Some of us are drowning in our to-do lists right now. We are writing down the things we need to do to prepare for Christmas and then crossing them off one by one. Some of us write things that we have already done, just to have the satisfaction of crossing something off our list.
What’s on your to do list for this week, 8 days until Christmas Eve?
If it’s like mine, it looks as long as Santa’s naughty list.
I’m getting anxious just saying all of this out loud.
The crowd that gathers around John the Baptist is anxious too. But they are preparing for the end of the world, not the in-laws coming over (which for some of us might feel like the end of the world).
They are going to get baptized in the river Jordan quick…figuring better safe than sorry in the terrifying days to come. They ask John “What should we DO” to prepare for God’s arrival? And John is just a little harsh in his response.
YOU BROOD OF VIPERS, he says. (Isn’t it amazing that he can keep a congregation enraptured while at the same time calling them a bunch of “snakes?”)
He doesn’t stop there.
“Here’s what should be on your to do list: Bear fruits worthy of repentance, or be thrown in the fire. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. Stop charging interest. Be satisfied with what you have and don’t ask for more.”
The scripture calls this “good news.”
And John the Baptist wasn’t messing around. He subsisted in the wilderness on locusts and honey, and had a wild look in his eye. Whenever he preached it was fire and brimstone like a preacher wildly gesticulating on a street corner with a “repent or die” sign. If we encountered him now, it would be in a subway station with people walking quickly by assuming he was homeless and crazy.
But his followers believed he was onto something. In fact, some people thought he was Elijah come back from the grave, and some thought he was the Messiah. But John says “No, fools. I’m just a voice crying in the wilderness! I am the broom sweeping the house to help you prepare for his coming. I’m unfit to untie the Messiah’s sandals.” In other words, he has the humility to say, “hey, I’m not the guy you should listen to. He’s on his way.” He had the good sense to point his followers to God.
“John apparently had second thoughts about (Jesus) later on, however, and it's no great wonder.” Fred Buechner says. “Where John preached grim justice and pictured God as a steely-eyed thresher of grain, Jesus preached forgiving love and pictured God as the host at a marvelous party or a father who can't bring himself to throw his children out even when they spit in his eye. Where John said people had better save their skins before it was too late, Jesus said it was God who saved their skins, and even if you blew your whole bankroll on liquor and sex like the Prodigal Son, it still wasn't too late. Where John ate locusts and honey in the wilderness with the church crowd, Jesus ate what he felt like in Jerusalem with as sleazy a bunch as you could expect to find. Where John crossed to the other side of the street if he saw any sinners heading his way, Jesus seems to have preferred their company to (the diaconate), the Stewardship Committee, and the World Council of Churches rolled into one. Where John baptized, Jesus healed.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m more motivated to bear good fruit in service to a Loving God of forgiveness and healing than I am by the terrifying threats of a man who wants to convince me of God’s great wrath and vengeance.
However, the invitation to repentance still stands. Jesus convinces us that we should be motivated to repent simply because God loves us so extravagantly. There’s nothing else to do in response to that Love but name why we’re not always worthy of it. So, if we’re trying to get our spiritual houses in order to prepare for his coming, we might as well do it on our knees.
“Repent” translates from the Greek metanoia to “change of thought.” We are called by God to change our minds in response to Love. The only way to bear fruit worthy of repentance is to change our minds.
Have you changed your mind lately?
We are told it is impossible to change people’s minds….that “once a ‘fill in the blank,’ always ‘a fill in the blank.” We are told that people who change their minds are weak-minded, or at least weak-willed.
I wouldn’t be in this business if I believed that were true.
These days, I think the thing that humbles and impresses me most about ministry is the sheer amount of stories I get to hear about people changing their minds.
My favorite compliment I’ve ever gotten was confessed publicly by one of our beloved conservatives at a church dinner last spring as we were introducing ourselves to each other: “I’ve come to this church for forty years,” he said. And then, pointing to me almost accusingly he said, “and she turned me into a liberal.”
Another one of the conservatives at the table replied to him, “What? NO! I’ll talk to you after dinner.”
Lest you think he was kidding, the other day, I saw that same guy share a post on Facebook about climate change from Bernie Sanders. God’s miracles never cease.
But in all seriousness, imagine being humble enough to take in new information, examine it in the light of Love, and change your ideology as a response.
