A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on May 28, 2017
Ascension Sunday and Memorial Day
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Scripture: John 17: 1-11
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Please won’t you pray with me.
A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, "Religion?"
The man says, "Methodist."
St. Peter looks down his list and says, "Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. "Religion?"
"Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
A third man arrives at the gates. "Religion?"
"Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8."
The man says, "I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?"
St. Peter tells him, "Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they're the only ones here."
“In my father’s house, there are many rooms,” Jesus says in the gospel of John. This is a multi-denominational church that looks a lot like the many rooms of the Father’s house. So I am just going to take a little informal poll this morning, just to get an idea who is here.
Who here in this room considers themselves to be a Unitarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers themselves a Trinitarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers oneself a not sure or a don’t care-itarian? Raise your hand.
Who considers oneself a religious Liberal? A religious conservative? A little bit of both?
Who considers oneself a member of the UUA? The UCC? The ABC? Another denomination? None of the above?
Who here considers oneself to be a theist? An atheist? An agnostic? A questioning believer? Who thinks it depends on the day?
Who here is visiting for the first time or one of a handful of times and finds this poll weird and uncomfortable?
Who here considers yourselves just a member or friend of the First Church in Sterling, no other category needed?
Who here believes in the power of Love to transform each other and the world?
Look around on that last one. Who here thinks that last question is the one that matters the most?
What unifies us is far more important than what divides us. And what unifies us is Love, which is another name for God.
We are this quirky multi-denominational church, a product of a 1949 merger of the three Sterling Protestant churches during World War II. We agreed to worship together when we merged, and still remain in separate societies. One of the reasons why we are able to hold together this beautiful theological and ideological diversity is because of this history. We are associated formally now with two denominations: the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. We are less formally associated with the American Baptist Church. We even have three separate annual meetings. This makes us special and strange.
We also do this funny thing and ask our newest members and our confirmands to choose a denomination when they join the church. So, after telling them about what we unify around, and what we do together for the community and the world, we tell our newest members to choose a sub group within our church that they most identify with. We ask them to say whether or not they are UU, UCC or “interdenominational”, (which essentially means none of the above). We used to ask them if they were Baptist, too, but we dissolved our formal relationship with the American Baptists in 2011 as our Baptists dwindled to fewer and fewer. We do still have some Baptists. (Be quiet when you pass them, they think they are the only ones here.)
Truthfully, this practice of asking people to choose a denomination upsets many of our newest people. They are like, “choose a denomination? What? I just want to join this church.” I have even had people who decided not to join once they found out they had to get specific in this way…it felt to them like an identity shift that they needed to think harder about, or that joining a denomination would make them no longer who they used to be. They knew they belonged at First Church, but they weren’t sure they could further define themselves without giving something up.
If anything, it is deeply confusing.
The fact that we are the product of three churches coming together is what makes us such a beautiful, flexible, diverse, community. It is why we are who we are. It’s what makes us a model for what the world should be like.
But what ultimately matters in the end is not our differences…what ultimately matters is that we UNITE for the worship of God, and the service of humankind.
Here is what I told the confirmands, perhaps a little too forcefully, and I want you to remember it, too.
“There are purportedly something like 21,000 denominations of Christianity in the world. A denomination is not a religion. Christianity is a religion. A denomination is a group of churches that have a particular way to organize themselves and worship God. The differences between the denominations of Christianity can be so minute in some cases that you wouldn’t even notice if you were in a United Methodist Church or a Presbyterian church. And God doesn’t care which one you choose, or which way you worship. God did not create denominations, people did.
Our denominations give us tools that we are lucky to have: they have buildings with offices that provide us with health insurance and job search help and clergy credentialing and some useful programming for religious education and social justice work. They give us coalitions of people to work with to make the world a better place.
They also distract us from our unity in the Body of Christ.
Denominations fight with themselves and each other over stuff we think must be really important like when to baptize babies and adults, and whether to eat unleavened or leavened bread at communion, the validity of high church worship vs. low church worship. They fight over who to let in, and who to keep out. They see themselves as the final arbiter of small things that seem identity-deep to us but are really just ways of separating us into categories. Religions act similarly, and they were also not created by God. Religions were created by people.
We need to organize groups of humans into groups of humans for our own tribalistic tendencies. But please remember that's a human desire, not a Godly one. Separation from one another is not God's dream for us. Fighting over the particulars of personal faith and trying to make those particulars universal is a distraction. The only thing that is identity-deep is our status as children of God.
