A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached Sunday, December 10, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
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This advent, we are listening for the messengers among us in this hot mess time saying “do not be afraid.” We are looking for light in the dark.
So sing with me.
When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing there in front of me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
“Let it be” Mary says, when given the news that she will carry God in her womb, incubating the light of the world inside of her body. “For nothing is impossible with God.” From age to age, to all who fear, such mercy love imparts.
This was Mary’s hour of darkness, though we rarely remember it that way.
Now, we look at Mary as the picture of virtuous living. She is portrayed that way: as a pious virgin; pure and holy; clean and wholesome; a vaunted saint among women.
What we forget is that in her time, she would have been seen as the opposite. A poor unwed teenager who by all appearances betrayed her soon-to-be husband, Joseph. Mary would have been called a whore for her assumed crime, and punished for it.
In this story of a birth foretold, the messenger who shows up in her house says she is favored by God; blessed among women. Then Mary is told that she will become pregnant out of wedlock, with a baby that is not her fiance’s, but God’s. The scripture says she “was much perplexed and pondered this in her heart,” which, in polite Bible speak, must mean she had a total panic attack and wigged out.
Mary would have known that she would be both a target for violence and abandonment by Joseph, who would have seen her as his property, now damaged goods.
The punishment for women who committed adultery was being stoned to death by mobs of angry men. This “Good News” the angel brought would have meant living the rest of her life in deep shame, if not an immediate death sentence by execution.
But Mary screwed up her courage. “Let it be so according to your word, for nothing is impossible with God” was her response to the angel.
Peace doesn’t come only when the conditions are perfect for it: like at the spa during a full body massage with the sound machine turned on to the beach sounds setting. True peace is the ability to center oneself, especially in our hour of darkness. True peace is not knowing the outcome or the end of the story, and saying, “let it be” anyway.
That kind of peace is not passive. It takes courage; guts; grit. And we need this kind of peace in this hour of darkness. I want to encourage us to see Mary’s “let it be,” not as weak-willed surrender, but as defiance.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, in this moment Mary chooses to “take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees.” She agrees “to smuggle God into the world inside her own body.”
Mary chooses defiant peace. She stares shame in the face and doesn’t allow it to pierce her heart.
You and I cannot have the courage to live wholehearted lives without staring shame in the face, and refusing to allow it to pierce our hearts.
But first we need to define shame.
Sometimes used synonymously, guilt and shame are different.
Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad.”
Shame says, “I am bad.”
Guilt is a useful emotion, propelling us toward the Good. Shame is a toxic liar.
Since God created us in her image; since God created the universe and called it good; since Jesus died rather than be in the sin accounting business anymore; defying shame is Godly. It is the work of Love.
Brene Brown is a brilliant shame researcher who has written a few books, the first of which is called “Daring Greatly.”
Brown consistently finds in her research that the only way to defy toxic shame is to acknowledge and be at peace with our human vulnerability.
I know I have shared this list with you in a sermon before, but it bears repeating.
In her research, Brown asked people to finish this sentence stem: “vulnerability is________”
Here’s how some people finished the sentence:
• Sharing an unpopular opinion
• Standing up for myself
• Asking for help
• Saying no
• Starting my own business
• Helping my thirty seven year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
• Calling a friend whose child just died
• Signing up my mom for hospice care
• The first date after my divorce
• Saying “I love you” first
• Getting fired
• Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
• Waiting for the biopsy to come back
• Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
• Admitting I’m afraid
• Being accountable
• Asking for forgiveness
• Having faith.
Do those things sound like weakness to you? Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Brown says “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Do not be afraid.
Mary’s pregnancy might have made her vulnerable, but it didn’t make her weak.
At pub theology this week, I asked our folks to discuss a time they witnessed someone being “intentionally vulnerable” in a way that was courageous.
One of the groups talked about the #metoo movement: the women (and a few men) who have recently come forward to report sexual harassment and sexual assault by more powerful men in the past months.
We have all watched in some shock as many of these men have faced firings, or forced resignations, one by one: Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, my favorite comedian Louis CK, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Senator Al Franken stepping down this week, to name a few. And the one that really just wrecked me yesterday: Tom Ashbrook was just put on leave from On Point on NPR pending an investigation. I adore Tom Ashbrook; he is my voice of sanity; a light in the dark.
