Preached on April 29, 2018, New Member Sunday
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better heard.
“Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Our worship of God is limited only by our inability to embrace the people we are least inclined to love.
This is a poem called Accident, Mass. Ave. by Jill McDonough. I have edited out the swear words because I never swear.
I stopped at a red light on Mass. Ave.
in Boston, a couple blocks away
from the bridge, and a woman in a beat-up
old Buick backed into me. Like, cranked her wheel,
rammed right into my side. I drove a Chevy
pickup truck. It being Boston, I got out
of the car yelling, swearing at this woman,
a little woman, whose first language was not English.
But she lived and drove in Boston, too, so she knew,
we both knew, that the thing to do
is get out of the car, slam the door
as hard as you (bleeping) can and yell things like What the (bleep)
were you thinking? You (bleepin’) blind? What (the bleep)
is going on? Jesus Christ! So we swore
at each other with perfect posture, unnaturally angled
chins. I threw my arms around, sudden
jerking motions with my whole arms, the backs
of my hands toward where she had hit my truck.
But she hadn’t hit my truck. She hit
the tire; no damage done. Her car
was fine, too. We saw this while
we were yelling, and then we were stuck.
The next line in our little drama should have been
Look at this (bleepin’) dent! I’m not paying for this!
I’m calling the cops, lady. Maybe we’d throw in a
You’re in big trouble, sister, or I just hope for your sake
there’s nothing wrong with my (bleepin’) suspension, that
sort of thing. But there was no (bleepin’) dent. There
was nothing else for us to do. So I
stopped yelling, and she looked at the tire she’d
backed into, her little eyebrows pursed
and worried. She was clearly in the wrong, I was enormous,
and I’d been acting as if I’d like to hit her. So I said
Well, there’s nothing wrong with my car, nothing wrong
with your car … are you OK? She nodded, and started
to cry, so I put my arms around her and I held her, middle
of the street, Mass. Ave., Boston, a couple blocks from the bridge.
I hugged her, and I said We were scared, weren’t we?
and she nodded and we laughed.
This is revolutionary love. The fear overcome by wonder (“are you OK?”), the embrace, the recognition of each other’s wound, the desire to tend it, the hilarity that followed (if the love revolution is joyless drudgery, I want no part of it).
If we are going to learn how to love as God loves, we need to be bold enough to flip the script we were given, especially when we’re scared.
Our scripture, as usual, beckons us to be fearless. “There is no fear in love,” it says. To love as God loves, we must cultivate what Sister Simone Campbell calls a “holy curiosity” for the people we most fear.
When John the evangelist, who writes our letter from 1st John, urges us to love, he means the kind of love that flips the fear script. The kind that calls us to use our bodies not to harm, but to embrace. The kind of love that demands that we see every human we encounter as God with skin on.
“Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God,” his letter to the early Christian community says. Love one another. Every single other. Each is an opportunity know God better than we could ever know God on our own.
Remember from last week that John’s letter was written around 990-110 AD, and aims to explain to the early Christian community in Ephesus why it is significant that Jesus came in the actual flesh. That Jesus came as God with skin on to SHOW US that Love is not something we feel, but something we do with our bodies. God put skin in the game because we just weren’t getting it.
We thought following God meant following the rules. We thought following God meant surrounding ourselves with people just like us so we could keep each other honest and pure.
And then God blew our minds by sending us Jesus. Jesus, who broke all the rules, and surrounded himself with all the wrong people. Jesus, who moved into the neighborhood and used his BODY to embrace the people we most fear. Jesus, who went to the borders and welcomed the alien; the refugee; the stranger; the outcast. Jesus, who embraced the poor. Jesus, who healed the sick, who touched the untouchables, who set the captives free. Jesus who showed us with his flesh how to treat each stranger as a piece of ourselves we do not yet know. The word made flesh.
And so it is a great honor to welcome 38 more opportunities to know God in the flesh. Katy, Walt, Larry, Liza, Cate, Matt, Madelyn, Vinnie, Rachael, Matt, Piper, Kit in utero, Betsey, Kathy, Susan, Alan, Pat, Sarah, Cecilia, Liam, Amanda, Dan, Andy, Nathaniel, David, Susan, Peter, Shana, Delaney, Lilian, Adeline, Nancy, Claudia, Bob, Dave, Betty, Ron, and Shawn:
WE ARE SO HUMBLED YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO CALL US HOME. Getting to know you will be our most important spiritual practice as a congregation. You contain a piece of God we do not yet know, and so we want to know you.
