A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on the Sterling Town Common, Sterling, MA
August 18, 2019
Tell me, Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Jesus answers: “Do not be afraid. Treasure it. Pay attention. And give it all away.”
I know it says in the bulletin that my sermon title is “Tidying Up”, and that’s because I have been wanting to preach on Marie Kondo. the queen of giving things away. She’s the organizing guru and best selling author who has a show called “Tidying Up.” Inspired by her Shinto religious practice, she is the reason why Goodwill has stopped taking your clothes: she has encouraged all of America to ask themselves if each of their possessions “spark joy”, and if not, to gently thank them for their service, and throw them out.
It’s not our possessions that “spark joy”, after all. Our treasure lies somewhere else, where no thief can get at it, and no moth can destroy.
But things quickly changed since we’ve last met in the life of our church, and I’m going to leave Marie Kondo’s wisdom for another week.
I’ve decided to call my sermon, simply, “how to pay attention.”
There’s a lot happening in our passage from Luke today. He starts by saying that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, which we understand to be here on this earth…already here, but not yet here. He goes on to say that we should sell all our possessions and give them away. And then he talks about being dressed for action and having our lamps lit…to be alert because God is coming back like a thief in the night.
You might not know what one has to do with the other. Luke kind of jumps from one thing to the next, without real clarity on why they are all smushed together in one paragraph.
But this week, it all came together for me:
We have been given the gift of creation by a God who delights in giving it to us. Our task in the small amount of time we have on earth is to treasure that gift by giving ourselves away. Life is fleeting and precious and we don’t know when it will end. So pay attention.
Do not be afraid.
I got a dog yesterday, as Pastor Megan told you. Her name is Holly. She is a rescue, a three year old hound dog, white with brown spots and silky brown ears. She loves humans, belly rubs and lying around all day. In other words, we are soul mates.
When I first told Doug Davis last week that I was doing this thing he said, “Wow. Good luck with that.” It was over text, but I read it as sarcasm. He is a pillar of our church, one of the owners of Davis Farmland and the world’s best animal person, and he knows that I am really not. I mean, I like animals, but I don’t have any idea what to do with them since they don’t talk to me. So I’m just like, “oh, a goat. Hi goat” when I’m at Davis Farmland with my kids.
Ironically, though I’m not what one would call an “animal person”, it has become my signature move to bring as many animals as possible into the First Church in Sterling whenever there is occasion for it.
Though I didn’t have any myself until today, I am a sucker for watching my people love their animals. So I bless all of your pets every October, we have goats at the Christmas pageant. I even made Doug bring a donkey named Fiona into the sanctuary on Palm Sunday against his better judgment. When I asked Doug to bring Peanut the Camel for our Christmas pageant last year, he told me I had gone too far and to stop exploiting my pastoral authority by asking him for ridiculous things.
Anyway, I put Doug Davis down as a reference with the rescue, and they gave me a dog. So he must have lied and told them he has no reservations.
I sent Megan a sweet sleeping picture of my dog Holly last night over text, and she wrote back, “I think she will teach you whatever you’ve been needing to learn on your sabbatical.”
Mary Oliver of blessed memory writes:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention,
how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Megan knows that unlike Mary Oliver, I don’t know how to pay attention, to be idle and blessed, or to stroll through the fields. I am notoriously bad at such endeavors. As soon as I arrive at the beginning of something, like a vacation, or a relationship, my first feeling is the deep sadness and fear that it will end. I spend much of my time calculating how many days or hours I have left doing a thing that I love, or being with people I love.
So my first thought when I saw our new dog’s beautiful face staring up at me was: “I love you. How long will you live?” After all, our Holly will die at last, and too soon. I am about to spend thousands of dollars on my kids’ first tragedy.
And mine. I love her already. I already feel like a dog person. I have no idea what to do with her when I get home, but I cannot wait to bury my face in her head again.
Megan’s right, Holly has a lot to teach me about paying attention.
Frankly, when I’m not paying attention, I’m paying for THINGS.
The treasure you and I keep in bank accounts, locked safes and 401Ks so often reflects kind of a futile and somewhat depressing hoarding of resources for no good reason. We can’t, after all, take it with us, and we know darn well that money has never bought any one of us happiness.
