A Love Letter to First Church in Sterling
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached at the Regional Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association's New England Region on
April 22, 2017
“A new heart I will give you,” our reading from Ezekiel says, “a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
We are in constant need for God to reach into our chests, pull out our hearts of stone and replace them with beating hearts of flesh. That’s why we come together in religious community:
We need a heart transplant.
And you and I know that this whole nation needs a new heart right now; re-started by Love.
You and I have watched (helplessly, hopelessly, angrily, cynically, exhausted) this year as our collective hearts turned to stone. We know we need Love to repair what has been broken.
We need a heart transplant. We need a LOVE REVOLUTION.
So often we Unitarian Universalists believe that the problem is outside of our own communities. As liberals, we don’t need to change. As liberals, it is our politics that saves us. And so it is our job to fix and save others; to save the world. But the truth is, you and I need a change of heart, too.
I grew up UU from birth, at the UU church in Concord, NH in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I grew up in a congregation that—at the time—worshipped the holy trinity: Emerson, Humanism and the Democratic party. There were three words we were not allowed to say in church in those years: God, Jesus and Ronald Reagan.
I interpreted the message of Unitarian Universalism rather poorly as a kid. I was the 7-year-old mini-Richard Dawkins on the playground who told the other kids there wasn’t a God, and also that Santa wasn’t real. (I don’t blame this on you, UUs of Concord, NH. I’m raising my 7-year-old with Jesus, and she does the same thing. It must be genetics.)
In college, I had a bumper sticker that said, “the road to hell is paved with Republicans.” I didn’t even have a car, but I had that bumper sticker.
I needed a heart transplant.
I found Jesus sometime in my late twenties at First Parish in Milton, Massachusetts. He taught me about Universalism, and was constantly challenging me to love religious hypocrites, the tax collector, and my enemies. But I rarely had to put those principles into practice since I surrounded myself with people I perceived to be exactly like me: white liberals. Ironically, I didn’t see myself as one of the religious hypocrites.
Then I moved outside of Boston.
You may have read that I am the minister of a UU church also affiliated with the United Church of Christ out in a town in Massachusetts you’ve maybe never heard of called Sterling. First Church in Sterling is what’s called a “federated” church: the result of the American Baptists, the Congregationalists, and the Unitarians coming together into one small town church during World War II.
As a result, this 300-plus member Christian church I serve is the most theologically diverse church I have ever encountered in my 40 years of being UU. We have progressive Christians, a large percentage of recovering Catholics, atheists and agnostics, and we have folks who believe that there is no way to be saved except through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have Unitarians, Trinitarians, not-sure-and-don’t-care-itarians. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. And mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
Navigating our religious differences is often both difficult and transformative. We are committed to above all else gathering in the spirit of Jesus, and we share in a commitment to re-make earth as it is in heaven. Because we believe that God is Love, we care for each other with a warmth I have rarely experienced, without parsing who’s worthy of it. At our best, we learn from each other’s faith by remaining open to try new things, by singing each other’s hymns, by remaining flexible, and by using humor, especially when we screw it up. It requires a great deal of grace.
One of my delightful, irreverent deacons described herself to me when we first met as a gun-toting, Fox News watching, law-abiding Conservative Baptist. She and I were serving communion together one day early in my ministry. When I went to serve her the bread and cup, I placed bread in her hand and said, “this is the bread of life for you, Cathie. And I held up a silver cup and said, “this is the cup of hope.” And she looked at me with steely eyed determination and said, “No. This is the cup of SALVATION, Pastor.” And dipped her bread in the cup with a smile that said, “don’t give me that liberal crap of yours’. I’m getting into heaven with this grape juice.”
“That’s what I meant!” I said. “The cup of salvation!” I never made that mistake again. She taught me a lot about ministry that day: reminding me that I’m not the one in charge, and that sometimes we need something a lot stronger than hope.
Ministry in a theologically diverse context provides ample opportunity for heart transplants.
The hard thing about my settlement in Sterling is not the theological diversity, though, it’s the ideological diversity. Sterling is a deep red rural farm town where Trump won the election. While liberals are overwhelmingly attracted to the church on the town green with the rainbow flag, so are conservatives. It’s the only mainline Protestant church in town, after all. In a small town, we have the beautiful problem of being stuck together, and so ours’ is a religion of welcome for all. I sometimes guess that we are about a 50/50 conservative and liberal mix in our congregation, politically. This is an unlikely scenario for a Unitarian Universalist church, I know. It’s a gift that even my colleagues in the United Church of Christ in New England don’t necessarily share. Church leaders, both conservative and liberal, are used to political orthodoxy in our congregations. We are far more likely to say that the reason we join a church is to surround ourselves with “like-minded people,” than we are apt to say we joined a church to worship a God who unites us across difference.
This political diversity in my congregation was a shock to my system, to be honest. And it has consistently and painfully necessitated my own heart of stone to be removed by God quite against my will and replaced with a beating heart of flesh.
The November 2016 presidential election hit our congregation hard. If we are being honest, it threatened to tear at the fabric of our congregation’s unity, and even tear some of my congregations’ families apart.
