preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on February 3, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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I call this “churches gone wild week” in the lectionary.
Congregations are capable of great love, and great destruction. That’s the uncomfortable lesson both Jesus and Paul have to teach us this week.
In our scriptures from Luke for the last two weeks, we have followed Jesus to his hometown congregation, where he preaches his first sermon.
I recently had a similar experience, for the sake of field research.
On October 7, 2018, more than 24 years after I graduated from Concord High School, I stood in the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Concord, New Hampshire. This is the church where I was born and came of age in. My mother was the music director for 18 years. My father is still on the buildings and grounds committee. My stepmother chairs the stewardship drive. I know about every fight the church has had in the past 40 years, every minister they ever ran out of town, and who was on which side. I also know them to be capable of loving me into the person I am.
I hadn’t been back on a Sunday morning in at least 20 years, maybe more.
I swallowed hard, my mouth suddenly dry. I looked out into the congregation to see my father, my brother, my niece, my sixth grade teacher, my high school English teacher, my grade school piano teacher, my Sunday School teacher, my childhood friend, my friend’s parents and my parent’s friends. “These people will never take me seriously,” I thought.
(How many of you grew up in this church? Show of hands. I started to realize what you all feel every Sunday.)
The elder of blessed memory who scolded me after I played an angel in the Christmas pageant telling me I “acted more like a devil than an angel up there,” had long since gone to live with God. I’m not saying I’m relieved that she died, only that her absence that morning took some pressure off.
I had never been so scared to preach a sermon in my life.
At the risk of comparing myself to Jesus, I preached the good news Jesus preached to his own hometown congregation, from the scripture you heard Megan preach last week:
The spirit of Love is upon me because I have been anointed to bring good news to you who are brokenhearted. All of you who are held captive will soon be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will receive justice. And I am proclaiming this—2018--the year of Love’s blessing—the year of the Love Revolution.
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Tears streamed down my face as we sang the closing hymn. I was home.
In the receiving line, person after sweet person held my hands and told me how proud they were of me. “That was the best sermon I have ever heard.” “You are so beautiful.” “I can’t believe it’s you.” “Who knew you had this in you?” “Aren’t you Beth’s daughter? Please tell her how much we miss her.” It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I just couldn’t believe they remembered me—just one of the church kids—24 years later. And that they came just to see how I’d turned out.
The congregants were also quick to point out to me that my theology was now so different than theirs that I could never be their minister. “You’re a Christian now? How does *that* work?” The subtext was "Thanks for visiting, but that would never fly here.”
You can never go home again.
“Isn’t he Joseph’s son? He is so gracious,” Jesus’ hometown congregation praises him when the service he preaches at is over. But Jesus knows long before his triumphant entry into Jerusalem that groups of humans can turn on a dime. He knows that humans can close each other off to heaven just as quickly as they rain down grace.
He knows you can never go home again.
So Jesus goes ahead and ruins all those good vibes in the receiving line. He predicts that they will reject him before they do, so he heads them off at the pass: “I’m sure you want me to heal you. But I know from scripture that prophets are rejected in their hometowns.”
When the congregation heard Jesus say this, they turn on him. His prediction comes true after he says it out loud, which kinda sounds to me like the very definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy, no? The congregation flies into a rage, drives him out of the synagogue, and out of the town. They don’t just stop there, they try to hurl him off a cliff!
Jesus passes right through them, which is such a beautiful image of non-anxious leadership. He just kind of rises above their anger and perseveres, and goes on his way. May we all be like “chill Jesus,” amen? When someone is so angry they want to hurl you off a cliff, it’s not you, it’s them. Just take a deep breath, pass through the midst of them and go on your way, my friends.
Our reading from first Corinthians is one of the most famous readings from the scriptures. It is most often read at weddings, and people cross stitch it onto wall hangings. We are tempted to think that this reading is trite, romantic or lacks nuance.
But this reading is not at all Hallmark sentimentalism. It comes from a pointed letter Saint Paul wrote to the church in Corinth rebuking them for becoming a petty, nasty brood of vipers.
The people of the church were in the midst of being total jerks to one another. They were passive aggressive, or just aggressive. They were giving each other the silent treatment, making dramatic threats to leave, and threatening to lower their pledges if they didn’t get what they wanted. They were talking about each other behind each other’s backs in the church parking lot. They were undermining leadership with petty gossip. In short, they were behaving badly. They couldn’t figure out how to live with one another, much less how to love one another. They didn’t even like one another!
And so Paul says “Look: we can say we are all for creating heaven on earth and gathering in the spirit of Jesus, but if we don’t have love, that means absolutely nothing. We can study scripture and pray and generally know a lot about God, but if we don’t have love, that’s all a worthless endeavor. Might as well go bowling. Even if we give all of our possessions away to the poor and don’t have love, we gain nothing. Meaningless.”
