A Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
I know what some of you are thinking. “Oh boy. It’s Easter Sunday and this well-meaning and extremely charming preacher is about to tell me a complete fabrication of unlikely events; an ancient fairy tale. She can’t possibly believe something that defies science and logic. Besides, I only came this morning because my mom made me come and I wanted an excuse to wear this beautiful pastel dress before I binge on Cadbury mini eggs and wine. No matter what this obviously wicked smart and humble preacher has to say, I know this is true: the dead don’t rise.”
Well, you’re right. I’m here to disabuse you of that notion. The dead do indeed rise.
And you, too, will rise again.
What if I told you that the Easter story is as much about Mary Magdalene’s rising as it is about Jesus’? Mary, whose dream for the world just died inside of her when her savior was crucified; Mary, whose darkest night ended with her getting up again?
Jesus’ disciples had spent the night before in the upper room hiding and grieving; the dream they had inside of them crushed. They mourned with the keening wails of a mother crying for her dead son at the foot of the cross: the wailing of a mother who watched her son suffer, and knows she cannot live in this cruel world without her baby boy in it. “I died the day she died,” someone said to me once about losing her child. The disciples died that day with Jesus.
They were also scared. That week they saw how Jesus’ ministry attracted attention. They saw how the power of love threatened those who love power. Jesus gave poor people reason to believe they had as much worth as everyone else. People who know their value aren’t easily controlled. People who see themselves as worthy of love and justice are a threat to “politics as usual.” People like that can unite to overthrow the reign of kings and tyrannical rich autocrats and congress and religious leaders.
The message the disciples heard loud and clear from the empire on Friday was: the Love of God is not as powerful as you think it is. They saw their savior mocked and laughed at and spit on and tortured and killed by those who wished to quell the insurrection that gave the hopeless reason to hope. They watched him beg for God’s mercy, cry out in thirst, forgive them, and breathe his last gasping breath. They watched the oppressors hide his radiance in the cold dark tomb. And with that, the empire managed to crush the spirits of his followers. Their hope was locked in the tomb with him.
And so their mourning the night before wasn’t just mourning for a friend. It was the deep mourning that occurs when faith, hope and love dies. It was the mourning of people who believe they will no longer be saved; the mourning of people who believe that our brokenness will never heal. He was supposed to wipe away all tears from their faces and swallow up death forever. Instead, he, died and left them alone.
Yet, the women knew that they had no choice but to rise again that morning anyway. After all, someone had to make the casserole to bring to the wake! The men certainly weren’t going to!
In the words of Orion Mountain Dreamer’s poem,
“It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.”
Mary Magdalene got up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and did what needed to be done. She brought Mary the mother of James and Salome along with her to the tomb. Her heart was shattered, and yet she picked up the broken pieces and rose.
They didn’t go there to witness a miracle. Quite the opposite. They went to do the ordinary stuff we do when someone dies, even in the midst of impossible, breath-stealing grief. We gather the documents, we call the social security office, identify the body at the morgue, go to the funeral home to purchase a headstone, we figure out the tax information and the life insurance policy, pay bills. We rise and we do what needs to be done.
Likewise, these women traveled to their friend’s tomb to anoint the body with spices, so it wouldn’t smell. “Who will roll away the stone?” They sighed, because no one wants that job, and still someone would have to do it.
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away.
And they peered inside, expecting to see a dead body. After all, the dead don’t rise! The dead just lie there, rotting from the inside: until the finality of death begins to fill up our noses with decay.
What they saw instead was an empty tomb.
“He is raised, he is not here,” a young man dressed in white sitting on the right side said to them. The women were “alarmed,” the text says. The women were “terrified” and “amazed.” Of course they were. The dead don’t rise.
But he wasn’t there. The body was gone, and the man said that he had risen.
God’s ultimate April Fool’s joke: Ha! Why are you looking for the living God among the dead? I have risen!
That wasn’t the punchline the women were expecting.
The women didn’t know when they got up that morning that even though they tried to bury him, his Love was a seed. He taunted his oppressors as his last act of defiance, by rising victorious from the grave, planting his Love in the disciples and watching it grow.
You see, this isn’t just the story of God’s rising. It is the story of our rising.
I’m going to be honest: our text from Mark isn’t my favorite story about the resurrection. It is the most anti-climactic of all of the Gospel accounts. It’s the shortest. It doesn’t have as much of a plot. There are two women, not three. Yes, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is not there, and some sort of angel talks to them.
But Jesus doesn’t appear to them, dirt under his fingernails, gardening like he does in the Gospel of John. And in this account, both women leave almost as soon as they get there, too scared to even tell anyone. They don’t run to tell the others, breathless; the first preachers of the good news. The women simply bear witness, get scared, and in their terror, don’t know what to do next.
Our rising is like that too, sometimes. It is not always ecstatic, dramatic and triumphant. Our rising is often confusing, anti-climactic, terrifying, and hidden.
Our rising may just look like getting out of bed despite a broken heart and doing what needs to be done for the children. It may just look like one more day of not drinking, or one more hour digging our nails into our palm to keep from losing it. It may look like shopping for a pretty head scarf to cover our bald head even though we are weak and tired from chemo. It may look like going on that first awkward OK Cupid date after the divorce papers are filed. It may look like continuing to take the anti-depressants, hoping some day they’ll kick in. It may look like showing up in public every once in awhile even though we don’t want to; even though we are still mourning all that we have lost. It may simply be stopping to notice that a broken heart can go on beating.
In the apocryphal gnostic gospel of Mary Magdalene, thought to be written in the fifth century, it says this:
His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:
How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?
Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:
Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.
Mary arose. And do not let your hearts remain in doubt:
We too will rise again. We are the resurrection.
So beloved, get up out of your graves.
Get up out of the tomb of despair, anger, self-doubt, self-hate, illness, fear, addiction, death, mourning, sin, separation, loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, and depression…
Roll away the stone and rise again!
We are becoming fully human by his greatness, so rise again.
God still has more to do with us, so rise again.
Our current predicaments don’t exempt us from our purpose, so rise again.
A broken heart still beats, so rise again.
We’re not alone, so rise again.
This country is a HOT MESS right now so please rise again!
The people united in God’s love can never be defeated, so rise again.
We can do hard things, so rise again!
Hell is here on this earth, and every last person deserves to be pulled out of it, so reach out your hand and rise again!
Heaven is here on this earth too, so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, rise again!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so rise again!
Healed people heal people, so rise again!
When hopeless people start hoping, empire is destroyed, so rise again!
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other, so rise again!
Happy Easter, and amen.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on March 25, 2018, Palm Sunday
Sermons are better seen.
People in power get nervous when hopeless people start hoping.
Many folks from First Church were marching for our lives yesterday in Worcester and in Boston. I was in Worcester with thousands of protestors there. The entire rally was led by the kids from start to finish: student after student from our area high schools, mostly students of color. Their speeches were impassioned and personal. Many of them had lost family members and friends to gun violence. They were powerful, smart, charismatic and determined. I have been to many rallies in my day, and these were the best speakers I have ever heard.
And then I went home and watched more on line because I couldn’t stop watching these kids.
Emma Gonzalez from Parkland, Florida spoke for her friends lost in DC. She said: "Six minutes and twenty seconds with an AR-15 and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kira, 'Miss Sunshine.' Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan. Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp. Helena Ramsey would never hang out after school with Max. Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch. Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never. Cara Loughran would never. Chris Hixon would never. Luke Hoyer would never. Martin Duque Anguiano would never. Peter Wang would never. Alyssa Alhadeff would never. Jamie Guttenberg would never. Meadow Pollack would never.”
She then stopped speaking and stared into the crowd.
There’s a hymn that goes: “Let mortal flesh keep silence and with fear and trembling stand.” Emma stood there, holding a crowd of hundreds of thousands, on national TV, all of America, in silence for several long minutes breathing, and silently weeping. It was one of the bravest leadership moments I have ever seen.
She ended the silence with, "Since the time that I came out here, it has been six minutes and twenty seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your life before it’s somebody else’s job.”
And she left the stage.
I haven’t cried as much in a year as I did yesterday. I realized that what I felt was a strange sensation I haven’t felt for a long time: hope. Hope in our children and in our future. Hope that we can stop talking past each other long enough to hold silence for the lives we have lost; for all that we have lost.
On Wednesday night, the aptly named Awakening of Hope class Megan and I are leading learned about an unlikely friendship in the pre-segregated south between an African American woman activist named Ann Atwater and the head of the Klu Klux Klan, CP Ellis in Durham, North Carolina. Neither activist wanted to desegregate the schools at first, so they fought one another in town meetings—they hurled dehumanizing racial epitaphs at each other.
And then, a miracle happened: They listened to their children, who told them they wanted to go to school together. They realized then that they were fighting about the wrong things…that the schools themselves would never get better unless they worked together to improve them. They put down their weaponized words, cried together, and joined forces to head the committee to desegregate the schools in their community. C.P. left the Klan and became a Christian. And together they founded the organization “Save Our Schools” in an effort to fund a better education for their poorest children in their community. A book was written about them called “The Best of Enemies.”
When the hopeless start hoping… empirical forces fear what has been true all along: the people united in God can never be defeated.
Today is Palm Sunday. The day the hopeless came together and started hoping.
On the day of the festival, the people heard Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, so they ran out to meet him waving palms. In John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus just “finds” a young donkey for his triumphant entry, (maybe somewhere at a humble and unassuming, not-to -be-named farm in Sterling, Massachusetts) and sits on it.
The people shouted “Hosanna!” which means “I beg you to save!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” They shout.
They herald him as a King.
But his glorious entry into Jerusalem is not what typically could be called “royal.” Jesus’ entry into the city from Mount Olive was a fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah’s words:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
It was as humble an entry as it was triumphant, much like his birth in a lowly manger was.
