A sermon for the UU Church of Concord, NH
preached October 7, 2019
at the UU Church of Concord, NH
by the Rev. Robin Bartlett, one of your alumni
UU church of Concord! It is so good to be back.
I grew up in this church, the daughter of Peter and Christy Bartlett and Beth (Bartlett) Armstrong and Stew Armstrong. I was born into this church family in 1976 and was christened here the same year. I was the only baby in the nursery that year. The only other Sunday School kid at the time was a teenager, Rachel Anderson and she babysat me in the nursery, and her father is sitting right in front of me. She is also a UU minister now. Coincidence? I think not.
I was raised to believe in the Holy Trinity here: Emerson, Humanism and the Democratic party. I lit my first Christmas candle on your altar as the littlest angel. I sang my first solo here. I cooked my first turkey dinner here. I learned all about sex and anatomy here in AYS, now called OWL. I came of age here in 8th grade. I had my first wedding here.
A lot of my childhood memories contain the smell of this building, which I can still conjure up in my nose. I left almost 25 years ago in 1994 when I graduated from Concord High, but I have never forgotten you. You helped me find my voice. You brought me to my first anti-war protest on Washington. You supported me in high school when I protested the school musical. You cheered me on when I received the NH young feminist of the year award that same year. You gave me the gift of Unitarian Universalism, the free faith which has nurtured me throughout my spiritual journey. This journey has led me down many different paths, including into the ministry. The Unitarian Universalism you gave to me held me from the Richard Dawkins-esque atheism of my youth to the progressive Christian church in Central Massachusetts I now lead. Imagine a tradition so wide in its welcome that it has room for both Dawkins and Jesus!
Though I have been ordained for 5 years as of this month, this is the first time I have preached from your pulpit. Thank you, Michael, for this daunting opportunity. I think I see my sixth grade teacher, and my piano teacher from that same era. So this is not nerve-wracking at all.
This is why, at the risk of comparing myself to Jesus, I chose a reading from the Gospel of Luke to read today.
In this reading Jesus is beginning his ministry. He has returned to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, and everyone has heard about him at this point. He had begun to teach in the synagogues, and word was spreading. He was praised everywhere he went. He was on his way to becoming, in other words, a bit of a celebrity preacher.
And now Jesus is offered his “hometown boy makes good” moment. He gets to preach in his childhood congregation. He gets up in the pulpit, looks over the crowd of people that contain his 6th grade teacher and several of his high school teachers and his parents’ friends and the elder who scolded him for loading up on too much cake at social hour, and unrolls the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.
Expectation fills the room. People catch their breath. He stands in front of them, probably thinking a flood of thoughts. Maybe his palms were sweaty, and maybe he swallowed hard.
Jesus cleared his throat, and read this text from the Prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then, with all eyes on him, and all of the people waiting with baited breath to hear what he might say next, Jesus sits down. I call this the “Jesus mic drop.” Jesus takes the scroll, reads the text, decides it’s all the words he needs to say, drops the mic.
And then he sits down.
I can only imagine what the people in that Temple were thinking when Jesus sat down. They were expecting to hear a sermon—some commentary on the text. They were expecting so much more than what he gave them, which was from the scrolls that they had heard probably hundreds of times already. “The eyes of all the synagogue were fixed upon him,” the text says.
“DUDE. Did he forget to write his sermon or something?” “Is he for real? THAT’S IT?!”
And all eyes still on him, still sitting in his chair, maybe because he senses they need more from him, Jesus adds: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it. That’s his commentary.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I have come here to proclaim the same thing. But I want to say it a little differently because I grew up in this church, and I know a little bit about your theology.
So this is the Robin Bartlett Revised standard version: The spirit of Love is upon me because I have been anointed to bring you good news to you who are brokenhearted. All of you who are held captive will soon be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will receive justice. And I am proclaiming this—2018--the year of Love’s blessing—the year of the Love Revolution. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
I didn’t have the lay reader read the rest of the scripture, because I’m hoping that what happens next to Jesus doesn’t happen to me. Jesus gets driven out of town. The congregation takes him to the top of the hill to throw him off of the cliff. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” And he walks right through the crowd and leaves.
Dianna Butler Bass, in her sermon “the power of today” says: “(The people in the synagogue) were likely shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord's favor?”
You are probably thinking the same thing. Have you been reading the news? There is no way that this scripture is being fulfilled today. This can’t be the year of Love’s blessing. Today, I heard that a powerful judge lied under oath after being accused of sexual assault and is still getting confirmed to the highest court in our land. Today, the president of the United States is mocking a sexual assault victim. Today, our country is more divided than it has been since the aftermath of the Civil War, and the modus operandi is pure cruelty. Today, immigrant and refugee children are still separated from their parents in detention camps. Today, there’s a Muslim ban, trans folks are regularly being murdered, and black men are getting shot and killed in their own homes.
You can’t be serious that this scripture has been fulfilled TODAY.
We don’t often talk about the power of today. Instead, we spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past, and freaking out about the future. “Harness the power of TODAY,” Jesus says, in his one-line commentary. Jesus sounds like some kind of self-help guru. But that's what he says.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, THIS is the year of the love revolution. Because TODAY the spirit of Love is upon us.
I just went to see my dear friend from Concord High School Geno Carr in his Broadway musical debut this summer, in “Come From Away.” Have you seen it? Do any of you know Geno?
Talk about Hometown boy makes good. (Geno and I sang our first duet together in Junior High chorus at Rundlett, so I’m just saying….my big break may be coming next.)
“Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town about the size of my small town in Sterling, Massachusetts—9,000 people— where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world— were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the “plane people” for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers. They tried to communicate in languages not their own and kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo. They got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home. They comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States. The people of Gander distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar.
They found places in the town church for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Christians to pray together. They found places underneath the cross on the altar for the Muslims to put their prayer rugs, and for the Jews to say the shabbat blessing and for Hindus to chant mantras. Imagine a church in small town Newfoundland so wide in its welcome it can hold all the world’s religious traditions under one roof!
The people of Gander generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world that day. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
Like the first responders who ran to the crumbling twin towers instead of away, the people of Gander, Newfoundland taught us something about revolutionary love that terrible day.
In the midst of unprecedented terror, the people of Gander proclaimed that TODAY the spirit of Love was upon them.
Despite desperate family members searching for thousands of lost loved among the rubble, the people of Gander declared TODAY we have been anointed to bring good news to those who suffer.
Despite hate winning the news cycle, the people of Gander declared that today Love has sent us to proclaim release to those held captive by hate.
Despite stories of Muslim folks being targeted and killed in retribution for the terrorist attacks, the people of Gander declared that those who were blind to their own prejudices now may see one another. TODAY.
Despite language and culture barriers, the people of Gander declared with their actions that TODAY is the year of Love’s favor. TODAY the oppressed will go free.
Today, Sunday, October 7th, 2018, love’s blessing is upon us.
Today you have been anointed by the spirit of Love, to bring good news to the poor. The poor is all of us—we who live in a culture that starves the spirit, thrives on separation and greed, plies us with a steady diet of fake news and the thin gruel of empty consumerism. Our good news is that there is depth and joy and love beyond the lies we are fed by those who wish to exploit us. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are bringing good news to the poor.
Today we are releasing captives: those of us who have been held captive by the toxic religious and ideological orthodoxies of our youth. In shared faith, we are given uncompromising, unrelenting, indomitable freedom. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are setting the captives free.
Today, our eyes are being opened to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or silenced. We are uncovering the truth of sexual assault, the truth of white supremacy, the truth of patriarchy, the truth that we aren’t what we thought we were as a nation or as a people. Our eyes are open, and we are responding not just with exhaustion, cynicism and despair, but in the streets, in the board rooms, and in the voting booths. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are recovering sight to the blind.
Today the oppressed are being set free. I know that you have a deep commitment to welcoming and supporting New Americans who have come to this country as refugees. Your circles of support have been helping these families establish new lives since 2008. The families, from Burundi, Iraq, Bhutan, and Congo have enriched the lives of your church in ways you never imagined. You are needed now more than ever. TODAY the scripture is fulfilled because of all of you. The oppressed are receiving justice.
And still, you and I know there is more work to do.
The people we serve TODAY need us now more than ever. And TODAY we can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be. The moral revolution this country needs is here in this room. The Church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we welcome the stranger and pray for our enemies. The church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we LOVE our neighbor as ourselves.
WE were made for such a time as this, because together we can do very hard things.
Today is the day. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward one another. The spirit of Love is upon us. Bring good news out into a hurting world that desperately needs love’s healing. Today.
preached on September 30, 2018
at First Church in Sterling
Sermons are better seen.
Please pray with me in the words of our psalm this morning: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Fred Rogers got up to deliver the invocational prayer at the Boston University graduation in 1992 when he was to receive one of his many honorary doctorates. The crowd, all of whom grew up with him in their living rooms, went absolutely wild with screaming and thundering applause. It was as if he was a rock star.
“Will you sing with me?” He said, and beckoned them to sit down. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine? Could you be mine? It’s a neighborly day in this beauty wood, a neighborly day for a beauty, would you be mine? Could you be mine? I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you, so. Let’s make the most of this beautiful day, since we’re together we might as well say, “would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?” Thousands of graduates drowned out his voice with their joyful singing.
