INTRODUCTION to our guests from the LGBTQ Asylum Task Force from the Hadwen Park UCC church in Worcester, MA.
Dear asylum seekers who we are so lucky to have as guests today,
In this church, we worship a God whose other name is Love. I can proudly say that since a year ago at exactly this time in 2017, this congregation unanimously affirms what we know to be true about God:
You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God loves every part of who you are, no matter who you love. God knit you intricately in the depths of your mothers’ wombs, lovingly created you exactly who you are now, and called you “good.” Then God named you "Beloved." We affirm in this congregation unanimously the belief that God does not make mistakes.
We also believe that your stories are part of the story of God, and so we are honored to hear them today. We will listen for the voice of God resounding within them.
...Testimonies from our guests...
Bode and Calvin, I am so glad you came to our church to be baptized today. We don’t know the two of you very well yet, but we do know your Mamoo, Sue, and we knew your Great Grandma (did you call her GGma?) before she went home to live with God. They are special people who make our church and our world a better place, so we know that you are lucky. We also know this about you:
You were fearfully and wonderfully made.
That’s a fancy way of saying you are awesome, and your bodies and your souls are perfect and whole and right and good because you were created by God to be exactly who you are. Today we affirmed the fact that you were already blessed by God, just by being born into this world.
You were formed by a God who loves every part of you. God has searched and known you; even your inward parts. Especially your heart. God already knows who you were born to be. God created you and called you “good.” And then God named you beloved.
You were born to love—you were born to be a blessing. You were born to love many people: your family, yes. But also your neighbors, your community, and all of the people of this beautiful and brutal world we live in. You will do this imperfectly, but it will be your life’s project.
Today is Martin Luther King Sunday, the day that we celebrate a man who died long before you were born, Bode and Calvin, but who lives on in our hearts and minds and imaginations. He was a minister who preached the Truth: that all people were created by God and called Beloved. He said: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Like Jesus, he taught us that all children, just like you, are fearfully and wonderfully made. Every child who is born to every parent, in every country, all over the world. You might hear from our leaders or your friends at school sometimes that our country or "our" people are somehow better than other countries or people. Those are human voices resounding like a noisy gong. That is not God’s voice. Listen for God instead. God’s voice echoes throughout the heavens saying this: “I created this whole world and called it Good—the heavens and the earth. The night and the day. The grass and the trees. The animals and the people. You are my son, my daughter, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased.
Likewise, the children of Haiti and Africa and Mexico and in every part of my world are my beloved creations. Intricately made in the depths of the earth. Loved and whole.”
Each of you were fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the depths of the earth, searched and known and named Beloved. God does not make mistakes. You are exactly who you are supposed to be.
But there’s more. You were knit into the tapestry of this particular place and these particular people to be a blessing; a healing on this earth.
The song that the choir is going to sing a little later was commissioned for Doctor King’s funeral…his favorite hymn, Precious Lord. And the lyrics were written just for his return home to God. I want you to hear them as a prayer:
Precious Lord, take my hand, bring Thy child home at last, where the strife and the pain are all past; I have dreamed a great dream that thy love shall rule our land. Precious Lord, precious Lord, take my hand.
Precious Lord, take my hand, take Thy child unto Thee, with my dream of a world that is free for that day when all flesh joins the glory thou has planned, precious Lord, precious Lord, take my hand.
Preached on January 7, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
Glennon Doyle says this in her Ted X talk called “Everything I know I learned in a mental hospital.”
A former addict and bulimic, she describes college as a haze of binging and purging in the morning, and booze and drugs and boys in the evening. She says:
“….I hated the sunrise.
I closed the blinds, and I put the pillow over my head when my spinning brain would torture me about the people who were going out into their day into the light to make relationships and pursue their dreams and have a day – and I had no day; I only had night.
And these days, I like to think of hope as that sunrise. It comes out every single day to shine on everybody equally. It comes out to shine on the sinners and the saints and druggies and the cheerleaders. It never withholds; it doesn’t judge. And if you spend your entire life in the dark and then one day just decide to come out, it’ll be there waiting for you — just waiting to warm you.
All those years I thought of that sunrise as searching and accusatory and judgmental. But it wasn’t – it was just hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. And I think if you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited.”
It’s a new day; a new sunrise; and we’re still alive. Let us accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life, and let us hold out that invitation out to others.
Because it’s very dark.
This country is fearful and anxious and often ugly in its rhetoric and division. There is saber rattling daily about nuclear war; hatred and killings seem to feed our daily diet of what the world we inhabit is really like. No matter what political party we associate with, we know that we have a contempt problem fueled by separation and alienation.
It’s very dark.
Here in our congregation, so many of our beloveds have been recently diagnosed with cancer, have terminal illness, are struggling in crumbling marriages, are mired in substance abuse, are unemployed or under-employed, are scared of what the future holds. We are all mourning deep loss. Many of us have lost hope.
This time of darkness is the best time to celebrate the festival of Epiphany. Because Jesus was born to be the light of the world in a time of terrible darkness.
The story of Epiphany goes like this:
King Herod heard tell of a baby born in Bethlehem who was to be king of the Jews. Herod erupted into a raging, vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! So he called on his constituents--three Wise Men--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these guys to reveal this powerful baby’s location, so that Herod could destroy him.
The wise men set out to follow the brightest star they had ever seen out of the darkness, journeying for days with no map or direction, not stopping to rest, not knowing the final destination. They simply relied on the wisdom to know the journey would lead them to a new understanding; new knowledge; new hope. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There’s a joke that goes, if the wise men were wise women, they would have brought practical gifts like diapers, wipes and maybe one of those vibrating bassinets that plays lullabies. (They would have also brought a casserole, lanisoh cream, and cleaned up the stable.) But the wise men brought impractical presents because they were gifts fit for a king; fit for God.