The news is so relentless at this point, we are sitting not with the dreaded question “whose next?” but the cynical one: “who hasn’t?” We have all started praying that Tom Hanks, Mr. Rogers and the Pope don’t one day make the list.
The folks at pub theology asked me what the church’s response should be to this kind of public witness. How do we protect victims? they asked. How do we hold people accountable? They asked. What is the Christian response? Where does forgiveness fit in?
These are all important questions. Like many of you, I have very mixed feelings about what sometimes feels like a witch hunt that has no end, since human frailty has no end.
And yet, me too. The first time I was sexually harassed by adult men, I was ten years old. I was tall for my age, it was the eighties, it was Halloween and I was proudly dressed like Elvira. I learned far too early that even young pre-pubescent girls have to be careful about what they wear.
There have been countless #metoo stories since, in just about every year of my life—as a teenager, as a young adult, in my middle age. On the street, in the bar, in the workplace, by colleagues and community members. Yes, as a pastor, too. All varying in severity from harassment to assault.
As a child, I watched the Anita Hill hearings and then I watched Clarence Thomas sworn in to the supreme court. As a teenager, I watched Bill Clinton lie about taking advantage of a young intern half his age, and I watched Monica Lewinski shamed and blamed for it as a result.
My 10-year-old daughter came home last year from school having expressed worry to a friend on the bus that the president of the United States “brags about grabbing women without asking,” and her peer said that it was OK because “all men do that.”
I had to assure my Cecilia this wasn’t true, and use her grandfathers, her father, her stepfather, the many wonderful men in her church as examples. No, not all men grab women without asking, nor do they brag about it.
This culture terrifies me for my young daughters, yes, but also for my son. The normalization of sexual assault hurts all men almost as much as it victimizes all women. I fear for my son, and the limited definition of “masculinity” he’s inheriting.
I know the statistic for women who have been sexually assaulted is 1 in 4, but in my experience in my peer group and as a pastor, as far as I can tell the statistic is just about 4 in 4.
Time Magazine just named the women who have come forward this year to expose sexual harassment and assault in all levels of industry as “Persons of the Year”, calling them the “The silence breakers.” The silence breakers are black, white, Asian, Latino, women, men, conservative pundits, liberal congressional aides, hotel industry maids and Hollywood actors.
They have been criticized; they have been shamed and blamed. But they would not and will not be silenced. They knew what was at stake, and they spoke anyway.
So what should be the church’s response?
Well, the church doesn’t exist as a court of law, it exists as a silence breaker.
The church exists to proclaim this Good News: Do not be afraid, for the Lord is with you.
The church exists to defy shame.
The church exists to forgive sin, yes, but the church also exists to protect all bodies and all parts of the body as sacred and belonging to God; to lift up the lowly and scatter the proud; to put down the mighty from their seat.
Too often instead the church has been a source of sexual shame, at the same time famously complicit in the sexual abuse of innocents. From the priest scandal in the Catholic church to the support for Roy Moore in the evangelical church.
But the church was made by Jesus to teach us a different way.
His way is The Way of the messengers. His way is the way of the truth tellers. His way is the way of the silence breakers; those who hold us accountable to God’s Love even when it is uncomfortable.
So in this hour of darkness, I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, full of grace, who raised a son to honor women; to call them blessed. I find myself wanting to have a conversation with Mother Mary, who stared shame in the face and said “let it be with me according to your word.”
I imagine her saying:
Me, too. I am scared, and I have no idea what is going to happen to me. But, I have finally found my purpose, and I refuse to live in fear of it. Let it be so, for nothing is impossible with God
Because I hear Mary singing:
My soul MAGNIFIES the Lord.
And my spirit rejoices that God is my savior.
For it is He who truly sees me:
The poverty, the oppression of my gender, the quiet strength it takes to live my life, my bravery in the face of overwhelming darkness and fear,
And yet, behold, from now on: all generations shall call me blessed.
For he is God and he has magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And he loves us all, throughout all generations.
He is strong: he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their seat: and has exalted the humble and meek.
He has filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he has sent away empty.
Remembering his mercy, he has helped his servant Israel :
As he promised to our forefathers and foremothers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy of Holies;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow
Let it be
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be. Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Speaking words of wisdom let it be.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org