By Reverend Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Listen to sermon here.
Scripture: John 14:8-17, (25-27)
When we read or tell a story, it usually has a beginning, a middle and an end. When we tell stories to children, they often begin with “once upon a time,” and conclude with “the end.” In the case of a fairy tale, “they all lived happily ever after.”
In a fairy tale, the ending is usually after a wedding of a Prince to a Princess. Most of us know that a wedding is only the beginning of a story, and it isn’t all “happily ever after,” even in the best of marriages. Amen? But we like our stories to end neatly and definitely.
When we cross thresholds in life—a graduation, a new job, a marriage, a baby, completion of the 12 steps, a divorce…there is nothing neat and definite about any of it.
We are tempted to think that when we cross a threshold, we are celebrating or marking endings. An end to coursework and paper writing, an end to our subscription to match.com. An end to pregnancy, or Sunday school, or a job search, or a bad marriage or relationship.
…And they all lived happily ever after.
But the trouble is endings are not endings at all…they are always beginnings. Endings are births. And those of us who have given birth know how much it hurts. Those of us who have given birth know that a part of us has to die before new life can begin. The hardest part of labor is called transition. It is the beginning of a new story. It hurts the most, because when something is about to be born, there is pain.
I turned 40 this week, which was a birthday I had been dreading for that arbitrary reason we dread zero birthdays. 40 somehow symbolized the end of something for me. It was an end to young adulthood; an end to the first half of my life; an end to a decade which was a fascinating roller-coaster mixture of high achievement, existential angst, joy and excruciating emotional pain.
Truthfully, it was hard because the story didn’t turn out the way I wrote it. The story changed wildly in ways I didn’t anticipate and couldn’t control. So much was birthed. Dramatic plot twists like parenthood, a call to the ministry, a new masters program, a divorce, a devastation, a depression, a new love, a surprise pregnancy, a new marriage, a call, a new life in a new place, a newly constructed family. None of it was what I expected.
Every time I thought the story was over, the plot changed, and the story began again. It hurt, like birthing something new always does.
The Holy Text that we study each week contains a sacred story of God with many plot twists—enough to give anyone whiplash. In the Bible, the first words are “in the beginning…” and the last words are “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
In other words, this book begins in the Hebrew scriptures with “Once upon a time,” and ends in the New Testament with “they all lived with the grace of Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever.” Which to me sounds as close to “happily every after” as you and I are ever gonna get.
But the end of this book is only the beginning of the story, really. It is the transition, it is the birth. It is the “happily ever after” before the plot twist. People will tell you that this book contains everything that God ever said or did. People will tell you that if it is in this book, that’s it. It’s done. There’s nothing more to say.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said that “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.”
God is still speaking.
That’s what we celebrate today, with these balloons that represent God’s breath and God’s fire. God speaketh, not spake. God is, not was.
Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the truth that God’s story doesn’t end when Jesus’ life ends.
Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the truth that there is more to the story.
Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the truth that WE are the story. And that we are only a small part of the story…the whole world and all of time, past present and future, is the story, too.
Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the truth that we are the ones we have been waiting for. That it is up to us to create heaven on earth. And that we CAN because the Holy Spirit, our advocate, resides in each of us; lives in us.
What an exhilarating and terrifying idea. This is the celebration of the birthday of the Church, and birth is always exhilarating and terrifying.
Our text from the Gospel of John is part of Jesus’ long goodbye speech before he was crucified. It is his attempt to assure his friends that though he is leaving, they will never be alone.
His friends are not comprehending how they can live without him. As someone whose mom still does my laundry once a week, this makes a whole lot of sense to me.
Jesus’ friends are rapidly going through the Kubler Ross stages of grief—and in this text at least, they have landed on bargaining.
“Can we see the father? We won’t be satisfied until we do,” Philip pleads.
And Jesus sounds exasperated, frankly. He says something to the effect of, “OMG! Have you even been listening? You have seen what God is like because you know ME. And I’m leaving now, but I’m not leaving you alone. You will have another advocate, who will teach you everything, and be your reminder of everything I said and did! You’ll BE FINE!! The spirit abides in you.”
