Preached at First Church in Sterling
January 10, 2016
READING FROM THE HEBREW BIBLE (Isaiah 43: 1-7)
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
SERMON “Called by Name”
First Church in Sterling! You are Church famous! For those of you who don’t know, since last we met, our awesome church was featured online by tens of thousands of people: on nationally syndicated Religion News Service, Sojourners Magazine, After.church online news, Huffington Post Religion page, and USA Today. The article about us was shared by countless churches, my colleagues from all over the country, and many denominations’ Facebook pages, including the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association. It was even in the print newspaper in Baton Rouge, LA yesterday. Our website traffic doubled and tripled in the past three days. Our Facebook “likes” are nearing 800. Next stop, Oprah, right? I wish all 800 of our Facebook “friends” would come to church!
The original article is here: http://www.religionnews.com/2016/01/04/tiny-churches-big-hopes-thrive-despite-odds/
I bet you are wondering why that happened.
Well, one of our denominations asked me to fill out a survey, as they often do, for a research project by a national organization called Faith Communities Today by researcher David Roozen. For a change, the researcher was interested in church health and vitality rather than just reporting on more doomsday gloom and doom about the end of church in America. He was interested, in a climate of declining church attendance, in searching for hope, for spiritual depth, and for health in our nation’s churches. The report he wrote is optimistically titled: “American Congregations 2015: Surviving and Thriving.”
What a concept.
Anyway, of the 4,436 congregations who filled out the survey, our church jumped out at Roozen, and at Cathy Lynn Grossman, a nationally syndicated religion reporter, as an example of hope and vitality in our nation’s churches. So I was interviewed, along with Doug Davis, and one of our fabulous new young adult members, Ann Taft, for an article that was shared literally around the world this week. Why were we chosen out of 4,436 other congregations to bring hope to American religion? Well, the crux of the article, and Roozen’s report can be summed up in this sentence:
“Hope thrives where change is welcome.”
He says, “Thriving congregations are nearly 10 times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.”
The report discovered the single most important ingredient to church health, growth, and vitality is everyone’s favorite thing. Change.
The. Willingness. To. Change.
The message church researchers are consistently giving is this: change or die.
So you’re still wondering why we stuck out in that report, aren’t you? You may not have noticed, but we are doing the work of transformation and innovation together every day. We were picked because we take risks in order to grow in depth and in numbers; because we are willing to transform ourselves and reshape what we are doing in order to meet the needs of the culture around us. Can you believe that? That we are a bunch of risk-taking change-agents out here in staid puritan New England sitting here in our uncomfortable pews, complaining that we don’t like the new logo on the front of the bulletin?!
Just kidding. Change is hard, even for change agents.
But I want to say our magic lies in more than taking risks, and trying things like Pub Theology and Eat, Pray, Learn. That’s what the article didn’t report.
One of our newest members, Julia Klebanov, says it best. She wrote this when she shared the article on Facebook:
This (church) is my little slice of heaven featured! What the article doesn't say, is how truly amazing this community is. Just one year ago, (my husband) Toly and I were militantly against organized religion. All we could see of it was the divisions that it created; “how can you find God in division and hatred?” we wondered. It was only by what Toly has begun to term 'godincidice' that we wandered through these doors. What we found surprised us: a community of people united by differing belief systems. This church is attended by Baptists, Catholics, Unitarians, Atheists, and UCC members, among others. How is that possible? Love………..We felt welcome and comfortable from our first step into the building. The openness of those involved, and the love and support we have felt from the members, continues to stun us. Knowing these people makes me a better person, and makes me continue to strive to improve. I don't usually get religious on Facebook, but I wanted to say this. God is love, people, and the First Church of Sterling has it in abundance!
Julia’s right. What the article doesn’t say is that it isn’t just our innovative new programming that makes us vital and hopeful…it’s our audacious claim that God is love, and more importantly, that God loves everyone. That God’s Love transcends all of our differences, even the differences among us here in this room—atheists, theists, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, and Idon’tknowwhat-ists. What makes us vital and hopeful is this church’s likely naïve and definitely stubborn insistence that we act on that Love all the time and everywhere.
A friend and colleague calls this phenomenon “willful hope.” And we are a community of “willful hope” because we ground ourselves in the Good News of the Gospel, which is that we don’t have to do a single thing to earn God’s love. It’s just there for everyone.
We spread this Good News not to create more Christians, but to create a better, more peaceful, more just, more kind, more loving world. We live this good news so that we might love the world the way God loves us.
Enter our scripture from today. Our passage from Isaiah, one of the prophets from the Hebrew Bible, is important to understand in context. Margaret Whyte says: “This passage forms the concluding part of a longer poem. The unknown prophet of Israel's Babylonian exile, called Deutero or Second Isaiah, writes this poetic promise of the return of the exiles to their homeland in Judea. Like all prophets, he spoke for God, giving their scattered people the great hope that despite there being seemingly insurmountable obstacles, God would bring them back. Isaiah reiterates the concrete faith based on their experience of God's ancient covenant with Israel as God's chosen people. It is a dominant theme throughout their history of oppression and suffering, that God would intervene and redeem them.”