We bless you. Joining a church is a profoundly risky thing to do. You are flipping the fear script, and we honor your bravery.
First of all, it’s counter-cultural these days to join a church. You are joining a church in the middle of the great American mass exodus from organized religion. Every statistic says you shouldn’t be here today, especially if you are under, well, 60. So congratulations for being a rebel, and joining up with an organized religion NOT BEFORE it was cool, but AFTER it was cool. There must be extra hipster points for that. If you want, I will give you things to say when your friends and family question your life choices. Like, “yes, it’s a church, but it’s not that kind of church.”
Second, joining a church is an emotionally and spiritually risky thing to do. It is terrifying to trust a flawed human institution with your tender hearts. Many of you are joining us after being irreparably harmed by other religious institutions, or because you feel lost at sea and need an anchor, or because you are deep in mourning.
You are heroic just for dipping a toe in the water, much less diving right in. You are taking a huge leap of faith, into a future yet unwritten.
I am blessed to have gotten to know each and every one of you in different ways. And I know this: you are all here for profound reasons that some of you have trouble even putting into words. The tears you so often shed tell more of the story than words ever could.
I suspect you are all here for the same reason the rest of us are: because of our heart’s deepest longing to be known, and to be loved exactly as we are. A longing to belong. Thank you, new members, for trusting us with such a tender job. Congregation, let’s do our best to not screw it up.
I want to say two things to all of you about what a church is. But I’m going to start by telling you what a church is not.
Our newest members often tell me that they came to church for the first time because of our outreach and educational programs for children and adults. We’re so glad we have so many entrance points for engagement. But a church is not the programs.
Some of you walked in for the first time because of the beauty of the historic New England church on the green. This building is no doubt beautiful. But if it burned down tomorrow, we would still be Church. A church is not the building.
A lot of our newest members tell me they came to this church after reading or watching my sermons on line, and they continue to come every week “for me.” Thank you. I am clearly charming and hilarious and very humble. Megan is even more so. But the church is definitely not the pastors.
Some of you come because you love the worship service. We sing your favorite hymns, we are liberal enough in our theology to embrace you and your doubts, but we still wear robes and have a little bit of tasteful stained glass, and we don’t have screens and rock bands. But the church is not its “style,” or even its beliefs.
The church is the people. These people. All of these people, the people we serve in the community, and most especially the people who have yet to come through these doors. I want to invite you today to get to know and love these people, and let them get to know and love you. “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” God has given us one another as a gift. Don’t squander that gift.
If you came for me, for the music, for pub theology, for the coffee, that’s great…but make the reason you stay the people.
Also, a word of caution: these people may disappoint you sometimes because they are people. I will certainly disappoint you, especially if you have me up on a higher pedestal than the rest. Stick around when that happens to see how God redeems the mess. Here we believe in LOVE, even when we fail to act like it. If love hasn’t won yet, it’s not the end.
Another word of caution: lots of people join churches that they perceive to be full of like-minded people, so they can be around people who agree with them. That is so comforting and safe. We are not a group of like minded people. Even better than that: we are a group of like-hearted people. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. John Wesley reminds us that we need not think alike to love alike. We share the same heart, which is so much better and more edifying than sharing the same mind. Make no mistake about it: this kind of loving, ideologically and theologically diverse community is what will save the world.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the church is the mission. You’ve joined these people on a mission to love the hell out of this world. Show up for it. Who was it that said that 90% of life was just showing up? Show up as often as you can, with your full self, blessed and broken. You will be better equipped to lead the love revolution with food for the spirit, with hands to hold, and with a whole lot of practice.
So beloved, take risks. Fear not. Wonder more. Recognize and tend the wound in others and in yourselves. Remember that we can do hard things together. Trust in the character and generosity of people, because often they rise to the occasion. Use this church as a training ground for God’s reign of Love on earth, and then go out and enact it in the world.
Love the way God loves you: which always means putting some serious skin in the game.
Welcome. We knew you as Beloved before you even arrived.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org