When they had quieted down, Fred Rogers told them a story about a young child drawing with crayons in a preschool classroom. The teacher came over to her and asked what she was drawing.
“I’m making a picture of God,” the girl said.
“How can that be?” The teacher said, “No-one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl said, “they will now!”
Then Fred Rogers asked the graduates to join him in prayer to the God of their understanding, and led the invocation.
I want to learn to pray like Fred Rogers.
Fred Rogers had a public television show when I was a child called Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. He was a man who made a whole generation of my peers feel safe, worthy and seen. He was the closest many of us came to a holy man; a saint in a red cardigan. He is the single most important reason our Pastor Megan was called to the ministry. Which makes sense since Fred Rogers, too, was called to the Presbyterian ministry to teach children all over the country their worth.
The reason he could do this so well was because he lived his entire life as a prayer.
Slowing down, taking time and appreciating silence were part of his daily disciplines. Fred Rogers woke up every morning at 5:00 am and read scripture. He prayed for all of his family and friends and the many people all over the world who asked him to pray for them— by name, including giving thanks for the saints long past. He continued his prayer practice during his 7:30 am daily swim. At the pool, he sang Jubilate Deo out loud (but not too loud) before his plunge into the chlorinated water, which he rose up out of like a daily baptism before heading to the office. He didn’t drink or smoke or eat meat, and he kept a strict 9:30 bedtime. He personally answered every piece of fan mail he ever got.
Fred brought his disciplines of slowing down, taking time and using silence onto his television show. He wanted to give children the safety that comes from routine. In other words, his show itself was a prayer for the children.
His call to ministry brought him to children’s television. He saw television as an opportunity to lead a love revolution starting with children, but he was not interested in evangelism. He did not mention God or Jesus on his secular show. Still, he considered the space between the television and the couch the children sat on to watch it to be holy ground. He said: “When I walk in that studio door each day, I say, ‘Dear God, let some word that is heard be Yours.’” Rogers didn’t pray that the children come to know Jesus, he prayed they would come to know how loved they were. Let them hear a word of Love today, he prayed. And then he told us: “it’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear, it’s not the way you do your hair, but its you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your toys, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like, It’s every part of you.”
There are so many ways to pray. I want to learn to pray like Mr. Rogers.
We’ve been hanging out with James and his epistle for the past few weeks.
In this passage that we read this morning, James seems more optimistic about the use of the tongue than he did two weeks ago, as long as we’re using it to pray. In fact, prayer seems to be James’ answer for everything. You’re happy? Pray. You’re sad? Pray. You’re sick? Pray. You feel bad about something you’ve done? Pray. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he says.
A lot of you have asked me over the years, “if prayer is so effective, why isn’t it working for me? Why isn’t it working for the world? Is it because I’m not righteous enough? Is it because we’re doing it wrong?”
In July of 2016 after the Pulse nightclub shooting, I was asked for an interview with Lex Thomas for the Sterling Meetinghouse News. She wanted me to talk about coping with despair in a troubled world. In my lament about the most recent and deadliest mass shooting at the time, she quoted me as saying “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work.”
Before I even received the newspaper in my mailbox to read my article, I received an email in my inbox from a good citizen from Shrewsbury:
Good morning –
I was reading the article “Coping with Despair in a Troubled World” from the recent edition of the Meetinghouse News and one of your comments had me questioning and I hope you could clarify. You said “We organize prayer vigils, but prayer doesn’t work” – Prayer doesn’t work? He asked. I don’t understand all the different doctrine when it comes to different denominations, but as the lead pastor of a Christian Church is that really what you believe?”
“Oh no,” I thought. “What have I done now?” I have a tendency to stick my foot in my mouth pretty much every day. For those of you who don’t know me, this is well-documented. Sometimes I do it in public. And now I, the Reverend Robin Bartlett, the Senior Pastor of the First Church in Sterling, told everyone in Central Massachusetts that prayer doesn’t work, which in addition to being really hopeless sounding, is also not a good way to drum up business.
His was only the first letter I received.
I put out an all-points bulletin to save my reputation and correct the record:
I said, “if prayer were *all it took* to end these mass shootings, and division in our nation and world, I have confidence that all of those things would be eradicated by now.
Because I have no doubt that we have prayed fervently and earnestly and with great reverence about evil and human atrocities for as long as humans have inhabited the earth. I have no doubt that God has heard our prayers--we have been literally begging God for peace. It is not for lack of praying that the world continues to be dangerous, and that people continue to be oppressed.
So here's how I think prayer works. Ultimately, I don't think prayer changes God. God is unchanging. But, I do think that prayer changes people, and people change things. And it is time for the people to start changing things.”
The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. It can transform the world. We, too, can live our lives as a prelude to—or an outcome of—prayer. We, too, can live our lives in relationship to love.
I want to address those of us who don’t believe we are righteous enough, or have faith enough to pray.
What is significant about the phrase “prayer of the righteous” as James sees it, is the experience of one individual, the prophet Elijah. In his case, his prayer was instrumental in shutting the heavens. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the phrase has come to be associated largely, if not exclusively, with dramatic, miracle-like events.
This misses what James is trying to tell us. The reason he uses Elijah as an example is not because of the miracle he prayed for, and the fact that it worked. It is because Elijah himself is nothing special. He is a “human being like us,” James says. He is similarly too busy and too tired. He's sick of being stuck in traffic on route 2 on his commute to work. Elijah’s drinking his extra large Dunkin’s to keep his eyes open on the soccer field on Saturday morning. He, too, has doubts and sometimes doesn’t believe. Elijah’s praying is used as an example because if Elijah can do it, any one of us can do it.
All we have to do is believe in the power of love, ask for something, refuse to be attached to the answer we want, and then act in service to the love that holds us all.
I’m sure some of you wondered if I would say anything today about the Kavanaugh hearings today. I don’t want to say a lot, because I’m not ready to. Orienting our lives toward prayer means listening for a word of Love when there has been far too much talking. But I do want to ask you to join me in prayer. I want to ask you to join me in prayer for our lawmakers from all branches of government. For every person in that hearing room. For Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, for Judge Kavenaugh, for their families who have endured death threats; who have been through so much.
I want you to join me in prayer for the survivors of sexual assault all over this country and the world. Dear God, let the words they hear be Your’s. May it remind them of their worth.
I will say this. It’s too bad that this hearing is happening in the context of Partisan political theater because what I know from being a woman and being your pastor is that there is nothing partisan about sexual assault. Almost every woman and non-binary person I have ever known from every part of the political and ideological spectrum; from every race and religion and walk of life has her own story. And so do many men. Too many of you do, too. So I want to say this to you: I see you, I hear you, I will believe you, me too. If you need to talk, I will listen. I will pray.
Prayer does not preclude action, it precedes action. Prayer changes people and people change things.
Fred Rogers says this: The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile. If you and I want to learn how to pray, maybe all we have to do is continually try to orient our lives toward that which has worth. You are worthwhile to God. Each and every one of the people who surround you in this room are worthwhile to God, and each and every person you encounter outside this building are worthwhile to God. Let’s pray that we all know it. Let’s pray a world with a sense of worth into being.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on September 23, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
“Who is wise and and understanding among you?” James asks.
The answer comes from the story of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. The small boy who isn’t very old either, and 96 year old Miss Nancy are the wisest and most understanding among us. The child and the elder are both memory-keepers. They remind us of something from long ago, of warmth, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, and what is far more precious than gold. In other words, they remind us of who we are.
The most powerful people among us are not those of us who have money and degrees and fancy positions of influence in the church or in the world. They are not the physically strong, or those of us who seemingly have it all together. The most powerful among us are the eldest of all and the smallest of all.
My husband and I were reminded of this two weeks ago when we rushed our five year old youngest child, Isaac, to the hospital. He was having an asthma attack, though I didn’t know it at the time.
It wasn’t until we got to the emergency room that we realized the seriousness of what was happening. As the minutes wore on, I watched wires being attached to Isaac’s little heaving chest and belly, an IV inserted into his small blue veins, and a nebulizer quickly lifted over his head, specialists coming in and out to give him an EKG and look up at his beeping vital numbers’ machine. He looked so small and weak…and I, too, felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Time stopped. Nothing else mattered. Not world politics or our money concerns or climate change or what we do for a living, or our other responsibilities, or the delicious dinner my husband cooked that was still on the stove.
My only important job in this lifetime is to make sure my three children are breathing. So as I watched my youngest struggle to breathe, he held the most wisdom and understanding of anyone in the room.
The X-ray nurse came in to “take a picture” of his lungs. He smiled weakly and said “cheese.” The doctor came in and told him he had to take a ride in an ambulance to another hospital. He nodded stoically and said, “OK. Can my dad come?” When we told him he’d have to stay over night in the hospital he said, “You mean like a be-cation (which is what he calls vacation)?”
When my mom asked him what the hospital was like the day he came home he said, “I was very brave.”
Our wisdom comes not from invulnerability, but our ability to be brave in the face of our powerlessness. We can do hard things despite the truth of suffering. The smallest among us have something to teach us about what matters most: Keeping each other alive. Breathing. And that we can be brave when we feel very small. As long as we are not alone, in the ambulance, or whenever or wherever we encounter the depths of our own suffering.
