A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
on August 11, 2019
We all know that nothing brings out the vicious political divide in America quite like the words “thoughts and prayers” right now. That phrase has come to be associated with performative sympathy coupled with inaction.
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough!” is the rallying cry we all have become accustomed to in the macabre mass shooting script we know by heart.
I don’t know about you, but I admit that sometimes I just feel resigned to living in a world in which evil is allowed it's own tools of rage.
And so as a small town pastor, sometimes I feel that all I have are thoughts and prayers, and the knowledge that they aren't enough.
And I cry “how long, O Lord?” And God asks me the same question.
I came home from my four week vacation on the day of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. It was a harsh re-introduction to Facebook, which I hadn’t read in 5 weeks. My feed looked like yours’ that day: heartbreak, thoughts and prayers, anger and fury, calls to “do something,” lots of talking past each other and fighting over the 2nd amendment while the bodies were still warm.
And I was so relieved and heartened to be back in church last Sunday, just hours later. Seeing all of your faces helped me to remember that we can do hard things because we have each other. Not just in the virtual space of political posturing, virtue signaling, and bluster, but in real time.
And then on Sunday afternoon, a townsperson from Sterling who is not associated with this church wrote a Facebook status on her page and in our First Church Facebook group criticizing me and all of the religious leaders and churches for not doing enough to end racism in the town of Sterling, and being silent about mass shootings and gun violence in the United States. I know a bunch of you saw this before she took it down.
On her page she said something like, “the deafening silence coming from our ‘religious gurus’ in the town of Sterling in the wake of El Paso is disgusting. Praying about racism isn’t doing anything to stop it. Tax exempt status must be nice.”
And on our page, she said something like, “What are you people DOING to stop white supremacist gun violence besides praying, exactly?”
And I got awfully defensive.
“As one of the ‘religious gurus in your town’ I want you to know that I was not silent on El Paso today,” I said. “I preached on both racism and gun violence. Here’s video proof.”
“Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” she said.
“I agree,” I said.
And I listed the other things we have done as a church: vigils, protests, sign-making parties, Keep the Faith articles in the Telegram and Gazette, educational events at Eat Pray Learn like conversations on race, and on the impact of gun violence in our community.
She didn’t back down or apologize. After criticizing me and the church’s lack of action some more, she had a specific assignment for me. “Come to the black lives matter conversation in Cambridge next week with me, and the counter-protest at the Nazi rally in Boston on August 30th. Walk your talk.”
I told her that I was busy that day and suggested that a better way to partner with religious communities in our town would be to get to know us better before making specific demands of us.
She de-friended me on Facebook.
But she still didn’t give up. She called me on the phone the next morning, and then the day after that to demand that we show up in Boston on August 30th.
“Every community needs to show up and walk the talk. The religious communities in Sterling need to stop praying about racism and do something.” she said.
The speech of prophets is sometimes harsh and unskillful, but it is not wrong.
So you can imagine how quickly the self-righteous defense of my religious leadership was quieted when I read the lectionary texts from this week. In them, God’s Word spoke through the mouth of Isaiah:
“Your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS ARE NOT ENOUGH! God says.
“Leaders of Sodom ... People of Gomorrah! Listen!” Isaiah begins. Admittedly, that’s when some of us tune out. After all, you and I aren’t the leaders of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom and Gomorrah was burned to ash by God for the sins of the people who resided there in ancient times and ancient lands, long long ago.
Many of us know that story well. It is a story about two angels disguised as travelers who arrive at the gates of Sodom. Lot, who is a relative newcomer to the town as well, does what he imagines God would demand of him. He takes the strangers in and he feeds them a glorious feast. He insists they spend the night in his house. In other words, he provides them with lavish welcome and hospitality.
When the rest of the men of Sodom hear about the uninvited guests in their town, they storm Lot’s house. They demand that the guests are turned over to the men so that they can gang rape them.
Far too often, when we hear about Sodom and Gomorrah from some preachers, we are led to believe that God burns the city with fire because of the sexual sin of its inhabitants. In fact, we are often led to believe that homosexuality was the sin of the Sodomites.
In fact, the real sin was the failure to lavishly welcome and love the strangers in their midst without inquiring as to whether or not they were worthy. The real sin of Sodom was the attack on those deemed “other” using common tools of war: rape and terror. Rather than welcoming traveling sojourners into their home, the men of Sodom desired to exert their power over them. The sin of Sodom was radical inhospitality. The sin of Sodom was failing to recognize the stranger as a piece of ourselves we did not yet know.
The Bible itself expressly describes the sin of Sodom elsewhere as the failure to extravagantly welcome travelers in our midst. According to the prophet Ezekiel, the real “guilt” of the Sodomites was the fact that, although they had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease,” they “did not aid the poor and needy” and were “haughty” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
The Letter to the Hebrews warns Christians by alluding to the true sin of the Sodomites as inhospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
The sin of Sodom was a terror attack on migrants. So when Isaiah says, “People of Sodom and Gomorrah, listen!”
God’s voice is saying:
“Americans! Yes, you! LISTEN.
The blood is crying out from the ground from El Paso and Dayton and Orlando and Charleston, and Pittsburgh and everywhere terror is inflicted as a tool of war against the stranger,
You are your brother’s keeper!
Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Beloved, I know that you, like I am, are paralyzed by the enormity of the world’s grief. Henri Nouwen says that your faithfulness to small tasks is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.
Our psalmist reminds us that you and I are not helpless because we are not hopeless. God’s steadfast Love—God’s chesed, will not leave us. Our soul waits on the Lord. God is our hope and our shield.
And the psalmist says that God looks down from heaven, and sees ALL of humankind.
From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth--
he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds.
Rich and poor, black and white, old and young, European and Asian, African, North, South, Central American, straight and gay, male, female, trans and cis, disabled and temporarily able bodied…
God sees us.
God sees the migrants fleeing, knowing that no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark, as Warsan Shire says.
God sees those children in border detention centers, crying for their mamas and trying to keep warm under a blanket made of foil, under the fluorescent lights of a warehouse.
God sees the MAGA hat wearers in the flyover states and the Bernie Bros at the hipster coffee houses in Brooklyn.
God sees the trans kids forced to live a lie and the teenage girls starving themselves so they can disappear.
God sees the homeless drug addict who lives on the street and the wealthy white collar alcoholic who lives in an endless stream of business travel.
God sees the pious Muslim facing Mecca to pray five times a day and the mega-church attender raising up their hands in praise as the rock band sings of the Lord’s salvation on Sunday morning.
God sees us.
God sees you and God sees me.
And God has fashioned ALL of our hearts.
No matter what our political persuasion or our thoughts on the second amendment, God fashioned each one of your hearts. And I know your hearts cannot endure another shooting. Not one more. God fashioned our hearts to break. And our broken hearts will teach us more about what we are called to DO next. Trust your broken, God-fashioned hearts to do the next right thing.
After church, we’ll share thoughts and prayers in room two so that we can discern together what we might do. Small things with great love, informed by our God fashioned hearts.
I want to close with this poem by Danusha Lameris:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Let your steadfast love, O God, be upon us, even as we hope in you.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org