The wise men have a dream that night that spooks them enough that they don’t go back to Herod to tell him where the child is. And Joseph has a dream telling him it’s a good idea to move his little family to Egypt to protect them, so he does.
When Herod finds out that he had been tricked by the wise men, he goes into a rage. Like the jealous, thin-skinned, easily threatened, narcissistic, impulsive leader that he is, he retaliates by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. That’s right. Herod is so spiteful, thin-skinned and easily provoked that he kills all of the young children in Bethlehem, all in response to his fear of a little baby who challenges his leadership.
The parents of Bethlehem are inconsolable, of course. The weeping is deafening: wailing and loud lamentation.
The Epiphany story is the story of a tiny baby boy shining God’s light of Truth into the darkness of empire, great sorrow, and terror. It is the story of a journey to follow that light not knowing the destination. It is a story of becoming wise; an invitation to hope’s promise.
My favorite stories are epiphany stories. My favorite stories include heroes like you and me who decide to accept the invitation to hope the sunrise offers. My favorite protagonists take a journey out of the safety of darkness, not knowing where they will end up.
And so my new personal hero is Christian Picciolini, and I want you to know his epiphany story. I was introduced to him last week on Sarah Silverman’s show “I Love You, America.” He recently wrote a book called “White American Youth: My Descent into America’s most Violent Hate Group, and How I Got Out.” After I saw his beautiful interview with Silverman, I watched his Ted talk, and then a 60 Minutes show dedicated to him and the black man who forgave him. I wept openly watching all three, something I rarely do.
Christian Piccolini’s story begins as a young child growing up in Chicago with Italian immigrants for parents. He came from a good family, but as recent immigrants to America, his parents had to work all the time. They had two jobs each just to make ends meet and Christian was alone a lot, and feeling emotionally neglected. As a young middle schooler, he was small and bullied often. He didn’t fit in at school, and generally didn’t have a place to belong. He was angry.
One day, at age 14, he was smoking a joint in an alley, and a man twice his age came up to him, took the joint out of his mouth and told him, “you know, the Jews and communists want you to smoke this to make you docile.”
Christian admits now that he didn’t know any Jewish people at the time, and that the only communist he had heard of was the antagonist in his favorite Rocky movie. He also admits now that he had no idea what the word “docile” even meant.
Nevertheless, that man gave him an identity, a purpose, a place to channel his rage, and a place to belong that day. Within a week, Christian had joined the most notorious and deadly white supremacist group in the nation. He rose up as one of the biggest leaders in the movement quickly, starting a white power punk rock band and touring the world, and recruiting young, vulnerable white boys into the community.
As a teenager, Christian was expelled from his high school six times, three of those for beating up the same black classmate. He was finally kicked out of his high school for good after calling the African American principal horrific racial slurs, threatening the lynching of all of the black people in Chicago, and trying to start a fight with the African American head of security at the school. He was restrained by that same man, and later arrested.
A high school drop out and skinhead, Christian got married young at 19, and soon after had two young boys. So at 21, his hard shell was cracked open a little bit, and a tiny ray of light shone in his darkness. (Little babies have the power to topple hate and empire, after all. They have the power to save the world.)
Christian started to ask himself who he really was: a white supremacist, or a husband and father. He started to have a new sense of allegiance, belonging and identity to the young family he had given life to. He left the streets in those years to protect his family, but he still didn’t leave the movement.
Instead, Christian opened a record store to sell his white power music; the only true “business” he knew. People would come from all over the country to buy it. He knew, though, that if he only sold white supremacist music, the community would see him as a threat and shut his business down, so he also sold some hip hop, punk rock, and other genres.
As a result of the diverse array of music his store sold, Christian began to meet and form relationships with people in the communities that he had long purported to hate.
One day a black man about his age came into his store, and he was noticeably shaken and tearful. Christian decided to ask him what was wrong and he found out that the man’s mother had breast cancer. Christian felt compassion and kinship for this man because Christian’s mother was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Another week, a gay couple came in, and Christian watched them tenderly care for their little boy. He had a sudden realization that this couple loved their little boy just as much as he loved his children, and he related to them instantly.
Another week, he met and talked with recent immigrants. Their story reminded him of his own parents’ immigration story, and how hard they had to work just to survive and take care of him. Suddenly, instead of hating immigrants for taking jobs, he remembered that he, too, was the son of hard working immigrants.
Christian slowly began to see more in common with the people he once hated than the hate group he was associated with.
He began to be embarrassed about the primary source of his income now that he had made these new connections. He closed the store, and as a result, lost everything he worked for. However, he didn’t denounce the white power movement entirely, so his family left him soon after.
He was depressed and lost. Eventually, a friend got him a new job installing computers. One day, Christian had to go to his old high school to install a computer. Terrified to confront his past, Christian saw the African American head of security that he fought with years before, who still worked there. Christian followed the man to the parking lot, and tapped him on the shoulder. The man stepped back in fear, recognizing him. Christian couldn’t think of what to say. Finally, he stammered, “I’m sorry.” And the man moved forward to embrace him.
“I forgive you,” the man said. “But I ask that you do one thing. Go out and tell your story to everyone who will listen.”
That day changed Christian’s life forever. He says: “I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.”
He has now counseled over 100 people out of the white supremacy movement through his organization “Life After Hate.” He speaks in prisons and in schools. He wrote a book about his journey, and teaches about the spread and psychology of hate groups. He shines light, every day, in the darkness of hate.
And he does it with love. When Christian meets with young white supremacists, he doesn’t try to convince them they are wrong or bad. He just listens with compassion. He listens for the potholes in their life, and fills them. He listens for alienation, and he finds them community. He listens for anger and loneliness, and he offers them hope and connection. He helps them get job skills, tattoo removal, counseling, and self-esteem building.
And he doesn’t stop there. He brings them to meet people that they purport to hate. He says that hate comes from fear of the unknown. It is almost impossible to hate people when you know their story.