And for a moment in time before the gruesome days to come, he gave the hopeless reason to hope.
A joyous procession of a “multitude” of disciples followed him.
In the procession were all those in need of salvation: the religious outcasts and the inner circle, those on the margins, the lepers and the lame, the strangers, the aliens, the prostitutes, the homeless, the sick. The children and the teenagers. The hypocrites and adulterers, drunk and sober, scoundrels and thieves, blind and deaf, religious leaders and religious followers, men and women.
In the procession were the people living with AIDS, the people without health insurance, the unemployed, the recently laid off, the middle management corporate shills. The people who had waited on line for their welfare check, at the DMV, or out the door of the food kitchen that morning. The people who have been gaybashed and deported and shot at in their schools or on the streets of Chicago. The black women who are scared for their sons when they walk to the grocery store in a hoodie, the blue collar workers, the MAGA red cap wearers, the coal miners, the crossdressers, the opioid addicted, the divorced, the widowed, the cancer patients, the grieving, the rape survivors, the people who grew up in a place so saturated by toxic waste that they had no choice but to get leukemia. The people who traveled to be there from places like Flint, Michigan and Camden, NJ and war-torn Syria and Iraq. The refugees, the asylum-seekers, the illegal immigrants.
The hopeless hopers. “Hosanna! I beg you to save!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him,” the religious authorities muttered to each other as they watched the Jesus parade. They were scared.
All the rules were being broken by this man who threatened the power structures with his Love of the world as it was. All the rules were being broken by an unlikely King who didn’t even fear his own death by execution because he came in the name of the Lord.
It truly was a great celebration, a pop-up merry band. And in hindsight it just looks shameful. Because this same crowd will spit on Jesus, jeer at him, mock him, and laugh at him while he’s crucified by the Roman authorities just days later.
But for this one blessed moment, the crowd is convinced they have a place and a voice and a God to champion their cause. They believe at least for a day that because he lives—that their lives matter. That Love can truly be the Law of the Land.
Jesus’ kingly celebration was created as a piece of street theater. We don’t always think of Him this way, but Jesus was a satirist like John Stewart, or the Onion, or the writers of Saturday Night Live, (like our own Emma Clark). The world will be saved by the comedians, for they show us with laughter that the emperor has no clothes.
Jesus’ street theater parade was as fearless as it was funny. He knew he was going to die as he rode into town. He rode into town anyway to thumb his nose at the authorities; to show them that God has the power, not weapons of mass destruction. And he set up this pop-up “march for our lives” to mock the military parade that was happening at the same time, on the other side of town.
The military parade was an expensive show of power. There were big horses and chariots and weapons and gleaming armor. The Romans paraded through the city, passing the crucified bodies of political dissidents hanging from crosses as they went. “Don’t try to cross us, or you’ll be next” was the message they sent with their expensive show of military might meant to wow and silence a crowd.
Jesus laughed at them. And his followers shouted with joy. “Hosanna! Blessed are we who come in the name of the Lord!”
“You see, you can do nothing. The Whole World has gone after him.”
I’m sure the Roman authorities had the same thought.
And so it’s no wonder they killed him. When the whole world goes after God, empire quakes in its boots. When people see themselves in one another’s eyes, when they dare to hope, when they understand the whole world to be God’s, and not the government’s or the king’s or the president’s, that’s a dangerous thing.
The people start to see their opponents as friends. They start to realize that people in power want us to be divided so that we the people remain powerless. When we see one another as God sees us we might realize that the people united can’t be defeated because GOD CAN’T BE DEFEATED.
When people see each other the way God sees us, our differences start to melt away.
The cop and the unarmed black man know that they are one
The white minimum wage cashier at Walmart and the Mexican immigrant laborer picking in the fields know that they are one
The idealistic teenager and the cynical adults criticizing them in the internet comment sections know that they are one
The Conservative Republican and the Liberal Democrat know that they are one
The gun control activist and the second amendment activist know that they are one
The small town coal miner and the city-dwelling Marxist know that they are one
The gay asylum-seeker from Jamaica and the rural white farmer know that they are one
The uninsured and the unemployed know that they are one
The Muslim and the Christian and the atheist and the Buddhist know that they are one…
That’s dangerous stuff. Because when the people know they are one, they stop following the rules of religious orthodoxy and empire, and start enacting God’s law of love instead…TOGETHER. They start fighting together for the children—for their lives and their quality of life. They start creating communities together that topple the mighty, that lift up the lowly.
When we stop following the rules in order to follow Jesus, the whole world is turned upside down. Which is exactly what God’s dream for the world is.
This week, we will follow Jesus through the betrayal, the trial, the denial, the suffering, the crucifixion, the death, and the long dark night of the soul; the utter hopelessness that follows this day of hope. And then on Sunday, April Fool’s Easter, Love will rise, victorious. God will have the last laugh.
So as we prepare to walk united around our little town here in Sterling…as we prepare to walk with our donkey in our own street theater parade of hope in the Palm Sunday promenade….remember this:
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other.
This may be Caesar’s week, but this is God’s world. The power of Love will overcome the Love of power, and we will rise.
A sermon preached on
March 18, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
You who are broken:
Stop by the Potter's house.
Give God the fragments of your broken life.
You who are broken:
You're in the right place this morning.
The prophet Isaiah says that we are the clay. God is the potter and we are the work of God’s hand. We are formed from dust and water from the earth, and then continually shaped and molded on a potter’s wheel.
The prophet Jeremiah declared his message from God in a Potter’s house: “So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. On our Potter’s wheel, we begin with a formless lump of clay that has imperfections, a lump of clay that will be molded into something beautiful and imperfect; a clay pot that will crack at the brittle places in time and become broken.”
Like on Pastor Megan’s pottery wheel, we begin as a formless lump of clay that has imperfections; marred even in God’s hands. We are each created both beautiful and marred. We are formed and reformed, shaped and re-shaped by God’s grace but never fully “fixed.”
Over time, we crack at the brittle places and become broken.
You who are broken: you are not alone.
Most of you know that I am divorced and remarried. Most of you also know that I’m willing to be your exemplar--not for my Godliness, but for my humanity. I have been broken, and then saved by grace. I was eventually found by God, put back together eventually, and re-purposed in a time in my life that I was participating in my own salvation about as much as a lump of clay would be.
Jesus died to teach us that our God is a God of grace; who forgives and loves; that our covenant with God endures regardless of how many times we break it. I want you to know that, too. No matter what you have done or how many times you have done it, God has promised to love you. God has promised to use you for good.
And in the end, Love wins. Not sin, not death, not broken covenants. All of us who have been broken and put back together again know that Love wins, but it sometimes bangs you up a little first.
The word “sin” has been used as a weapon far too often by certain forms of Christianity, and I know many of us have found this church because we are tired of being shamed simply for being human.
But since the word “sin” is so often used as a weapon, let’s turn this sword into a plough share and put it to better use.
The concept of sin is present in every world religion and secular system of ethics in every culture. Sin is of central importance to the Christian tradition. The “problem” Christianity tries to solve is sin, with the salvation of Jesus Christ. Sin means, in it’s most useful definition, separation from God.
Last week we learned that “salvation” (root word salve) means healing. So if sin is separation from God, salvation is the healing of that separation.
Our separateness from God is only healed through revolutionary love for God’s people.
Remember, this isn’t the Hallmark card kind of love. Jesus is not a Hallmark kind of savior. This is the “love your neighbor as you love yourself” kind of love, this is the “love your enemies” kind of love, this is the “everyone’s welcome to the banquet and no one is cast out” kind of love, this is the “crossing boundaries” kind of love, this is the “touching the untouchables” kind of love, this is the "healing the sick” kind of love, this is the “dying on the cross for the sins of Empire” kind of love, this is the “forgive them father for they know not what they do” kind of love.
We need this kind of love right now. We need this kind of healing.
These are hot mess times in this country. We are undeniably separated from one another: Fox News, CNN and every internet comment section where humanity goes to die tells the story of our separateness. We insist on the illusion of dis-unity. And we need a savior.
I’m waiting every day for the Potter to put us back together again, looking for signs. I expect it to look like the rapture, or an end to the Russia investigation, or something.
But God never puts it all back together the way we expect. Instead, God will invariably put some guy in front of me who doesn’t share my political ideologies who I can’t help but love, and gently suggest that I go to the gun range with him to learn to shoot semi-automatic weapons.
And grace becomes my teacher again. The Potter re-shapes me to love people in ways I didn’t expect to.
Saint Paul in his letter to Ephesus says that we are saved from our sin by grace, not works. We can’t save ourselves through “behaving” the right way, or by our own action. We are clay in God’s hands. Over and over again, God steps in even without being invited, healing us at the broken places. Re-shaping us.
We are due for a radical re-shaping. It’s gonna bang us up a little bit first, but in the end love wins. If love hasn’t won yet, it’s not the end.
So I’m not saying the world was saved, but at least the year 2018 was saved by a Netflix TV series called Queer Eye. This is our 8-episode reminder that love is universal, that healing is possible, that masculinity is far less narrow than we give it credit for, and that God is good.
For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, the show is a reboot from the early 2000s make over show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The premise is that five gay men called the “fab five” swoop in to make the life of a straight guy with low self esteem, a messy house and bad fashion 100% better. The Fab 5 do a home make over, a clothing make over, a grooming make over, teach how to cook an easy fancy dish for a dinner party, and buck up one lucky guys’ self esteem. He invariably lives in ill-fitting cargo shorts and a house filled with light up beer signs.
Yes, the show plays on the stereotype that straight men are so busy doing “man stuff” that they don’t have time for cooking and fashion and that every gay man lives in New York City and has a degree in interior design.
In the re-boot, the premise is similar, but this time the producers of the show set out to make “red states pink.” In the opening mission statement, the token British member of the “Fab Five”, Tan, says: “The original show was fighting for tolerance. Our fight is for acceptance.”
