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.
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.