A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Sermons are meant to be seen.
“Do not be afraid.” That is what the angels say before they deliver a message from God. The word angel, derived from the Greek, simply means messenger. Angels are God’s messengers in our scriptures. God’s messages are often not messages of comfort and peace, but of change and growth. There are angels among us. God’s message sometimes comes from a person we least expect to deliver it, and the message isn’t always a welcome one.
When we picture angels, we often picture beautiful feathery winged creatures with harps lounging on clouds above us and singing “alleluia” beatifically. We picture our five-year-old in her acting debut wearing a halo in the Christmas pageant.
But the angels in our scriptures aren’t like that at all. I mean, people are always “terrified” or “sore afraid” when angels arrive in our gospel texts, and who would be afraid of a beautiful five-year-old with wings and a harp?
Angels in the scriptures were scary beings, often unwanted visitors.
“Do not be afraid,” angels call out first. “Because this message probably won’t feel good to you. Nevertheless, I bring you tidings of great joy!” Good news from God doesn’t often sound “good” to our human ears.
Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
In our reading from Luke, it was just another day at the temple for Zechariah. It was his priestly turn to make sure everything was done properly and in good order. But it turned into something quite different when an angel showed up in the balcony to surprise him with the news that his wife was pregnant. I’m sure that it would shock Vern if Vicki turned up pregnant this week! And I’m not sure the two of them would celebrate that pregnancy, at least not right away. After all, they are trying to enjoy retirement, and their grandchildren, who they can send back to their parents after spoiling them rotten. There’s a reason why I cast Vern and Vicki in these roles.
Because good news doesn’t always sound like good news. Hope doesn’t always sound hopeful. Yet, there are angels among us, so listen hard. Do not be afraid.
I know that all of you have had a moment in your life after which you knew nothing would ever be the same. The moment you took the pregnancy test, the moment you discovered your spouse cheated, the moment you lost something like your home or your dignity, the moment you were laid off, put the bottle down, received the diagnosis, heard the news, shut the door behind you, went to court, got the call.
The moment was often unexpected. The messenger was often not the one you would have chosen. And the message wasn’t always welcome. But it did change the course of your life. And in these moments, the light of hope is both hard to find, and the most important thing in all of the world.
We are called to be the light of hope in the darkest of times for one another. But we cannot be hope bringers if we are waiting to be the perfect vessels for the message. That day will never come.
When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son is the one who will prepare the people and make them ready for God, Zechariah says, “I am old. I don’t believe you.” To Zechariah's incredulous "but I am old" comes Gabriel's "but I am Gabriel!” Perhaps Zechariah’s “but...” is an analogy to what must be God's frustration with our cynical responses to God's call. Our response often comes in the form of “I’m not good enough. I don’t believe it.”
I felt called to be a minister from when I was about 20, and still in college. And then, as a young woman of 23, I began working for the department of ministry at the Unitarian Universalist Association. I firmly decided in those three years that I would never be a minister. I was not good enough, and I knew it. When I say “good,” I don’t mean “talented.” I mean, I felt I was not a moral enough person, or a role model for pious, holy living. I had too many skeletons in the closet, swore too much, screwed up too much, hurt people too often, prayed too little.
I learned in the work I did with the ministerial credentialing committee how easily I could mess other people up with my own inadequacies, and I didn’t want to inflict my imperfection on some sweet innocent, unsuspecting congregation like this one. And so I became a therapist for children, which is hilariously ironic since imperfect folks like myself can do just as much damage there, if not more. But there was something about failing regularly in public that terrified me far more.
Incidentally, I didn’t answer the call to the ministry at age 33 because I had become a better person. If anything, I had gotten worse. I simply realized that my problem was not that I was imperfect. My problem was that I couldn’t allow myself to be. That’s what inflicts harm on other people. Not our imperfections, but our inability to honestly embrace them, name them, and do the work we are called to do anyway.
Perfect truly is the enemy of the good.
There is a description of the perfect pastor that has been floating around for decades in the form of a chain letter email:
The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes.
He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings..
The perfect pastor makes $90 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car,
buys good books, and donates $80 a week to the church.