In our scripture from Isaiah, the glory of God shines upon the nation’s darkness, and the nation reflects God’s light like a mirror. The light of God shines upon them, and they arise and become a light for others.
Christian Picciolini allowed light to pierce the darkness of his hate. He followed the light though it meant leaving the safety of his community and way of life. He just kept doing the next right thing until he made it to Bethlehem to kneel down before the Christ child. And then he offered his gifts fit for a human divine king. Christian, acting as a mirror to reflect the light, asks others to do the same. He challenges his audiences to find the people who least deserve our compassion, and give it to them. Impractical gifts that just may be fit for God.
Beloved Epiphany people: Christian’s task is our task. We must let the light of God pierce our deepest darkness. We must follow the light though we do not know the path, and have no map to follow. We must do the next right thing until we reach the Christ child. We must offer our impractical gifts fit for God. We must accept hope’s daily invitation to come back to life. If you still have a day, if you’re still alive, you’re still invited. Invite others to come with you. Find someone who doesn’t deserve our compassion, and give it to them.
Arise, shine; for your light has come! Lift up your eyes and look around! The glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Happy New Year!
*Watch the TedX Talk that inspired this sermon by Christian Picciolini here.
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.
A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett on
November 26, 2017, Christ the King Sunday at
The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard.
You survived Thanksgiving! Congratulations! It’s time to switch our life speeds from “busy mode” into “CRAZY busy mode.” We will now commence shopping and partying and cooking and squeezing in every family tradition we have between now and December 25th. We will now commence dysfunctional family gatherings, forced merriment, conspicuous consumption, thwarted expectations and going into debt.
But we do it for the children, right? We are so selfless.
My son is at that age when he is far more theologically profound than anyone in our family. The magic of this season is uniquely alive in Isaac, and like many children his age he asks the questions that theologians have been asking for thousands of years.
So, these days I get nervous when the four-year-old philosopher climbs into bed before I’ve had my coffee to ask me what I want to think about. These days the thing that he wants to think about every morning, is “Christmas.”
And so the questions begin. They are often along the lines of “what is Santa doing right now? Why do the elves have to help him make the toys? How do the reindeer fly? Why does he need them to pull the sleigh? How does he get down the chimney? Where on the roof does the sleigh go? Can Santa make Spider man toys?”
One day I asked him rather righteously, “Do you know whose birthday Christmas is?”
“No,” he said. (Whoops).
“It’s not yours. It’s Jesus’s!” I said.
“Will Jesus be coming to our house for his birthday party?” he asks.
“Jesus is always with us. He’s in our hearts,” I answer.
“Where?” Isaac asks, and looks down his shirt.
“You can find him in the part of you that feels sad when other people feel sad, and the part of you that feels happy when other people feel happy. And you can find him in other people,” I say.
Four year olds are far more concrete than that. “Where? I don’t see him. What does Jesus look like? Does he look like Daddy?”
“Yes,” I say. “Except more brown.”
“What does his stomach look like?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “In pictures he has six pack abs.”
“Can I see a picture? Is Jesus God? Is Jesus still alive or did he die? Was God born on Christmas, too? Where is God now? Is God invisible? What does Santa Claus make for Jesus in the toy workshop? Does Jesus play with toys? Is Santa Claus God?”
You can see why I look forward to these conversations with a mix of anticipation and dread.
It’s hard to relay to my son that worshipping Jesus might mean giving the gift of ourselves away, rather than waiting impatiently for Santa Claus to bring us a Spider Man toy made in his workshop of jolly elves who are in all actuality probably child slave laborers in a third world country making a few cents an hour in a factory with deplorable conditions.
The fact that it’s hard is because of the lie we tell ourselves and our children every year that there is any sort of piety in celebrating a month of American greed and gluttony and calling it a celebration of Christ’s reign on earth.
So my sermon inspiration this week comes from my son’s good questions, known to stymie theologians who haven’t had their coffee; from Jesus, known for saving the world; and--I never thought I’d say this, but—from Russell Brand, who is a Hollywood actor and comedian known for being married, briefly, to Katy Perry.
Russell Brand was being interviewed on some British TV show recently. He talks about how he got sober--stopped doing drugs, drinking and watching pornography. He detailed how he spends his days now—praying religiously every morning, doing good things for others and listening to other people’s stories. He does this, he says, not because he is particularly pious, but because drugs no longer work. This new way of life fills the void drugs no longer fill for him—helping others makes him feel good. The interviewer asks him if this new way is more time consuming. And he answers truthfully, “yes. It is time consuming. But the alternative is unthinkable. if I don’t spend my time this way, I will slip into a sort of prison…. Look, you get to a point where individual and collective needs align and marry perfectly because we are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. So when you treat other people with grace and with kindness, you are enforcing something that is very powerfully true.”
And Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life says this: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’
We are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. That is what Jesus and Russell Brand tell us. So yes, Isaac, Jesus is invited into our homes on his birthday, and every time we invite other people into our hearts. Especially those who we don’t understand, or we don’t want to invite. That’s because in order to inherit the kin-dom of God, we live for others. We feed, we give, we welcome the stranger, we clothe, we heal, we visit. Even though it is time consuming. Because the alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is the eternal punishment of separation from one another, God and ourselves—in other words, the alternative is death.
This is Christ the King Sunday, or reign of Christ Sunday. Some folks in the church don’t give this day much credence as it is a rather new feast day in the liturgical year: the last Sunday of ordinary time before advent begins. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius the XI in response to growing secularism after World War I. It is only 90 years old, in other words…not exactly ancient. And it was created because the Pope began to fear that people were worshipping worldly heroes more than Christ: the Kaisers, Kings and Czars on golden thrones and in ivory towers, politicians and presidents, celebrities, and the false prophets of snake oil sales religion. Conquest and power began to be the recognizable markers of the coming Kingdom rather than the blessing of the least of these.