One of the most oft-repeated phrases in our scriptures beside “do not be afraid,” is “remember.” The smallest and oldest among us are our memory-keepers. They help us to remember truth from long ago, warmth, what makes us laugh and cry, and what is far more precious than gold.
We need the memory-keepers. Jesus urges us so often to remember because he knows we humans are so prone to forgetting. In our text from Mark, the disciples have forgotten a lot.
First of all, I love the disciples because they are just your average bunch of clueless humans. They aren’t special or holy, which is how we know that we, too, can be followers of Jesus. They are just totally and completely hapless sometimes, really: obtuse, bickering, jealous and slow on the uptake.
I mean, aren’t we all?
When we encounter the disciples in this passage from Mark, they have already seen Jesus perform several miracles. They have heard all about the cost of following him. They have seen him transfigured on the top of a mountain. They have heard him begin to talk about what awaits them in Jerusalem.
Passing through Galilee, Jesus is still trying to teach his 12 followers while attempting at the same time to escape notice from the authorities. These guys still do not seem to understand Jesus’ mission, to a comical extent.
Imagine witnessing the miracles of Jesus, listening to him teach things like “blessed are the poor, and the merciful.” Imagine believing that Jesus is the Son of God himself, born to save humanity. Imagine Jesus then trying to tell you that he will suffer and die at the hands of humans, and three days later, he will rise again like a Phoenix from a fire.
And then imagine being too afraid or dense to understand, and not wanting to admit your ignorance. I can. I’m still not sure I grasp fully what it all means, and I know how the story ends.
Of course the disciples don’t get it. The story Jesus is telling them flies in the face of everything they know about the Messiah. Namely, he’s not supposed to die. I’m sure Jesus sounds a little unhinged to them.
So Jesus tells them all this, and the disciples don’t ask a single question. The text says they were afraid to.
Maybe they didn’t want to reveal their ignorance, or maybe they were just plain terrified of what would happen to them. So their response is to bicker with each other. When we are feeling scared and not very smart and powerless in the face of suffering, our response is often to fight with one another.
They fight over which one of them is the greatest. It’s like being in a sports bar full of bros late in the evening when too many beers and dart games have been consumed. They are walking to Capernaum being like, “Dude I’m the best, though.” “No, I’m the best! Jesus likes me the most.” “No, he likes me the most. He thinks I’m the smartest.” “Dude, I’m the smartest!”
“Wanna arm wrestle for it?”
Reminds me of our current political climate. We are just a bunch of scared people fighting about who is right, rather than admitting our own ignorance and fear. Calling each other names, rather than facing our vulnerability before God. Arguing ceaselessly, because we don’t want to face that there will be suffering beyond our imagining. And like the disciples, we have so little faith. We don’t actually believe that in the end, Love will win.
The disciples are embarrassed to tell Jesus what they’ve been fighting about when he asks. But Jesus already knows.
“True greatness,” Jesus says, “is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. It is not to ascend the social ladder but rather descend it, taking the lowest place. It is not to seek the company of the powerful, but to welcome and care for those without status.” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher)
Jesus uses a child as an object lesson. "See this kid?” He says, holding a small child in his arms. “The person who cares for this kid cares for me. The person who cares for me worships God. Therefore the person who loves this kid, loves God. A small boy who isn’t very old either is the most powerful among us. Not because he isn’t vulnerable or innocent, but because his power comes from his fragility. He is a memory-keeper. He reminds us of who we are, and whose we are.”
In God’s upside down kingdom, we prove our power by caring for the powerless. Our salvation is collective. And it comes from our willingness to care for the least of these. No one is saved until all are saved. The last will go first.
In 1976 at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants lined up at the starting line for the 100 yard dash. At the sound of the starting gun, they all started off in their own way, making their best effort to run down the track toward the finish line. That is, except for the one young boy who stumbled soon after his start, tumbled to the ground and began to cry. Two of the other racers, hearing the cries of the boy who fell, slowed down and looked back at him.
Without hesitation, they turned around and began running in the other direction—toward the injured boy.
While the other competitors struggled to make it to the finish line, the two who had turned around to run in the other direction reached for the boy and helped him to his feet. All three of them then linked arms and together they walked to the finish line.
By the time the trio reached the end, everyone in the stands was standing and cheering and crying. The crowd had been reminded of warmth, of what makes us laugh and cry, about what is far more precious than gold. By turning back and helping the boy who fell, the other competitors lost their own chance to win the race, but the triumph was in crossing the line together. Their greatness was realized in that moment.
True greatness is not to be above others, but to be least of all and servant of all. True greatness comes from our ability to ask, “And how are the children?” True greatness comes from admitting that we are vulnerable, and being brave in the face of our powerlessness. Do not be afraid. Remember. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Amen.
Our tongue is a fire, James says, that sets a forest ablaze. I think we know what he’s talking about. Our lives are literally filled up with an onslaught of words, many of them harmful and vitriolic. We are besieged by explosive rhetoric every day from our computers and our TV sets.
As our reading from James says, all of us make many mistakes. Because we all have this remarkable little tool in our mouths called the tongue. James says that this tiny little organ has more power than any of the other organs. He compares the tongue to the small rudder of a very large ship. The tiny rudder can guide gigantic ships through wind and rain upon the vast ocean. James says that small and powerful tools like the tongue can also be shaped into weapons. The tongue is like a match. The entire forest can be set on fire by a tiny flame.
Well, beloved, the forest is on fire. Rhetoric alone can burn down the whole republic if we let it. Our words can be used to deny the God-given inherent worth and dignity of every person. To destroy.
All you have to do is read a comments section on the internet, where humanity goes to die, to know this. All you have to do is turn on Fox News or Samantha Bee. Even our world leaders incessantly tweet out insults in 280 characters or fewer. We live in an increasingly connected and yet disconnected, digital world in which we can so easily dehumanize those we cannot see and touch.
When we observe and participate in this world of weaponized words, we feel hopeless, depleted, and exhausted. Too often, we respond with cynicism, apathy and despair.
That’s why we need real, face to face community like this one. This is why we need to COME TOGETHER with other real flesh and blood people who do not need to think alike to love alike. That’s why we need children filling our church building every Sunday. Our children can still close their eyes and see a million dreams for the world we are going to make.
Not everyone should be teachers, our scripture says. Because teachers will be judged with greater strictness. But you and I…everyone in this room…we are all called to be the teachers. We aren’t called to be perfect, but as a church community that spans multiple generations, we are called to be teachers. The children are watching.
And teachers dream a world with their students. So, on this first day of Sunday school and high school youth fellowship, on this week when we welcomed the parents of almost 30 middle schoolers from the community into our “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality program into our church…
Close your eyes for a moment and dream a world where the reign of God has become real. A world in which heaven has touched down to earth. A world in which all are fed. A world in which our children are safe from harm. A world where all are free to be exactly who they are. A world in which all are loved. A world in which we walk before the Lord in the land of the Living, as our psalmist says.
We come to church to dream this world together. Your dreams should be darn near impossible on your own power. Otherwise, they aren’t dreams…they are just reasonable goals. We don’t exist to think up reasonable goals here in the house of Love, we exist to dream impossible dreams for the world we’re gonna make.
Because we worship a God who makes the impossible possible. Who makes a way out of no way. Who takes human imperfection and makes it Holy.
Because we worship a God who created us and called us “good”, who promises extravagant love for us and everyone else, we need to treat ourselves and one another as though that were true. As if our goodness and lovableness is inherent and inerrant.
Here’s perhaps the greatest lie we were all told in grade school: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Those of us who have suffered the wounds of bullying or emotional abuse know that words can sometimes hurt far more than fists. Those of us who cannot shut up the inner critic inside of us telling ourselves that we are not good enough; that we are worthless…We know how much harm words can do. Those of us who have spent the past few years watching the unity of our republic be ripped to shreds…we know that words can bring down empires.
We know that it matters what we say, and how we say it.
And we are all hypocrites. As James writes in our scriptures, we all bless the name of God who’s other name is love, and with the same tongue we curse those made in the likeness of God, which is every single person we encounter.
We see evidence of this hypocrisy every day.
We all know Christians who denigrate gay folks and undocumented immigrants and people who kneel for the national anthem before NFL games and Christians who express disdain for food stamps recipients and Christians who protest transgendered folks just trying to use the bathroom in peace. We all know those who condemn others made in the likeness of God, by those who proclaim to be speaking for God.
But you and I—we are just as prone to condemn those who are made in the likeness of God with the same tongues we use to bless.
Maybe you curse those who don’t put the shopping cart back or the kid at school who relentlessly teases your son, or the telemarketer just doing her job, or the neighbor with the wrong political sign.
I literally bless people for a living. I say blessings over babies and marriages and intern ministers and lay leaders and Sunday School teachers and the ill and the dying. And then I get behind the wheel of my car during rush hour on route 2 just like the rest of you. Just saying.
Luckily, we have an example of perfection in Jesus. We know what a blessing is because of Jesus. We know what a good word sounds like. The whole of the Gospel, or “Good News of God” can be summed up in Jesus’ first ever sermon in the synagogue, which he reads directly from the Hebrew Scriptures, drops the mic, and sits down:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
James says our tongues are untamable. I say we can challenge each other to use the Gospel test.
