Preached on May 27, 2018
Memorial Day Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
What the world needs is more “Born from Above Love.”
I was in New York City yesterday! I brought Cecilia there to celebrate her turning 12. I got to watch a dear friend of mine from my high school in New Hampshire, Geno, in his Broadway debut. He and I sang my first duet in a medley from Les Mis at Rundlett Junior High School. So, I’m just saying, my big break may be next. I won’t forget you.
“Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town the size of Sterling where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the plane people for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers, tried to communicate in languages not their own, kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo, got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home, comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States, distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar, found places for Jews and Muslims and Christians to pray together, found translators for the multiple languages spoken, and generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
Look to the helpers.
This was my favorite scene: a frightened man from Africa on a bus with his wife in rural Newfoundland, being taken to who-knows-where from a plane that landed far from its destination. They come to a camp full of people from Gander in Salvation Army uniforms, which looks to the frightened man simply like a sea of soldiers in the darkness.
The bus driver stops, and motions for the passengers to get off the bus. The frightened man doesn’t move. He does not understand the bus driver’s language. He does not trust him. The bus driver thinks quick, and points to the Bible that the man’s wife is clutching. She hands it to him nervously. The bus driver doesn’t know the language the Bible is written in, but he figures the chapters and verses are the same. He flips to Philippians and points at chapter 4, verse 6. “Be anxious for nothing,” it says. Now they speak the same language. Pentecost. Relieved, the frightened man gets off the bus.
The people of Gander, New Foundland saved the whole world on September 11th. Like the fire fighters who rushed to the burning remains of the world trade center to pull bodies out of the rubble with their bare hands, the people of Gander, New Foundland heard God calling in the night saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And the people of Gander answered “Here am I. Send me.”
When Jesus talks about heavenly things, I think this is what he means. You and I have a big part to play in the world’s salvation. When there is tragedy, you and I need to be the good. We need not just “look for the helpers”, but BE the helpers.
Most of us are just far too comfortable. We are distracted. We are too concerned with our own safety. We are mostly disconnected from the very real tragedy of the mass dehumanization of God-imaged people that is playing out before our eyes right now in our own country.
We make Facebook posts demanding players stand for the flag at a Football game, and call that patriotism. We go to church occasionally on a Sunday and call that Christianity.
Just because we’re sitting in a garage doesn’t make us a car.
Wilber Rees writes this poem called “Three Dollars’ Worth of God”:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love my enemy or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
I think Nicodemus, our Pharisee in the Gospel text, is maybe hoping for $3 worth of God when he probes Jesus with these questions:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born again?
Nicodemus doesn’t get the bargain basement God as an answer, he gets the expensive one.
Jesus tells him that you can’t see the kingdom of God without being “born from above.” You need to be born, he says, of the water and the spirit. Born again.
Now I know that when some of us hear the term “born again,” we get itchy. I know I do. We think of the person we all know who won’t stop talking about getting saved by Jesus; who makes us uncomfortable at parties.
But being “born from above” simply means waking up, again and again, to the reality that we are all connected. Being born from above means behaving as though we are descendants of heaven…the place where all are welcome and that all means all…where everyone has enough, where we speak the same language to call on the name of the Beloved.
Being born again means acting as though we are residents of God’s kingdom of equals where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.
Being born from above means knowing ourselves as tenants of the place where the meek are blessed, the poor are lifted up on the thrones of the almighty, the religiously persecuted are given a safe place to pray, the sick are healed, and the outsiders are brought in, where all are fed….where all are forgiven.
Being “born from above” simply means knowing one another by God’s name for us ALL, which is “Beloved.”
I remember reading a blog post years ago by Glennon Doyle that said something like, “The first time you’re born, you look around the room and identify the people in it as your family. The second time you’re born, the whole world is your family. Christianity isn’t about joining a club, it’s about recognizing that we are all in the same club. Every last one of us.”
We need to be born again EVERY DAY. We can never be born enough, e.e. cummings says.
The Gospel of John reminds us that God so loves the world that God shows us The Way to save it. God sends us peace and hope and faith and Love, in the form of a human person. God sends The Way to salvation, and tells us it’s LOVE. We know from watching Jesus that The Way involves our bodies. If we want to save ourselves and the whole world with us, we have to put some serious skin in the game. If we’re not making Love tangible and real, it’s not Love. It’s just $3 worth of God.
It is Memorial day weekend. And today we honor those who died to save.
Like the prophet Isaiah, our military hear a call to serve. “Whom shall I send?” The Lord asks, and “who will go for us?”
“Here am I,” they all answered. “Send me.”
Our veterans know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. That is sacrificial love. That is born from above love.
Our veterans are here today, honoring the sacrifice of their friends.
Our Sterling firefighters are also here today.
Chief Hurlbut makes sure our firefighters are here every year on memorial day in their dress uniforms, sitting in the front row with characteristic stoicism and reverence. Last year on memorial day, I asked who in the room believed in the power of love to make my point in the CLIMAX of the sermon, and everyone in the whole church raised their hands high except the firefighters. They were simply maintaining their dignity. But I said, teasing: “Look around, everyone here believes in love! Except the firefighters! They aren’t raising their hands!”
But the truth is, these guys hear the call to Love every single day. And every day they answer, “here I am. Send me.” They don’t just believe in the power of Love, they ARE the power of love. They rush to the scenes of accidents and fires and drug overdoses and medical emergencies. They run to the scenes most people are running away from.
They hold precious lives in their hands not stopping to inquire whether or not the victim is worthy. Our firefighters know about agape love: which is not a feeling, but a sacred duty to keep one another alive, regardless of rank or status, culture or creed. That is what it means to be a citizen of heaven. That’s born from above love.
Many of us say that we would die for our children. But some among us volunteer to die for other people’s children. Our military; our firefighters; our police; our first responders…they know on a visceral level that the whole world is our family. That’s born from above Love.
So, just this past Saturday, I was talking to Chief Hurlbut. We were at a First Church funeral together, as we often are. We were making fun of each other, as we often do. He told me he watches my sermons on line. I told him that he should come to my church. He told me that he can’t because he’s Catholic and needs to go to heaven. He asked me if I was gonna make them sing “Kum Ba Yah” and hold hands today while they squirmed. (The jury’s still out on that one.)
Then I asked him what a girl has to do around here to become a chaplain for the Sterling Fire Department. A fire chaplain is a minister who works with the fire department in times of crisis. I said I was interested. He said he would “put me on the list.”
He may have just been humoring me.
But I got really excited. My eyes widened at the prospect of a walkie talkie and a reflective vest. ("cccchhhhhhhhhhh…this is Chaplain Bartlett to Chief Hurlbut, do you copy?”)
(I’m pretty sure I don’t get to have either one of those things.)
“What does the job entail?” I asked.
“All you have to do,” the chief said, ‘is answer the phone. That’s it. Even if I call you in the middle of the night. Just answer the phone. And then you just need to show up and keep the people calm while we take care of putting out the fires.”
That’s it. Answer the call and show up.
Beloved, some of us are not the kind of people that run into burning buildings, or out onto a battlefield. I know I’m not. But there are so many ways to lay down our lives.
Sometimes all you have to do is answer the call and show up. So if you want to risk transformation. If you want a new birth. If you want enough God to disturb your sleep: Answer Love’s call in the night, whatever that looks like for you. Say “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” And then show up. Bring snacks if you think of it. That’s all there is to it.
The world is on fire, so please don’t wait.
Be brave. Be kind. Act as though you are already citizens of heaven. That’s what saves the whole world.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.