We need Christ the King Sunday now more than ever. We need Christ the King Sunday because our definition of a “powerful person” is too often someone who has made a lot of money, who won’t back down, who’s done well in business, who owns property and rules with a back bone and an iron fist. We worship those who threaten to use the biggest weapons in the arsenal, who use other people for their own gain, who harm and exploit others’ bodies all the while preaching moral righteousness. Our definition of a powerful person is “someone willing to smite our enemies, to defend ‘our’ land, to kill in ‘our’ name.”
But that’s not our God’s definition of Kingly rule.
So we need Christ the King Sunday now. We need to be reminded that the king we worship was born homeless in a manger to an unwed teenaged mother. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who was poor and lowly; who was humble, meek and mild. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who did not wear a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns. We need to be reminded that we worship a king whose throne was not a golden spectacle, but a wooden cross. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who died for all, rather than judge people worthy or unworthy of saving.
We need Christ the King Sunday because frankly, it is hard for us with our poor vision and vengeful hearts to see Christ as a figure worthy of worship. If we are being honest, Jesus is our worldly idea of a wimpy, weak-willed loser. Instead of disavowing the poor as lazy and unworthy, he got to know them. Instead of condemning those sentenced to death row as disposable, he visited them. Instead of letting those without health insurance die, he healed them. Instead of building walls, he built bridges. Instead of letting the poor and hungry starve, he fed them. Instead of fighting back when threatened, he turned the other cheek. Instead of smiting his enemies, he gave up his life for them.
And the kicker is that the king we worship expects the same of the rest of us.
Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” our true king says.
In the upside down kin-dom of heaven where Christ reigns, to become rich, you give your money away. In the upside down kin-dom where Christ reigns, to get back at your enemies, you love them. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to become a leader, you become a servant. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to truly find life, you die to self. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, all people are called beloved children of God, and treated as though that is true.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"
We need Christ the King Sunday because worshipping this humble king might actually mean changing the way we live our lives.
About 10 years ago, a group called “Advent Conspiracy” formed in order to take back Advent from the Doorbuster black Friday sales at Target of this Thanksgiving weekend, and the ensuing consumer spending spree. They function on four principles I have shared with you before, and will share with you again now.
Number 1. Worship Fully
Worshipping fully is noticing the in-breaking of Love into a brutal and awaiting world. We need to slow down to notice; to take time out of our busy weeks of shopping and cooking and parties to be still and wait. This advent, commit to come to church every Sunday to practice noticing this Love and to bow down before it. This is how we worship our king.
Number 2. Spend Less
Americans spend 600 billion dollars during the Christmas season, mostly charged on their credit cards. So we go deep into debt to buy gifts that will be forgotten by New Year’s Eve. Imagine what we could do with 600 billion dollars to feed people, or to house refugees, or to ensure that the whole world had clean water to drink. What if we were to spend less at Christmas, by making our gifts like we did as kids, by writing letters to loved ones about what they mean to us, by spending time with our families instead of money…which is all our kids really want from us anyway. This advent, commit to spending less money, and spend more time. This is how we worship our king.
Number 3. Give More
I know that I just said that you and I need to stop spending so much money and going into debt to buy presents, and now I’m telling you to give more, and that seems like a contradiction. Give more of yourself away. Give more to your loved ones, to your church, to the community. When we spend less on our loved ones, our excess is available to lift up the poor and the needy. This advent, give more of yourself to God. This is how we worship our king.
Number 4. Love All
Fear is the enemy of faith. Other people aren’t the enemy. Fear is. And the opposition to fear is love. So this Advent, find the ones that you fear the most, and get to know them. Maybe invite someone that you disagree with religiously or politically out for coffee. Maybe really make eye contact and smile at someone you would normally over-look or avoid. Maybe visit someone in prison, or give your money away to someone you think doesn’t deserve it. Maybe encountering the darkest part of your own heart is the thing you fear the most. This Advent, Love what you fear, especially yourselves. That’s true bravery. This is how we worship our king.
Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Committing to these four practices is how we to inherit the kin-dom of God. Live for each other, because we are not separate from one another in anyway that is meaningful. Give yourself away in service to Love.
And he shall reign forever and ever.
Preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
November 19, 2017
Thanksgiving Sunday at the First Church in Sterling, MA
by William Stafford
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won’t even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown.
Any morning can be an occasion for frowning. There is so much trouble busying itself elsewhere; it has so much to do in the world. Any morning can also be an occasion for gratitude. Little pieces of Heaven left lying around can be picked up and saved.
It is not one or the other: trouble or heaven. As always, it’s both. Frowning and joy; grief and gratitude; the desire to save the world and savor it. Don’t let anyone tell you you have to pick between two things. The world is both brutal and beautiful, and anyone who notices the beauty in the world must want to save it from brutality.
In our reading from the Epistles this morning, St. Paul in his letter to the people of Thessalonica gives instructions to prepare them for Christ’s second coming with instructions for their holiness. He says to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”
Rejoice always, Paul, really? Even at the DMV, the traffic on the mass pike, the hospital, the funeral home? I am still mourning the death of people I love. I am worried about the uncertainty of the future and my children’s future. We have been plunged into the darkness of the winter this month and the seasonal depression that is sure to come along with it. People are dying every day, and the world is violent and mean. Rejoice always, Paul? Seriously?
Pray without ceasing, Paul, how? Sometimes I have to, like, sleep, bathe and read InStyle magazine. And sometimes it’s hard just to put one foot in front of the other, get my grocery shopping done, get my kids to all of their appointments and pay the bills. I should be praying that whole time? Really?
Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul? Even when I have heard countless stories of assaultive men I once admired in the news this week? This congregation readies itself to celebrate Thanksgiving again this year, and there will be newly empty chairs at our Thanksgiving tables. There will be anger, grieving and loneliness. Some of us are so ill we have lost hope. Some of us won’t be able to afford a turkey. Some of us won’t be able to stay sober or sane. Give thanks in ALL circumstances? These ones, too?
These are seemingly impossible feats Paul is requiring of the followers of Jesus. But he may just be reminding us that there is no other choice but to rejoice, pray unceasingly, and yes, to be thankful in all circumstances though we’ve considered all the facts.
When I was studying to be a minister, I did a summer long chaplaincy internship at Mass General Hospital on the neurological floors. I remember going to my supervisor in a panic before being on call for the first time. I could be beeped to go into any part of the hospital during the overnight shift. I had a 9 month old baby and a four year old at the time. I said to my supervisor: “I don’t think I can go to the NICU or the PICU. I can’t handle it. I’m a mother.”
And she said to me, rather harshly (she was a rather harsh person): “Robin, this is not about you. That’s not your kid in the hospital bed. That’s not your baby. That’s someone else’s. It could be your kid, and it may be your kid one day, but its not today. So today the right response is gratitude. The second response is to suck it up and show up.”
Ann Lamott says, “Sometimes heaven is just a new pair of glasses.” I have been thinking about my need for a new prescription as I reflect on my regular failure to be grateful.
A few weeks ago, I awoke to a leak in my ceiling dripping dirty water onto the foot of my bed from the attic floor boards. I got up, walked downstairs and stepped on legos with bare feet as I crossed the kitchen floor, swearing as I realized there was still a sink full of dirty dinner dishes left over from the night before. No one seems to know that there is a dishwasher in my house except me. My head is aching, it’s too early in the morning, I stayed up too late last night, I have to go to the dentist, I am so busy, it is so hard, I have too much work to do and not enough time to do it in, I want to go back to bed. “Ugh. When will I get peace and quiet and time for me and a vacation and a maid!”
And truthfully, too often I say that instead of: “thank you, God, for my life and breath, for the fact of my rising from a warm bed, for the two strong legs that carried me to the bathroom to splash water on my face like a baptism. Thank you for the dawn of a new day, for the healthy, funny, loving children that leave their toys on the floor for me to step on. Thank you for clean water flowing from my sink that I can wash my dishes with. Thank you for the food I have to scrape into the trash before I do. It is a ridiculous blessing that I have so much food I am scraping some of it into the trash.
Thank you for the shower I took this morning, in clean drinking water. An embarrassment of riches, I think, after reading about the people all over the world, and even in Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico who still don’t have clean drinking water; the children who are poisoned, the cholera epidemics. And I am literally bathing in drinking water.
Which reminds me to thank you for excellent medical care, and a mouth full of teeth that chew. Thank you, God, for the floor on which those legos were laid, and the roof over my head that will be patched and then fixed and paid for by people other than me.
Thank you, God, for the husband who gives me his whole heart, for the boy who wakes me up too early to ask me what I want to think about. Thank you for a mind that thinks, and for people who encourage that mind to think differently. Thank you for the girls who are fighting over the television remote right now. Thank you, God, for the gumption they inherited to fight for what they believe to be right…they’ll need it. And thank you for the coffee maker, which makes it all more bearable.
Thank you for meaningful work serving people I love. I am blessed to have too much work. I am blessed to have the best and most loving boss, You.
Thank you, God, for the good earth that created us, that warms and feeds and sustains us; that astounds us with beauty every day. Thank you, God, for all of the extra: we have so much that we can give some away. Thank you for your Church; for a place where our giving can match our deepest held values.
Thank you, God, for the tears of mourning I have shed. I have loved and been loved so fully that loss feels like a hole in my heart that will never be filled. Thank you, God, for the pain of being fully alive because it cuts through the numbness of depression. It cuts through the empty consumption of mindless consumerism. Thank you for all of the memories I have of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, responsible for both deep wounds and deep wisdom. Thank you, God, for good therapists and for Zoloft.
The only prayer on my lips every morning should be “thank you,” because there is nothing else to say in the face of such abundance.
As we sit around our Thanksgiving tables this week to give thanks for what we have, let us remember that our joy comes from Love; our ceaseless prayer is Love in action; our gratitude is the only response.
Beloved: this holiday season, in the words of First Parish in Concord's weekly benediction:
Go out into the world in peace
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings, especially yourself.
Later in the day you can act like the others. You can shake your head. You can frown. But for now, pick up and savor little pieces of heaven wherever you find them.
For now and in all things, enter God’s courts with Thanksgiving, and God’s gates with praise.
A Sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
November 12, 2017
with thanks to Rev. Sarah Stewart and Wikipedia for the inspiration
Sermons are better seen.
I want us to imagine a world in which weapons of war are transformed into tools for healing and harvesting.
What better day to imagine this world than the Sunday of Veteran’s day weekend; the day we welcome 15 new members into our church. Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifices for our country’s freedom. Thank you, new members, for agreeing to walk hand and hand with us in the interest of bringing about earth as it is in heaven.
Our scripture from Micah talks about that heaven on earth: the day when the people of the world shall beat their swords into ploughshares and beat their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
I had a conversation at dinner a couple of weeks ago with one of our beloved veterans, Paul Jones, who said, “there is no one who desires peace in the world more than a soldier. We understand the cost of war profoundly, and war is the last thing we want.” They have walked in the darkest valley in the shadow of death.
Especially for our veteran’s sake, may we continue to pray for a world without war.
Beat swords into ploughshares.
This concept has literal applications, I found in my very scholarly Wikipedia research.
After World War II, military surplus AFVs were sometimes converted into bulldozers, agricultural, and logging tractors. French farmers sometimes used modified versions of the obsolete FT-17 tank, and similar vehicles, based on the T-34 tank, remain in widespread use in the former USSR.