When I came to First Church in 2014 for my candidating week, I was surprised to find that the thing everyone wanted to talk to me about was the process to become open and affirming to the LGBTQ community, which you all had yet to complete. I didn’t know that it was a long and painful story in the congregation’s history, and you all wanted to know if I was going to help you write the final chapter.
I remember sitting with one of our 90 year olds at a “meet the minister” coffee. He told me a story about how he left his last church because of an open and affirming process. “I didn’t think it was biblical,” he said, “to affirm same gender relationships.” And he didn’t like the fact that the minister was heavy-handed about it, and that the process seemed rushed, and “pushed through.”
“Oh,” I said. “So I take it you are concerned that I might do the same thing?”
“Oh, I’ve since changed my mind,” he said, with an off-handed gesture, as if it was no big deal. “I think it’s long past time for the church to become open and affirming. We need to be welcoming to all of God’s children. I hope you’re going to help us get there” he said.
“How did you change your mind?” I asked him, amazed. I was far more entrenched in my own ideological leanings at 38 than he was at 90, and couldn’t imagine changing my position on such a deeply held moral intuition.
“I listened to my grandchildren, and prayed about it.”
Such a simple and profound act of humility: I listened, I prayed, I changed my mind.
With God’s help, we have the power to develop new habits of mind. Even me.
I wrote a sermon early on in my ministry here for Advent about Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson. I was pretty proud of it. It even got chosen to be on the UUA’s worship web as an example of how one should preach about racism.
Not everyone appreciated it, though. I was lucky enough to have two beloved parishioners in my office the very next week because they trusted me enough to tell me the truth with grace. “Our son is a police officer. His life matters. We want our pastor to love him, too,” was the general content of our conversation.
We talked about their fears every time he leaves the house. We talked about racism, and their thoughts on police corruption and the split second decisions police officers have to make that are a matter of life and death. They agreed that some of the cases of the deaths of unarmed black folks we heard about in the news could be because of racism. We disagreed in some ways, but there were many points of connection and a ton of empathy for one another. We hugged and we told each other how much we cared about each other at the end of the conversation.
Still, they left my office, and I immediately burst into tears. I wasn’t sure I could minister outside my bubble. It was too hard. I liked preaching to the choir better. I texted my clergy friends, “I don’t belong here,” I said.
One of my colleagues called me immediately. “Robin,” she said, “you’re not supposed to belong there. You can’t do good ministry among people to whom you think you ‘belong.’ What would you learn? What would they learn?”
I thought the only way to do ministry was to be among those I perceived to be like-minded. I had so little faith in the God who calls me to re-think so that I might prepare him room. I had so little faith in the God who creates us like-hearted, not like-minded.
Maybe that’s what John means by separating the wheat from the chaff: we must burn what no longer serves us in the fire of truth, and return over and over again, to Love.
My friend Jake Morrill says that “the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we're at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
The best way to prepare for the coming reign of Love is to learn how to re-think everything we are sure we know. If we’re going to be ready for the One who comes in the form of a poor, brown, middle-eastern, Jewish, helpless baby migrant boy, born to an unwed mother and a stepfather in a cattle stall with only poor shepherds as witnesses….we better let beauty tug us out of our stupor. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on December 9, 2018
The Second Sunday of Advent
Our worlds can grow dark so suddenly. We had a certain plan for our lives, and just like that, a new reality we didn’t plan for takes hold.
Your beloved walks out of your home for the last time. The doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do.” You drop your last kid off in her dorm room and the house is quieter than you expected. A policeman arrives at your door. A verdict is read. Something comes out of your mouth that you can’t take back. Your boss calls you into the office to inform you of the restructuring. You lose a dreamed-about baby to infertility or miscarriage. You had the much-wanted baby, and suddenly you are too sad and numb to imagine your child’s future or your’s. You say your final goodbye to the wife you promised to love till death do you part. You never thought she’d go first.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the darkness a time in which you can’t see where you are going. In some way, you are given “The News,” and it changes everything you were sure of. The dark slows us down. It even stops us. Our old tools we brought with us are rendered useless there. You brought your map, but you can’t see it. You have a compass, but you can’t see it. You have a plan sketched out, but you can’t see it. The dark can be disorienting at best, and terrifying at worst.
No wonder we are too quick to flip on the light switch.
Mary Oliver says, “someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” There is much to be learned in the dark, and much growth that can happen there, if we are brave enough to accept it as a gift.