We can ask ourselves:
Is the spirit of Love reflected in the words I am about to say, type, think?
Does what I am about to say lift up the poor (myself, the impoverished, or the spiritually impoverished, the immigrant, the widowed, the grieving, the losers, the maligned, the outcast)?
Is what I’m about to say enlightened and enlightening to others?
Is it a word of freedom for all who are held captive by oppression and greed and what the Jones’ think?
Is what I’m about to say reflective of the million dreams I have for the world?
Or, in simpler language, before I speak, am I applying the “THINK” acronym principles?
Is it True?
Is it Helpful?
Is it Inspired?
Is it Necessary?
Is it Kind?
We are called to be teachers. We will never be perfect, but we can think before we speak. Though it may sound naïve and out of style and hard sometimes, we’re not giving up on the Gospel.
Today I’m going to ask us to practice using our words to bless someone else who needs a blessing. Our Becky Conway, our Judy and Jim Conway’s daughter, our Emily and James and Laura’s sister, our Charlotte’s mother, needs a blessing. She has accompanied her 18 month old daughter, Charlotte, from Boston Children’s—where she lived for the past two months near her loving family,—to Baltimore where Charlotte is receiving treatment for a rare disease called Acute Transverse Myelitis that has left her paralyzed from the neck down. Becky feels lonely and depleted without her family and friends and partner and parents by her side. She is strong, but she’s so often alone and falling into despair.
Becky says: “I have never experienced a pain like this. a feeling I can’t even begin to describe. As (Charlotte’s) mom I feel as though I should be stronger and doing more. That’s where it gets emotional because there’s nothing more I can do. I give her all my time and all my love and I know it makes a difference i just wish it was more.
i’m going back to being in that “angry phase”. Why do things like this happen? Why are we given such hard battles? I know most will say “God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them” but that’s just hard to hear now. Why do I now question God? all my life I grew up with my own beliefs, I didn’t ever change them. Now, I don’t know what i think anymore.”
Becky needs our words of blessing; an assurance from us of God’s favor and protection. She doesn’t need to be told that God gives his toughest battles to those who can handle them,” but that in the words of the Psalmist, when we are brought low, we are saved by Love. Let’s show up for Becky with our words. Let’s help deliver Becky’s soul from death, her eyes from tears, her feet from stumbling. Let’s do this by writing cards, found in your bulletins with prayers of grace for her and for Charlotte. It doesn’t matter if you know this family or not, they are part of your family. We are calling this a First Church grace bomb. We will collect your cards, and put them in a box Paula Fogerty kept all of her cards of support in when she was going to chemotherapy. It says “With God all things are possible.” We will send along a prayer shawl, as well. You can place your prayer for Becky and Charlotte in the offering plate during the offertory, or in a basket on your way out of church. Let’s use our tongues to bless.
Beloved, we can become our dreams for the world. We can be worthy teachers for our children. Love is the weapon we have in our arsenal to fight the devil threatening to win our hearts and to control our tongues afire. We can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be. The moral revolution this country needs is here. Right here in this room. It foments inside of each of us. It starts with being kinder to ourselves. Make haste to be kind.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on Sunday, August 26, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Dearly Beloved children and youth:
Here’s what I wish I was taught as a child: the best way to armor oneself against the bullies of the world is to dis-arm them.
When I was your age, I used to get real anxious about going back to school. I was not the most popular kid. Believe it or not, I was kind of shy, and very awkward. I was terrible at sports, which really mattered then. I got picked last for teams.
My oldest daughter is going into 7th grade this year, which makes me cringe in remembrance. When I was In 7th grade I thought it would be great to get what was called a “skater haircut” at the time. This haircut consisted of two levels of very short hair, and a rat tail in the back. It was bad. I had just gotten braces and glasses. I hadn’t gone through puberty yet, but I was a head and shoulders taller than every boy in my school, which made for awkward school dances.
7th grade was my first day of junior high because we didn’t have middle school, we had junior high. I was leaving my little elementary school to join all six of the other Concord elementary schools’ kids in one gigantic junior high school building. We were switching classes for the first time. We had lockers, and we had to cover our books with paper bags from the grocery store. It was both thrilling and scary.
My mom took me school shopping the week before, as she always did. My mom didn’t know what was cool to wear in junior high school in 1988, and neither did I. I hadn’t gotten there yet so I didn’t know that you had to wear a $40 Bennetton polo shirt in one of three colors (green, blue or purple) with acid wash jeans every single day. I didn’t know yet that I needed a fabric Esprit canvass bag and to look exactly like everyone else.
At the pinnacle of the shopping trip, I tried on a brown, wide-brimmed hat in the women’s accessories section. It frankly looked adorable on me, even with my bad new haircut. My mother loved it, too! She kept exclaiming over what a “hat person” I was. Before seventh grade, all that mattered to me was my mother’s opinion, and my mother thought I was the most beautiful person in the world.
Mom bought the hat for me, even though it was rather expensive and she was a single mom with no money. That hat was instantly my favorite thing. I went home and stared at myself in the mirror wearing the hat, posing and grinning.
The first week of school, I was invited to the movies by a new friend I made.
To get ready for my movies debut, I put on one of my best new outfits: a white, silky button-down top, buttoned all the way to my neck, baggy khaki pants with the cuffs pegged and rolled, and my new hat. I felt pretty mature and like I had a new lease on life as I primped in the mirror. I met my new friend, and her mom drove us to the movies.
Almost as soon as I got there, I noticed a group of cool eighth grade girls pointing and giggling at me. I wasn’t sure at first, but soon the pointing and giggling turned into raucous laughter. “Look at that 7th grader’s hat! She looks like a boy!” they roared loudly. I left the movie theater, and red-faced, threw my prized hat in the trash. I called my mother on a pay phone to pick me up. I was sobbing uncontrollably.
She did, driving white knuckled all the way there. I didn’t even see the movie, and I never got to go to Friendly’s afterward to order my favorite Reeces Pieces sundae.
That memory is even more disturbing to my mother to this day than it is to me.
As parents and grandparents and the people who love you (which is all of us), we want to cloak you in armor when you go back to school. Not because we worry about your education, but because we want you to know yourself beloved and beautiful and whole, just as you are. We want our opinion of what you look like to be most important. We want your teachers to really see you, and your heart. We want you to have friendships that are life-giving and mutually supportive. We want you to feel a sense of belonging. We don’t want you to assimilate to the sameness of the crowd….we want you to be who you are, just as God made you. We want you to know that your haircut doesn’t matter because every hair on your head is numbered by God and adored. We want you to know that getting the best grades doesn’t matter because you don’t have to be perfect or even good to earn God’s love or our love. We want you to know that being good at sports doesn’t matter because what matters most is that you walk softly on this earth, knowing that it is God’s.
Here’s what we worry about most of all: We don’t want you to be mean to other kids to fit in, or because of your own insecurity. We are even more terrified that instead of being the kid who is picked on, that you will be the mean kid that picks on others. We want you to be brave and kind. That means loving others the way God loves you.
We know we are asking a lot of you. Following the Way of Jesus is not easy, and it takes a special kind of bravery.
Sometime between 60 and 100 AD, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter that we call “Ephesians.” He wrote this letter for non-Jews who had recently hopped on the Jesus bandwagon. We call those folks “Gentile converts,” which is a fancy way of saying “new Christians.” Paul wanted to tell this group of new Christians how to live in a world full of bullying, meanness, violence and greed.
He was writing to people in a place called Ephesus where there were lots of rich people who owned slaves. These rich folks had power over everyone, including their children and their wives, and they weren’t used to sharing power, or treating people who were weaker equally.
But they were forming a new Christian community that suddenly included women, men, youth and children, rich and poor, slaves and free. So Paul wanted to tell them how to be more caring and good to one another…how to relate as equals even though they never had been before.
This new way of living was radical, and it was even illegal. And so it made people in power angry. The Apostle Paul, therefore, was trying to tell these new Jesus followers not just how to live differently, but how to do it without attracting attention. Because if the rulers of the place figured out what the new Christians were doing, they could be persecuted…bullied by those in power, even thrown in jail. In fact, Paul wrote this letter from his jail cell. There was a lot at stake.
In Paul’s final words in his letter, he uses war imagery to tell the Ephesians what they should do to protect themselves. “Put on the whole armor of God” he tells them. Put on the “belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness”; “the helmet of salvation” and the “sword of the Spirit,” he says.
As new Christians, they had stopped using weapons altogether. They took literally Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek”, and to lay down their swords.
But Paul was not really asking them to arm themselves with weapons of war, but to dis-arm their enemies by wearing the shield of faith. He was telling them to put on the dis-armor of God.
The dis-armor of God isn’t military armor at all. It’s not a bulletproof vest; it’s the breastplate of justice. It’s not the ability to make fun of others until they feel less than, it’s deep trust in the power of faith to stop the burning projectiles of evil and hate. Whatever helps to prepare us to proclaim the Gospel of Peace is where our power comes from. It doesn’t come from weapons or weaponized words.
That is what real strength looks like, my young friends. Dis-arm yourself, so you can dis-arm your enemies. With humor, with kindness, and yes, with love. A bully wants you to get angry, to fight back. When you respond with anger or fear, the bully wins. But if you respond with kindness, the bully is caught off guard, and you win. Adults—this is especially true of us, as well.