Weapons of war transformed to harvest new crops. Death transformed to life.
From the 1970s onwards, several anti-war musicians play guitars made from military surplus weapons. Jamaican reggae star Pete Tosh famously owned a Stratocaster built around an M-16 rifle.
Weapons of war transformed into music; to beauty. Death transformed to life.
Nitrogen mustard, developed from the chemical weapon mustard gas developed in World War I, became the basis for the world's first chemotherapy drug, mustine, developed through the 1940s.
Weapons of war transformed to heal. Death transformed to life.
Imagine a world in which all weapons have been turned into tools: for harvesting and building, healing and hope. Imagine a world in which the human tendency to tear down is transcended by a divine commitment to build up.
That’s God’s world, our scriptures remind us. Death transformed to life.
We need this now, O God who makes all things new. We are in this cycle right now in America that disturbs all of us, rocks our sense of safety, elevates our cynicism and apathy, and makes us feel hopeless and without agency.
There have been 382 mass shootings so far in America in 2017. 539 dead, just from mass shootings alone this year. On an average day, 93 Americans are killed with guns.
We are growing numb, helpless and tired.
We have the mass shooting problem in America down to a melancholy script. Headlines shout something about the latest massacre being the deadliest whatever in that venue’s history. We all nervously check to see the race and religion of the shooter to see if the media and politicians will declare that it was an act of terrorism or a “lone wolf” with a mental health problem. Politicians tweet out thoughts and prayers. Liberals declare, “enough of thoughts and prayers. Do something to fix it.” And conservatives declare, “this is not the time to politicize a tragedy.” Gun sales skyrocket for a little while. People fight about whether we have a mental health crisis or a gun crisis or a domestic violence crisis or a radicalized religion crisis, or a crisis of toxic masculinity or all of the above. Nothing is done to change anything. Then it all disappears into the air until the next mass shooting, which will happen so soon that at it will fail to even register properly on our shock and horror radars.
This latest mass shooting--though it happened in Texas--feels close to home to us, though. Twenty-six people mowed down by a man wearing tactical gear and carrying some sort of semi-automatic machine gun. Twenty-six killed and twenty more injured in a small town church during worship in Texas last Sunday. Twenty-six killed on a Sunday while we, too, gathered for the same humble purpose in a small town church here in Sterling. All of that gathered congregation in Sutherland Springs are either now dead or wounded. 4% of the town of Sutherland Springs died that day.
This one hit home. Our congregation wrote to me, stopped by, called, expressing fear that it could happen here. Is no place safe? They asked, tears in their eyes. I wonder the same thing, though that is not new for me. I spent the week making church safety plans with defense experts in the congregation and the chief of police. I deeply resent that it has come to this: that our sense of security has been threatened in our safest, open, loving, welcoming place.
This time I decided to flip the mass shooting script. I decided to cross some ideological boundaries to do so. If we are going to do something effective, the words that we use as weapons must be turned into tools of healing and harvesting and hope instead.
We need the humility to start with ourselves.
As many of you can probably guess, my parents are vehemently anti-gun. We weren’t allowed even to have squirt guns at home, or to pull out our “trigger fingers” to pretend to shoot each other. This was harder for my brother than it was for me, since like many boys, he seemed to come out of the womb with the ability to make that machine gun noise I wasn’t biologically programmed for. I lived in New Hampshire, and many of my friends, I’m sure, had guns, but I was blissfully unaware. As an adult, I lived in Boston where all of my friends were liberal professionals. I didn’t know anyone who used a gun there, to hunt or for self-protection or even to shoot skeet. None of that is very practical in the city.
As a result, I know nothing about guns. I have never shot one or even touched one. I have never hunted and killed my own food. I don’t know how to use them as a tool or for self defense. Like so many liberals, I am uneducated about them, naïve about their proliferation, and frankly scared of them. My whole life I have been vehemently for gun control; one of those people who the NRA warns you about.
So this week I sought out my gun-owning beloveds in this congregation. I sought out my conservative beloveds in the congregation. I talked with the police chief, with our veterans, with our defense experts, our second amendment defenders. What I found is that they are just as disturbed, sickened and worried about the proliferation of mass shootings as I am. We described our fears and resignation with tears of rage in our eyes. I learned that they worry that gun control measures might keep us less safe. They listened as I explained my worries that having more guns makes us less safe. One of you even offered to teach me to shoot at the shooting range, and I’m going to take you up on it.
In the course of these conversations, I realized that our desire to keep this congregation and community safe was the primary value we shared in common. We love one another, and we love our children. That’s why. And love is the way forward.
I want us to practice being a people in which the words we have turned into weapons can be transformed into tools of healing and harvesting. Where we listen to understand; where we search for commonalties. Beat swords into ploughshares. Maybe this is what it means to DO SOMETHING.
Nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy and inaction. As if one is either for prayer, or for doing something . As is usual in our country right now, there is no middle way. As a pastor who believes in the power of prayer and who can see that our fervent prayers haven’t stopped the killing, I think we need both. Liberals and conservatives, gun enthusiasts and gun despisers, if I can go shoot guns at a shooting range, you can take one another out for coffee and listen for understanding rather than argument. We can do very hard things.
This week in yesterday’s Keep the Faith column in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, my friend and colleague the Rev. Sarah Stewart told an old joke:
Once upon a time, a man was shipwrecked and flailing around in the sea. He kicked his feet and waved his arms and cried, "O God, save me! I’m going to drown!” And lo and behold, a helicopter spotted the wreckage and flew in low over the man. A ladder uncoiled from the belly of the copter and a rescue worker made his way down. “Grab my hand!” the rescuer shouted.
“No, God will save me!” the man replied. No matter what the rescuer said or did, the man refused to take his hand and be pulled to safety. The rescuer watched in utter dismay as the man slipped beneath the waves.
