A Sermon by Reverend Robin Bartlett
Preached at First Church in Sterling, MA
April 17, 2016
Scripture: John 10: 22-30
Listen to the sermon here.
OK, so we have this auction every year to raise money for the church called Treasures of the Community Auction. And I went for the first time last year as your new minister. I wanted to contribute something to it, but I really don’t have any artistic talent to speak of—not of the tangible sort, anyway. And I don’t have a time share in the Caribbean or anything. So I decided against my better judgment that I would contribute a sermon. Yes, that’s right, I auctioned off a sermon topic to a room full of people drinking cocktails in a country club and bidding on Red Sox tickets.
To my dismay, an entire table, who were a little drunk in the spirit, bid on this item. And the personnel at the table included Davises and Guilds and Sabourins. The Davis family actually had the nerve to send their scrubbed, sweet, and totally earnest young adult son, Ben, over to my table to give me their first suggestion for topics, which was too un-toward to mention in a family-friendly service. It will have to be a topic for another day. To my further dismay, the Davises then gave up the sermon topic to Jon Guild, which is rarely a good idea. For those of you who don’t know Jon Guild, you will soon see why. What’s even more ridiculous about this situation is that Jon Guild is in like Florida right now, which I totally think was on purpose.
Anyway, Jon gave me not one, but a whole list of sermon topics to choose from. I only chose one, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you the rejects, and my response:
Self-Reflection: Is it moral to sell a sermon topic? (Good question)
A 5-Minute Sermon: The Challenge (you wish)
Lions and tigers and beer, oh my: Thinking about the lesser-known Capital Campaign project to install a keg refrigerator in the kitchen. (First we need to get the diaconate to agree to have wine at communion. Baby steps)
The Banana Splits vs. The Teletubbies: We know who would win that fight. (What.)
God is Still Singing: Hearing faith loud and clear in contemporary music. (Field trip to Hope Chapel!)
Feel good, you're an angel. But so was Satan. (ummmm….I think that was a song by Madonna)
Hash tag #ChurchSoWhite: Going outside of our comfort zone (e.g., race, religion, sexual identity, economic status). (I preach that every week, Jon. People are starting to complain.)
Ye Olde Church Service: Reliving how church was conducted when the First Church began in the late 1700s. (Booooring)
The Pastoral Search Committee: Is it time to get the band back together? (are you trying to tell me something?)
Here’s the one I chose, which was last on the list:
I'll Be Back: What if God sent a *second* son to visit us, and he's now 32 years old. Would you believe he was a child of God? If he sent a daughter, would you believe she was a child of God?
Please won’t you pray with me.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts together be acceptable unto you o God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
What a perfect day to talk about the second coming of Christ, in the midst of the Easter season, when we boldly proclaim the mystery of the Christian faith with a shiver and audacious hope: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And this is Good Shepherd Sunday in the Christian calendar, the Sunday when we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd among so many who try to herd us the wrong way.
Therefore, what a great question Jon Guild asks of us, “would you believe?” It echoes Jesus in our passage from John today when asked to say definitively if he is the Messiah or not, “I have told you but you do not believe.” My sheep know my voice. My sheep hear my voice.”
Jesus has a lot of confidence in our abilities.
Do you remember that song by Joan Armetraden from the ‘90s? What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us… Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home…”
Would we believe, Jon asks. Would we recognize God when we saw her? Or would we refuse to offer her a seat, and push past her to get to our stop.
In our scripture from the Gospel of John, we read from frustrated Jews, “if you are the Messiah, how long will you keep us in suspense? Tell us plainly!”
Jesus was not known for telling people anything quickly or plainly. He told stories in parables, he answered questions with signs and miracles. He also asked them to believe, which as you know, is awfully hard to do without proof or guarantee.
“I have told you, and you did not believe,” he said.
