beautiful five-year-old with wings and a harp?
Angels in the scriptures were scary beings, often unwanted visitors.
“Do not be afraid,” angels call out first. “Because this message probably won’t feel good to you. Nevertheless, I bring you tidings of great joy!” Good news from God doesn’t often sound “good” to our human ears.
Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
In our reading from Luke, it was just another day at the temple for Zechariah. It was his priestly turn to make sure everything was done properly and in good order. But it turned into something quite different when an angel showed up in the balcony to surprise him with the news that his wife was pregnant. I’m sure that it would shock Vern if Vicki turned up pregnant this week! And I’m not sure the two of them would celebrate that pregnancy, at least not right away. After all, they are trying to enjoy retirement, and their grandchildren, who they can send back to their parents after spoiling them rotten. There’s a reason why I cast Vern and Vicki in these roles.
Because good news doesn’t always sound like good news. Hope doesn’t always sound hopeful. Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
I know that all of you have had a moment in your life after which you knew nothing would ever be the same. The moment you took the pregnancy test, the moment you discovered your spouse cheated, the moment you lost something like your home or your dignity, the moment you were laid off, put the bottle down, received the diagnosis, heard the news, shut the door behind you, went to court, got the call.
The moment was often unexpected. The messenger was often not the one you would have chosen. And the message wasn’t always welcome. But it did change the course of your life. And in these moments, the light of hope is both hard to find, and the most important thing in all of the world.
We are called to be the light of hope in the darkest of times for one another. But we cannot be hope bringers if we are waiting to be the perfect vessels for the message. That day will never come.
When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son is the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God, Zechariah says, “I am old. I don’t believe you.” To Zechariah's incredulous "but I am old" comes Gabriel's "but I am Gabriel!” Perhaps Zechariah’s “but...” is an analogy to what must be God's frustration with our cynical responses to God's call. Our response often comes in the form of “I’m not good enough. I don’t believe it.”
I felt called to be a minister from when I was about 20, and still in college. And then, as a young woman of 23, I began working for the department of ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Association. I firmly decided in those three years that I would never be a minister. I was not good enough, and I knew it. When I say “good,” I don’t mean “talented.” I mean, I felt I was not a moral enough person, or a role model for pious, holy living. I had too many skeletons in the closet, swore too much, screwed up too much, hurt people too often, prayed too little.
I learned in the work I did with the ministerial credentialing committee how easily I could mess other people up with my own inadequacies, and I didn’t want to inflict my imperfection on some sweet innocent, unsuspecting congregation like this one. And so I became a therapist for children, which is hilariously ironic since imperfect folks like myself can do just as much damage there, if not more. But there was something about failing regularly in public that terrified me far more.
Incidentally, I didn’t answer the call to the ministry at age 33 because I had become a better person. If anything, I had gotten worse. I simply realized that my problem was not that I was imperfect. My problem was that I couldn’t allow myself to be. That’s what inflicts harm on other people. Not our imperfections, but our inability to honestly embrace them, name them, and do the work we are called to do anyway.
Perfect truly is the enemy of the good.
There is a description of the perfect pastor that has been floating around for decades in the form of a chain letter email:
The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes.
He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings..
The perfect pastor makes $90 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car,
buys good books, and donates $80 a week to the church.
He works from 8 am until midnight and is also the church janitor.
He is 40 years old and has 30 years experience.
Above all, he is handsome.
The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers,
and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens.
He makes 15 home visits a day
and is always in his office to be handy when needed.
The perfect pastor never misses any church committee meeting
and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.
The perfect pastor is always in the next church over!
If your pastor does not measure up,
simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor, too.
Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list.
If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors.
One of them should be perfect!
I’ll never be perfect according to this criteria, rest assured. I am quite sure I have already gone over ten minutes in THIS sermon, and my inability to grow a beard makes me a bad candidate for ministry right off the bat!
I’m sure you have your own similarly impossible list of how to be a perfect farmer, computer programmer, plumber, teacher, lawyer, doctor, spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, sister, friend…etc. We all have impossible expectations for perfection placed on us by ourselves and others.
And like most of you, I am given a lot of feedback on a daily basis reflecting back to me both my gifts and my deficits. A lot of the feedback I’ve had as a public figure I’ve had to sift for truth. I bet this is true of you, also, no matter your role. Your list will be different, but as a minister, I get everything from you’re “too young, too old, too loud, too tall, too girly, too immodestly dressed, too serious, too comical, too political, not political enough, too liberal, too conservative, too Christian, not Christian enough, too involved in everything, not involved enough, you talk about money too much, you’re not raising enough money, you work too much, you work too little...” the list goes on.
It’s all information, it often contradicts, and somewhere in there, there’s a message. We have to become great sifters of information to find the God bits, like shaking those sifts found in your kid’s sand toys for gold. You have to know how to find Truth in a world of too much information.
So I start here: do not be afraid. Take what’s yours’. Leave what’s not. Be honest about your mistakes. Mine for the gold: find God’s message amid the noise of information.
This week, I started a conversation on the internet in a manner that was more snarky than my public voice usually is, and more unkind than the way I try to be. A poet calls cynicism “that other sadness.” If I am being honest, cynicism is my greatest vice, and the strongest armor in my arsenal protecting the core of shame and inadequacy that rests inside of me.
What I said struck a chord with people, and I got literally hundreds of supportive messages from beloved supporters and colleagues, and lots of “atta Pastors!” However, there were three people from this congregation, one friend from divinity school, and my best friend from college brave enough to buck the tide and deliver me an alternative message, one they knew I surely didn’t want to hear. “You are better than this,” or “You should be better than this,” was what the message was.
They broke through the armor. Those five lone messengers helped God to reach into my chest, pull out my heart of stone, and replace it with a beating heart of flesh again. I took down the post, and made a humble attempt at a public apology, because when you fail in public, there is no other way.
The truth is, the thing I most feared about being a public messenger of God—failing to live up to the message itself—comes true for me every day I do this job. And there is no better gift. God helps me to learn from my imperfections whenever I have ears to hear. We need to be good listeners if we are going to be messengers for hope. Do not be afraid of what you’ll hear.
We can also aspire to become better messengers. “Preach the gospel at all times,” a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, “if necessary, use words.”
When we do use our words, we own them and take responsibility for them. We stop first. We must evaluate our words before we deliver the message, especially one we know will be hard to hear. This is an acronym you may have heard before, because I definitely didn’t make it up: T.H.I.N.K before you speak.
Before you deliver a message, evaluate it with this method:
T – is it True?
H – is it Helpful?
I – is it Inspiring?
N – is it Necessary?
K – is it Kind?
If one or more of the criteria is missing, maybe it is time to re-evaluate whether the message is worthy of God.
And remember that all of US are worthy of God, and everyone you meet is known and named Beloved. As sure as you and I were born, there are angels among us. Messengers of God bringing the light of hope in the darkness. The message isn’t always the one we are wanting or expecting, so listen humbly and sift for gold. Your deeds do more to send a message than any words you speak. But when words are needed, let the truth of hope resound through them. Do not be afraid. An aching world needs our voice.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org