Barbara Lundblad says “This is Pentecost in John’s Gospel. The body of Christ must claim space on the earth. We who dance and climb, who run and get knocked down, we who lie on the grass and sit watching the late-night news -- we are not alone. The Spirit of truth, the Advocate comes, surprising us at every turn, saying, “Guess who?”
WE are the body of Christ claiming space on the earth. The spirit of Truth comes to us, surprising us at every turn. If you’re looking for God, you need only look as close as your own beating heart; your breath; your life.
The story of God is not over because we are the story.
You all know that so much of this year for me has been shaped by death, and figuring out how to carry on the story of God after the death of so many of our beloveds. Death so often seems like the end of a story. I have done a lot of funerals, some for church pillars and dear friends of mine like Rick Dell and Helen Wessels and Anita Benware, some for beloved family members of all of you that I never met, some for strangers. May light perpetual shine upon all of them.
Their stories are part of our story, and the story of God, and it is now up to us to tell them every time we speak their names.
There is one story that I have been walking with since Easter; a story of a man that I never met. I carry him with me, perhaps because he was my age. Perhaps because he loved Tom Petty and so do I. Perhaps because it sounds like he was my kind of people. His family were not big church-goers, and yet they keep showing up here every week ever since he died. This strikes me as a testament to hope. This strikes me as the deepest act of faith.
And I sometimes look out at them and think about the story they may need to hear, and I hope we’ll tell it good and true for them.
Jeffrey Cranson, son of Maureen and Donald, brother of Sarah and Kristen, fiancé of Alex, nephew of beloved former church members Ken and Cathy, friend of the whole world, died of cancer at age 39. He was still full of life. He was funny, caring and real. He had a cat named dirty snow pile. He loved Sterling and children and he recently lived in Alaska because he was addicted to adventure and the outdoors. He was in recovery and proud. He loved his people. The bodies of 350 or so who attended his funeral packed in here like sardines, resurrected him in this room. His story resided in them, and tumbled out in bursts of laughter and tears. Jeffrey was on the edge of marrying his fiancé and best friend Alex, who is a light in this world like he was. She is so young and so good. The story of that wedding and marriage never came into being. This struck me as one of the world’s great tragedies; the end of their story. Jeffrey’s death, to be real, could make even the most determined and faithful believer question the existence of a loving God.
I was talking to our beloved Judy Conway about her brother in law who is in the ICU this week fighting for his life. He’s 59 and her husband Jim’s best brother and mentor. She said to me, “I don’t question the existence of God, but I do question who gets chosen.”
Anyway, my friend Maureen Cranson got up in front of this gigantic crowd gathered to honor her son Jeff at his funeral, and she managed to get up the courage to minister to us all. She told us, “Jeffrey would want our stories to go on. He would want us planting our gardens and caring for each other, and rock climbing and going back to work, and playing with the babies, and living. So keep on living.”
That’s what she said, more or less. She told us he would have wanted the story to go on. I think he would have wanted to see what happens next.
Maureen knew this; that it was our job to keep the story going. Even a mama who lost her baby knew this and spoke it to us.
God speaketh, not spake. God speaks through my friend, Maureen. Maybe that’s why she keeps coming here. Because she has more to tell us, and still more to hear.
‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate,* the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The Advocate will come, and the voice that whispers all we need to hear will say this: It is not over.
When we tell a story, it usually has a beginning, a middle and an end. But beloved, our story is always beginning, and there is no end. So let us birth a continuation of God’s beautiful, tragic, redemptive story for this time and place. May it be a story of hope that we could never write ourselves. Let this church be a place where the spirit lives and breathes and has room to grow. Where God speaketh, not spake. Let this church be a church where we listen for the voice of God in each other’s words. Let this church tell a story of a Love that never ends.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Peace I leave with you, peace I give to you. God is still speaking.
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.