So beloved children and adults of First Church:
Put on your dis-armor of God.
Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.
This year at school, say what is true always. Don’t lie and cheat. Own up to your mistakes. Be true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, even if it is different from all of the others. If your friends are doing something wrong, stand up for what’s right. If a weaker child is suffering, reach out to them and stick up for them.
This year for shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.
The Good News our scripture talks about can be summed up this way: God loves you wastefully and extravagantly. God loves everyone else that way too. If you are going to put on the peace of God for shoes, you will walk in that love.
Hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.
The devil says that you are not worthy, that you are less than, that your clothes are not cool enough, that you are not smart enough or good enough. Don’t let other children and adults tell you who you are. Put on your shield of faith: the one that reminds you that you are worthy, you are whole, you are precious, you are loved. Wear it always.
Put on salvation as your helmet and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Salvation is a fancy way of saying that we are destined to be united with one another and with God. So when we have fallen short or messed up or hurt someone, that’s not the final word. The words that people say to us pass away, but the word of God stands forever. Take the sword of the spirit with you, to remind you that love wins in the end. If love hasn’t won yet, it means its not the end.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all people everywhere.
Beloved children of God, pray for every single person that you encounter this year. Do it before you go to bed, and before you get up in the morning. Pray for the weird kids, the weak kids, the kids who have different learning needs, the kids who worship differently than you do or not at all, the kids whose religions are not represented during the school’s holiday celebrations. Pray for the mean kids, the popular kids who are insecure themselves and just trying to fit in. Pray for your teachers, who work hard to love all of you, and give you the gift of literacy, who nurture your creativity, who open a world to you that is so much bigger than the world you currently live in. Pray for the lunch ladies and the people who work so hard to make your school clean and safe. Pray for your parents and grandparents, because you are their heart walking around outside of their bodies. Letting you get on a bus each morning is a daily exercise in letting go.
And we will pray for you. On the first day of school, and every day of our lives.
Your parents still think you are the most beautiful person in the world. Believe them. That’s the way God loves you, too.
God loves everyone else that way, too.
Preached on Sunday, August 19, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at The First Church in Sterling, MA
I have a weird job. I get paid to be wise. Even though I’m no wiser than any of you.
Yesterday, I married off a beautiful, admirable, smart, capable, deep, loving young couple, new members of this church, Walt Anderson and Katy Fazio. As I usually do at a wedding, I preached a homily meant to impart wisdom about the institution of marriage. My daughter Cecilia told me that I cracked too many jokes. “Mom, I think people like you but sometimes your preaching is a comedy show with a few facts about Jesus.” P.K.s are so harsh.
I probably use too much comedy because I so often feel like a fraud, I play the fool. I don’t have a good track record in the marriage department or really the life department, so what do I know? All of these things that I’m telling young couples to do: love like Jesus loves, sacrifice for your partner, give and forgive, keep your promises, wake up every day ready to do it all over again…I’m not even good at that.
(A few years ago on a Sunday morning, I took the last bagel we had in the house, toasted it and consumed it before church. My husband got up and said, “Robin, you ate the last bagel knowing that this was my breakfast. And now I have to go and listen to you preach about the LOVE of GOD.”)
Wisdom is doled out all the time by the hypocrites. That’s because the truth is, wisdom isn’t knowledge that can be doled out. It can only be acquired through the humility to admit we don’t know anything.
A few years ago, the term “adult” became a verb. As in, “Too tired, I can’t adult today.” “Adulting” became something we were proud of accomplishing. It became a hash tag for getting mundane chores done, or checking responsibilities off a to-do list. People take to the internet and write things like “Got my flu shot” #adulting, and “finally designated beneficiaries for my retirement plan account” #adulting. And “When my fitbit buzzes and says I've hit my step goal, I feel like that's the signal that I've done enough adulting for the day.” On twitter, there’s a tweet that says 99% of life is finding an adult-ie-r adult to do the adulting.
At some point in our development we look around and realize that we are the adults, and its up to us to do all the things. For many of us, that’s terrifying. But I wonder if what we are scared of most of all is the idea that as adults we are supposed to know all the things. We are supposed to be the wise ones, and we don’t feel smart or old enough—-ever. We don’t feel up to the task. As professionals and parents and grandparents and taxpayers and voters and citizens and the Adults in the Room, we are consistently bombarded with questions we don’t know the answers to. We are all just faking it till we make it. We constantly fear we will be found out for the frauds we are.
“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” our psalm says. In the Bible, the word translated “fear” can mean several things. It can refer to the terror one feels in a frightening situation. It can mean “respect” in the way a servant fears his master and serves him faithfully. Fear can also denote the reverence or awe a person feels in the presence of greatness. The fear of the Lord is a combination of all of these: terror, respect and awe.
God is another name for all that is unknowable and unattainable. Wisdom begins with terror, respect and awe for what we don’t know.
Jesus models for us this holy not-knowing all the time, by asking questions. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions in the New Testament. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus' life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred.
And then he listens to the answers. He practiced wisdom.
According to Will Gafney, in Biblical Hebrew, wisdom is as much technical expertise or craftmanship as it is intellectual knowledge. In other words, we can learn how to be wise. We can practice wisdom like a craft; like an art. For the Israelites, the heart (not the head) was the source thought and choice. If we want to become wise, we must practice asking questions, listening and being fully present to our conversation partners: we must practice feeling our way into knowing. The Buddhists remind us that what we practice, we become. We can become wise.
When I was a hospital chaplain intern, I was called to the ICU in the middle of the night one night to where a 31 year old man was imminently dying of cancer. The family had gone to Mass General as one last hope, as a lot of people do…it’s literally the best hospital in the world, so it’s a last hope hospital. So they got their hopes up upon being transferred to MGH, and then had their hopes crashed again when the doctors came in to tell them there was nothing more they could do. That’s the worst kind of pain…when all hope is lost pain.
So upon hearing there was nothing more the doctors could do to save his life, the mother asked the nurse to call the chaplain on duty. That was me. And it was my first on-call, middle of the night in the hospital experience ever. Though I had training as a therapist, I had no idea what I was doing.
When I arrived, this young man’s mother and his fiancé and his entire family were all there in the waiting room, wailing with grief. It was one of the most frighteningly helpless scenes I have ever encountered, a place I had no business being as an outsider or a not-yet minister or someone who had definitely not read enough books yet or experienced enough pain yet, a place where I had no answers.
I walked in and the mother wanted answers. She said to me angrily, with fire in her eyes, “Are you the CHAPLAIN?” I’m not even sure if I answered her. “Well, tell me, CHAPLAIN, WHY?” She held up a Bible and she waved it in my face and she said, “WHY WOULD YOUR LOVING GOD take my son from me when he is 31? When he is my world and he did nothing wrong and nothing to deserve THIS? EXPLAIN THAT WITH YOUR BIBLE.”
I just looked at her for a long minute trying to come up with something to say. Some words of comfort. Some wisdom. Something I knew. Anything. And finally I said “I don’t know.”
And she said, “Really? You came all the way here and that’s all you got? YOU DON’T KNOW?”
“No, I don’t,” I said, trembling. “But I can bring you some water.”
And I proceeded to the nurse’s station for water, and then sat awkwardly in that room, holding back my own tears of inadequacy, in a place I had no business being, with a wailing family I did not know, with absolutely no answers at all. I knew the least of anyone in the hospital room. I knew the least about the medical concerns, I knew the least about the relationships and the feelings involved. I listened to doctors and nurses explain what they knew, and they know so much. My job was to know the least in the room, and to listen carefully. That’s it. And for someone who is far more comfortable knowing everything, this was hard.
And so I asked questions. I asked this mama about her son and what she loved about him. I asked about his birth. And I asked his fiance about when they met. And I asked about their favorite place to vacation and his favorite foods. And I listened to the answers. I listened to the story of them, and I tried to become wise. And things eventually quieted down. And in the quiet I realized again that I would never have any answers to the questions. And I realized maybe what it takes to really care for other people is not knowing so much. And I realized that sometimes our presence and no answers at all is enough. It’s, in fact, all there is.
Imagine what our care for others would look like if we made a commitment to the wisdom of not knowing. We wouldn’t show up at the bedside of cancer patients with declarations like, “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle” as if we know that’s true. We don't know. We wouldn’t try to explain the unexplainable so that we could manage our own anxiety about ambiguity. We don't know. We wouldn’t say things when children die like “God just needed one more angel.” As if we know that’s true. We don't know.
We might just sit there instead, with people who need us, and say nothing but “I’m here. I won’t leave you.” We may just sit there and cry with one another. We may just sit there and be present; and be witness. Don’t just do something, sit there. Hold a hand. Listen. We may feel like fools while we sit there, which probably means we’re doing it right.
Our reading from Proverbs says that wisdom sets a table for us. Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live. Walking the way of insight, wisdom beckons us.
Beloved, be fools for the sake of wisdom. What we practice, we become.
Poet Sri Chinmo Ghose writes:
My ignorance thunders:
You are nothing, I am everything.
My knowledge declares:
You know something,
But I know much more.
My wisdom whispers:
You and I know nothing of everything
And everything of nothing
READING Tina Fey’s Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat* from "Bossy Pants"
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.
