A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Preached on November 20, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard. Listen here.
There is something profoundly religious, and something profoundly annoying about being stuck together. It’s why I love the church. Frankly, we don’t always like each other, and we are forced to love one another anyway. Being stuck with people I have no choice but to figure out how to love is truly the only way I know how to experience God.
I think that’s what grace looks like.
Anyone who does the hard work of being the church with other imperfect people day in and day out, every month, year in and year out, knows that to be true.
It’s Thanksgiving. Some of us are psyched to be with far-flung beloveds converging on the same house to stuff ourselves silly and drink too much wine and watch football until we pass out from a turkey coma. And some of us are about to sit at tables with family members we didn’t (or wouldn’t) necessarily choose to dine with if it were any other Thursday afternoon. So many of you this week have told me that you are skipping Thanksgiving at certain family members’ households because the inevitable political discussions will bring so much pain. Some of you have told me you’ve been uninvited. Some of us don’t know how to love family members who disagree right now. Even our own spouses. So here’s some advice for your Thanksgiving table: breathe. Adjust your expectations. If you hear rhetoric that is hurtful, by all means call it out, directly and briefly. Take breaks if you need to. Listen to understand, not to form your next argument. Breathe.
I have a friend and colleague named Laura Beth Brown who posted something beautiful on Facebook this week. Apparently, her family members had been fighting with her on the political posts on her wall. She wanted to tell her friends that the political arguments she has had publicly on Facebook with her family members are only a part of the story. That what they don’t see is the phone calls from her family who disagree with her, and the check ins to make sure all is “ultimately OK.” “You seemed really irritated in that response, can we talk about it?” “I’ve never heard you say that before, and I’m struggling with it. Here’s why.”
“The conversations we had off of Facebook,” she said, “call us back to our love and respect for one another even though we recognize that cultivating empathy is just too challenging right now. That will take time.” She said, “(religious people) know that being in relationship with those who see the world differently is a spiritual practice, and it absolutely demands respect and kindness… For me, here's what it boils down to: my family has been through A LOT, and we have always supported each other no matter what. And I'll be damned (If a president of the United States) causes a true rift. He doesn't get to take that way from me.”
There is something profoundly religious, and something profoundly hard, and something profoundly beautiful about being stuck together. Anyone who manages to live in a family knows that to be true.
Most of you know that I moved to the town of Sterling from the City of Boston where I lived for sixteen years. Most of you know that I have occasionally found the adjustment to be hard. In Boston, I used to be anonymous. I used to be able to hide from people who were mad at me, and people I was mad at. I chose who my community was. I used to be able to go to Nordstrom Rack, and I ate a lot of sushi. Now I farm-hop on the weekends instead of bar-hop. (Just kidding. I never bar-hopped! I’m a good Christian woman.)
But I have learned more about the religious life in my time being in Sterling than I ever did in seminary. Here, in this small town, we are stuck with one another. We don’t get to choose. Here, in this town, Democrats serve beside Republicans in our children’s schools. Here, Conservatives and Liberals serve at Wachusett food pantry together. Here, what ultimately matters is respect and care and most of all, Love. We have no choice but to take care of one another….this community is too small to do anything else.
I’m not saying there are not deep divisions and differences. Anyone who has gone to a town meeting knows this to be true. But it is a profound spiritual practice to be in relationship with those who see the world differently. It demands that we look around and decide that we are better together than we could ever be alone.
There is something profoundly religious and something profoundly hard, and something profoundly beautiful about being stuck together. Anyone who manages to live in a small town in knows this to be true.
In the story of feeding the 5,000, the disciples see 5,000 people gathering around, following Jesus, looking for food, and they panic. We have a few old stale loaves of bread and a couple of fishes. That’s it! “Even if we had six months wages, it would feed them a tiny amount,” Philip said. “And what are these few loaves and few fishes among so many people? We can’t even begin to help.”
I’m sure the 5,000 started bickering about who should eat, who should go first, who deserves more.
But Jesus’ response is to thank God for it. And it multiplies. Some people just think this is a story about Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, and maybe it is, but I often picture the crowd gathered looking in their coat pockets and saying, “Oh! I have a potato, which isn’t enough for everyone, but it’s something, and I have a celery stalk, and I have a carrot! And I have a little spice, and some garlic,” And I picture the moms fishing in their purse for an old piece of gum, or some peanuts they saved from last month’s airplane ride coming home from Florida. And I picture men shaking hands, and saying “how do you do?” instead of eye-ing each other with suspicion. And I picture that the real miracle that happens here is the realization that together, we have everything.
There is something profoundly religious and profoundly beautiful about being stuck together. Together we have the ingredients to make the soup. Together, we rise.
On Wednesday night this week, we gathered for a forum with veterans of combat, to talk about how we can take care of their hearts now that they are home from the hell on earth that is war. From the “not normal” that is war. In my opinion, it was one of the most profound gatherings we have had here at the church in my tenure. For those who missed it, Linda Davis created a video tape of the experience.
There is something that one of our veterans, Gabe, said that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He served in (Iraq) in 2005-2006. “You have to understand, he said, that in combat, we are trained to live together. We are all colors, guys and gals, gay, straight, all religions, all creeds. None of that matters. We sleep together, we wake up together, we eat together. And we are trained to save each other’s lives. We are trained to know that we hold each other’s lives in our hands. We have a sacred duty to keep one another alive. It’s the only thing that matters…the thing we must know best how to do.”
“And then we come home, he said. “And we realize how much we have missed while we were gone. How everything has advanced without us. Everyone has a small phone in their hand that we don’t know how to use, and everyone is in front of a screen all the time, and they are staring at those screens instead of seeing us, and each other. We go from being profoundly connected, our lives wrapped up in each other’s lives, to profoundly disconnected--to everything and everyone. In war, we were holding each other’s lives in our hands, and we come home to a civilian world that is holding screens in their hands. It is the most profoundly lonely feeling I have ever experienced.”
He summed up the American experience so clearly in that one statement. Our profound disconnection from one another is almost worse than the trauma of war. We have forgotten that we belong to one another. That is why we have no peace, as Mother Teresa reminds us. We have forgotten that we hold each other’s lives in our hands.
There is something profoundly religious, and profoundly beautiful, and profoundly LIFE-SAVING about being stuck together. Our veterans know this better than perhaps anyone in this room.
We need to understand ourselves as holding one another’s lives in our hands again, beloved. Because what is true is that we are stuck together. What a beautiful thing, being stuck with you. Because together, there is food for everyone. Together, we can transform a stone into a feast for all. Together we don’t know what scarcity means. Together, resistance and reconciliation is holy work. Together, we are a force for love in the world. Together, we have as many chances to see the face of God as we have people to meet and know. Together, we have everything.
Gather up all the fragments, beloved. Of your family, of your community, of our county, of our world. Together. So that nothing may be lost.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org