I just want you to remember that, First Church in Sterling. The only thing that is identity-deep is our status as children of God. It seems more important than ever that we remember that.
I mean, there were 22 children and teenagers killed this week at an Ariana Grande concert in the UK, in the name of religion. There were 2 people stabbed and killed on a train in Portland, OR for defending a Muslim woman who was getting harassed by a white supremacist—in the name of religion. There are wars being fought all over the world, in the name of some perverted sense of religion.
None of this killing is done in the name of God.
God’s name is Love.
This is the last day of the Easter season, the Sunday before Pentecost. It is often called “ascencion Sunday”…the day in which Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father in Room 8 with the Baptists. Just kidding.
It is significant, though, to remember that this is the day Jesus officially leaves us alone to fend for ourselves down here, leaving us with the tools we need, if only we would remember what they are. This is the day we are supposed to remember who we are, so that we can continue Jesus’ work where he left off: the creation of heaven here on earth.
In our scripture we heard today, Jesus prays before his arrest. Jesus doesn’t pray very often in scripture. He prays with his actions, not his words: by healing, by feeding, by loving. So when Jesus prays with words, we sit up and take notice. In fact, we take it so seriously the few times that he prays in scripture that we pray his prayer every Sunday: the Lord’s prayer. Essentially, the scripture we heard today is the Gospel of John’s version of the Lord’s Prayer.
So, in this prayer, Jesus is praying for his disciples. It is notable that Jesus is not praying by himself somewhere hidden away while the disciples nap. He is at table after a meal, with them. His friends can over-hear what he prays for them. Those of us who have been prayed for know how tender and intimate that experience is.
Jesus prays that his friends might have eternal life. It’s not often that we get a straight forward definition of eternal life in scripture either, but here it is according to Jesus: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3).
Jesus says that all it takes to have eternal life is for us to KNOW GOD. Another time in the parable of the Good Samaritan when the lawyer asks what he has to do to receive eternal life, Jesus answers “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
All it takes to have eternal life is for us to KNOW LOVE, Jesus says. To know God is to know love. To Love God is to love one another.
Then Jesus prays for our protection. He prays that our protection come from our unity with each other and with God. He says: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
So that they may be one.
I try to imagine what Jesus would pray for us if we could over-hear him now:
I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.
So why do they keep messing everything up?
I love them, but the humans aren’t listening again.
They have forgotten the most important teachings: Remember. Do not be afraid. Love one another. I swear to you, I littered this book with those words.
Don’t you think now might be a good time for me to go back down there?
You gave the humans this beautiful earth full of water and plants and animals for them to eat. You gave them companions for the journey, and hearts that love.
And they have made a disaster of it, all in the name of power, and collecting stuff, and getting more. How are they supposed to protect each other, when they cannot protect the earth that gives them life?
They are so sure they know the one true way to worship you, to know you, that they have created thousands and thousands of religions, 21, 000 denominations of Christianity alone, and far more than 21,000 ways to separate themselves from one another.
They have committed the sin of believing themselves to be right.
They have separated themselves into countries, and races, and genders and flags and languages and cultures.
They have forgotten that in you, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no slave nor free, for all are one. They have separated themselves into categories instead of uniting to protect one another.
In fact, instead of protecting one another, they keep killing each other, thinking that you would want them to defend you in this way. As if you need defending! You’re the one true God! I think you can defend yourself!
Meanwhile, there are toddlers drowning in the ocean, because their parents are trying to flee to countries on rafts where their children have the chance of survival.
The humans seem to believe that there is such thing as “other people’s children.” They have forgotten that we belong to each other.
I am no longer in the world. I left it in their hands. I’m not sure that was such a good idea after all.
And so, Holy Father, I pray that they remember me before it’s too late. I pray they remember my teachings: to love without limits, to heal without health insurance, to welcome the stranger, to visit the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to sacrifice, to lay down their lives for their friends, to teach this Gospel everywhere they go—if necessary, to use words.
I pray that these people, your children, know Love, that their works remain long upon this earth.
Beloved, it doesn’t matter what denomination you affiliate with or don’t affiliate with, whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are Catholic or Protestant, whether you are black or white, gay or straight, male or female, Muslim or Jew. What matters is that we believe in the power of Love to transform the world. Protect one another. So that all may be one.
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.