A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
inspired by Rev. Mara Dowdall, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, and the city of New Orleans
based on "On the Night You Were Born" by Nancy Tillman and Matthew 10: 24-39
preached July 2, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Do not be afraid for you are loved. That is the heart of the Gospel.
When I was a new mom of my first born child, I read all the books. I had a pretty dark bout of un-diagnosed post-partum depression for a short time there, and I was convinced I couldn’t keep my tiny newborn alive. So I figured I’d have a better chance of her making it to her first birthday if I knew everything there was to know about babies. I think I’ve told you before that I feel like I can exert some kind of control over the world if I read all the things. And so I read every book and article on feeding and sleeping and disciplining and development. The books had dorky names like “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer.” I googled my brains out. I even went back to my old text books from my first masters degree in developmental psychology.
All of the books-- both academic and practical-- said virtually the same thing: love is what keeps babies alive. Responding to a baby’s cries helps them feel secure enough to develop as a separate person. If a parent doesn’t respond to a baby’s cries and coos with love and holding, babies become anxious and fearful and easily rattled. They don’t eat well or sleep well. Without a foundation of attachment to their care-givers, babies don’t grow because they learn to fear the world. Essentially, it is the assurance of love that gives them enough faith to live in a terrifying, big, and insecure world.
Love makes us brave; it keeps us alive.
God made us to love and to be loved. It is uniquely true of the human species that a lack of love can kill us. We know through developmental psychology that without love, in extreme cases, human babies can actually experience psychic and even physical death. Babies who have all of their physical needs met in over-crowded orphanages but are never held can die, simply from a lack of love. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
Without love, we all fail to thrive.
There have been studies that show that those who are partnered live longer, that those who have children live longer, that those who have a network of close friends live longer, that those who have PETS live longer. And conversely, loneliness is shown to increase the concentration of cortisol levels in the body. Prolonged, high cortisol levels can cause anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, deadly addiction, and weight gain. Loneliness and social isolation increases disease progression and hastens death.
If you wonder why I always say that this church saves lives, I mean that quite literally. Human beings can die from a lack of social connection, of human touch. Church can make us brave enough to survive in a broken, divided terrifying world simply by reminding us of our belovedness.
The poet Raymond Carver wrote as he lay dying from cancer at the age of 50:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Do not be afraid, for you are loved.
The passage we heard this morning from the Gospel of Matthew is challenging in many ways. It is not really the warm fuzzy Jesus we love in some of our other gospel texts. In it, he is warning the disciples that they will be harmed, maligned; that they can even be killed for following him. In it, Jesus tells us that he comes to bring not peace but a sword. That we are to deny even our families for his sake.
This passage is an important reminder that the Gospel calls us outside the zone of comfort into the realm of risk. The Gospel demands that we love even those who could harm us. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus says. Do not walk around fearing death and other people…fear only losing your soul to a soulless world.
Importantly, in order to quell their fear, Jesus reminds the disciples how valuable they are to God. Jesus says: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Do not be afraid for you are loved. Do not be afraid, for your value is limitless to God. Every hair on your head.
On the night you were born,
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
Because there had never been anyone like you…ever in the world.
So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain
That they whispered the sound of your wonderful name.
Love may not always be able to keep us alive, but letting fear win out can certainly keep us from living.
This past week I was in New Orleans for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. It was my first trip there. An author said she expected New Orleans to be “Girls Gone Wild” but instead found it to be “haunted and decadent,” which in my experience is such an apt description of what I expected versus what it was.
New Orleans feels haunted. Haunted by the legacy of slavery. Haunted by the racism and poverty inherent in the geography itself. Haunted by the cries of Katrina; by the dilapidated buildings in the lower ninth ward. New Orleans is a decadent party anyway. Music anyway. Oh, Lord, the music. New Orleans is food anyway—rich and sultry food. New Orleans is drinks anyway, mixed to perfection, at all hours of the day. We went to have breakfast one day at 7 am, and the drink menu had a drink called “early bird gets the whiskey”, and another drink called, “my drinking is only a problem for you.” I was exhausted just looking at it.
A dangerous tropical storm was blowing through last week, so the people of New Orleans just put on ponchos and danced in the streets anyway, live brass jazz bands blaring out of every bar and nightclub. I hear that’s a thing: the hurricane party. The world might be ending, so we might as well dance. Faith over fear.
I loved all of it.
The Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly came to New Orleans to have a denomination-wide conversation about confronting our denomination’s own history of racism. We came to begin a healing process after a destabilizing spring filled with controversy over the association’s hiring practices, a rash of resignations in upper level management, the sudden death of our board’s moderator, and a growing and orthodox insistence on ideological purity that is threatening to destroy the fabric of the organization itself.
On the last evening, at 9:00 pm, as if the Unitarian Universalist Association’s staff hasn’t had enough heartbreak for one year, two of our information technology staff-people were walking back to their hotel in the relatively safe touristy area in the well-populated French Quarter. They were jumped from behind by four men, and beaten so severely that one of them almost died. One—James Curran-- is home in Boston, recovering, and the other—Tim Byrne-- remains in the hospital in New Orleans, recently stepped down from the intensive care unit. I hear from my friends that work at the UUA, that the two of them are just the most kind and gentle men. They were beaten for their wallets. If asked, my friends said, they would have handed their money over, so eager are they to help those who need it.
We elected a new president of the association on Saturday—the first woman! Susan Frederick-Gray. Her first act as president was to pastor to the men and the families in the hospital all night, and then to announce to the 4,000 gathered for Sunday morning worship that this heinous crime had been committed, and to lead us in prayer for Tim and James.
Because the crime was so severe, and because it was entirely caught on security cameras, the news story and the video circulated across the country. Two of the perpetrators almost immediately turned themselves in after confessing their crimes to a priest. All four have since been reprehended. They are all black men between the ages of 18 and 20, and were living in a homeless shelter for at-risk youth called Covenant House.
The mission statement for Covenant House says: "We who recognize God's providence and fidelity to His people are dedicated to living out His Covenant among ourselves and those children we serve, with absolute respect and unconditional love. This commitment calls us to serve suffering children of the street, and to protect and safeguard all children. Just as Christ in His Humanity is the visible sign of God's presence among His people, so our efforts together in the covenant community are a visible sign that effects the presence of God, working through the Holy Spirit among ourselves and our kids."
Do not be afraid for you are loved.
I read several articles about this robbery, which was shockingly brutal, and senseless. The comments section made fun of the Unitarian Universalists. “Serves them right for making excuses for criminals because of the color of their skin.” “Those Unitarians are a bunch of liberal snow flakes who deserve to know what these thugs are really like.” They called the perpetrators human trash, and racial slurs. They called us stupid and naïve for protesting the conditions under which they live.
The new president of the UUA, Susan Frederick-Gray, sent us a challenging and faithful pastoral letter that said this:
“I want to acknowledge the sorrow, fear, anger, and heartbreak of seeing a loved one, a member of our community, violently attacked. I have experienced all of these emotions in the last few days, as have so many of the UUA staff and wider UU community. Throughout the General Assembly, we reflected on the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence. This week, those reflections became personal and proximate.
As I have listened to Unitarian Universalists reflect on this situation, I have been moved by the connections made to Bryan Stevenson’s powerful message to us at General Assembly that “simply punishing the broken—walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” May we hold the young adults who are accused of carrying out the robbery, Rashaad Piper (20), Nicholas Polgowski (18), DeJuan Paul (18), and Joshua Simmons (18), with the universal love that we hold Tim Byrne and James Curran. This is so very important. Many voices have lifted up hope for a process of restorative justice.
These are our Unitarian Universalist values calling us to live in the reality of the heartbreak of our world, while remembering that no one is outside the circle of love – that compassion is always our guide, and that as a religious community, we seek the well-being of all people and the dismantlement of systems of oppression that undermine our collective humanity.”
This is the message of the Gospel: Faith over fear. Love over retribution. Do not be afraid for you are loved.
After checking to see if it was OK with the families of the victims, Unitarian Universalists in New Orleans attended en masse the bail hearing for the four young men, urging mercy from the judge. Some of them wore “black lives matter” t-shirts. Maybe you think that’s naïve and “making excuses for criminals.” But if God’s extravagant love includes all of us, surely it has to include Rashaad, Nicholas, DeJuan and Joshua. Surely, every hair on their head is numbered by God, as well. Certainly heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn on the marvelous night they, too, were born.
Listen: Love does not deny the existence of evil. Love makes us brave in the face of it. Love allows us to live into our full humanity. Without love, we fail to thrive. So do not be afraid. However haunted we are by the legacies of human suffering, play glorious music. Dance in a hurricane. Dare to demand mercy, even for those who hurt you. Do not fear those who can harm the body; fear only losing your soul in a soulless world. Call yourself beloved, feel yourself beloved on the earth, for you have sacred worth. Every hair on your head. Let this Love make us brave enough to live in this broken world. Let this Love make us brave enough to heal it.
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.