The man came to his senses in Heaven. Dry, warm, and comfortable, he walked toward God, who was hanging out in God’s favorite chair by the fire. “Hey God!” the man said. “I prayed! I was faithful! Why didn’t you rescue me?!”
“Buddy,” said God, “who did you think sent the flippin’ helicopter?”
And then she wrote this:
This old joke comes to mind when I hear politicians offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of gun violence in America. What on earth do they mean? What do they think “prayer” means?
…..Effective prayer is the hallmark of an effective leader. Prayer brings the community together in shared action to contemplate their behavior. Prayer makes open a way that had previously been closed. Prayer is getting up off your knees to settle the differences you have with someone in your community. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul told the church in Thessalonica, and if we are to follow his example, everything we do should be a prayer.”
Hallelujah. Let’s get off our knees and settle differences. Let everything we do be a prayer.
Jesus didn’t pray with his words very much in the Bible. He healed, he sat with, he loved, he fed. He used his hands; his body. He told his disciples to “go and do.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, he tells the lawyer that the one who helps his neighbor is the one who is living God’s commandments. “Go and do likewise,” he says. When he serves communion on the night before he dies, Jesus says “do this in remembrance of me.”
Go and do. Do this. This is how we pray.
So on this Veteran’s Day, on this new member Sunday, I am grateful for this theologically and ideologically diverse congregation where I am pushed to be better every day. I am grateful for our responsible gun owners and our gun-hating lefties, and the middle ground we are capable of finding. That’s where God resides; in the middle.
So when we unite to beat our weaponized words into tools for healing and harvesting love, this is our prayer.
When we listen to those we disagree with for understanding and shared values, this is our prayer.
When we look for solutions across the ideological divide to end violence, this is our prayer.
When we work for peace among nations, this is our prayer.
When we serve our country in war or in our community’s soup kitchens, this is our prayer.
When we gather to strengthen our souls on Sunday morning despite our fear and apathy and exhaustion because we know we are better together, this is our prayer.
When we feed the hungry and the lonely, this is our prayer.
When we eat soup, break bread, worship, and learn together, this is our prayer.
When we visit the elderly and the infirm, the lonely and mourning, this is our prayer.
When we unite with people brought together not by being like-minded, but like-hearted, this is our prayer.
When we welcome the stranger, this most especially is our prayer. Our wide open doors is a prayer no act of terror can close and lock.
Beloved, unite in the love of God with those you disagree with. Pray without ceasing by going, and doing. Invite someone you disagree with to talk about guns in America. Listen to understand. Be brave enough to imagine together a world in which the words we have turned into weapons have been transformed into tools of healing and harvesting and hope. And surely then goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Preached Sunday, November 5, 2017
All Saints Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
This All Saints Sunday, I want to tell you the story of one of our saints, who joined our church family just two years ago.
A few weeks ago, on September 19, 2017, Shelly Kennedy-Leonard showed me who she was. Shelly called me at the beginning of September and told me that she wanted to see me. I had been waiting for this phone call. Diagnosed with a terrifying cancer diagnosis at the end of July, I had been trying to check in and give space at the same time.
Shelly texted me on the day we were supposed to meet and asked me to come to her house in Lancaster. I arrived at 10:00. As she applied make up expertly (even with contouring) on her living room couch, she told me the story of painting her living room.
“Matt and the kids were all away, so I painted the whole thing myself. It lightened the whole room. It looks like a magazine now with the contrast wall! I must have had cancer the whole time, but I didn’t know it. Isn’t that crazy?”
She told me what the living room used to look like, that she has so many regrets now about living with a “depressing” brown living room for so long, about trying to make it somehow better by adding rugs and decorations instead of just re-painting it. “Why didn’t I do this long ago?” She mused. “It could have been beautiful all this time!”
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
She showed me the hundreds of cards she had received since her diagnosis, hung up around the entry way so she could be “literally surrounded by the love of her friends.” She said, “Can you even believe all of these cards? I can’t believe how much love there is out there for me. This is the thing that keeps me going. My favorite card is the one from the Davises. They weren’t too hand-wringing, they just told me they’d bring baby goats over to my house! That’s the best. People bring me things every day. T-shirts, socks, books about making cancer sexy, because I’m doing this thing, you know? You gotta make this funny. I’m so lucky to have all this love. I wouldn’t have even known the power of all this love if I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. I just can’t believe how much love there is.”
After the home tour, Shelly told me to follow her car because she had more to show me. I followed her to Drumlin Hill in Lancaster, where I had never been. We got out of the car. It was a drizzly day, but Drumlin Hill was one of the most breath-taking sights I have seen in Massachusetts.
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Shelly brought me to the edge of the path up the hill, and pointing up, told me that she came there almost every day, with different constellations of her family or the dogs, or by herself to pray.
“This is the place where I feel close to God. I go to the top of the hill, and I’m sure I can feel God’s presence all around me; surrounding me. I come here for prayer and quiet…the kind you can feel wash over you. When I’m here, I feel surrounded by God’s love and peace.”
She described Drumlin Hill 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 because of all of this beauty….”
She looked at me as my eyes filled with tears. “Is this weird? Is this too much?”
“No,” I said. “I can see why you know God’s presence here.”
“Good. I just wanted you to know who Shelly Kennedy-Leonard is. I love you, Robin, and so I want you to know who I am.”
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
We got back into our cars, and I followed Shelly’s car to St. John’s in Clinton. She was talking animatedly on the phone to a friend or family member…I could see that million-watt smile in the rearview mirror.
We arrived at the door at the front of St. John’s in Clinton, near the altar. Shelly put holy water on her forehead, made the sign of the cross and genuflected as we walked over the threshold. Shelly went to find the lights in the sacristy. “I want you to see it all lit up! It is the most beautiful sanctuary I have ever seen. Look at the stained glass! The beautiful carved wood. The pictures of Jesus. The balconies, which are overflowing with people on Easter. The music that plays out from the rafters from the back fills this whole space. It pours over you. God is present in this space. You can just feel it. Can’t you? The power and majesty of this place. I have always felt as though God is in every beautiful thing here.”