I met with our Ranny the other day, and she told me that she wouldn’t tell her story from up here because she hates public speaking, but that I could. Ranny has been sick with cancer for about a year, and she almost died three weeks ago when she had a bad reaction to the medicine. In fact, she thinks she died and came back. She was at the cancer clinic getting her chemo, and was suddenly plunged into the dark. Doctors and nurses and EMTs rushed around her trying to revive her. Somehow her heart went on, and she returned to us. “Dying is easy,” she said. “Living is what’s hard. And I want to live. I’m a stubborn old broad and I’m far too stubborn to die.”
For the first time, though, she wasn’t afraid of death. She felt God’s presence there in that dark place. God guided her feet into the way of peace that day.
The scriptures are full of the word “will”…a word that we associate with “not yet.” A word that we associate with promises, like the ones we make on our wedding day. In the Hebrew scriptures, God is the promise-maker. Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem: God WILL show you splendor everywhere under heaven. God WILL give you the name “righteous peace.” God WILL bring your children back to you. God WILL lead Jerusalem with joy in the light of his glory. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high WILL break upon us.”
GOD has, God can and God WILL.
The biblical writers were living in a time of great darkness. They needed the reminder of who God was, the promise that God was still with them, and the assurance that their hearts would go on.
It’s unfortunate that the darkness is so often used in our scriptures as a metaphor for sadness, evil, ignorance and fear. Because darkness is also where the whole world is created. God spoke light into the darkness. Darkness is where seeds are planted and regenerate new growth deep in the earth. God buried Jesus deep into the dark womb of his mother Mary, where he emerged 9 months later to save the whole world. God resurrected Jesus out of the darkness of the tomb.
Life is created and re-created in darkness. And darkness is where all of us begin, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knitted in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. It is also where we will all return: back into the dark earth where we will become part of All That Is once again.
I was introduced to Kate Bowler through her writing when I read her essay in the New York Times a few months ago. I immediately picked up her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” and read it in a day.
Kate is married to the childhood love of her life, who still makes her laugh and swoon. After living off of ramen noodles with her husband for years as a perpetual student, she got a professorship at Duke Divinity School; her dream job. After a long period of infertility and a devastating miscarriage, she finally had a baby boy who is their sun, moon and stars. They bought a house, and filled their days doing work they love, anticipating waking up to the giggles of their small boy. All of Kate’s dreams had come true. She and her husband were fond of taking long walks, planning a seemingly endless future, which could only get brighter. #blessed.
And then at 35, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and was given a matter of months to live. Suddenly her world grew very small. Kate would leave everything she loved about her life far sooner than she had planned. Kate won’t see her toddler grow up. He won’t remember what she smelled like, or what her voice sounded like. Her husband’s bright future will no longer have her in it. Her interests and studies will die with her.
Kate still describes herself as an incurable optimist on her website. She is a professor in Christian history. She has written the only book on the history of the American Prosperity Gospel. Ironically, she studies the group of folks who believe that the more faith you have, the more God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness.
Prosperity religion is a heresy and a toxic lie that poisons our country. And yet we are all susceptible to its allure, whether we go to a church that preaches it or not. We so badly want to believe that if things are going well, we are somehow blessed by God.
That’s why our faith is so easily the first tool to go when we are lost in the dark. We forget that we worship a God who doesn’t protect us from suffering, and who also doesn’t leave us alone in it. A God who promises that when we’ve lost sight of the path ahead, only love is what remains. This, too, is a gift.
Two months after her diagnosis, Kate Bowler writes:
“CANCER has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.
But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”
I remember Shelly Kennedy-Leonard looking up at the walls of cards she hung around her before she died: “Look how much love there is out there for me! I wouldn’t know about all this love if I hadn’t gotten sick!” She brought me to Drumlin Hill and described it 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 just because of all of this beauty….”
God’s love was the only thing she was sure of. She knew she wasn’t alone in the dark.
There is a line from Isaiah that says “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, all flesh shall see it together.” God doesn’t promise us health, wealth and happiness. God promises us to show up in the flesh. God promises all flesh shall see God’s glory TOGETHER.
Kate Bowler says that what saves her every day is the ability to touch and be touched. Since she got sick, she just craves hands to hold, back rubs, hugs. “The weight of people‘s hands on my shoulders and head feels like I’m being put back together,” she says.
Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. When the old tools we carry no longer work, touch. Grab a hand, give a hug, use your hands to knit or make a meal for someone else, or your feet to march. Put skin in the game. Don’t leave anyone alone in the dark. We shall see God’s glory if we are willing to wait there, together.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org