In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”
MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.
Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:
THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.
*Improv will not reduce belly fat
preached on the Sterling Town Common
Sunday, August 5, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
There are plenty of people both sympathetic and unsympathetic to our cause who will tell you that Christianity consists of just a big list of “no-no’s” for the sake of moral purity. Just say “no” to sex outside of marriage and “no” to drinking and working on the sabbath and “no” to certain kinds of people and ideas and “no” to the “wrong” ways of worship.
But true faith begins with a big, bold “yes.” Yes, to the world as it is. Yes, to the present moment. Yes, to God.
So often, the church itself is a place of “no.” “No” to new ways of doing things. “No” to dreams that can’t fit in our budget. “No” to ideas that stretch beyond our comfort zone. It takes a great deal of faith in God to say, “yes.”
The disciples, bless their hearts, are the biggest nay-sayers of all. In our text from John, Jesus takes them up the mountain, a reference to Moses. Passover was nearing, word had spread about his ministry, and a large crowd of 5,000 was following him. The disciples had one barley loaf and two fish for the passover meal. They started to panic, much like the Israelites did in the wilderness before Moses provided them with manna from heaven.
“No, we can’t possibly feed these people. No, we will never have enough. No, we can’t do that. No no no no no.”
The disciples had so little faith!
Jesus tests them by asking a rhetorical question: “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?”
The disciples fail the test. They answer Jesus’ query with a budget concern. “Not even six months salary will buy us enough,” they say. “We can’t. No."
But Jesus says “Yes. Yes, we can feed everyone. Yes we can.”
When the disciples say “there is not enough money,”
Jesus says, “there will always be enough.”
When the disciples say, “we can’t possibly feed all these people,”
Jesus says, “Oh yeah? Hold my beer.” (That’s the Robin revised standard version of what Jesus says. The New Revised Standard Version recounts Jesus’ words as, “Make them sit down.”)
When the disciples say, “There will never be enough food,”
Jesus says, “we will have so much that we will have to save all the left-overs so that nothing is lost.”
Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”
If we say that we believe in this God who creates this kind of abundance from scarcity, we need to have an improvisational faith.
In an improvisational faith, we say “Yes.”
The first rule of improvisation is always agree. Start with a yes, and see where that takes us. Our “no”, after all, is often just an expression of our fear. An improvisational faith says the only way out of what causes us fear is “through.”
Our “yes” is a faith over fear response.
Faith in Jesus means that all are one in the body of Christ. Faith in Jesus means that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” Faith in Jesus means that a straight person cannot say to a gay person “I have no need of you.” Faith in Jesus means that a liberal can’t say to the conservative, “I have no need of you.” Faith in Jesus means that a Christian can’t say to a Muslim or an atheist, “I have no need of you.”
An improvisational faith means that we find conversation partners we wouldn’t necessarily seek out on our own, and keep an open mind.
Rev. Otis Moss III says: “Improvisation and African polyrhythmic composition, layered with European scales, created this new sound in the emerging South. European instruments such as piano and bass were married to drum and saxophone. Jazz composition had a strict thematic structure, but every instrument had the right to solo. This was unheard of within the confines of, for instance, French chamber music, but now it promoted the democratic idea that each instrument was welcome to share in the composition and allowed to speak musically from the player’s own cultural context. Never during performance would the piano oppress the drum, or the saxophone tell the bass player that he or she was “three-fifths” of an instrument. They flourished together. European chamber music maintained a strict class hierarchy where only certain instruments were considered worthy of playing before aristocratic audiences. Jazz stated radically: All are welcome and every instrument has a gift to be played before the people.”
An improvisational faith teaches us that all of us have the right to solo. That each stranger is a piece of me I do not yet know. An improvisational faith teaches us a respect for what our conversation partners have created as a message we may need to hear.
Just imagine how the world might change if we started each encounter with a primal “yes!”
In an improvisational faith, we don’t just say “Yes,” we say “Yes, And.” We make statements. We become part of the solution.
St. Tina Fey says whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. Make statements with your actions, and your voice. Be bold, especially when your opinion is unpopular. YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
Rev Otis Moss III says that “Any good jazz band lets everyone solo. Any church serious about Christ must allow each person the opportunity to express his or her gifts. Nothing is more beautiful than when individuals find their groove and create a new chord in the church-wide composition I call A Love Supreme. In the twenty-first century church, everyone has a part in the band, and all have worth in God’s eyes.”
In an improvisational faith, it’s go big or go home. This is no time for a timid or tepid faith. Each and every one of us must play a part in the love revolution. We all have worth in God’s eyes, and we all have a part in the band.
In an improvisational faith, there are no mistakes, only opportunities.
You didn’t plan that pregnancy, that marriage to break up, that job loss? There are no mistakes in an improvisational faith, only opportunities for changing direction. In an improvisational faith, we have sacred trust in God that there is forgiveness and redemption available for all; that new life grows out of death; that resurrection is the only truth. That all things will be made new.
An improvisational faith is trusting that every mistake we make can turn into a beautiful happy accident. Like a bad marriage that leads to beautiful children, or a car crash that leads to a new understanding of the precious fragility of life on this earth.
Beloved, you and I worship a God who loves wastefully and extravagantly; who says “yes” to us; a God who can make a way out of no way. Have confidence in that Love, and trust in the moment right in front of you.
Practice saying “yes” and see where it takes you.
Do you want to live in the moment? YES!
Do you want to know the people around you better? YES!
Do you want to see God in all things? YES!
Do you trust that you can continue to learn and grow in Love? YES!
Do you trust that with God’s help we can manifest heaven here on this earth? YES!
Do you want to love others more wholly and fully, the way God loves? YES!
Do you want to be loved like that? YES!
Do you want to change this world with that love? YES!
YES! YES! YES!
A sermon preached on July 8, 2018
on the Sterling, MA Town Common
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
POEM "I Feel Sorry for Jesus" by Naomi Shihab Nye
People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
But I bet some days He regrets it.
Cozily they tell you what he wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game
where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.
They want to be his special pet.
Jesus deserves better.
I think He’s been exhausted
for a very long time.
He went into the desert, friends.
He didn’t go into the pomp.
He didn’t go into
the golden chandeliers
and say, the truth tastes better here.
See? I’m talking like I know.
It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You get carried away almost immediately.
I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.
And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
of listening. You won’t hear me
mention this again.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. I’ve made a living trying to answer that question out loud so others can hear. It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
You and I both know that there is too much noise right now. Too much talking and not enough listening. Too much posturing; too much declarative pomposity, not enough curious not-knowing. People have so much toxic certainty about issues that are far too complex for anyone to have any certainty at all about. And we all have just so much to say. The lack of collective humility takes my breath away. There is so little silence.
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
And people are all too quick with an answer. “You are a permissible friend, a judge-y foe. You are a liberal. You are a conservative. You are not real; you are a fairy sky God. You’d vote for the person I voted for. You love America the most of all the countries. You’d judge this war just. You wouldn’t want gay people to have cake. You’d approve of this immigration policy. You hate the people I hate. You love the people I love.”
Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”
And people fill a vacuum with words. They say so many things that we wish they wouldn’t say in answer to that question.
And yet, it matters how we answer that question. It matters what we tell the children.
Who do you say Jesus is?
...............................................(pause for answers).........................................................
"Who do you say that I am?" I’ve preached this text several times with answers to that question that point back to Love. Who do you say that I am? I try to answer that question every day of my life.
But the part of the Gospel that stood out to me this week as I meditated on the text was not the question, and not the answer, but the silence that followed.:
Jesus asks the question. Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answers him the “right” way: “you are the Messiah, Son of the Living God.”
Jesus says, “Yes! Now build my church.” 'cause he knows Peter gets it, you know?
And then he says something curious: he sternly warns the disciples not to tell anyone. Who do you say that I am? Maybe sometimes the correct answer to Jesus’ question is silence.
“It’s dangerous talking for Jesus,” our poet says. “You get carried away almost immediately.”
I stood in the spot where He was born.
I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
was written on my skin.
And that makes me feel like being silent
for Him, you know? A secret pouch
The Via dolorosa is the path that Jesus walked to his death in Jerusalem, bloodied and beaten, carrying a heavy cross. Via dolorosa means way of grief, way of sorrow, way of suffering, the painful way. You and I may never have traveled to Jerusalem, but we have walked the way of sorrow if we have known suffering. The way of sorrow is written on our skin.
It makes me feel like being silent for Jesus. It makes me feel like being silent for all of us.
At the end of the via dolorosa, Jesus stood before Pilate. Who do you say that you are? Pilate demanded at his trial.
Jesus himself didn’t answer that question.
Frederich Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth, writes:
A particular truth can be stated in words – that life is better than death and love than hate, that there is a god or not, that light travels faster than sound and cancer can sometimes be cured if you discover it in time. But truth itself is another matter, the truth that Pilate asked for, tired and bored and depressed by his long day. Truth itself cannot be stated. Truth simply is… And in answer to Pilate’s question, Jesus keeps silent, even with his hands tied behind him manages somehow to hold silence out like a terrible gift.
We, all of us, are Pilate in our asking after truth, and when we come to church to ask it, the preacher would do well to answer us also with silence, because the truth and the Gospel are one, and before the Gospel is a word it too like truth is silence – not an ordinary silence, silence as nothing to hear, but silence that makes itself heard, if you listen to it the way Pilate listens to the silence of the man with the split lip.