It accomplishes far more than that. The show reaffirms that despite the divisions in this country, we are all human, and we all need love. The subjects are never depicted as helpless buffoons, nor are they treated as uncouth idiots; the problems that are raised are those of an unwillingness to be vulnerable or the social embarrassment surrounding the notion of self-care.
The connections made between the New York City-based Fab Five and the people they help in the rural areas of Georgia are heart-warming and grace filled. They learn as much in the process.
In episode 3, Fab Five member Karamo, who is black, has a truly open and honest conversation with “straight guy” and white police officer Cory, about the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. This culminates in both men crying, having reached a new and emotional level of understanding one another.
Karamo says “I’m open. I’m not saying a conversation with one police officer and one gay black guy is going to solve our country’s problems, but maybe it can open up eyes.”
If you want to be reminded of the goodness of grace, watch it.
God shows up to heal our separation from one another in the most unexpected ways. Like city dwelling gay men waltzing with small town firefighters, and anti-gun liberals learning to shoot an AR-22. That’s the hand of grace. It doesn’t look how we expect it to look, but it molds us into a new creation.
Here’s what I want to leave you with:
Clay pots, no matter how imperfect, are made to be used. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says this: we’ve been saved for the purpose of good works. We are healed to be a healing.
So those of you who are broken on the ground right now: hold on. Grace is coming. Those of us who have lived through the dark night of the soul are holding that little glimmer of light for you because we know that you can’t quite see it yet. We are reminding you that the darkness will end, that God has sent out a search party for you and that you will be found. God’s grace will mold you into a new creation, one far more beautiful for having lived through what you are living through.
Kintsugi, meaning ‘golden joinery’ is an art-form in Japan that restores cracked vessels or broken ceramics with gold, leaving the piece even more beautiful than it started out. The broken places of the pottery shine with sparkling gold when they are finished.
The idea behind it is not to hide the ugliness and brokenness but instead to use gold to make it shine; to illuminate and expose the damage. And at the end of the process the piece is even more beautiful for having been broken.
So, you who are broken stop by the potter’s house. You will be put back together.
You who despair stop by the potter’s house. You will find comfort.
You who are guilty stop by the potter’s house. You will be forgiven.
You who are fearful stop by the potter’s house. You will be at peace.
You who are lonely stop by the potter’s house. You will be found.
You who are outcast stop by the potter’s house. You will be welcomed.
You who are addicted stop by the potter’s house. You will be healed.
You who are depressed stop by the potter’s house. You will find joy.
You who need mending, stop by the potter’s house. You will be hemmed in.
You who need healing, stop by the potter’s house. You will be blessed.
All who are separated, stop by the potter’s house. You are one in the Body of Love.
Give God the fragments of your broken life.
Let Love put you back together again.
Healed people heal people. Healed people heal the world.
Preached on March 11, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen.
Please pray with me in the words of the psalmist:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen
Many preachers say some version of that last line from our psalm before they preach. It is essentially a last minute, game-time plea to God to say: “Lord, help me preach today, because my kids were home for two snow days this week climbing all over me and screaming at each other as I wrote this. Lord, help me, because I am human and therefore unworthy of this big, old pulpit with your name emblazoned above it, so forgive me in advance for screwing this up.”
Mostly we pray this prayer to say: “Lord, help me to channel your Law of Love through my very human words. I pray at the very least whatever I say is acceptable to you.”
Truthfully, it’s impossible to know if the words of my mouth are acceptable to God. (God hasn’t struck me with lightning yet when I’m in the pulpit, so I’ll take that as a good sign.)
I do know that a good gauge is to test my words by the meditations of my heart. Love is the only filter through which I can even attempt to utter the Word of God.
Thankfully, God doesn’t rely on human’s words as the only conduit. God’s Love is written into the earth itself; the grass and trees; the sky and air; the moon and the stars. Even the rocks would shout it out, our Palm Sunday texts say. Our psalmist says that the heavens are telling the glory of God. “In the heavens, he has set a tent for the sun.” When we’re lost in the darkness of our separation from each other and from God, the sunrise is our daily invitation to come back to life.
The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun.
That song from Annie is not my favorite from the show. It always struck me as overly optimistic and trite…until ten years ago.
On July 27, 2008, people gathered in the sanctuary of my dear friend Jake Morrill’s childhood church; the church my friend, Chris Buice pastors: the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. They gathered to watch the children and youth of the congregation present the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, many thought the noise was part of the musical, but they quickly realized there was a gunman in the sanctuary. Some people ran from the room, others threw themselves and their children under the pews.
The gunman killed Greg McKendry when he moved in front of others to shield them from gunfire. The gunman wounded several other adults including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the congregation, who later died of her wounds.
People in the sanctuary, including my friend Jake’s father, John Bohstedt, tackled and subdued the gunman, who had concealed his shotgun in a guitar case as he entered the church. The police arrived and took into custody the shooter, David Adkisson, who had written a suicide screed left in his car condemning liberals, homosexuals, Muslims, and black folks. Adkisson was ex-military, had recently lost his job, was a frequent consumer and purveyor of dangerously violent anti-liberal rhetoric on the internet, and his ex-wife was a member of the congregation.
Hurt people hurt people.
A witness said, "Everybody did exactly what they needed to do. There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It's a remarkable congregation of people. I've never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.”
Healed people heal people.
When the community in Knoxville held a vigil the night after the attack, some of the kids who were performing in the production of Annie Jr. the day of the shooting began singing:
“The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun. Just thinkin’ about tomorrow, clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow, ’til there’s none.”
Everyone joined in.
“When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely, I just stick up my chin and grin and say: the sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you gotta hang on ‘til tomorrow, come what may. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya’ tomorrow, you’re only a day away.”
The sanctuary was rededicated just a few weeks later. "We reclaim our sanctuary," Reverend Buice announced to an overflow crowd. "This sanctuary which has been defiled by violence we rededicate to peace."
Prior to the rededication, Reverend Buice in his homily emphasized the unity of all people regardless of race, sexual orientation or political persuasion.
"We are all liberals. We are all conservatives," Reverend Buice said.
He heralded the heroic crew of unarmed “lefty” types in his congregation who had wrestled the gunman to the ground.
"Reports tell us the shooter thought liberals were soft on terror," Reverend Buice said, injecting humor into his comments. "He had a rude discovery.”
The 800 people in attendance gave a loud extended standing ovation to its congregations’ heroes, including my friend Jake’s father.
They ended the service singing “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
If you need evidence of God’s overwhelming love for us, look no further than the people who risk their lives to save others. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the children singing songs of hope amid death and destruction. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than a church re-opening its doors again just as wide after being defiled by violence, refusing to fear. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the sun’s return, a daily invitation to come back to life.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Love.
We have been on a wilderness journey through the dark together this Lent, and these lanterns represent the search party God has sent out to find us: the little lights in the dark that illuminate the path home.
All of the lessons we have learned during this Lenten season point back to the beginning; our original blessing; our original belovedness. Today is no exception: our scripture from John reminds us that God so Loved the world that God gave his only Son.
Imagine loving the human project so much that you give the precious, priceless gift you most adore in the world to prove that you truly mean it.
Occasionally, one or two of you have asked me why I so often pray for Love’s sake instead of in Jesus’ name. “Is that some sort of Unitarian thing?” You have asked me.
And I always answer, “No, silly. Unitarians don’t pray!” Kidding. Unitarians, I’m kidding.
I pray for Love’s sake because Love is God’s name for Jesus. “This is my Son, the beloved,” God announces at his baptism, and again at his transfiguration. Praying for Love’s sake IS praying in Jesus’ name. His name is Love.
By the way, this isn't the love you find in cheesy Hallmark Valentine cards we invoke with Jesus’ name. This is the turn-over-tables, crack-the-whip, self-sacrificing, servant leadership, washing feet, crossing borders, making-the-untouchables-touchable, bringing-the-margins-into-the-center, die-for-the-sin-of-empire kind of Love.
Jesus’ name is REVOLUTIONARY LOVE . That’s why I have never liked this text I’m preaching on today from the Gospel of John. And for some reason, John 3: 14-21 pops up in the lectionary every year to torment me.
John 3:16 is arguably the most famous sentence in the Bible. Many of you have it memorized: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Many Christians use John 3:16 as a purity test and a cudgel. It is displayed on screen savers, spray painted on over-passes, and emblazoned on football uniforms.
But the next lines in the chapter are the harshest purity test of all, written right there into the Gospel. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And then John 3:18 says “those who do not believe in him are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.”
The passage begins with beloved, and ends with condemnation. On first read, anyway. John 3:18 "condemns" all my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my atheist friends, my Buddhist friends. It “condemns” some of us here today. It condemns me on a bad day, and pretty much condemns my entire family except maybe Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and Isaac. I love Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and I adore Isaac, but a God who only saves them and condemns everyone else is no God I would worship.
This God of condemnation sounds more like the shooter in Knoxville than the God of limitless grace. The shooter at the Tennessee Valley UU church accused the Unitarians of being un-believers, in fact, in his suicide note. He probably felt like he had license to kill them. “After all, those who do not believe are condemned already,” he might have thought before he fired the first bullet.
Last week, I told you that sometimes when you wish to see God you have to look harder.
Some congregations have Bible-thumpers, but we have what I can only describe as a Bible-adoring sister-in-Christ here in this congregation. If Mary Pat Bailey were an ancient prophet, she'd be like Ezekiel and eat a scroll...that's how she consumes the word of God...she ingests it like food. She breathes it like air. She drinks it like water. Her beloved childhood Bible is dog-eared and covered with tear stains…written all over the margins. She carries it everywhere.