We read this text from Isaiah along with the account of Jesus’ Baptism from Luke during this season of Epiphany, which is the festival that celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. That is a fancy way of saying that the coming of Jesus to earth was God’s way of showing us that God’s Love was not just for one group of people with the “right” ancestry, but for everyone.
Epiphany is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a sort of “festivus for the rest of us.”
The reading from our Hebrew Bible text today is a love letter from God to the Israelites--to give them hope in the midst of impossible obstacle. I want you to hear it as a love letter to you—because maybe YOU need a little hope right now. Maybe you feel scattered, and like you need to be led back home. Maybe you have forgotten God’s promises to you.
And so I took the liberty of re-interpreting our poem from Isaiah as a letter from God to us. It’s in the New Robin Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that this letter is sent to you from God.
I have called you all by name. I know that you usually call yourself your given name like Jon, and Judy, and Phil and Janet, and Ann, and Molly, and Marge and Bob, but I am God, and I do what I want. And I call you my pet name for you, which is Beloved. I know some of you squirmed away as children when your parents caught you up in an oppressive embrace and called you nicknames like honey and sweetie and pumpkin and love-muffin, but it was nevertheless a reminder that you are their child, and that you are known by these names because you are loved.
And I call you “Beloved” because you are my child; I created you; you are mine, and you are deeply and wholly loved, no matter how many times you try to squirm away from my embrace.
In fact, Beloved, you are precious in my sight. When I look at you, I see you. I honor you, and I love you. You are my son, you are my daughter, and in you I am well-pleased. I know that this is the hardest thing for you to believe sometimes, that I am well-pleased with you. You spend a lot of time trying to be good, and trying to fit into a box that you call “holy” or “right.” Maybe religions based on me tried to teach you that you had to earn my love that way. Wrong. You don’t need to do a thing to deserve my love. Not one single thing.
I formed you to be glorious, and I have made you whole. I will not leave you. When you are in trouble, I will be there. When you are scared, I will be there. Over the water, through the fire, up to the mountain, I will be there. When you are alone, I will be there. When it is dark, I will be there, with a path and a little light to see by, calling your name. I will defend you for your life has worth.
Do not fear, for I am with you. I will gather you up in me. I will call you all by name, because you are all mine—my sons from far away—my daughters from the ends of the earth, created for glory.
Imagine if we all behaved as if we believed that letter was true. Imagine if we loved ourselves, our neighbor, our God like that.
Maybe then the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: giving people great hope despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles like oppression and greed, religious persecution and hate, racism and gun violence, suffering and death, soccer practice on Sundays, vast theological differences, and the decline of church in America. Maybe the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: willing to take risks in service to Love, even if it could mean upsetting the apple cart; even if it’s expensive, or inefficient, or even mildly dangerous. Maybe the world would be a little bit more like First Church in Sterling: willing to transform itself in service to what humankind looks like right now, in this place and in this time, even though it might mean not doing things “the way we’ve always done them.”
Just imagine if the world looked at every person as if they contained the light of God, the manifestation of Christ on earth—the way First Church in Sterling attempts to.
So, as you know, Jed and I took the Confirmation class to Reach Out Worcester, for the chance to do some mission work serving people without homes there in our neighbor city.
We thought we’d be coming out and serving them. But instead, the experience was a service to us. They hosted us in their home, they fed us, they showed us around, they told us their stories, so that we could encounter and be blessed by the piece of God that resides in each of them.
One of our homeless guides was named Corey, and he was born and raised homeless from age 6 on. His parents were both drug addicts, and they lived on the street, or in a car. He fell into drugs at an early age, which he experienced as a lifeline: an attempt to momentarily escape and numb himself against the reality of living under bridges, and on the steps of churches, waking up every couple of hours by police asking him to move to a new spot, frost bite threatening his extremities. He found Worcester Fellowship, which repeats this mission over and over again to its outdoor congregation:
We are here to listen. We do not evaluate anyone's theology, but work to communicate that God Loves You. Now. The way you are. Before you get clean, or find sobriety, or commit to non-violence, or accept treatment for mental health, or pull your prayer life together, or give away all you have for the poor; before you do anything to make yourself better, God loves you.
Corey, after participating in Worcester Fellowship for a couple of years has gotten clean, has secured housing, and works on behalf of the homeless in Worcester Fellowship’s ministry. Look what a love like that does for people. It changes everything.
And isn’t this the outrageous gospel First Church propagates, too?
May we continue to tell people, and more importantly, may we continue to show people that God loves us the way we are, right now, before we do anything to make ourselves better.
Because that crazy, outlandish Truth is the sum of the gospel. Love God, Love neighbor, Love the hell out of this world.
So congratulations, beloved church, on becoming church famous. You deserve the recognition. And make no mistake about it: our success doesn’t rest on Pub Theology or the amount of young adults we attract, or our new branding or new website, or our Facebook likes. It rests in our insistence on propagating the Gospel of Love.
God is Love, people, and First Church has it in abundance.
I am proud to be your minister today and every day. I love you. God Loves you. Now. God loves everyone else, too.
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.