We’d do better listening more in silence—the kind of silence that makes itself heard.
This week on the 5th of July, I got a phone call early in the morning from our beloved Judy Conway. I could barely make out what she was saying to me through her sobs. Her 16 month old baby granddaughter, our Becky’s daughter, our Charlotte, was rushed to the hospital early that morning, unresponsive. She had gone limp, had labored breathing and was paralyzed from the neck down, and no one knew why. (The family still sits vigil by her hospital bed as we speak, she was diagnosed with swelling of the spinal chord and brain, and she continues to make small improvements with steroids.)
When I talked to her, Judy was speeding home from her vacation in New York to go to UMass University Hospital. Judy said she and Jim drove like bats out of hell in utter silence, held out like a terrible gift. She used that time to pray.
I was in New Hampshire at the time, and told her I would be at the hospital as soon as I could get there.
Those of you who are parents probably know what its like to parent young children under stress. I drove all three kids by myself in the car for three hours, mostly in silence, keeping vigil in my head for that baby girl, as if my mind could cure her if I was quiet enough. Meanwhile, my youngest is yelling, “Mommy! She won’t stop touching me!” My oldest is belting Broadway tunes. And I was growing more and more angry that their lives were going on as if there wasn’t tragedy in the world—a completely unfair maternal reaction, of course, so I stayed quiet, turning down the radio as I drove.
My response to the chaos in my car was silence, held out like a terrible gift.
I prayed, too. But if I’m being honest, half of my prayers were for myself, to show up the “right” way. Like so many similar via dolorosas I have traveled, I rehearsed over and over again what I might say, and pray. I practiced what words I might use on behalf of Jesus in the hospital. I feared my insufficient offering; my utter helplessness.
And I remembered my chaplain supervisor’s words to me years ago when I was absolutely panicking about going to the Pediatric ICU because I was a young mother and I thought I couldn’t possibly “handle it.” “This isn’t about you. That’s not your child in the hospital bed, Robin.” she said. “It could be someday, but it isn’t today. So with all due respect, suck it up and go.”
When I finally arrived at the UMass PICU, I still didn’t know what to say. But I did know what to do. I held Judy’s hand. I gave hugs to the family. I listened. When it was time to pray over Charlotte—attached to a ventilator and sleeping peacefully— I stroked her warm forehead. We sang “You are my sunshine” and I prayed, “God, sometimes there are no words.” I was silent for a long time before finding something else to say.
So much of life is just about showing up; it’s not about knowing what to say.
After I left the hospital, I drove in silence to visit with Rollie, who had just lost his wife of 58 years, Mary Ann. Again, I prayed: “What will I say? What does one say to someone who is grieving the death of the only life and love he has known for 58 years?” I imagine the stream of mourners from First Church driving to the funeral home to hug Rollie, to look him in the eye. Praying the same thing: “What do I say when I see him?” The words ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ seem so insufficient because they are.
We didn’t know what to say, but we did know what to do. We showed up. Rollie was so appreciative. It meant so much. You showed up.
So much of life is just about showing up; it’s not about knowing what to say.
Because so much gospel truth simply can’t be spoken.
But it can always be enacted.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says at the communion meal. “Go and do likewise” Jesus says of the Good Samaritan. Do this. Go and do.
Saint Francis said: “Go and preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
There are lots of scholarly reasons I have been given in New Testament classes about why Jesus is always telling people not to tell anyone about who he is, based on the communities these texts were written for. But today I want to imagine this: Jesus telling us with silence that it is better to live the Gospel than it is to try and speak for him. As if we can have any idea about what he would say about gay people eating cake, or capitalism, or a natural disaster. Maybe Jesus wants us to just shut up about who he is so that we can listen more. Maybe Jesus wants us to show up more on the via dolorosa, and say a whole lot less. See? I’m talking like I know.
Once people start talking like they know, think hard. Stop, be silent, and listen. Who do you say that I am? Jesus asks. Answer that question with a silence that makes itself heard. Answer that question with your actions, not just your words. Answer that question with presence. Answer that question with humility. Answer that question with service. Answer that question with Love.
A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on Sunday, July 1, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
There was a call for people who were coming to the border to protest immigrant children being separated from their families last week to stop yelling and screaming and waving signs. A large crowd of adults yelling and chanting in a language they don’t understand just terrifies them, they said. What they need is quiet and calm. What they need is adults who are not angry and afraid. If you’re going to come to the border, sing the kids lullabies. And so protesters learned one of the lullabies that my own daughters’ Colombian immigrant father used to sing to them when they were babies:
A la nanita nana nanita nana nanita ella. Mi niñ(a) tiene sueño, bendito sea, bendito sea. (My little child is tired, may she be blessed, may she be blessed.)
They went to the border and just calmly sang that song, into the detention camps.
These days I hear a whole lot of adults yelling. We rarely take time to quiet ourselves enough to listen for the still, small voice that reminds us who’s in charge. Lord, we are tired. May we be blessed, may we be blessed.
America sounds a little unhinged to me right now. We are more than just clumsy in our relationships with each other and with God, we are destroying our relationships with each other and with God.
We need a healing.
Distracting us from the terrorized children who still haven’t been returned to their deported parents, our fight with one another has reached a hot fever pitch. Liberals and conservatives are each accusing the other of at best, incivility, and at worst, evil. Neither has cornered the market on sainthood, though. While liberals cheered the Red Hen’s decision to refuse to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders in it’s restaurant, chicken manure was dumped on its steps by conservative activists. “Make America great again!” the man shouted as he covered the restaurant in poop.
We need a healing. Make America Love again.
Meanwhile, there is a pronounced and rising fear of those who are different than us, particularly those who worship differently than we do. This week, there was a decision to uphold the Muslim ban by the supreme court. Our fear of the other has replaced our faith in God.
We need a healing.
Meanwhile, there was another mass shooting, this time at a newspaper. Wendi Winters, one of the beloved lay leaders in my colleague and friends’ UU congregation in Annapolis was one of five killed at the Capital Gazette. The man who killed them had a long standing grudge against the paper, a history of stalking women, and consistently re-tweeted tweets about the free press being the enemy of the people.
We need a healing.
We need a healing because fear is the true enemy of the people. The constant onslaught of moral outrage we have been perpetuating has given way to what I can only describe as catastrophe theater.
We need a healing. Here’s what healed people know: we can do hard things with great Love.
These are just some of the things healed people can do at the same time: support American troops and care about refugees and asylum seekers. Respect the flag AND those who protest unjust racial discrimination. Love our police departments AND value black lives. Support the second amendment AND want to end school shootings. Care about American children AND care about refugee children. Care about our country, and care about the world.
This country has lost its faith in our God. We have developed a scarcity mindset as if Love is a finite resource. When it comes from God, Love is infinite.
We need a healing, and God is the only source. Not politics, not government, not war, not the marketplace. Love is the only source.
I saw someone wearing a hat yesterday that said “Jesus is my Boss.”
Imagine living as though that were true! Justice would roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.
Love is the boss of us, First Church. The whole world needs a healing, and that healing can only come from Love. We are sick, but our faith can make us well.
Our scripture from the Gospel of Mark today features two Jesus healing stories wound together.
A large crowd presses in on Jesus, they clamor to get near him, clawing at him. “Save me, heal me!” they cry. A woman sneaks a grasp on his robe thinking that maybe just touching a small piece of love will heal her. Her hemorrhage stops immediately, and Jesus tells her “Your faith has made you well.”
There is a father named Jairus who falls on his knees begging Jesus to heal his daughter. “My little girl is almost dead,” he says. “Help me.” Jesus goes to Jairus’ house to see his daughter. “Your daughter is already dead,” the crowd says. “Why are you bugging Jesus with this?”But Jesus says to Jairus, “do not fear, only believe.” He takes the little girl by the hand and says “Talitha, cumi,” which means “little girl, get up.” And she rises up.
Do not fear, only believe. But don’t stop there. If your faith has made you well, get up. Healed people heal people. Healed people heal the world. So, in these troubled times, don’t just stand for a political party or a government or a flag, or a protest movement, stand for Jesus.
Van Jones says, “I don’t think an authentic stand comes from your head. I think an authentic stand comes from your heart. If your child is sick, right? Something happens in you to make a miracle. It has nothing to do with the facts. And that’s all that’s required is your child, my child, your grandchild, your child’s child’s child – they’re in peril. And if you start thinking about it, you’ll sit down. But if you feel it you’ll stand up!
That’s the amazing thing about this thing. It’s that it’s when you stand up you license other people to stand up. Now you standing up by yourself don’t make a dad-gum bit of difference in the rational world. You’re just one fool standing up. But if you’ve ever seen a standing ovation? It starts with one fool standing up. And then pretty soon the whole stadium is standing up. And it’s a different moment!”
If your faith has made you well, than get up! Talitha cumi!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so get up.
Do not fear, only believe. Get up!
We need to stand for Jesus, so get up.
All children are our children, so get up! Do it for Kit’s great promise, of every child’s great promise…the children are sick, get up!
Love’s the boss of us, so get up!
Hell is here on this earth, and every last person deserves to be pulled out of it, so reach out your hand and get up!