Jesus didn’t want to tell us plainly because he desired for us to believe—to give our heart to something that seemed implausible or even crazy. After all, if his followers didn’t believe him the first time, it is unlikely we will believe he is who he says he is when he comes back. Maybe he wanted us to practice looking for him in everyone, maybe he wanted us to practice listening for his voice everywhere we went; maybe he expected us to treat everyone we encounter as though they may be the second coming.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is talking about separating the “sheep from the goats,” he says:
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
And the righteous are confused since they don’t remember doing any of that, and so they ask him
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And he says to them:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
Look around! Our shepherd could be found in any one of the people in this room; our shepherd’s voice could be speaking out from any one of these member’s of God’s family. And more importantly, our shepherd could be found in the stranger, the prisoner, the poor, the child. What you do to the the least of these, you do to me.
I wrote a letter to Kaylee Roxanne, imagining that she may be the second coming of the Messiah, which means Messenger of God. She is a tiny little human, the smallest one in this room. I want you to close your eyes if you want to, and imagine that this letter is to you, too. Belief, Sharon Salzburg says, means to “give your heart to” something. For a moment, believe.
Today is your baptism day, and you are a messenger of God, so I want to write you a letter. It feels strange writing a message to a messenger. It seems to me that I should listen rather than talk. We talk far too much to God, when we really should be listening.
I went to a conference this week, and a man quoted someone who said that “Jesus Christ is God’s definitive ‘yes.’” I love that. I want you to know that you, too, are God’s definitive ‘yes.’ You are God’s daughter, the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. God says ‘yes’ to you, Kaylee.
I don’t know you that well. I only met you twice, once when you came to my office with your sweet parents, and today when I baptized you with the name Beloved. I know you to be beautiful and squishy as babies are, with clear eyes, and a joyful toothless smile. Your parents wrote a letter for you today on your baptism day, saying that they want you to accept God into your life, and that they hope that you will embrace Christianity to help you become the best person you can be. They want Christianity to help implement the morals and values they find to be necessary. Your parents want you to continue to be joyful and curious, and they ask that God will bring you peace and happiness in this journey of life.
I hope something different for you, and for us. I hope we accept the God spark that’s in you; the particular way that Christ manifests in you. I hope not so much that you will embrace Christianity, but that Christendom will embrace you so that we can become the best people we can be. You, Kaylee Roxanne, are God’s messenger, and so you have the power to make us better people.
You see, if we listen more and talk less, you have the ability to inspire us to be joyful and curious; you have the power to show us the way to peace. I hope that we will learn from you morals and values—that witnessing your beauty and your vulnerability will inspire us to be better—so that we might build a world worthy of your promise.
I want everyone you encounter to gaze into your eyes and find the light of God contained within, not just when you are the gorgeous baby you are now—the baby that everyone is dying to touch or make laugh--but also when you are an unsure teenager attempting figure out who you are in a world that expects both conformity and empty consumerism, or when you are a shattered middle aged woman, just trying to find her way home after the death of a dream, or when you are a wise elder smiling at the ways in which life didn’t turn out as expected at all.
I want more for you than peace and happiness. I want to hear your call for us to be better. And so I wish for you the courage to speak to the blessed unrest in your soul, and in the souls of the people of the world who are our brothers and sisters. I hope that we will listen to your voice of bravery and kindness the first time you speak up for those—either on the playground or in the forgotten places of the empire—who are left out of the circle of care they belong in. I hope we believe you when you say, “this is wrong,” or “they are thirsty,” or “I am hurting.” I want us to listen for God’s voice within your cries, both from your crib as a growing baby, and from the bitter tears you shed when your heart breaks for the first time. I pray that we will listen to you, and that our prayerful listening leads us closer to God’s shalom.
Kaylee, I want you to search into the eyes of God and find your reflection there. I want people to see your life as a sign and a miracle. I want you to help us bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth, with the help of God who has chosen you to be Her messenger. Let your voice crying out in the wilderness be our reminder of the goodness of God, of still waters, of mercy.
Restore to us our souls.
I know this is a lot of pressure for a pastor to lay on a little baby, but it is the same hope Jesus wants us to have for every human we encounter—all of whom could be the second coming of Christ, which will surely be in the body of someone we least expect: like a girl, like a baby.
So my hope is in You, image of God; beloved of God; chosen one. May Love make you an inventor, and may we follow your lead to a land flowing with milk and honey.
With adoration and praise for your life’s great unfolding,
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.