Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2016
by Reverend Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard, not read. Listen here.
“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 hearts of flesh. I think that’s why we come together in religious community:
We need a heart transplant.
Oh you all. This week. What a week. You and I have been watching this presidential election unfold and we know that this whole nation needs a new heart right now; re-started by love.
If the church isn’t providing an antidote to all that rancor, we’re not doing our job. You and I have watched as our collective American heart has turned to stone. You and I have watched it on television. You and I have read it in the paper. You and I have seen it on our social media feed. You and I have heard it in our friends’ and family’s words dripping with sarcasm and despair and fear.
Most of all, you and I have felt it in our own hearts—a dream for our country dying. We need God to reach into our chests, pull out our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. We need God to repair what has been broken, to hold us gently and whisper in our ears: “Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
The truth is, we may live in an earthly kingdom ruled by an American political dynasty, but this is God’s world. We don’t worship humans, we worship God. We don’t worship flawed presidential candidates, we worship the God of perfect Love. We need earthly reminders of the signs and foretastes of the reign of God. This is why we come to this place, over and over again, every week.
We need a heart transplant.
My seminary professor, Dr. Wesley Wildman, said to us once that "If your concept of love serves only to re-enforce your own political ideologies in your church then you might as well go bowling."
We need to expand our concept of Love to include not only the least, the last, the lost, but the Republican, the Democrat, the conservative Evangelical, the Muslim, the Jew, the gun-enthusiast, the gun control enthusiast, the undocumented immigrant, the white working class, the Clinton supporter, the Trump-supporter, or whomever we are currently calling “nasty woman” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.”
We need a heart transplant.
Studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like fear of terrorism or war—people are less likely to love the stranger. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics.
We are most vulnerable when we see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance; when we see people in the world as objects to be feared and despised rather than as beloved. And so we exploit the worst stereotypes we can think of about each other.
This country needs a concept of Love that serves to remind us all that we are more alike than we are different, that we are all members of the same tribe.
We need a heart transplant.
And before you and I start self-righteously nodding our heads, and pointing fingers at other people, or “the other side” (as if there are “sides” to humanity)—to the candidate and his or her supporters that we have deemed most hard hearted…what is that saying? When we point a finger, there are four fingers pointing back at us?
I have told you before that I come to church because I need to be reminded of this message daily:
I am not better. I am not better, smarter, more pure, more faithful, more right or righteous than anyone else, though if I’m being honest, I sure as heck think I am, most of the time. I come to confess the sin of pride and arrogance. I come to church to be reminded of how tiny my capacity for love really is, and without the help of God I am powerless against my fear, cynicism, and despair.
I come to church because I need a heart transplant.
So beloved, before we start thinking we are better because we are voting for the “right” candidate, or the “lesser of two evils”, or none of the above—and not the one who is a liar, a thief, a philanderer, a fool, we would do well to remember the parable of the tax collector we heard today from the Gospel according to Luke. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
First of all, let’s get the characters straight, because neither are beloved characters in the Bible.
The Pharisees are religious leaders of a Jewish sect generally scorned in the Bible for their hypocrisy. They are known to be strict in their adherence to the traditional and written law. They take their holiness seriously. So the Pharisee in our story was devout, and paid all of his tithes, and made moral behavior a way of life. This guy is kind of like the biblical literalist of his time—the guy who thinks if he follows all the rules, he will earn God’s favor. Sort of like the bible thumping, purity code enforcing, folks in our culture who want to wave a Bible in everyone’s face to prove what you are doing is morally wrong.
By contrast, the tax collectors in the Bible are generally scorned for their proud immorality. They are looked down on by the general populace, equated with sinners and pagans. And in addition, the tax collectors’ job was to collect taxes from the citizens, and no one likes to give money to the government, and they didn’t in biblical times, either. The tax collectors were rich, and they were known for often cheating the public they collected from. So this guy is the one percenter of his time—the ruthless elite billionaire who uses the working class to support his bloated lifestyle, and his vacations on the Vineyard.
In our story, the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray at the same time as the tax collector.
The Pharisee prays to God and says, in essence, “Thanks God for making me awesome. Thanks for making me great, and the other guy deplorable. Thanks for making me smarter, more religious, more generous and more likely to stay true to my wife and family than all the other bad people, especially this here tax collector.”
Basically, it’s a gloating prayer. The Pharisee is assured of his own righteousness, and God’s favor. “Thanks, God, for making me better than everyone else and loving me the best.”
After the Pharisee prays his prayer of praise, the tax collector prays a simple confession: “God, be merciful on me, a sinner!”
And Jesus says that the tax collector prayed the right prayer, because he was humble. 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
God is saying, in essence, “when you point your finger at someone else, there are four pointing back at you.” [God sometimes sounds like your nagging mother.]
And oh, Lord do we need to be humbled. We are all the Pharisees in this story, especially if you spend a lot of time posting political posts on Facebook. You KNOW I’m the Pharisee in this story…sometimes preachers preach the sermon we most need to hear.
What I hear and see everywhere I go, especially in the echo chambers we have created on social media, is the Pharisee’s prayer.
Dear God: thank you for making me a highly educated, perfect feminist who is staying woke about racism and recycling every day, and can spell and correct other people’s grammar. Thank you for giving me the heart to pick out my “coexist” bumper sticker for my Prius. Don’t blame me, I voted for Bernie. Amen.
Dear God: thank you for the gift to see an elitist who wants to take away my guns coming from a mile away. Thank you for making me a man who values hard work, not like those lazy welfare recipients. Thank you for reminding us that marriage is between one man and one woman and that Obama is the anti-Christ. Amen.
Guess what we all should be praying instead? God, be merciful on me, a sinner!
Let’s try it. “God be merciful on me, a sinner!”
We are not better. You and I are not better than anyone because we are voting for the “right person.”
We need a heart transplant.
We need God to reach into our chests and remove the heart of stone, and replace it with a beating heart of flesh.
A former presidential candidate was quoted in the news this week saying that “sometimes you put aside your Christian values to get the work done.” Nope. Nope. All the nopes in nopeville. Maybe the problem is that we have put our Christian values aside for too long.
Our Christian values consistently remind us that God loves everybody. GOD LOVES EVERYBODY. It’s time to start living like that is true again.
Please join me in a time of confession.
Dear God: We confess that we have put aside our Christian values of humility, forgiveness, justice for the poor, the foreigner, the stranger. We have put aside civility, kindness, loving our neighbors, and loving our enemies for too long. We have put aside our Christian values on both sides of the aisle, in all areas of public life, in all of our debates, in justifying our self-righteousness, and our disdain for one another—in internet comment sections and policies that hurt the poor and the working class, and rhetoric that condemns whole groups of people as wrong, or bad, or unworthy of dignity.
We are sorry and we humbly repent. We know that you created us in Your image to be glorious, but we are only human and doing the best that we can.
The Good News is that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. No matter how self-righteous we have been. No matter how many gloating prayers we have said. No matter how many times we have failed to repent. We are loved by a love that knows no bounds.
Beloved, we need to climb up on God’s operating table for a heart transplant so that we might notice signs and foretastes of the reign of Love on this earth. The reign of Love looks like audacious hope despite cynicism. The reign of love looks like the courage to admit that your enemy is your kin. The reign of love looks like seeing—really seeing-- everyone we encounter as beloved, especially the stranger and the enemy.
May our hearts once again beat for each other, and for the God whose love knows no limits.
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.