Preached on 1/21/2018, Annual Meeting Sunday
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Last week our psalmist praised God for “hemming him in”, for intricately weaving him in the depths of the earth, for being knitted into his mother’s womb. Martin Luther King, Jr. uses similar textile metaphors saying that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied into a single garment of destiny.”
I love that imagery of being hemmed in, sewn in the earth, knitted together, tied together.
I suppose being hemmed in could sound suffocating, but instead it gives me the sense that I cannot escape Love’s grasp.
And it reminds me of this truth: we belong to each other.
Every single other.
St. Paul reminds us that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”
God wants us to behave like this is true, which is where things usually break down.
The fishermen in our story from the gospel today are mending fishing nets when Jesus happens upon them. I don’t know much about the ancient fishing industry, but I imagine they are mending the nets to ensure that every fish makes it out of the water and into their awaiting buckets. I imagine the goal is that all the fish stay firmly held inside the net together; that no fish fall through the cracks.
When Jesus encounters them, he tells the fisherman to leave their work and follow him; to fish for people instead.
Jesus is asking the disciples to follow him into relationship, with other people and with God. He invites them to collect people, making sure no one is left behind.
Our life’s work is to act as though we belong to each other in this way. Our work is to mend the nets so that no one falls through the cracks, and then get to work fishing for people.
This is the one-year anniversary of annual meeting 2017 when we became an open and affirming congregation—a unanimous vote to become an official place of welcome, safety, sanctuary and affirmation for the LGBTQ community. Our historic vote was even listed in the Landmark newspaper as Sterling’s biggest news story of last year.
Those of us who attended the very powerful Eat, Pray, Learn with the LGBTQ asylum seekers on Wednesday night know in our bones that mending the nets and fishing for people saves actual lives.
We cannot do this powerful work of welcome without every single one of us on board. We cannot do this life saving work of welcome without casting our nets together into the turbulent and raging seas we currently find ourselves tossed around by.
Today is annual meeting 2018. In this increasingly digital, virtual age, this way of doing the business of the church is a strange and counter-cultural practice to many. It requires investment in this flesh and blood community. It requires a belief in democracy’s power. It requires that we buy in, tie ourselves together, care. It requires that we dust off our rusty understanding of Roberts Rules of order and try to get through the church business fast so that we can eat lunch.
Annual meeting requires membership in this church to participate and vote. It requires the conscious choice to be knitted intricately into a single garment of destiny with these particular people, in this particular time and place.
And that’s kind of a scary idea to many in the United States of America in the year of our Lord 2018. Church membership is, in fact, a dying concept.
My clergy colleagues are always speaking with some frustration about the commitment-phobia people have these days with regard to church community. The trends show that people who come to church are not readily joining. They continually date the church (or multiple churches) without settling down and getting married.
And our members are showing up less often, too. What constitutes as “regular” church attendance has shifted from every week, to twice a month, to once a month. My clergy friends lament that this lack of commitment is the byproduct of treating church like a consumer product rather than accepting the invitation to relationship Jesus offers us.
But you and I know that this is only part of the story. We are busier than ever. We are over-scheduled. We are caring for sick children and aging parents. We are working on Sundays. We are tired and need rest. Often, Sunday is our only family day. Sometimes, we disappear because we are hurt by someone’s actions, or a decision of the church.
Whatever the reason for slipping attendance and investment in the Church, my clergy friends lament that lay folks now expect ministers to do the work of relationship-building alone. It is the minister’s job to grow the church, to maintain the church, to care for the people who are there, and to go after people who’ve left.
We know this has consequences for real relationships with the body of Christ. If we leave relationship building to someone else, we don’t benefit from the hard work of community. If we don’t show up, we miss out. We cannot hold the hand of a beloved friend when they cry, or pray aloud for the recent widower, or be challenged to change, or welcome the newcomers who were brave enough to walk in the doors for the first time, trusting this group of strangers with their vulnerable hearts.
And let’s be honest, we are skittish about commitment to a group of people for good reason. It’s vulnerable to be known. It involves arriving with our real families, without the safety of the filtered images of the beautiful-looking life we carefully cultivate on Facebook and Instagram.
Human community is incredibly disappointing and just plain hard work. Rachel Held Evans’ friend says that joining a church is just picking which hot mess is your favorite.
I read a beautiful essay by Amy Frykholm from the Christian Century this week. She talks about her own ambivalence about joining a church.