The day after the election, I didn’t want to face any of it. My colleagues on Facebook were posting comments saying things like, “there is no such thing as a good Trump voter. Even if they say they aren’t racist, they voted for one. You can’t be a UU and be a Trump supporter.” My experience with people I love in my congregation told me it was more complex than that. Many of my Trump voters worked for justice right alongside me, attending vigils for Charleston and Orlando, partnering with the Worcester Islamic Center to help refugees, going back year after year to build a hospital in the Dominican Republic, providing medical care and clean water for Haitian workers there. One of the African American men in my congregation voted for Trump.
And when it comes down to it, whether I like it or not, casting folks out of our circle of care is against my religion.
And so I spent the day, like so many of my colleagues did, in pastoral care with the grieving and terrified, trying to forgive. I mostly just listened, which ultimately I should do far more often.
We gathered in our sanctuary that same night in the candlelit darkness. 80 or 90 of us stood together united—conservatives and liberals, at a post-election communion service, open to the town. We shared a common meal at God’s table. We reminded each other to whom we belong—not a political party or a president, but to each other and to God. We sang “Imagine” together. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day, November 9, with beating hearts of flesh.
I gathered with my church’s board the next night. There are 6 of us on that board. Half of us are conservatives, half of us are liberals. 3 and 3. Two were on the Republican Town Committee, one a former chair. We voted differently in this election. We love each other a lot, this board and me. We laugh easily, and we have a great deal of trust in one another. Knowing them doesn’t usually change my mind, but it has absolutely changed my heart.
But that Thursday night, I was angry. We shared the story of one of our black teenaged congregants who had been harassed in the name of Donald Trump at her high school. We were told that a young adult child of a board member was sexually assaulted on the subway that day in New York City because “there’s a new sheriff in town, and we can grab women now.” A couple of us cried. Some of us just seemed numb.
And so we held hands before diving into our agenda, and Doug, our board chair, who I’m quite sure is not comfortable praying extemporaneously, prayed for us. He prayed humbly and with great tenderness, because he could tell how angry and defeated I was, and he could tell I had no words. I’m pretty sure he could tell I didn’t want to hold his hand, so he gripped it tighter.
Doug does not agree with me politically AT ALL. But we love each other, we respect each other, and we serve this place of profound unity together. We believe with every faithful bone in our body that Love builds bridges and tears down walls. We know we belong to each other. That’s what grace looks like in our context, and I do believe that’s how the world changes. Tears dripped down my cheeks despite my rage. Turns out what I didn’t know I needed was a Trump voter to pray for me that night.
My heart of stone was replaced that evening with a beating heart of flesh.
On the Sunday after the election, I got up into the pulpit with trembling voice. I told my people that I know we don’t watch the same news, and so I was only going to tell them news from our congregation. I told them about our children of color who have been harassed at school, our friends at the Worcester Islamic Center who need self defense classes, our young adult who was sexually assaulted on the subway, our congregation’s immigrants worried about deportation, and our people scared of losing health insurance. And I said directly to my Trump voters: “I know you didn’t vote for this—for any of this-- because I know you and I love you. “Tribalism got us into this mess, and it’s not going to get us out,” I said. I told them that no matter how we voted, we must now stand for black lives, for our children, for women, for Muslims, for Latinos, for queer people, for each other, because we stand for Jesus. We cried together, and then we chalked the whole town with messages of love for our neighbors. Some of my conservatives wrote me emails of gratitude. The emails said, in one way or another, “thank you for loving me. I will stand with you.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day with beating hearts of flesh.
Despite our ideological diversity, First Church in Sterling became an open and affirming, welcoming congregation to the LGBTQ community this January by unanimous vote. We hosted several conversations on race including with our police force, a forum on being LGBTQ and Christian, and a “Meet Your Muslim neighbor” gathering for the community, 100 people congregating in our parish hall for each event, of every political persuasion.
We are learning to listen to one another, searching not always for agreement but understanding. It is heart surgery. No one leaves unchanged.
At our path to membership class we had a couple of weeks ago, 90-year-old Charlie said, despite his tendency toward atheism, “I have come to love this place. I don’t know why. I just do. I have so many friends here. The other day, I hugged a Republican! And I liked it!”
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, once said to us that "If your concept of love serves only to reinforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
This is the Good News of Universalism, the SCANDAL of Universalism: we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether or not we are worthy.
Social scientists say that we haven’t been more divided as a nation since the aftermath of the civil war. And so 2017 is the best and most important time to be a religious leader in America. In fact, we have never needed communities of faith more.
Some people will tell you that the Church has a bad heart, and is coding on the table. You and I know a different truth, and that is why we are here this morning. The church is experiencing a shock to the heart unlike anything we’ve seen in history.
And so the church will be born anew. CHARGE UP YOUR DEFIBRULATORS and get ready to shock the church’s heart back into beating.
AND BEHOLD! The Church will rise again: to build bridges, not walls; to give us a new heart for each other and the world; to LEAD a MOVEMENT of REVOLUTIONARY LOVE.
The Church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we welcome the stranger and pray for our enemies.
The church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we LOVE our neighbor as ourselves.
That’s because, in Barber’s words, the watchword of faith is ‘WE’.
We must shock this nation with the power of love.
We must shock this nation with the power of mercy.
We must shock this nation and fight for justice for all.
Beloved friends: may our hearts be shocked back into beating for each other, and for the God whose Love knows no limits.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org