When MP has trouble with a text, she crosses out the references to God and Jesus with her pencil and writes "Love." She remembers what Jesus’ name is, and just writes it right in there. Too often I forget to pull out my Mary-pat Bailey revised standard version of my Bible. Too often I am so stuck in my head that I forget to interpret the text with the meditations of my heart.
So, today I want to invite you to turn in your Mary Pat Revised Standard Version of your Bibles to John 3: 14-21 and listen to me read this passage again.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must Love be lifted up, that whoever believes in Love may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave us only Love, so that everyone who believes in Love may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send Love into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Love. Those who believe in Love are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of Love. And this is the judgment, that love has come into the world, and people chose hate rather than love because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in Love.”
The heavens are telling the glory of God through it’s messengers of revolutionary Love.
Let’s talk about eternal life for a moment. The root word of salvation is salve. A salve is a balm…a healing. God so loved the world, that God gave us only Love to heal us all. Salvation means healing, and all means all: the negative nellies, the guy who flipped you off in the traffic jam, the gossipy soccer moms, the golfers with truly impressive dad guts, the drag queens on Ru Paul’s drag race, the prisoners at MCI Concord, the weird kids with piercings in strange places, the opioid addicted small town dwellers that the economy forgot, the gamers and LARPERS and the Sci Fi enthusiasts, the mediocre disciples, the believers, the non-believers, the questioners, the questioning believers--all will be healed in Love. All have an invitation to turn their face to the sun. People who choose hate choose darkness. Hurt people hurt the world. But people who choose deeds done in love are healed people. And healed people heal the world.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Revolutionary Love.
If you need a reminder of that truth, turn your face to the sky. The sun will come out tomorrow, and the healing will begin; light like a balm for wounded souls. Love does not perish, but has eternal life. It’s only Love that never ends.
A sermon preached on March 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
This week, a large group of us was in the Lenten class Megan and I are leading on Wednesday nights which is called “The Awakening of Hope.” We had just watched a video about Camden, New Jersey, voted the worst place to live in the United States. We learned that Camden’s residents’ back yards have become home for our waste. Camden has no jobs, no grocery stores; no businesses. The police force has been cut in half. It has a higher murder rate than Baghdad. We saw picture after picture of burned down factories and toppling trash piles. We heard about the drug problems, crime and poverty.
A man named Chris Haw was being interviewed in the video. He had moved to Camden to bear witness to the suffering of God’s creation firsthand. He was given a plot of land among the devastation in the neighborhood, where he planted a garden. He spoke very frankly about the web of poverty and violence that he encountered as the underbelly of capitalism run amok. He talked about what it was like to live in a place where there are no jobs, and no hope that they would return.“That’s where you have to draw from faith, hope and love,” he says. “Irrationally. You have hope because its a hopeless situation.” His way of practicing hope in Camden is raising chickens, and growing tomatoes in the rubble.
At the end of the class, one of the participants said. “This class is called ‘Awakening of Hope. I didn’t find any hope in that video. I found it depressing and hopeless. If there is hope in Camden, New Jersey, I think I missed it.”
Sometimes hope doesn’t look hopeful. Sometimes when you’re looking for God, you have to look really hard. You have to look at what is ugliest in the world, and then look for tiny seeds of redemption. Like a small garden plot in an urban wasteland. God’s story in Scripture is not about escaping this world, but about bringing heaven to earth. It’s the story of resurrection; of grass piercing concrete. It’s the story of chickens laying eggs in vacant lots—little signs of life amongst all the death and destruction.
Hope is a lot like faith, I said. It’s all we have when we cannot see our way home in the dark. We can’t see the light, so we just have to believe it’s there.
The problem with having faith is, most of us humans need to see to believe.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That’s what a group of Greeks say to Philip in our scripture from John’s Gospel today, having traveled to the festival for worship. That’s what a group of Gentiles we wouldn’t expect to see participating in a Jewish festival say to Phillip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they needed to see to believe.
The desire to see Jesus, it turns out, is a rather lucrative business. In March of 2017, a man in Windham, Maine discovered the image of Jesus in his buttered toast. He preserved the toast in the freezer and put it on eBay with the starting bid of $25,000.
As far as eBay auctions go, this theme is played out. Sellers eager to make a quick buck — I mean, spread the Christian faith — have auctioned off "miraculous" images of religious figures like Jesus and the Virgin Mary embedded in everything from toast to a fish stick. A woman named Diane Duyser sold her 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on eBay.
Duyser said she took a bite after making the sandwich 10 years ago and saw a face staring back at her. She put the sandwich in a clear plastic box with cotton balls and kept it on her night stand. She said the sandwich has never sprouted a spore of mold.
The market place responded by making “Grilled Cheesus”, a sandwich maker that toasts the image of Jesus into your sandwich.
One of you gifted me once with a Jesus stamp for my own toast which was so sweet of you. (“What to give to the pastor who has everything?”)
We long to see Jesus. We long to taste and see that the Lord is good.
According to a new study published in the journal Cortex, this phenomenon of seeing religious figures in our food is “perfectly normal” because of a phenomenon called “face pareidolia, the illusory perception of non-existent faces.” We have a tendency to see faces that aren’t there because of the way our brain functions. Our religious beliefs strongly correlate with what we see in the ordinary things like grilled cheese sandwiches.
It turns out our brains are pre-programmed with the longing to experience what is ultimate in the form of another human face.
We Christians long to see Jesus.
And it makes sense that some of us see Jesus in our food. We are hungry. We are starving on the steady diet consumer culture feeds us: more and bigger; new and IMPROVED, flashy and fast-paced. And so we buy and buy, and spend and spend, but we are never satiated. We are hungry for something more than the thin gruel of empty consumerism, TV and movies, shopping and home improvement, politics and cliched inspirational memes shared on instagram.
We long to see Jesus. To experience God in the form of another human face.We experience the world through our bodies, so we want to EXPERIENCE God with all five senses. We desire to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God.
That’s why we gather around this table. To touch and smell the bread of life, to taste the cup of salvation, to hear the word of Love. Most of all, we gather to see the people of God: all ages, races, classes, abilities, sexualities, gender expressions: all a part of Christ, all gathered at the same scandalous meal TOGETHER.
We long to experience God.
I asked my friends where and how they experienced God this week and I got so many beautiful answers I can’t list them all: in the sunrise and sunset, in cadbury mini-eggs and wine, in a maternity ward, at my friend’s ordination when she served communion to her momma, in grilled cheese and tomato soup, in the faces of children, in a family of ducks taking up residence in a pond, in the coffee in a coffee cup, in laughter, in the sun peaking through the clouds, in conversations with teenagers, in exquisite music, and music made by children.
Sometimes, when we long to see God, all we have to do is lift our heads and look around. It’s easy when the world is beautiful. It’s not so easy when the world is brutal. When we are lost in the darkness; when we cannot see the light.
I think the disciples are surprised at Jesus’ response when they come to tell him that the Greeks would like to see him. Instead of saying, “oh hey, yeah, bring ‘em on over,” Jesus gives a speech instead, his last sermon. And his sermon points only to the cross. He says, “the hour has come for me to die. If you want to see me, look no further than the cross where I will be raised up out of the ground. I will draw all people to myself.”
The last line of the scripture is “then he departed and hid from them, so that he could no longer be seen.” They wished to see Jesus, and he points to the cross on the way to his hiding spot.
When we are looking for God when God is hidden, look to the cross. Find the rubble, the death, the ugliest things. And then look for little signs of redemption.
When I asked where friends experienced God this week, they looked also to the cross. God was present in the chemo bay, in a little girl in remission from terrible cancer, in the meals and cards sent after the latest round of chemo, in the resilience of kids who have been terribly abused by care-takers, at a 12 step meeting, in the face of a devastated child who couldn’t see his mentally ill mother on his birthday, and a woman who had fallen on the street, The community lunch team at First Church served over 100 people who are hungry and lonely for connection yesterday, and so many of you have helped empower our youth to advocate for their own safety after Parkland. And God bless the many First Church women who prayed for Jennifer’s grand babies delivered too early, and then prayed them home to God. Love amid death. If you wish to see God, look to the cross.
In suffering, we draw closer to Jesus. We experience him. We see him clearly.
The La Romana team had a little adventure Friday night when their flight was canceled, and spent some time at Logan airport. If you wish to see Jesus, lift your head and look around the airport next time you are there.
Jen Colburn writes: Last night I saw a woman who was clearly unhappy with the weather delays. Her interaction with the airport staff helping her was curt. It was clear neither party was pleased with the interaction. Other than staff she was alone. And to be frank I thought the attitude she gave staff was rude. I lost track of her while getting our folks settled.
I saw her again this morning. Completely alone, clearly exhausted, in pain, and just done. I went over to say hello, feeling a little guilty that this had clearly been easier on us. She cried. A friendly hello and the tears flowed. After a difficult surgery, she had received a call in New Mexico, her missing cousin had been found after nearly 6 months. He was murdered. His funeral is this morning. Her new flight out tomorrow.
I can't fix that, Jen said. I could show her kindness. I got her food and water. I helped her think through getting a hotel, got permission from the airline for her borrow the wheelchair she was using. With a new understanding of her situation, they arranged accessible transportation to and from her hotel. A quick hug, a few tears, from both of us and we were both heading off in different directions. I believe sometimes their is a reason we get inconvenienced. I hope next time I remember kindness before judgement.
When you wish to see Jesus, don’t just look for sunsets and babies, look to the cross. Then become children of the light. Plant seeds of redemption with food, water, a hug, and a listening ear. Remember kindness before judgment. Bring heaven down to earth. When the neighborhood looks like a trash heap, plant a garden. Where there is an intractable political debate somewhere on social media, be God’s curiosity. Where there is death, be the living God. Where there is disease and poverty, be God’s healing. Where there is anger and division, be God’s peace. Where there is hunger, be God’s bread. Where there is loneliness, be God’s love. Where there is darkness, be God’s light.