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.
After we kneeled and prayed she said, “I wanted to bring you here, Robin, because I wanted you to get o sense of my family’s journey. I want you to know where we came from.”
She told me the story of re-discovering the Catholic church as a 20-something, needing to make some kind of meaning in her life, feeling generally lost. She told me about taking the confirmation classes at St. John’s as a young adult.
She told me how hard she had worked, how proud she was on the day she stood on the altar to get confirmed the congregation beaming back at her; how proud her parents were. She felt as though something powerful had made a claim on her life.
She told me she came to church there every Sunday, and felt profoundly at home. She was an irreverent Catholic. She told me about laughing uproariously with Matt after marriage classes in the vestry, how fun it was to share that experience with him which they both took seriously and lightly at the same time; a metaphor for their love and marriage.
She told me about her wedding day in that space. “Here’s where Matt and I stood on the altar.” She told me about the love she felt from her family and friends gathered, how hot she and Matt looked “before kids.” She talked about how proud she was to marry Matt, what it felt like to be up there making those promises to him.
She continued to take me on a visual tour of the church’s space.
“Here’s where we sat when my children were babies, so Matt could rock that car seat back and forth with his right arm to keep them from crying. So embarrassing. It’s so echoe-y in here!”
“Here’s where Sadie and Harry were baptized. Here’s where we were sitting when Sadie took her first communion. She put out her two hands in front of her like this. Her little hands were trembling. I was so nervous for her.”
She beamed that smile made of light when she pointed to the back and said: “Here’s where the kids would be penned up before the Christmas pageant. It was like letting the animals out of the zoo. We always helped out because it was pandemonium. Here’s where we sat when they came in with all the hundreds of other sheep and angels, on the aisle so we could see.” She told me every character Sadie and Harry were in the pageant. “Harry made a great donkey!” She said.
Shelly told me about the day she left the church for her children’s sake. She was sure that the priests were not preaching God’s Love as she understood it. She wanted Sadie and Harry to know God as she knew God.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
And then she said: “Here’s where I’m going to cry, so I’m sorry, Robin.” She continued, “I know that God loves me. I know that God loves my family. I have never felt more sure of God’s love. I feel certain that it is not my time to die…that God still has more for me to do here. I’m getting treated, and I have hope. Because the only way to approach this is to believe that I am going to beat this. And there are new experimental treatments every day. But if by any chance that goes wrong, I wanted you to see where my family has been. I’m going to need you and First Church to take care of them, so I need you to know who we are.”
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
Then Shelly told me the story of when she was diagnosed with cancer…the way she and Matt were told, the shock of it; the disbelief. The terrible bedside manner of the doctor who announced the presence of her tumor to them matter-of-factly, like a stealth bomb.
She talked about her kids and how they are coping.
“You can ask us any question you want,” she and Matt said to them. “No questions are off limits.”
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
And Shelly was filled with hope that God would heal her.
“I have an icon of Jesus from the chapel downstairs where I pray that I visualize in my prayers. It is an image of Jesus with rays of light shooting out of his heart. And when I pray, I pray that the cancer is leaving my body like those rays of light, healing me, and dissipating into the air as it leaves my body so that the cancer cells can disappear from my body…but not just that… I pray that they harm no one else. And then I picture God’s love radiating into me in its place, filling me. And I picture those rays radiating out from my own heart and back into the world. That’s what I want: to be filled with God’s love, and to give that love back.”
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.
We left the church, and Shelly and I walked to Bushel and Peck deli. She cracked jokes with the staff and the people in line. Winking, she insisted on buying me my salad and told her I owed her for next time. We sat down inside since it was drizzly outside. “How are you?” She asked me, and meant it.
“Robin, we’re scared of coming back to church. We are skittish and sensitive. We’re scared to cry. We’re scared of what people will say in front of the children. But I am determined to get my family back there. What I want the church people to know is that I am not my illness,” she said. “I am being treated. I’m not lying in a bed somewhere. I’m alive!”
We talked about strategies for well-intentioned questions and comments. We talked about how to care for her family. “My mom and dad are my rock and strength.” “Don’t hug Matt, he is trying to be strong and he doesn’t want to cry in front of you.” “Sadie doesn’t want to be singled out or pitied. No hugs for her either…high fives are fine. My strong, funny girl. “Harry needs lots of hugs and love and care. My sweet, sensitive boy.” She knew her people so well; she knew them by heart.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
She told me that the time since she has been diagnosed in many ways had been a gift. She had to take off from work, allowing her to realize how much she had been needing to slow down. She could make sandwiches for her kids every day in the morning, which was a loving spiritual practice she re-discovered when she was home. She could be home every day when they came home from school. “I’m soaking up every moment with my crazy family,” she said.
I believe I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Before I left her to return to the normalcy of my day (as if anything could be normal after this conversation), she said to me, “Robin, I want you to know something else about me. I need to find a way to return all of this love I have been getting. And there’s no reason why I can’t, just because I have cancer. So please, if you can think of something that I could do to give back to the church or the people, please tell me. I don’t want to just receive, I want to give.” I told her that she had already given me the best gift I have ever gotten as a pastor. And I left.
Shelly Kennedy-Leonard came back to church on October 1st and October 8th she volunteered to teach Sunday School so that the love of God that pierced her heart might radiate back out into the world. The next Sunday, October 15, 2017, Shelly went home to live with God, who she knew with every fiber of her being loved her, and loved her family.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us rejoice in his salvation.
May light perpetual shine upon Shelly, beacon of hope, lover of life, giver and receiver, believer in God’s goodness. Well done, good and faithful servant.
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.