Heaven is here on this earth too, so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, get up.
Keep getting up until all of us have gotten up! Create a standing ovation TOGETHER—fools for Love.
Get on up!
Mary Pat Bailey loves the scripture reading we heard today from the Gospels, maybe the most. She is always writing “Talitha cum” on my Facebook statuses when she likes what I have to say, which I always take to mean “you go, girl.” She wrote this reflection on the passage last January:
Rise up, my little one. Rise up!
It is the dawn,
And time for waking.
Time for walking.
Rise up! Little girl, Rise Up!
Throw off the covers.
Awake from your tomb.
Do not be afraid.
Your sisters await.
One prepares the feast.
The other welcomes the stranger.
This is not your time for sleeping.
Wake up! Greet the Dawn!
Get up, daughter! Take My Hand.
Outside they are weeping.
They ache for you.
Do not be afraid. My Beloved,
Walk in Peace. Heal their wounds.
Trust in me.
Have Faith, My child.
You need only cling to
The Fringes of My Cloak
To be restored.
I will walk with you.
Into the light, come,
It is The Time for rising!
In the Mercy of your Womb
Grows the Womb of Mercy.
It is the Dawn. We are walking.
Be fearless, beloved. Your faith will make you well.
Sermon delivered at the UU Christian Fellowship's Communion Service
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the Kansas City Convention Center, Kansas City, MO
June 23, 2018
The problem with having faith is, most of us humans need to see to believe.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That’s what a group of Greeks say to Philip in our scripture from John’s Gospel today, having traveled to the festival for worship. That’s what a group of Gentiles we wouldn’t expect to see participating in a Jewish festival say to Phillip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they needed to see to believe.
The desire to see Jesus, it turns out, is a rather lucrative business. In March of 2017, a man in Windham, Maine discovered the image of Jesus in his buttered toast. He preserved the toast in the freezer and put it on eBay with the starting bid of $25,000.
As far as eBay auctions go, this theme is played out. Sellers have auctioned off "miraculous" images of religious figures like Jesus and the Virgin Mary embedded in everything from toast to a fish stick. A woman named Diane Duyser sold her 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on eBay.
Duyser said she took a bite after making the sandwich 10 years ago and saw a face staring back at her. She put the sandwich in a clear plastic box with cotton balls and kept it on her night stand. She said the sandwich "has never sprouted a spore of mold."
The marketplace responded by making “Grilled Cheesus”, a sandwich maker that toasts the image of Jesus into your sandwich.
One of my congregants gifted me recently with a Jesus stamp for my own toast which was so sweet of her. (“What to give to the pastor who has everything?”)
We long to see Jesus. We long to taste and see that the Lord is good.
According to a new study published in the journal Cortex, this phenomenon of seeing religious figures in our food is “perfectly normal” because of a phenomenon called “face pareidolia, the illusory perception of non-existent faces.” We have a tendency to see faces that aren’t there because of the way our brain functions. Our religious beliefs strongly correlate with what we see in the ordinary things like grilled cheese sandwiches. (Read more here.)
It turns out our brains are pre-programmed with the longing to experience what is ultimate in the form of another human face.
We long to see Jesus.
And it makes sense that some of us see Jesus in our food. We are hungry. We are starving on the steady diet consumer culture feeds us: more and bigger; new and IMPROVED, flashy and fast-paced. And so we buy and buy, and spend and spend, but we are never satiated. We are hungry for something more than the thin gruel of empty consumerism, TV and movies, shopping and home improvement, politics and cliched inspirational memes shared on instagram.
We long to see Jesus. To experience God in the form of another human face. We experience the world through our bodies, so we want to EXPERIENCE God with all five senses. We desire to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God.
That’s why we gather around this table. To touch and smell the bread of life, to taste the cup of salvation, to hear the word of Love. Most of all, we gather to see the people of God: all ages, races, classes, abilities, sexualities, gender expressions: all a part of the Body of Christ, all gathered at the same scandalous meal TOGETHER.
We long to have a sensual experience of our God.
I think the disciples are surprised at Jesus’ response when they come to tell him that the Greeks would like to see him. Instead of saying, “oh hey, yeah, bring ‘em on over,” Jesus gives a speech instead, his last sermon. And his sermon points only to the cross. He says, “the hour has come for me to die. If you want to see me, look no further than the cross where I will be raised up out of the ground. I will draw all people to myself.”
The last line of the scripture is “then he departed and hid from them, so that he could no longer be seen.” They wished to see Jesus, and he points to the cross on the way to his hiding spot.
What a disappointing response. When I wish to see God, I picture in my mind’s eye sunsets over Star Island, or my babies’ tiny munchable toes when they were newborn, or the yearning look on my congregation’s faces when I offer them the bread of life and the cup of salvation gathered around a table like this one.
Jesus doesn’t point to beautiful things like that, though. Jesus says if you wish to see him, you should look no further than the cross lifted from the earth. And then he hides.
In the Roman empire--crucifixion was a warning. Usually only slaves and bandits were crucified. Crucifixion was “a public service message” to other oppressed peoples. It was a body hanging on a cross: a gruesome sign that said "Don't do this, or you'll be next.”
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the children separated from their parents in detention at the border; to the families held indefinitely in detention as they await asylum hearings not sure if they will see each other again. The administration says that they are using this separation as a punishment and a deterrent, so that families will see these images of children separated from their parents and think twice about coming to the border. This is a crucifixion. Don’t do this or you will be next.
Jesus is locked in those cages, in the shelter for children of tender ages, crying for his mother’s milk. Jesus is begging to see his sisters and brothers, calling for his Papi.
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the black and brown folks murdered by police on our city streets. That is Jesus lying in a pool of blood, saying “I can’t breathe.” Say his name.
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the Muslim women getting their hijab pulled off and the swastikas painted on the doors of the synagogue and the gender non-conforming folks confronted in bathrooms.
When you are looking for God when God is hidden, look to the cross.
But when you are looking for Jesus, don’t forget the rising. Don’t forget that our God deals life from death.
Don’t forget to look for the signs of resurrection and proclaim them. Find the rubble, the death, the ugliest things. And then look for little signs of redemption. Look to the helpers, as Fred Rogers says. Find the grass piercing the concrete.
I just went to see my dear friend Geno Carr in his Broadway musical debut a couple of weeks ago, in Come From Away. Have you seen it? “Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town about the size of my small town in Sterling, Massachusetts—9,000 people— where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world— were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the plane people for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers, tried to communicate in languages not their own, kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo, got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home, comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States, distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar, found places for Jews and Muslims and Christians to pray together, found translators for the multiple languages spoken, and generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
This was my favorite scene: a frightened man from Africa on a bus with his wife in rural Newfoundland, being taken to who-knows-where from a plane that landed far from its destination. They come to a camp full of people from Gander in Salvation Army uniforms, which looks to the frightened man simply like a sea of soldiers in the darkness.
The bus driver stops, and motions for the passengers to get off the bus. The frightened man doesn’t move. He does not understand the bus driver’s language. He does not trust him. The bus driver thinks quick, and points to the Bible that the man’s wife is clutching. She hands it to him nervously. The bus driver doesn’t know the language the Bible is written in, but he figures the chapters and verses are the same. He flips to Philippians and points at chapter 4, verse 6. “Be anxious for nothing,” it says. Now they speak the same language. Pentecost. Relieved, the frightened man gets off the bus.
Like the people of Gander on September 11th, if we wish to see God, sometimes we need to look to the cross, and then be the rising.
Maybe our rising won’t look as dramatic as rolling away the stone and seeing grave cloths where a body once was. Maybe it doesn’t look as dramatic as saving the whole world on September 11th. Sometimes resurrection comes slowly.
The rising may look like having coffee with a political opponent and listening for understanding instead of for your next argument. The rising may just look like getting out of bed despite a broken heart and doing what needs to be done for the children. It may just look like one more day of not drinking, or one more hour digging our nails into our palm to keep from losing it. It may look like shopping for a pretty head scarf to cover our bald head even though we are weak and tired from chemo. It may look like going on that first awkward OK Cupid date after the divorce papers are filed. It may look like continuing to take the anti-depressants, hoping some day they’ll kick in. It may look like showing up in public every once in awhile even though we don’t want to; even though we are still mourning all that we have lost. It may simply be stopping to notice that a broken heart can go on beating.
If we want others to see God when God is most hidden: we are going to have to get up out of our tombs of despair, anger, self-doubt, self-hate, illness, fear, addiction, death, mourning, sin, separation, loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, and depression…
We are going to have to get up out of our graves,
Roll away the stone and be the rising!
God still has more to do with us, so be the rising.
Our current predicaments don’t exempt us from our purpose, so be the rising.
A broken heart still beats, so be the rising.
We are not alone, so be the rising.
This country is a HOT MESS right now so please be the rising!
The people united in God’s love can never be defeated, so be the rising.
We can do hard things, so be the rising!
Hell is here on this earth, and every last person deserves to be pulled out of it, so reach out your hand and be the rising!
Heaven is here on this earth too, so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, be the rising!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so be the rising!
Beloved, if you wish to see Jesus, look to the cross. Especially when God seems most hidden, proclaim the resurrection. There is no time but now, and no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other. Be the rising! Amen.
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.