You are the light of the world. Let it shine.
preached on February 25, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen.
Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: "Kasserian Ingera," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?”
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young. (Patrick T. O'Neil: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/and-how-are-the-children).
I want to ask all of us this today: And how are the children?
This Christmas, I preached that Love means taking care of what is fragile. I said that anyone who has ever loved a baby or a small animal or a classroom full of kids, 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 human baby to teach us how to love.
When Jesus talks about setting our minds on divine things, we might do well to ask ourselves how the most vulnerable parts of God’s creation are faring. We might do well to ask this question:
And how are the children?
How fragile we are.
In our reading from the Gospel today, Jesus says some real plain truth the disciples didn’t want to hear about his own vulnerability. God didn’t just send Jesus to live among them; God sent him to suffer and die.
Well, this doesn’t sit well with the disciples.
I imagine they wanted their Messiah to have more power and strength—the ability (or at least the will) to destroy his enemies. To reign terror upon his opponents. To win, at least by outsmarting them, or by amassing more wealth, or by managing to make it to the top of the religious power structure.
I mean, this is supposed to be the Son of God.
Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that he, too, is fragile. He says, “I will undergo great suffering. I will be rejected by everyone: the senior pastors of large churches, the deacons, the ministry leadership team leaders. And I will be killed. I will die at the hands of the state, an unremarkable death. Then I will rise again on the third day.”
This is not the first time Jesus has said this to the disciples, by the way, but they just don’t like it.
In fact, Peter “rebukes Jesus,” which is another way of saying that Peter essentially tells the Son of God to “Shut up.” (Peter is like the Maureen Cranson of the group).
And Jesus gets so pissed at Peter that he calls him Satan, the tempter! It’s just about the nastiest thing Jesus says to anyone in scriptures, I think.
“Get thee behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things.”
Humans worry about human things. Humans worry about power and control. Humans amass weaponry. Humans worry about indestructibility. Humans enact vengeance and violence.
But God asks “And how are the children? How are the divine things?”
God cares for the powerless. God tends to the vulnerable. God hungers and thirsts. God goes into the wilderness. God suffers with those who suffer. God dies for all of humanity.
God’s power comes from love and sacrifice.
Jesus doesn’t stop at admitting his own fragility. He goes on to say, “if you want to become my followers, you will have to admit your fragility, too. You will have to take up your cross and follow me. You will have to endure humiliation, suffering, death. You will have to embrace your powerlessness; your lack of control; your mortality. Because the only way to save your life is to lose your life.”
No wonder the disciples want him to shut up. Godly power and might comes from Loving what is mortal. And therefore Love means loss, suffering, pain, humility, and giving up the lies we tell ourselves about safety. Love what is fragile. Love what will die.
God’s power comes from Love, not dominance. Love, not vengeance. Love, not wealth. Love, not violence. God’s power comes from Love, not the lobbyists or the congress or the president. God’s power comes from Love, not objects of war.
This Love is everywhere, but it doesn’t shield us from pain. It is not a bullet proof vest. It doesn’t assure our safety or even survival.
I saw a t-shirt shared over and over again on social media this week that made me so angry not just because it had like six different fonts including comic sans, but because of its terrible, terrible theology. It said:
“Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a student.
Dear student, it’s because I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”
Since we are setting our mind on divine things this morning, I want to remind us what the Gospel tells us:
God is omnipresent, which is a fancy way of saying that God is everywhere Love is. You can no sooner remove God from a school than fly to the moon.
Our schools are filled with the children of God—teachers and students entrusted into each other’s care to grow and learn and be free. God is in every act of grace that happens between student and teacher, at every lunch table where the anxious and sad kids look nervously around for a friend. God is sitting beside the lonely kid on the buddy bench.
God doesn’t go only where God is “allowed.”
If you need to know where God is in our schools, look no further than the open doors on the school buses, and the swarm of children who get off, trusting their fragile lives to the faculty and administration inside.
And let me be very clear: God does not “allow” violence, WE DO. Right now, God is weeping in our schools at the sins of our people.
God’s arms are wrapped around those children killed in Parkland, Florida, and their parents, and the three adults who died to save them. God is lying on the ground, shot dead in a classroom in a pool of blood. Every one of those children and teachers and coaches contained a piece of God. Pieces of God were murdered that day, and are murdered every day on the city streets and in the suburban and rural homes of our nation at the hands of other humans. The metal that spills their blood are human things, not divine.
I imagine God’s voice coming over the intercom in every school in America after the pledge of allegiance is recited asking, “And how are the children?"
Well, the children are alright. Those of us who have been inspired by the students educated at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School can see this. Can I get an amen?
Delaney Tarr, a senior from the school said in a speech on Feb. 21:
“This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager—these are our strengths. The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety.”
Human things: money and elections. Divine things: passion and pain.
This Wednesday, Eat Pray Learn was led by Chaplain Clementina Chery who founded the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in Boston.
Clementina Chery had a choice to make shortly after her 15-year-old son was innocently gunned down in crossfire between gangs battling in Dorchester.
“For me the anger and violence was there,” she said, adding, “I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to go on the path less traveled.”
Chery chose the path of peace following the death of her son, Louis Brown, and founded the Dorchester-based Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.
Her son was killed in 1993 as he walked one afternoon into a teens against gang violence event. It was her son’s death, she said, that woke her up.
“My anger was there, my search for revenge was there, but yet who was I going to take revenge out on? Someone who looked just like me? Someone who looked just like my son? So I had to channel my pain and my anger in a way that would be more about rebuilding the community,” she said.
The Peace Institute focuses on primary prevention, to stop the seeds of violence before they grow, and peace education as a way to stem violence.
“If we don’t address the emotional psychological needs of hurt children then they will become hurtful adults,” she said.
Chaplain Tina told us Wednesday night about going to meet with the mother of the boy who shot her son and embracing her. They were both mamas who had lost their children.
Then she told us about going to meet with her son’s murderer in prison. She offered forgiveness. She told the tempter inside her that wanted revenge to “get thee behind me.”
She asked instead, “and how are the children?”
Human things: revenge, retaliation, hatred. Divine things: forgiveness, peace, community building.
This is one of my favorite poems. It is called “Shoulders” by Naomi Shihab Nye
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world's most sensitive cargo
but he's not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy's dream
deep inside him.
We're not going to be able
to live in this world
if we're not willing to do what he's doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
The power and might of Love is like that: our ears filled up with breathing and the hum of a child’s dream deep inside us, God’s voice chanting “Fragile, handle with care.” We’re not going to be able to live in this world if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing with one another.
preached on February 18, 2018 (1st Sunday in Lent)
at the First Church in Sterling, MA by
Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen to be experienced.
“Beloved Is Where We Begin” by Jan Richardson
If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from the scorching
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
Last week, I preached about your belovedness. I reminded us to gaze upon each other the way we gazed upon little baby Ryan: as a sign of God’s light in the darkness.
It is Lent, our wilderness journey, and beloved is where we begin.
In Genesis, beloved is where the world begins. In the beginning, God lovingly created the universe, and called it beautiful and good: the humans, the plants, and the animals….all part of the interconnected web of creation.
And then, things started to go wrong. The humans started truly messing it up.
I know we just told the story of Noah’s Ark to the children, but I’m going to admit to you now that this is not a cute children’s story. I don’t mean to shame those of us who have Noah’s Ark themed nurseries, and beautiful Noah’s Ark children’s books like the one we just read to the children this morning by Peter Spier. After all, my favorite summer camp songs are both about Noah’s Ark. My favorite is “Rise and Shine, and Give God your glory, glory!” And “There were green alligators, and long neck geese, some humpty back camels and some chimpanzees…”
I mean, the story of Noah’s Ark has animals and rainbows! And apparently even unicorns! On the surface, it absolutely seems like it might be one of those beloved bible stories for the kiddos.
The problem is that it’s really not a sweet story at all.
Noah’s Ark is the story of a God who is so horrified by human sin that God destroys the whole world.
Yes, we begin with beloved. God creates the world and all of humanity and calls it good.
But then humanity betrays God with grievous sin. In Genesis 6, verse 5, it says: God saw that "every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually."
Humanity is so broken and so destructive, God decided, that God deeply regretted creating us in the first place. God sorrowed over how lost we truly were, and sent a flood—tears of grief poured into an endless river; tears over the rending of the relationship between humanity and God.
Let’s just say it plain: in the story of Noah’s Ark, God is so aggrieved with humanity that God commits mass murder. God is so flooded with sadness—by the sinful nature of humans, that God wipes out almost the entirety of creation.
The destruction, of course, is not total. God takes a remnant of what God created to re-build. The flood, therefore, is not sent just to destroy, but to begin again. God even uses some of the original source material.
We learn some important things about God here: God is not simply a genocidal maniac. God is deeply sad when we are lost in sin; when we are separated from one another and from God. We also learn that God is in the business of not just creation, but re-creation. We learn that this is a God who makes all things new; who turns death into life.
It is at this point when we arrive at our reading from the Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures this morning. It is at this point that we pack up and set out on our Lenten journey in the wilderness.
Our journey begins today with the new beginning: the re-start of humanity and the earth. Earth re-boot. Earth 2.0.
We begin again with the same source material, so we humans are no better than we were before, but God has changed his strategy this time: from destruction and mass devastation to extravagant love.
This time, we begin with a promise from God.
God seals the newly-restored relationship between us with a covenant. The flood does not cleanse the human heart of sin. However, God promises to never destroy God’s people again, and puts a rainbow in the sky as the signature on a promissory note.