After visiting about eleventy billion churches and not committing to any, she talks about the day she finally makes the choice to go through a church’s confirmation class, and take the membership plunge. The people in the room are asked to pick a Bible passage that speaks to their spiritual journey. On the surface, they have nothing at all in common with her. She is the only liberal in the group, and the only one with a PhD. There is a Vietnam Vet, Fox news- enthusiast named Floyd who describes his faith journey using the first chapter of Genesis. He says he was a formless void until the church comes into his life, adding light into his darkness. There is a tightly wound, thin lipped woman named Linda known for her angry outbursts at church meetings who talks about a passage on peace. She describes being surprised that an ancient text can speak so clearly to what she needs in her life. Amy feels instant kinship with this group, knowing their stories. She decides to call them family despite her fear of commitment. On the day of the confirmation, Then I said, “Everything you all have said is so beautiful. That’s what I mean. I am grateful to have found you. Grateful to be a part of you. That’s all.”
The ceremony of confirmation was simple. “There is one Body and one Spirit,” we recited. “There is one hope in God’s call to us.” She says…….”I knelt before the bishop in his silly pointed hat, and he placed his hands on my head. He prayed for my sustenance. And for Floyd’s and for Linda’s.”
“Since then, Linda has moved away. Floyd committed suicide, a consequence of unrelenting PTSD. Perhaps those facts illustrate one of my greatest difficulties with belonging, one of its terrible risks: the thing to which you claim to belong changes minute by minute. “Community,” Martin Buber said, “is the moment’s answer to the moment’s question.” Belonging is not a possession; even as it is claimed or imagined, it changes.
…No wonder people drive by churches and don’t go in: the risks are great, the rewards intangible. The forming of a community is fragile and takes a lifetime. It can disappear in a breath. And yet I think of Robert Hass’s poem “Spring Rain”: “The blessedness of gathering and the / blessing of dispersal— / it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense, / lasting as long as the poppies last.”
We come to church because we are glad for beauty like this, casual and intense. We come to church because a life of faith requires other people. It requires gathering even in the midst of the flu season. It requires humility. It requires forgiveness.
We come to church because it literally saves lives.
So on this annual meeting Sunday at the start of a new “church year,” I am going to challenge us all to do five new things in 2018 that will deepen our relationship to this place.
Remember, these five commitments are only a challenge if they are hard for you to do. We can do hard things!
Maybe your biggest challenge is showing up. If this is your first time here, come back. If you only attend this church once a month, make the commitment to attend twice or three times a month this year.
Maybe your challenge is generosity. If you know you could pledge more than you do, commit to increase your pledge.
Maybe your challenge is saying “no.” Commit to turning down a church commitment in favor of giving yourself rest and restoration. Say yes instead to what feeds you and gives you life. I’m serious.
Maybe your challenge is fear of changing your mind. If you have been nervous about having difficult conversations across difference, attend an Eat, Pray, Learn or a Pub Theology on the subject that makes you feel uncomfortable. Join Aging Gracefully or the book group on Sundays. Attend the retreat.
Maybe your challenge is forgiveness. Commit to forgiving someone, especially someone in this community that you are holding a grudge against. Commit to forgiving yourself for the ways you have fallen short.
Maybe your challenge is the fear of being known. If you have been nervous about making new friends, commit to come to coffee hour every time you’re here, and talk to one person you’ve never talked to.
Maybe your challenge is deeper commitment. If you have been on the fence about joining the church, attend a Path to Membership class. If you have been worried about committing more of your time and energy, try a short term volunteer project and see if it drains you or re-energizes you.
Maybe your challenge is deepening your faith. If you think that the Bible is old and irrelevant and doesn’t have much to teach you, come to the Lenten Bible study we’re leading. Commit to a regular spiritual practice like praying or meditating for five minutes every morning before you start your day.
Maybe your challenge is getting to know people who you think do not share your values or background. Invite folks of different ages and stages to share your pew. Go to the Worcester Islamic Center to volunteer to help refugees. Hang out with our teenagers. Get to know an elder.
Maybe your challenge is loving people at their most unlovable. Show compassion for someone who doesn’t deserve your compassion. Invite someone out to lunch who doesn’t share your political or theological ideologies. Listen for understanding.
Beloved, this is your church, and you belong here. Commit to mending the nets with us, so that no one falls through the cracks. Show up. Challenge yourself to deeper relationship with each other, and with the living God. We are stronger together. We are all connected. We are love’s hands in the world.
And together, we rise.
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.