Preached on August 7, 2016 at First Church in Sterling, MA
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“Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon
I got out of bed
on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might
have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
READING FROM THE GOSPELS: Luke 12: 32-48
SERMON “Storing Up Treasures” by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Leo Horrigan says that “American consumerism is about buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress friends we don’t have time for.” The treasure you and I store up while we are here on this earth so often reflects kind of a futile and somewhat depressing hoarding of resources for no good reason. We can’t, after all, take it with us, and we know darn well that money has never bought any one of us happiness.
Thankfully, God promises us a different kind of treasure. God’s treasure comes in the form of people we love and people we are called to love. God’s treasure comes in the form of grace—unearned gifts like forgiveness and the temporary health of our bodies, a table that has room for all, and the good earth.
God’s treasure begs our gratitude for the fact that all of it could have been otherwise.
If you have more than most people, as most of us do, that is luck. We have not done anything better than anyone else. We have not earned God’s special favor. We are lucky, not specially set apart because we have done something to deserve more. There are lots of snake oil salesmen preachers that will tell you otherwise, and they are liars.
We do not “deserve” any of it. But we are blessed by this grace anyway. And as our scripture this morning reminds us, to whom much is given, much will be required.
First on the list of requirements before anything else is gratitude.
God simply gives us an invitation to praise and give thanks in humble adoration for all of the gifts we are given—our families, our children, our homes, our access to food and water, the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night as Louis Armstrong sings. It could have been otherwise.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says Jesus. “For it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell all your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The kingdom God happily gives us does not look like a King’s or a megalomaniacal politician’s or a Wall Street Executive’s, or a Football Star’s version of a kingdom. It doesn’t have golden thrones and limousines and waving throngs of adoring public begging to kiss golden rings. God’s kingdom does not look like several boats and vacation homes and beautiful cars with leather seats and designer clothes and stock options, although that’s the lie we are taught by consumerism.
The kingdom it is God’s good pleasure to give us looks like this. A group of rag-tag, perfectly imperfect, lovable and sometimes hard to love people gathered together from all different walks of life, around a table that has enough for all. And all of us--we make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, that thieves cannot steal--when we simply sit up and take notice of all that could have been otherwise.
A wise person said that people were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.
We see evidence of this every day. I know we do. And we despair over it.
But Jesus reminds us not to despair, and not to be afraid. My friend in Philly overheard a mother say to her distraught son on the street yesterday: “just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.” When I look out into this congregation, I see evidence that the world is not in chaos at all. I see evidence here of people trying their humble best to make a broken world a little bit more beautiful. Storing up treasures in purses that no thief can destroy.
There’s a fancy theological word that only people who study this stuff use called “theophany.” From the ancient Greek, it means simply, the appearance of a God. In the Hebrew Bible, there are only a few instances of Theophany. For instance, God appearing to Moses in a burning bush. In the Hebrew scriptures, God usually appears in fire or lightning. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is a Theophany. He is referred to as the light of the world.
We know that in scripture, God is often “showing up” as a light that shines in the darkness.
One theologian says that theophany refers to every thing and every one that shows the light of God. In my understanding of God, that means every person you and I encounter, every act of love, is a theophany.
God said to Moses when God appeared to him in a burning bush, “remove your sandals, for the ground you are standing on is Holy ground.” So remove your sandals with me for a moment.
Before I left for vacation on July 18th, we spent some time in worship writing down the simple acts of love we witnessed the week before. I told you that there is a person who posits that for every act of evil there are 1,000 acts of love that stamp it out. Evil may dominate the news cycle, but it doesn’t win, I said. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
I left the next day. Two weeks of political national conventions ensued, and hateful rhetoric and disunity dominated what little of Twitter and Facebook I followed.
And when I came back, this bulletin board of theophany was here waiting for me. Barb Dumont and Diane Pedersen made it as a light shining in the darkness in our sanctuary –a compilation of all of the little things we witnessed in the week prior that shows the light of God.
And I read it on Monday alone in this sanctuary, with tears in my eyes, grateful to come home from a beautiful vacation to work that reminds me again and again of who and whose we are, and who we are capable of being together. Your little simple reminders of the Love that smothers fear and hate and division are purses we have made for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven that no thief comes near nor moth can destroy.
This is where our treasure is. This is where our hearts are also.
These are these congregation's theophanies:
Quietly doing my son’s laundry, helping make his lunch before work. All the cards sent to a healing person. Soup kitchens and the good work people do for the less advantaged.
A policeman shielding a woman and her son with his own body during the Dallas shooting.
My very best friends invited me to help out in Maine. They have tried to keep me so busy in (my late husband’s) absence. They know how hard it has been for me. I cannot believe how many good friends I have in my life.
My church family has meant so much to me.
Our dog who REALLY knows unconditional love, and always welcomes us home with reckless abandon!
A friend reaches out to me with kind, caring and supportive words at a time when I was feeling so low and dejected—her love renewed my spirit.
A woman sits and silently bears witness with a delicious meal lovingly prepared for a man who is broken…he is fed.
Beautiful, kind eyes in the supermarket. I looked up into them. I watched as she put a fresh pink flower in the hair of her very young granddaughter. We smiled together. I was her witness and friend. We smiled together as we met in each aisle.
My friends at work sometimes text each other while working in the night. After a few brief messages, one friend asked another who is struggling with health problems: “how ya doin’?” We knew just what he meant. Its very nice to be part of a team who cares for one another.
The eyes of my children as they smile with happiness. When traffic was stopped due to construction and the officer holding us up shook his “booty” to pass the time.
A four way phone conversation with two of my sisters and my mother on my sisters’ birthday. My grandmother interrupted to sing a funny version of the birthday song.
People who pet dogs they don’t know (lots of people think my dog is scary, he’s not).
Smiles from strangers.
Heather kissed me with joy and enthusiasm during today’s sign of peace. It felt great!
One special neighbor who is always there for the mom and sweet sweet little boy asking nothing in return.
A little girl bringing a flower to the “mean” neighbor.
The beauty of a quiet summer evening on a deck surrounded by the birds, squirrels and bunnies enjoying the garden.
So many of your theophanies took place in supermarkets, which I love. This is how the mundane becomes the sacred—the light of God shines even in, especially in, Hannafords in Clinton. Small moments of connection reflecting back the light of God. Treasures in heaven in the form of smiles from strangers, meals prepared, cards in the mail, petting dogs, doing laundry for a child who is home from college, summer evenings, friends when you need them.
It could have been otherwise.
I want to close with one of my favorite poems.
Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
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.