God is determined to find a new way—beyond violence and destruction—to get through to us instead. By promising us fidelity and faithfulness, forgiveness and unconditional love. What’s more, God makes this rainbow promise to ALL flesh. Black people, brown people and white people, Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus, Republicans, independents and Democrats, prisoners and criminals, politicians and parents, sinners and saints, gay and straight, rich and poor, all along the gender spectrum. All flesh begins with beloved.
God promises to love us into restoration rather than retribution.
God “hangs up his bow”, retiring from battle. God picks up a lantern instead, heading up a search party to find us as we stumble around in the darkness of the wilderness. God promises to seek us and seek us, and never give up until we are returned home.
God knows we are lost in the wilderness of destruction and gun violence; fearful for our children; separated from each other. God promises relationship. God promises return. God promises us steadfast love. God reminds us we aren’t alone. The rest is up to us.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Toward the beginning of our Ash Wednesday service this week, we took water, and, using the sign of the cross, we blessed each other with it, saying, “you are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.”
We say this before we rend our hearts. We say this before we confess our sin. We say this before we come to the cross. We are reminded of this before we receive the ashes of our humanity, the knowledge that we are but dust.
We begin with beloved.
Our Ash Wednesday service is beautifully intergenerational, which is how it should be. I trembled as I put ashes on the heads of children, including my own. “You are God’s beloved dust, and to dust you shall return,” I said to children just born this year, and the children I created in my womb.
I shake at the truth of this: “To dust you, too, shall return.”
The day I gave birth to Cecilia was the day I realized I was going to die, and so would she. I wept at the thought of it. We would one day be rent from one another. (And please God, let it be me who dies first.)
“How could I have brought this beautiful child into this brutal world, knowing this horrible truth?” Was my first thought upon seeing her. I was instantly filled with terror and awe. For the first six weeks, I hid the 12 month onesies people gave me because I was terrified she wouldn’t make it that long...so close was the fact of death to the fact of life. Some people call that postpartum depression. I call it postpartum truth.
There’s also a strange sort of comfort in knowing your mortality. A strange humility in knowing you’re no different. A strange sameness to placing ash on the 92 year old forehead, right after the 2 year old forehead. Both the 92 year old and the 2 year old know better than you do what it’s like to be close to God. You can see it in their faces as you gently remind them that they are God’s beloved dust. They already know.
But there is no comfort in knowing that the mortality of our children can be acted out in vengeance upon them with weapons of mass destruction. There is no comfort in knowing that the beloved children God knit intricately in the wombs of their mothers could die, terrified and confused, as if they were targets in a video game instead of perfect creations of the holy.
All of those victims on Ash Wednesday in Florida— every single one—began with beloved. They were stolen from the earth by a perpetrator who didn’t know his own belovedness, so he couldn’t have known theirs'.
Meanwhile, the mothers’ weeping is echoing throughout the land right now in this season of repentance. I can hear it from Florida to Massachusetts. It is ringing in my mama ears. I want to tell my children that I’m sorry. Not sorry they were born, but sorry that I can’t protect them from the truth of their dying. Sorry I can’t protect them from the truth of America’s sin; the truth of America’s taste for their blood.
It is time for Americans to turn back toward God, which is what it means to repent. It is time to beat our swords into ploughshares. It is time to know the nearness of God’s kingdom on earth. It is time to be God’s REVOLUTIONARY LOVE in the world. It’s time to spread the kind of Love that is bold and unafraid: Love that doesn’t bow down to politicians or big business or the NRA, but to a God who is steadfast; a God who loves ALL FLESH. Begin with beloved.
It is time to spread and share and perpetuate God’s revolutionary Love until we have surrendered our killing machines for the sake of our children’s promise. It is time to teach our American boys and men a thirst for life instead of a thirst for death. It is time —across religious and political and race and class barriers—to cultivate and enervate in us the desire to create and re-create rather than destroy.
Repent, repent. Return, return. Restore, recreate.
We began with beloved, and got lost along the way.
God has sent out the search party for us, and we will be found. All flesh.
In the meantime, let us remember this:
God promises us that
on this path,
there will be help.
that on this way,
there will be rest.
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
whisper our name:
A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on February 11, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
On the day you were born, God said, “This Little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Last year, I was all set to say grace at the First Church Treasures of the Community auction before we ate our meal. Apparently, the organizing team didn’t like my prayer the year before, so they were attempting to micromanage my grace a bit.
“You can talk for a little longer than you did last year. Can you not sing this time? Can you say a couple of funny things, but not too funny? Can you call them all beloved, like you call us? We want them to like you.”
There are lots of folks who go to the auction who don’t come to our church. I think the auction planners figured that a couple glasses of wine, a few jokes, and a sweet nickname might make people happier to part with their money.
But I don’t call you “Beloved” to endear you to the church, or to me. I call you that because your status as Beloved by God is what matters here. I remind you that Beloved is your true name because where else are you going to hear that so explicitly? That’s the only way I can serve you the way you deserve to be served. You are God’s son, God’s daughter the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.
From The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen:
“Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests”—the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, (the second Adam); the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light...it is the never- interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love whenever it is heard.”
We all need to find that home at the center of our being that reminds us of our belovedness, we need to quiet the voices of hate and fear so that we can hear that never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity.
Now I don’t know, but I imagine the morning Ryan Blaquiere was born—February 28, 2017--was a day like any other for many of us. While we were slowly waking up, trudging to the shower, dragging a brush through our hair, waiting in the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru for the person in front of us to put in a large sandwich order with multiple coffees (why don’t they just go inside?!), fighting traffic on the highway, turning on our computers and mindlessly scrolling through our newsfeeds…while we were going about the every day-ness of our our day….God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and a light was born anew in the form of Ryan Lee Blaquiere.
The glory of God shone on his face, and the world would never be the same.
Especially for Lauren and Dave.
That day, Lauren and Dave gazed upon Ryan, smelling the newness of his head, drinking in his soft baby skin, lying him down on their bare chests, gingerly handing him out to others to hold, and immediately missing the weight of him in their arms as if he had always been there…
And it was very quiet, as rooms with newborn babies often are—there is a hush of awe. In the quiet, the voice of God whispered in their ears and flooded into their hearts:
“This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Eventually, the nurses and doctors said they could bring Ryan home from the hospital, and Lauren and Dave couldn’t believe that the medical professionals were trusting them with this monumental task they certainly weren’t ready for. Like every new set of parents, they probably drove about 15 miles per hour all the way home.
Listening to Ryan, the Beloved, was their new task. It was going to take practice and time and every bit of love they had to give.
And so Lauren and Dave set about to listen, their hearts leaping at his every cry. They listened to him with bleary-eyed frustration in the middle of the night wondering desperately what he was asking for: to be fed or changed, to be held or rocked to sleep. They listened to his new language as the months went on: coos, and squeals and burps and diaper blow outs, and their baby’s first laugh, which is like a thousand angels singing.
They whispered in his ear, planted kisses on his brow, “You are my son, the beloved. I will always listen to you.”
“This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let him shine.”
You were all loved like this once. And this is how God loves you still. This love’s for keeps.
The only way to love a baby is largely without a lot of words. You love a baby by touching, feeding, rocking, holding, healing, listening. Responding.
Being loved and loving others in this way has the power to transform us into a far more beautiful version of who we could have been. It keeps us alive, and turns us human.
This kind of Love has the power to alight darkness, to change us into new beings.
Today is transfiguration Sunday. Happy Transfiguration Sunday! Most Christians probably don’t even realize that this is a “thing”…that this Transfiguration story gets told every year on the Sunday before Lent in Christian churches across America. No one at Walmart even wishes you a “Happy Transfiguration Sunday,” and Starbucks cups do not have a Transfigured Jesus as a logo at this time of year…they are just plain white and green. I call it the War on Transfiguration.
Anyway, this Sunday comes every year.
In the transfiguration story we heard today from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray, bringing his friends with him. While he is up there, a white light surrounds him, the appearance of his face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white. We see Moses next to him, the representative of the Law, and we see Elijah next to him, the representative of the prophets.
Now you may think that transfiguration sounds like some sort of miraculous event that can’t be real. But those of us who have sat at a death bed with a loved one who is dying know that the closer we are to God, the more our appearance changes.
Jesus’ friends were terrified when they see him transfigure, and amazed. These three disciples have been following Jesus around for quite awhile, and he’s given them lots of detailed instructions about what they are supposed to do to manifest God’s love in the world.
Right before their mountaintop moment, in fact, Jesus told them that anyone who wants to save their lives will deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.
Loving your enemies, healing the sick, visiting the prisoner, and giving away your possessions is not quite as thrilling as being bathed in a warm white light on the top of a mountain.
So when Peter hears the very voice of God Himself telling him that this newly transformed, radiant Jesus right in front of him is the real thing, the only response he can manage is “I like all this Glory, God! Let’s build three places for all of you to live, and camp out here with God forever and ever! This place rocks!”
But the lesson for Peter is that if God can transform, so can he.
So the voice of God says this:
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”
Listen to him. That’s kind of a bummer for the disciples, because they know that listening to him means following him. Following him means they must go back down that glorious mountain, and give up their wants, privileges, securities, and power. Following him means turning love into an action.
Following him means to listen and respond: with touch, and feeding and holding and rocking and healing. Loving others, especially when it’s hardest to love.
And listening for his voice means quieting our own, seeing each person’s beauty, hearing each person’s need, feeling each person’s feelings.
So let us be quiet and imagine what Baby Ryan might be saying to us with his eyes and his smile and his little squeals and his not-yet grown-ness.
Imagine Ryan a beacon, a lighthouse planted in the middle of the desert as we poise on the brink of Lent.
Imagine Ryan, closer to the heart of God than any of us, “insisting on being seen” the way Jesus insists on being seen on the day of his transfiguration. Imagine God breaking into a pleased grin upon seeing Ryan, the way God gazes with delight upon Jesus on the mountain. Take delight in Ryan, as God does.
