a sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached May 19, 2019 at First Church in Sterling, MA
This question was posed to a group of 4 to 8 year-olds: "What does love mean?”
Billy, age 4 said: "When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth."
Danny, age 7 said: ”Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK."
Emily, age 8 said: ”Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more. My Mommy and Daddy are like that. They look gross when they kiss."
Bobby, age 7 said: ”Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."
Nikka, age 6 said: ”If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate.”
Noelle, age 7 said: ”Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, then he wears it everyday."
Tommy age 6 said: ”Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well."
Cindy, age 8 said: ”During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling.
He was the only one doing that. I wasn't scared anymore."
Elaine, age 5 said: ”Love is when Mommy gives Daddy the best piece of chicken.”
Rebecca, age 8 said: ”When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."
Jessica age 8 says: ”You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”
Love one another. Mean it. ENACT it. Because people forget. That’s the message Jesus mandates the night before he dies. After tenderly washing his friends’ feet, over a meal, he says this:
“Whenever you do this, remember. You are loved. So LOVE.”
We are blessed this morning to have welcomed officially into membership 47 more opportunities to know God in the flesh! 47 more opportunities to LOVE!
Kara, Olivia, Dennis, Donna, Dick, Linda, Laurie, Barbara, Diane, Pam, Charlie, Janet, Ben, Cecilia, Liam, Michelle, Jackson, Sara, Christopher, Kimi, Jonnie, Jaydon, Chloe, Heather, Ken, Grace, Jack, Megan, Jesse, Jeff, Melissa, Garrett, Nolan, Erin, Rick, Ramona, Athena, Tiffany, Calista, Christopher, Allison, Maren, Rohan, Jean, Brian, Katelyn, Rori and Corben:
WE ARE SO HUMBLED YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO CALL US HOME. Getting to know you will be our most important spiritual practice as a congregation. You contain a piece of God we do not yet know, and so we want to know you. And we want to know you exactly as who you are.
Pádraig Ó Tuama says that “agreement has rarely been the mandate for people who love each other. Maybe on some things, but, actually, when you look at some people who are lovers and friends, you go, actually, they might disagree really deeply on things, but they’re somehow (participating in) “the argument of being alive.” Or in Irish, when you talk about trust, there’s a beautiful phrase from West Kerry where you say, “You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.”….That is what we can have with each other.
I am blessed to have gotten to know each and every one of your stories in different ways. And I know this: you are all here for profound reasons that some of you have trouble even putting into words. The tears you so often shed tell more of the story than words ever could.
I want to challenge you to figure out a way in the next year to make sure you know the stories of seven people here, and that seven people know yours’. The church is not the building, and it is certainly not the ministers. The church is contained in the hearts of the people surrounding you right now.
I suspect you are all here for the same reason the rest of us are: because of our heart’s deepest longing to be known, and to be loved exactly as we are. A longing to belong. Thank you, new members, for trusting us with such a tender job.
Congregation, let’s do our best to not screw it up.
Luckily, Jesus gives us a road map today. A new commandment on the night before he dies. He says “Love one another as I have loved you.”
That’s easy when we’re talking about our friends and families or even our fellow church members…people we have determined are like-minded, or at least like-hearted….but what about the OTHERS?
We evolved to fear the other, not LOVE the other.
Last year when my son, Isaac was four, he came into my bedroom in downtown Sterling, wide eyed, and the excited kind-of scared, at 7:30 am.
“Mommy, he said. “Wake up. I need you to come see. There were very loud noises outside so I looked out the window. And you won’t believe what I saw. There are bad guys ruining the town right now. They are throwing all of the things on the ground. The bad guys are outside destroying the town. Look and see."
I walked with him to his bedroom window on the side of our house, and sure enough, there were 6 roofers about twenty feet away from his window. They were on the roof of the Municipal light company, scraping shingles off the roof and throwing them gleefully onto the ground below. They were whooping and hollering as they did it, and listening to loud music.
Destroying the roof looked like a party. “Look at what the bad guys are doing!” He said.
It must be so hard to be a four year old, head full of bad guys and good guys, trying to figure out why people do the strange things they do, and why it makes any sense.
In so many ways, you and I see the world through the eyes of a four year old, full of good guys and bad guys. Full of strangers who mean us harm. Like Isaac, we fear what we do not understand. We hate what we fear.
We cross the street when we see a group of young black teenagers wearing pants below their waistlines. We roll up the windows when we get to the intersection in Worcester where the homeless folks hold signs that say “Spare change.” We hide in our bedrooms, pretending to not be home rather than open the door for the Mormon missionaries who just wanted to tell us about their understanding of Jesus. We refuse to engage in discussion with political opponents, preferring to demonize them rather than understand their deepest held values.
And we worship a God who asks us to bow down before one another instead, vulnerable and disarmed. We worship a God who, over and over again, demands that we look down to see him, so we can see those he has bent down to love.
We worship a stooping God.
Jesus stoops to pick up children.
Jesus stoops down to write in the dust on behalf of a prostitute.
Jesus stoops, using his BODY to embrace the downtrodden people who we would rather not see—the outcast, the leper, the poor, the sick, the lost, the forgotten, the prisoner.
Jesus stoops down to pray in the garden. He stoops down to carry the cross. He stoops after he cries out “Father forgive them,” and dies on a lynching tree.
And on the night before he dies, with the people that he knows will deny and betray him, he shows us how to love by stooping down to do what would normally be a slave’s job:
He washes the filthy, worn out, sweaty, dust covered feet of his friends.
“You will never wash my feet!” Simon Peter declares, horrified at the idea of his Lord doing the work of a servant.
Simon Peter does not want a stooping Messiah. He doesn’t want a humble Lord. He is embarrassed to worship a humiliated God.
“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. You’ll never get it,” Jesus tells him. If Peter isn’t willing to accept the humiliation of his crucified Lord, he won’t understand the depths of God’s love.
I think if we’re being honest, we are like Simon Peter. No one really wants a stooping God. We want a God who conquers. We want a God who promises us riches and stock options. We want a God who smites our enemies. We want a God who hates the same people we hate. We want a God who WINS.
We don’t want a loser God, a servant God, a God who you have to look down to see. We certainly don’t want to follow him to our knees or to the cross.
But his love looks like sacrifice, not kingship. His love looks like humility, not glory. His love bows down, it does not Lord over.
Jesus stoops, and we want to walk right by him and leave him in the dust with the others.
Because like the disciples, every time we turn around, we find Jesus is talking to a person who you and I would rather not befriend. We happen upon Jesus on our way home from work, and he’s hanging out with that smelly homeless person who kinda scares us, or a member of a gang, or a flamboyant drag queen, or a coal miner with a red #MAGA hat, or a scared pregnant teenager whose body has become a political war zone, or an immigrant child living in a cage at the border. Jesus always seems to see the people no one else notices. He hangs out with the people you and I have de-friended on Facebook. He offers them mercy, depth and belonging. He tenderly washes their feet.
“For more than two thousand years Christians have been identified as the people of the cross,” Osvaldo Vena said, “a symbol of self-sacrifice in John but of conquest and colonization in recent history. I wonder what would have happened if instead of the cross Christians would have been identified by the basin and the towel. Perhaps our world would be less divided, and everyone would love each other a little bit more.”
Beloved, if you want to see God, stop looking up to the sky, or the pulpit, or the white house, or the high throne, or the heavens, or the gilded empty cross on the wall. Stop looking to the winners. Look on the floor, to the basin and towel. You’ll find Jesus there. If we’re going to lead the love revolution in Massachusetts, we’re going to have to start on our knees.
“You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.”….That is what we can have with each other.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org