He works from 8 am until midnight and is also the church janitor.
He is 40 years old and has 30 years experience.
Above all, he is handsome.
The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers,
and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens.
He makes 15 home visits a day
and is always in his office to be handy when needed.
The perfect pastor never misses any church committee meeting
and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.
The perfect pastor is always in the next church over!
If your pastor does not measure up,
simply send this notice to six other churches that are tired of their pastor, too.
Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list.
If everyone cooperates, in one week you will receive 1,643 pastors.
One of them should be perfect!
I’ll never be perfect according to this criteria, rest assured. I am quite sure I have already gone over ten minutes in THIS sermon, and my inability to grow a beard makes me a bad candidate for ministry right off the bat!
I’m sure you have your own similarly impossible list of how to be a perfect farmer, computer programmer, plumber, teacher, lawyer, doctor, spouse, mother, father, son, daughter, sister, friend…etc. We all have impossible expectations for perfection placed on us by ourselves and others.
And like most of you, I am given a lot of feedback on a daily basis reflecting back to me both my gifts and my deficits. A lot of the feedback I’ve had as a public figure I’ve had to sift for truth. I bet this is true of you, also, no matter your role. Your list will be different, but as a minister, I get everything from you’re “too young, too old, too loud, too tall, too girly, too immodestly dressed, too serious, too comical, too political, not political enough, too liberal, too conservative, too Christian, not Christian enough, too involved in everything, not involved enough, you talk about money too much, you’re not raising enough money, you work too much, you work too little...” the list goes on.
It’s all information, it often contradicts, and somewhere in there, there’s a message. We have to become great sifters of information to find the God bits, like shaking those sifts found in your kid’s sand toys for gold. You have to know how to find Truth in a world of too much information.
So I start here: do not be afraid. Take what’s yours’. Leave what’s not. Be honest about your mistakes. Mine for the gold: find God’s message amid the noise of information.
This week, I started a conversation on the internet in a manner that was more snarky than my public voice usually is, and more unkind than the way I try to be. A poet calls cynicism “that other sadness.” If I am being honest, cynicism is my greatest vice, and the strongest armor in my arsenal protecting the core of shame and inadequacy that rests inside of me.
What I said struck a chord with people, and I got literally hundreds of supportive messages from beloved supporters and colleagues, and lots of “atta Pastors!” However, there were three people from this congregation, one friend from divinity school, and my best friend from college brave enough to buck the tide and deliver me an alternative message, one they knew I surely didn’t want to hear. “You are better than this,” or “You should be better than this,” was what the message was.
They broke through the armor. Those five lone messengers helped God to reach into my chest, pull out my heart of stone, and replace it with a beating heart of flesh again. I took down the post, and made a humble attempt at a public apology, because when you fail in public, there is no other way.
The truth is, the thing I most feared about being a public messenger of God—failing to live up to the message itself—comes true for me every day I do this job. And there is no better gift. God helps me to learn from my imperfections whenever I have ears to hear. We need to be good listeners if we are going to be messengers for hope. Do not be afraid of what you’ll hear.
We can also aspire to become better messengers. “Preach the gospel at all times,” a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, “if necessary, use words.”
When we do use our words, we own them and take responsibility for them. We stop first. We must evaluate our words before we deliver the message, especially one we know will be hard to hear. This is an acronym you may have heard before, because I definitely didn’t make it up: T.H.I.N.K before you speak.
Before you deliver a message, evaluate it with this method:
T – is it True?
H – is it Helpful?
I – is it Inspiring?
N – is it Necessary?
K – is it Kind?
If one or more of the criteria is missing, maybe it is time to re-evaluate whether the message is worthy of God.
And remember that all of US are worthy of God, and everyone you meet is known and named Beloved. As sure as you and I were born, there are angels among us. Messengers of God bringing the light of hope in the darkness. The message isn’t always the one we are wanting or expecting, so listen humbly and sift for gold. Your deeds do more to send a message than any words you speak. But when words are needed, let the truth of hope resound through them. Do not be afraid. An aching world needs our voice.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org