Thankfully, God promises us a different kind of treasure. God’s treasure comes in the form of loving what will die at last and too soon. God’s treasure comes in the form of people we love and people we are called to love. God’s treasure comes in the form of grace—unearned gifts like forgiveness and the temporary health of our bodies, and the good, green earth we lie down on.
Our only response to these gifts, our scriptures say, is to stay alert, and give everything we have away.
Our beloved long time congregant and friend Jim Harper has always known this. We’ve been sitting vigil by his bedside this week, storing up treasures in the stories people tell. Jim spent his life paying attention, and giving himself away.
He is a saver of lives:
A life-long lover of animals and a veterinarian, Jim saved so many animals’ lives. He also helped them die peacefully, and with dignity. His family marvels in the fact that he put down all of the family’s animal companions himself when it was their time to leave this world, too; a final act of deep and abiding love for them.
Jim saved countless human lives as well, and trained other people to save countless more. Jim was a devoted and tireless EMT in Sterling literally in his spare time, and trained perhaps the entire EMT force, refusing to take a paycheck for the thousands of on call hours he worked.
He saved our lives. At church, he has worked with our babies and toddlers in our kinderwatch every Sunday morning for close to 20 years. He sits in his favorite rocking chair every Sunday, and simply delights in the creation God has the pleasure of giving to us in the form of our youngest children.
He gives his money away lavishly, with no need for thanks: to the church, to causes he supports, to the deacons fund in anonymous envelopes full of cash. He even sponsors several children from those “save the children” commercials in the ‘80s and still sends them all money monthly.
Jim gives his love away lavishly: adopting his wife’s first child from her first marriage when he was a toddler, and raised him as his own, in addition to the beautiful child they had together. And then Jim opened his heart and home again to adopt and raised two children out of foster care with that same abundant love, as well.
Jim did not hoard his treasures, he gave them away. His whole life, he gave away.
I have been with the Harpers for the past few days as our beloved Jim lays dying. Last Sunday, he was here at church with us, giving us the gift of his heart in our conversation on guns. On Tuesday, he had another stroke, his fourth. As the EMTs he trained himself transported them to the hospital, he told them what to do and what they were doing wrong. And then he began to give away his life, and fast. He was in the ICU for three days and yesterday he was transferred to Rose Monahan hospice. Today, we pray that his transition home to live with God is as gentle and large as Jim is.
My time with Jim’s wife, the other Robin, has been precious this week. She is a woman of valor who does not want to let him go, but has the strength to just the same. He has given her so much that she knows she can’t live without him. She also knows she has to let him go. This, too, is a gift: this last loving act of living out her marriage vows by respecting his wishes to die with dignity; to tell him that it is OK to go, even though it’s not OK at all.
Even as Jim slowly ran out of all his speech, two days ago, he could still say, every time the doctors asked him:
“Who is this lovely woman?
“That is Robin, my wife, as opposed to Robin, my minister.”
Who is that man sitting over there?
“That is Dr. Carl M. Harper, my son.”
Jim couldn’t smile because his left side no longer worked, but he could still beam with pride. “Over there: that’s where my treasure is. That’s where my heart is also.”
Everything dies, and far too soon. Pay attention. Give it all away. Do not be afraid.
Beloved, the kingdom God happily gives us does not look like a King’s or a megalomaniacal politician’s or a Wall Street Executive’s, or a Football Star’s version of a kingdom. It doesn’t have golden thrones and limousines and waving throngs of adoring public begging to kiss golden rings. God’s kingdom does not look like several boats and vacation homes and beautiful cars with leather seats and designer clothes and stock options, although that’s the lie we are taught by consumerism.
The kingdom it is God’s good pleasure to give us looks just like this. A group of rag-tag, perfectly imperfect, lovable and sometimes hard to love people gathered together from all different walks of life, gathered around a table where the food never runs out. We make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, that thieves cannot steal--when we simply pay attention. When we fall down in the grass. When we give everything we have to Love.
When we are asked “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
May we know how to answer. May we be the people God finds alert in the kingdom. May we be the people who know how to be idle and blessed. May we be the people who can beam with pride because our treasure and our hearts are not in what we have kept to ourselves, but the love we’ve shared with others…
…so even as we go down to the grave we make our song “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Do not be afraid, little flock. Life is fleeting and precious. Pay attention, and give it all away.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org