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him,”
Imagine following Ryan to build a world in which the light of God is allowed to be uncovered…a world where God’s light cannot be contained.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Let these be his words to you.
Listen to me.
Listen to me each time I cry to be fed. Respond with nourishment for my body and soul. Listen to me, even when you are angry with me. Respond with love each time I express emotion, no matter how uncomfortable my emotions are to you: my fear and rage, my grief and joy. Do not try and shame me out of my feelings.
Listen to me when I fail, or fall short. Respond by saying that I am forgiven despite my mistakes. I wasn’t made to be perfect, I was made to be loved.
Listen to me each time I cry out in thirst. Respond with living water.
Listen for me when I am lost, and bring me home again. Remind me often that I am to live my life as a gift to this broken and beautiful world.
Listen to me when my inevitable heartbreak and despair overcome my sense of joy in living. When you listen to me, it helps me to see the beauty of the world more clearly, and shows me ways to transform a little of life’s brutality into something I can use to grow.
Listen to me: to my small and tender call to build together a world worthy of my promise.
Respond by showing me I am not simply a consumer of goods, I am a part of the kingdom of God, no less and no more important than any other human being.
Imagine if we gazed upon every adult and child the way we gazed upon Ryan today; the way God gazed upon Jesus. My son, the beloved. We would no longer define ourselves by what tribe we belonged to, but as beloved children of God. Listen.
That kind of listening would demand we come down the mountain, ready to follow Jesus into the forgotten places of the empire to illuminate the darkness with our light.
If we are quiet and listen, the never- interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity can be heard.
When you were born, God said, “This Little light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Let your light shine. Amen.
Run and Not Grow Weary: A Sermon Dedicated to All Those Who Live with Cancer (In other words, all of us)
Preached on February 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett, with gratitude to marathoners Jennifer Caron and Kate Pietrovito, and to Jen Kalnicki, and all of the families in my congregation who live with the devastating affects of cancer. You are all inspirations, though we love you just as much at your most uninspired, uninspiring and weariest.
Sermons are usually better heard (though this one features bad singing because I forgot the tune to the song).
My son learned a song at Village Green preschool that he made me sing with him all day Friday. Maybe you know it.
We're goin' on a bear hunt
(We're goin' on a bear hunt)
We're going to catch a big one,
(We're going to catch a big one,)
I'm not scared
(I'm not scared)
What a beautiful day!
(What a beautiful day!)
A big dark forest.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
We've got to go through it!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
So it is with the darkness of our deepest suffering. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. We can’t get around it. We’ve got to go through it.
In our passage from Isaiah today, the prophet is speaking to those who have been suffering for a long time. He is addressing the Judean people who have long lived in exile, in Babylon. They are tired, beaten down, and in the depths of despair.
The prophet is trying to coax them to remember God’s promises to them, using almost a pleading tone. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told from the beginning? Our God created the foundations of the earth, the people are like tiny ants below. The Holy One created all of this, called it all by name, loved it all into existence. Wait on the Lord. He will give strength to the powerless; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
Lord, in this bleak midwinter, we gather around this communion table of grace to renew our strength, because we are weary from stumbling in the dark.
As your pastor who has the honor of knowing you deeply, I know that the amount of people here right now who feel powerless, and worn out from despair often far outweigh the amount of people who feel joyful and fulfilled on any given Sunday.
We are tired. We have endured daily images of people on the news who need our help and protection: from wildfires and floods, mass shootings and white supremacist rallies, refugees and #metoo movement, Muslim and Jewish hate crimes, the opioid crisis and the health care crisis…and so our empathy triggers are on high alert, and they have started to wear out. We have compassion fatigue.
Given our exhaustion, it’s pretty impressive that we can still dance our buns off on Friday night, and then serve a Saturday lunch for 100 people on Saturday, then show up here today, and auction off some delicious Super Bowl food to fuel a Pats win this afternoon.
Joy anyway! Joy in spite. Joy beside. Joy in resistance. Joy in defiance.
I also just want to say, Lord, because it needs to be said, we are sick of cancer; tired of cancer; DONE with cancer. This church can’t catch a break with that terrible beast of a wretched disease. Really.
Cancer is an indiscriminate dasher of spirits. It is a silent killer of faith. It steals lives and livelihoods and children from their parents and parents from their children.
And cancer has much to teach us about the depths of our weariness, and the depths of our strength.
I talked to our beloved Jen Kalnicki on the phone on Thursday, who just had her first round of chemo last week, and she was so weak that she said she had to drink from a straw all day because she couldn’t lift her head off of the pillow. She was so weary, Lord, she couldn’t lift her head. She has these two beautiful little girls, and sometimes she can't lift her head.
When I was a kid, my mom used to sing: “if somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.”
I am picturing the whole congregation just singing that to Jen, lying there in that bed. You don’t have to wait on God for strength when you have a community that brings God to you. I picture the whole congregation gently lifting her head up, lifting Paula Fogerty’s head up, and Ranny Sabourin’s, and Jeffrey Nideur’s, lifting up the heads of families who have lost loved ones to this disease, far too early—the Leonards, the Quinns, the Cransons, Pam Dell, the Joyces, to name only a few. I think we are in the business of gently lifting up heads and pointing them in the direction of the sun.
The prophet in the book of Isaiah tells the long-suffering Judean exiles to wait patiently on God, who will eventually give us strength.
Patience is a virtue, but it’s not my best virtue. My favorite prayer is “Lord, give me patience. And hurry.”
The scripture says that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Well, I’m definitely not a runner. To be honest, if a bear was chasing me down the rail trail, I’d just give up right away, lie down and ask the Lord to take me. I’ve led a good life. My children will be fine…they have good fathers.
So given that running is not my strong suit, I reached out to two of the marathon runners in our congregation. “I’m writing a sermon,” I said, “on how to run and not grow weary. I have no idea how that’s done. You two are always running marathons. Do you have advice?”
And I want to tell you what they said, because its just pure insight about living a good and faithful life. In fact, they were so convincing that they almost made me want to do one of those couch to 5K programs.
Jennifer Caron said this:
First of all, there is no such thing as long distance running *without growing weary*. We DEFINITELY grow weary!
Endurance training, though, is all about how to push our capacity so that we grow weary later on into the run (when you first start running, weariness might be at 3 miles, but through persistence and extending the mileage slowly each week - pretty soon you don’t grow weary until 12 miles, and so on). Also taking care of our bodies - eating healthfully, getting rest, getting bodywork, etc. is necessary.
Then there’s what we do WHEN we grow weary.
You have to take care of yourself physically:
1. EAT! (And drink) We love snacks. Healthy snacks that nourish us and fuel us at proper intervals for what’s ahead.
2. Go a comfortable pace, tune into your body (not too slow, not too fast, just right for that distance)
Most of all, she said, you have to take care of yourself mentally: (and this is 95% of it!)
1. You have to make it fun - run with friends, listen to music, celebrate the crap out of it when you’re done!
2. All the people out there supporting you makes you feel stronger…think of them.
3. You can’t freak out when the weariness and pain comes. An old coach of mine would say “get comfortable with the discomfort”. So when the cramping and fatigue creep in, we’re not going to freak out. Instead, it’s familiar and like an old friend. I will often say out loud “oh hello there, groin/hip/back pain, ol’ friend. I thought I might find you right about now.” This helps you keep calm and not despair. Reframing “pain” as “sensations” also helps me.
4. It helps to keep a perspective about people who are suffering with way worse, and what they would give to have the good health us marathoners have. This inspires you to push on when all else fails.
5. Of course using a trusted coach to help prepare you for the way is crucial.
Kate Pietrovito says this:
The question about how to run and not grow weary makes me think of the Gandhi prayer that we recite weekly in the Spirit Play classroom, specifically, the line: “my wisdom comes from within and without”.
Endurance and motivation come from both internal and external sources. To finish a long race, a difficult race, you must leverage both.
Internally, it’s the mental and physical training and desire. This applies to everything: the desire to work hard, the desire to achieve a personal goal, the things you tell yourself to keep you going when you feel like giving up. Thinking about the work you’ve put in that would be all for naught if you quit.
Externally, our world has so many sources of inspiration. Use them! During the Marine Corps Marathon, there’s a mile called the “wear blue” mile. It is full of photographs of our fallen soldiers, and lined with volunteers—their families. Jen and I both cried through that mile.
Other times, you think of your family. You think of your friends. You think of a First Church favorite phrase, “we can do hard things” And you repeat it as a mantra when your energy is slipping away.
Jen Kalnicki recently wrote this about her first week of chemo, and she gave me permission to share it with you:
The past few days have sucked. You really take for granted the ability to lift your head, hold your phone, just breathe.
There have been moments of doubt (I can't possibly do this...), moments of dread (what if it's like this the whole time...), moments of anger (why are we treating this so aggressively, others are able to work/walk/exist, why can't I?), and finally moments of despair (just hot, hot tears...).
But each time those moments appeared, there was something equally glorious happening. Mark's steady and calming love crashing over me in waves, Ava and Lili's intrinsic ability to comfort and motivate, friends and family swooping in to carry the burden, and the freedom to cry it out. The messages lift and carry us through those lows, even when I cannot respond.
Today, I bear witness to the scandalous generosity and outrageous love this journey has shown me. Today, I woke up able to move a bit more. Today, I woke up.
And tomorrow, I'll get up and do it again.
In this long, slow slog of loving each other, and loving a beautiful and broken world…as we wait on God to give us strength for the journey, remember these tips from Jen, Kate and Jen:
Start by acknowledging that we will definitely grow weary. We are only human and doing the best that we can. Normalize that. Pay attention to it. Then: take care of your bodies. Eat good, healthy food, and drink water. Go at a comfortable pace.
