preached on February 5, 2017
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on Bible Sunday at First Church in Sterling, MA
with gratitude to my Facebook friends for their assistance.
Sermons are better heard, not read. Here is a video of this sermon.
Kids, some of you got a very important, beautiful, hard, complicated book today. Some of you already have one at home. This is a wild and wonderful story about God and humanity. It seems to have a beginning and an end, but it’s a story that’s not over because God is still living, and so are we.
This book holds the keys to the things that we talk about in this church. This book is why we believe that Love is Lord of heaven and earth. This book is a romantic adventure containing mystery and murder, fear and challenge, tragedy and triumph, suffering and hope, anguish and healing, rules and teachings; Love. This book is the foundation of much of the literature, art, music, theater, culture, even movies and TV shows that you will learn about as you grow up. So, if nothing else, it will help you understand the western world you inhabit.
This book is about different ancient communities of people from places quite foreign to us. It was written in ancient languages you don’t know. It was translated into English, and much of it got lost in the translation. Some of the stories and teachings only make sense for the people who wrote it, back then, and in that place. Many of the stories and teachings got lost or purposely left out. And yet, we have been reading it for thousands of years because it has the power to speak to us in every era and age, and we believe it contains Truth about God. That, in and of itself, makes it a book worthy of awe. This book contains the kind of Truth that you find in poetry and literature and music and art and your relationships with others, and in your life and Love experience. It does not really contain the kind of truth you find in the law, science or even history books. Some people will tell you otherwise. They are robbing this book of its power and its importance if they tell you that this is a law or science or history book. So when people tell you that it is, think hard.
Always remember when you read this book that it’s supposed to be a beautiful mystery, just like God is. You can and should read this book with your parents, but you should know that they don’t fully understand it either. I definitely don’t. It’s one of those books that you have to spend your whole lifetime trying to understand. You have to read this book in a community of people, and not by yourself. This book is one important reason why we all go to church, because it takes all of us together to understand what’s contained inside these pages. We love this book, and listen for God in this book, but we do not worship this book in our church. We worship God which is another name for Love. This is an important thing to remember.
Love is more important than this book.
There is a story about a great Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, who lived not long before the time of Jesus. Rabbi means teacher, and Rabbi Hillel was a great teacher. A man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah--the five books of Moses that we read at the beginning of our Bibles--while standing on one foot. Take out your Bibles from your pews. Can you just look at the first five books at the beginning of the Bible for me? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together, they are pretty long, very complicated, and full of rules. Lots and lots and lots of rules. So this man was asking Rabbi Hillel to do a really hard thing…to stand on one foot and teach ALL of those books. I imagine the man thought that Rabbi Hillel would get very tired standing on one foot and trying to recite all of those words. But Hillel took the man up on his offer. He stood on one foot and said this: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That's the whole Torah, he said. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
And so, my friends, I want you to stand on one foot right now and recite the whole of the Bible as the Rabbi Jesus taught; which is the same thing Rabbi Hillel taught about the Torah. Repeat after me:
Love God with all of your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Go and do likewise.
See? You can teach this entire Book, too, while standing on one foot. The rest is commentary.
I told my Facebook friends on Friday that I was writing a sermon for all of you called “The Bible, Simplified,” and I asked them to sum up the Bible for you in fewer than 8 words. I got 130 replies! My facebook friends who answered are ministers and rabbis and people who have studied the Bible, and they are also people who go to church and who don’t go to church, and people who are atheists and Jews and Muslims and Christians and Pagans. As you can imagine, their answers varied A LOT. So I am just going to tell you some of my favorites:
You suffer not alone. Love wins, in time.
Humanity and God’s relationship status: “it’s complicated.”
Love God. Love People. Love Yourself.
God makes, people sin, Jesus saves, love everyone.
Use my word for good, not evil, please
God: lonely, creative, mad, hopeful. Now our turn.
The Never Ending Story (ahhh ahhh ahhh ah ah ah, ah ah ah)
God with us, us with God.
Dangerously and beautifully open to interpretation
I love you just the way you are...
Most things are a blessing AND a curse.
Buncha dudes and Mary do lotsa stuff; God.
God favors the underdog.
Hitchhikers guide to return trip home. Bring everyone!
Like Cloud Atlas, but messier.
We don't read it; it reads us.
God is: creative, strange, just, poor, human.
God, thanks for the undeserved love. Again. Again.
Living the ethic of Love will save us (all.)
But for the grace of God go I
Volume II of III
Jesus died, but came back. Harry Potter rip off.
Go kill each other. Wait. Didn’t mean that.
Good news: everybody’s screwed up; redemption possible
"A person's a person, no matter how small."
A mix: wisdom, inspiration, fascinating history, old prejudices.
The people united through love, grace create heaven.
God and humanity trying to work it out
Blessed are you.
God loves you, so Love each other, no matter what
The truth will set you free
Moving toward Holy Love; little closer every day.
Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God
Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God is faithful. We forget. It'll be OK.
Snake, begat begat begat, Job, Jesus, crazy predictions.
He who dwells in love dwells in God.
With God's help, we are agents of salvation.
"Man, what? I don't even... Ugh, okay, whatever"
think YOUR family has problems? hold my wineskin!
You probably think this book is about you.
Yo bro, your empire can't crush God's people.
I’ve called you by name.
I wonder, who wrote the book of love?
If God can change, you can too.
And my favorite: The word became flesh…and moved into the neighborhood.
Love is a word that shows up again and again in those summaries.
When I was meeting with some of the leaders of this church last weekend, we were talking about things that had been important to us all of our lives. One of our friends, Sam, brought with him his Bible from when he was in Sunday School. Can you imagine that you might keep this book for as long as he has…for maybe 60 years, and still have it when you’re a grandpa or a grandma? He said something that I think was so important. He opened the book and he said, “this book is full of words. So many words. Lots and lots of words. These words have sometimes been made into an idol in my life.” (idol means a substitute for God).
My friend, Sam, then said that there is one line that helps all of the words make sense to him. He said in the book called John, if you open it up to the first chapter, there’s one sentence that guides all the rest.
It says something that probably sounds strange to you. It says “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God….”
And then later it says that the word became flesh.
For Sam, the words in this book aren’t ultimately what matters to God—what matters is human beings, human flesh, human life. Sort of like how all of the words about God and Love you read or speak only really make sense when you hug your mama, or hold your baby for the first time, or kiss your beloved, or look into your friend’s eyes, or hold a hand, or help a stranger who is scared or sad or lost.
That’s why when a lawyer asks Jesus to explain what words in this book matter the most, Jesus SHOWS him what it means to love God and neighbor with a story about a man lying on the side of the road—he SHOWS us that loving God means to help those who suffer. He shows us that loving God means to not look away, or cross to the other side of the street. He shows us that every person in the whole world is our neighbor. And he shows us what it means to love them.
These words in this book don’t mean anything until they become what you do, and how you are, and how you LOVE. So, when you read this dangerous, beautiful story about God and God’s people, I want you to remember this one thing. Make these words flesh.
When you ask the kid who everyone else thinks is weird to sit with you at lunch…this is the word made flesh.
When you serve food at the Wachusett food pantry…this is the word made flesh.
When you look a homeless person in the eye and say good morning the next time you are walking around Worcester or Boston with your parents…this is the word made flesh.
When you help someone who is hurting….this is the word made flesh.
Every time you choose kindness and bravery instead of fear…this is the word made flesh.
Hear, O First Church: "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9)
Don’t just keep these words in your heart, beloved, make them flesh. Move them into your neighborhood. The rest is commentary.
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.