And then Paul tells them what Love really is when you are no longer a swooning teenager, or a princess on your wedding day. When you are an adult, Paul says, Love is not a feeling, but a way of being. Love is patient. Love is kind, he says. Mostly he tells the church in Corinth how NOT to be in Love:
Don’t be envious
Don’t be boastful
Don’t be arrogant
Don’t be rude
Don’t insist on getting your own way
Don’t be irritable
Don’t rejoice in wrong doing.
“There’s no room for any of that nonsense when you are adulting,” Paul says. “Stop trying to throw one another off the cliff.”
He’s not talking about LOVERS, he’s talking to the church.
Now this church is blessedly not particularly oriented toward petty fights at all. Mostly, we are a beloved community with a sincere focus on our mission. And we can still get outraged about the small things every now and then. We are only human and doing the best that we can, amen?
In August of 2016, I came home from vacation and my thoughts were turning to homecoming and getting the church ready, I sent an email out to the operations team leadership saying, “Hi all! When is our new sign going to be installed on the front lawn?”And Doug wrote a “reply to all message” that said, “I saw the sign! It is amazing. Probably installed Wednesday.”
This was in the evening and I was in my house which as most of you know is quite close to the church. I swear to you I was fully sober. And I was so excited to see it, that I ran immediately over to the church to witness with my own eyes the newly installed church sign Doug was talking about.
What I saw looked exactly like our old sign. Forest green, with just the words “The First Church in Sterling”, barely visible, and back from the road, fading into the green bush behind it like camouflage.
At first I was confused, and then I was just mad. In fact, I had never been so furious with this church. My belly was in KNOTS. I considered going back to therapy.
“We spent all this money on the sign, one that was supposed to stand out and SAY WHO WE WERE, and the new sign we made is exactly the same as the last one!” I yelled at my husband.
I wrote to my best collegial friends: “They changed the sign plans without telling me. And it fades into the bushes and doesn’t have our denominations on it, and doesn’t have my name on it, and it was supposedly going to! What do you think this MEANS?!”
My colleague friends said, “maybe they are trying to tell you that they don’t want too much change too fast. Maybe they figure they are the town church, and they should go for small and tasteful. You got too much press last year! They didn’t like it. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity for conversation about communication and mission and change.”
For a full hour, I was enraged. “I’m just curious,” I wrote in an email to the church leadership who worked on the sign. “Did something change with our sign plans? This new sign looks just like our old one. Did I miss something?”
Chris Roy finally wrote back, after I had slipped further into the abyss until there was practically no return. “You missed something alright. The sign is not going to be installed until this Wednesday.”
And Jon Guild replied, “in case folks don’t know, Doug saw the new church sign yesterday…on a smartphone. If the “new” sign is green, has peeling paint, and looks very similar to our existing sign…that’s probably not the new sign.”
“Whoops,” I said to my colleagues. “It turns out that was the old sign I was looking at.”
And they died. “Thanks to your nervous breakdown, Robin, we have sermon fodder for WEEKS,” they said. We will call our sermons, “I saw the sign,” “signs and wonders,” “Signs, signs, everywhere are signs”.
Sometimes we are a little too quick to hurl each other off cliffs without having all the facts, without assuming good intent, without offering abundant grace instead. We jump to wild conclusions without asking our friends directly, trusting their intentions, or waiting for an answer. We are only humans, and doing the best that we can.
In the spirit of doing the best that we can, three years ago your church leadership did some really good work. In January of 2016, several of your congregation’s leaders got together to create what they called a behavioral covenant, after multiple afternoon workshops and work sessions on “Walking in the Way of Peace.” They learned skills like active listening, speaking the truth in love directly to people you have a concern with in a timely fashion, and assuming good intent. They learned about avoiding “parking lot” conversations, triangulation, Facebook comments section debates, and “reply to all” emails, or emails with emotional content when a face to face meeting is called for.
This is how to treat love not as a feeling, but as a way of BEING, they told us. It’s not easy, which is why we have one another to keep us accountable.
Here is the covenant we made, articulated beautifully by Janet Baker and Vicki Gaw:
As a congregation, we gather in the spirit of Jesus to create heaven on earth. To succeed in our mission, we must practice open and honest communication among ourselves and with others:
We will speak from our hearts and without judging; seeking facts, ideas and inspirations.
We may disagree, and we will do so with respect.
When we have concerns or questions, we will bring them directly to the person or group with the responsibility.
We will do so with the expectation of being heard and understood and the possibility of deepening our own understandings.
In all this, we will speak with love and nourish our connections by sharing our laughter, our prayers, our lives, and ourselves.
These promises are how we practice being Love, here in this place.
Beloved, be patient. Be kind. Rejoice in the truth. If you incite rage in others, remember it’s not about you. Don’t let anyone throw you off a cliff…big breath, and go on. Be humble enough to say you’re wrong. Offer forgiveness like it is water for the thirsty. Begin again and again. Open up the heavens by remaining open to one another. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
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.