Please, make it fun. Celebrate the crap out of everything. Laugh. Go with friends, and let music be the soundtrack to your life. Use the desire within you and the motivation all around you. Remember you are not alone.
Don’t freak out when it gets painful. Don’t retreat. Get comfortable with discomfort. Treat pain like an old friend who reminds you that you’re still alive, that your heart is still tender. Keep calm and don’t despair. Remember who has it worse, what you are grateful for, who you are living for, and why.
Use trusted coaches who will help you prepare the way.
Leverage internal and external sources of strength. Your wisdom comes from within and without.
We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it. So don’t quit. Swoop in to share burdens and send messages of love. Give the freedom to yourself and others to cry it out.
Together, we can stumble trip through the darkness. Together, we can run and not grow weary. Together, we can do hard things. Together, our generosity and love keeps people alive. This grace is a scandal and an outrage, and sometimes it is nothing less than the reason people wake up in the morning. Tomorrow, we can get back up and do it all again. Not everyone has that privilege.
Don’t just wait on the Lord—be the Love and grace in world the Lord calls us to be. No hands but our hands.
Blessing for the Brokenhearted by Jan Richardson
Let us agree
that we will not say
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
time will heal
when every day
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this--
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us
Preached on 1/21/2018, Annual Meeting Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Last week our psalmist praised God for “hemming him in”, for intricately weaving him in the depths of the earth, for being knitted into his mother’s womb. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses similar textile metaphors saying that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied into a single garment of destiny.”
I love that imagery of being hemmed in, sewn in the earth, knitted together, tied together.
I suppose being hemmed in could sound suffocating, but instead it gives me the sense that I cannot escape Love’s grasp.
And it reminds me of this truth: we belong to each other.
Every single other.
St. Paul reminds us that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”
God wants us to behave like this is true, which is where things usually break down.
The fishermen in our story from the gospel today are mending fishing nets when Jesus happens upon them. I don’t know much about the ancient fishing industry, but I imagine they are mending the nets to ensure that every fish makes it out of the water and into their awaiting buckets. I imagine the goal is that all the fish stay firmly held inside the net together; that no fish fall through the cracks.
When Jesus encounters them, he tells the fisherman to leave their work and follow him; to fish for people instead.
Jesus is asking the disciples to follow him into relationship, with other people and with God. He invites them to collect people, making sure no one is left behind.
Our life’s work is to act as though we belong to each other in this way. Our work is to mend the nets so that no one falls through the cracks, and then get to work fishing for people.
This is the one-year anniversary of annual meeting 2017 when we became an open and affirming congregation—a unanimous vote to become an official place of welcome, safety, sanctuary and affirmation for the LGBTQ community. Our historic vote was even listed in the Landmark newspaper as Sterling’s biggest news story of last year.
Those of us who attended the very powerful Eat, Pray, Learn with the LGBTQ asylum seekers on Wednesday night know in our bones that mending the nets and fishing for people saves actual lives.
We cannot do this powerful work of welcome without every single one of us on board. We cannot do this life saving work of welcome without casting our nets together into the turbulent and raging seas we currently find ourselves tossed around by.
Today is annual meeting 2018. In this increasingly digital, virtual age, this way of doing the business of the church is a strange and counter-cultural practice to many. It requires investment in this flesh and blood community. It requires a belief in democracy’s power. It requires that we buy in, tie ourselves together, care. It requires that we dust off our rusty understanding of Roberts Rules of order and try to get through the church business fast so that we can eat lunch.
Annual meeting requires membership in this church to participate and vote. It requires the conscious choice to be knitted intricately into a single garment of destiny with these particular people, in this particular time and place.
And that’s kind of a scary idea to many in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2018. Church membership is, in fact, a dying concept.
My clergy colleagues are always speaking with some frustration about the commitment-phobia people have these days with regard to church community. The trends show that people who come to church are not readily joining. They continually date the church (or multiple churches) without settling down and getting married.
And our members are showing up less often, too. What constitutes as “regular” church attendance has shifted from every week, to twice a month, to once a month. My clergy friends lament that this lack of commitment is the byproduct of treating church like a consumer product rather than accepting the invitation to relationship Jesus offers us.
But you and I know that this is only part of the story. We are busier than ever. We are over-scheduled. We are caring for sick children and aging parents. We are working on Sundays. We are tired and need rest. Often, Sunday is our only family day. Sometimes, we disappear because we are hurt by someone’s actions, or a decision of the church.
Whatever the reason for slipping attendance and investment in the Church, my clergy friends lament that lay folks now expect ministers to do the work of relationship-building alone. It is the minister’s job to grow the church, to maintain the church, to care for the people who are there, and to go after people who’ve left.
We know this has consequences for real relationships with the body of Christ. If we leave relationship building to someone else, we don’t benefit from the hard work of community. If we don’t show up, we miss out. We cannot hold the hand of a beloved friend when they cry, or pray aloud for the recent widower, or be challenged to change, or welcome the newcomers who were brave enough to walk in the doors for the first time, trusting this group of strangers with their vulnerable hearts.
And let’s be honest, we are skittish about commitment to a group of people for good reason. It’s vulnerable to be known. It involves arriving with our real families, without the safety of the filtered images of the beautiful-looking life we carefully cultivate on Facebook and Instagram.
Human community is incredibly disappointing and just plain hard work. Rachel Held Evans’ friend says that joining a church is just picking which hot mess is your favorite.
I read a beautiful essay by Amy Frykholm from the Christian Century this week. She talks about her own ambivalence about joining a church.
After visiting about eleventy billion churches and not committing to any, she talks about the day she finally makes the choice to go through a church’s confirmation class, and take the membership plunge. The people in the room are asked to pick a Bible passage that speaks to their spiritual journey. On the surface, they have nothing at all in common with her. She is the only liberal in the group, and the only one with a PhD. There is a Vietnam Vet, Fox news- enthusiast named Floyd who describes his faith journey using the first chapter of Genesis. He says he was a formless void until the church comes into his life, adding light into his darkness. There is a tightly wound, thin lipped woman named Linda known for her angry outbursts at church meetings who talks about a passage on peace. She describes being surprised that an ancient text can speak so clearly to what she needs in her life. Amy feels instant kinship with this group, knowing their stories. She decides to call them family despite her fear of commitment. On the day of the confirmation, Then I said, “Everything you all have said is so beautiful. That’s what I mean. I am grateful to have found you. Grateful to be a part of you. That’s all.”
The ceremony of confirmation was simple. “There is one Body and one Spirit,” we recited. “There is one hope in God’s call to us.” She says…….”I knelt before the bishop in his silly pointed hat, and he placed his hands on my head. He prayed for my sustenance. And for Floyd’s and for Linda’s.”
“Since then, Linda has moved away. Floyd committed suicide, a consequence of unrelenting PTSD. Perhaps those facts illustrate one of my greatest difficulties with belonging, one of its terrible risks: the thing to which you claim to belong changes minute by minute. “Community,” Martin Buber said, “is the moment’s answer to the moment’s question.” Belonging is not a possession; even as it is claimed or imagined, it changes.
…No wonder people drive by churches and don’t go in: the risks are great, the rewards intangible. The forming of a community is fragile and takes a lifetime. It can disappear in a breath. And yet I think of Robert Hass’s poem “Spring Rain”: “The blessedness of gathering and the / blessing of dispersal— / it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense, / lasting as long as the poppies last.”
We come to church because we are glad for beauty like this, casual and intense. We come to church because a life of faith requires other people. It requires gathering even in the midst of the flu season. It requires humility. It requires forgiveness.
We come to church because it literally saves lives.
So on this annual meeting Sunday at the start of a new “church year,” I am going to challenge us all to do five new things in 2018 that will deepen our relationship to this place.
Remember, these five commitments are only a challenge if they are hard for you to do. We can do hard things!
Maybe your biggest challenge is showing up. If this is your first time here, come back. If you only attend this church once a month, make the commitment to attend twice or three times a month this year.
Maybe your challenge is generosity. If you know you could pledge more than you do, commit to increase your pledge.
Maybe your challenge is saying “no.” Commit to turning down a church commitment in favor of giving yourself rest and restoration. Say yes instead to what feeds you and gives you life. I’m serious.
Maybe your challenge is fear of changing your mind. If you have been nervous about having difficult conversations across difference, attend an Eat, Pray, Learn or a Pub Theology on the subject that makes you feel uncomfortable. Join Aging Gracefully or the book group on Sundays. Attend the retreat.
Maybe your challenge is forgiveness. Commit to forgiving someone, especially someone in this community that you are holding a grudge against. Commit to forgiving yourself for the ways you have fallen short.
Maybe your challenge is the fear of being known. If you have been nervous about making new friends, commit to come to coffee hour every time you’re here, and talk to one person you’ve never talked to.
Maybe your challenge is deeper commitment. If you have been on the fence about joining the church, attend a Path to Membership class. If you have been worried about committing more of your time and energy, try a short term volunteer project and see if it drains you or re-energizes you.
Maybe your challenge is deepening your faith. If you think that the Bible is old and irrelevant and doesn’t have much to teach you, come to the Lenten Bible study we’re leading. Commit to a regular spiritual practice like praying or meditating for five minutes every morning before you start your day.
Maybe your challenge is getting to know people who you think do not share your values or background. Invite folks of different ages and stages to share your pew. Go to the Worcester Islamic Center to volunteer to help refugees. Hang out with our teenagers. Get to know an elder.
Maybe your challenge is loving people at their most unlovable. Show compassion for someone who doesn’t deserve your compassion. Invite someone out to lunch who doesn’t share your political or theological ideologies. Listen for understanding.
Beloved, this is your church, and you belong here. Commit to mending the nets with us, so that no one falls through the cracks. Show up. Challenge yourself to deeper relationship with each other, and with the living God. We are stronger together. We are all connected. We are love’s hands in the world.
And together, we rise.
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.