A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on Sunday, August 26, 2018
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Dearly Beloved children and youth:
Here’s what I wish I was taught as a child: the best way to armor oneself against the bullies of the world is to dis-arm them.
When I was your age, I used to get real anxious about going back to school. I was not the most popular kid. Believe it or not, I was kind of shy, and very awkward. I was terrible at sports, which really mattered then. I got picked last for teams.
My oldest daughter is going into 7th grade this year, which makes me cringe in remembrance. When I was In 7th grade I thought it would be great to get what was called a “skater haircut” at the time. This haircut consisted of two levels of very short hair, and a rat tail in the back. It was bad. I had just gotten braces and glasses. I hadn’t gone through puberty yet, but I was a head and shoulders taller than every boy in my school, which made for awkward school dances.
7th grade was my first day of junior high because we didn’t have middle school, we had junior high. I was leaving my little elementary school to join all six of the other Concord elementary schools’ kids in one gigantic junior high school building. We were switching classes for the first time. We had lockers, and we had to cover our books with paper bags from the grocery store. It was both thrilling and scary.
My mom took me school shopping the week before, as she always did. My mom didn’t know what was cool to wear in junior high school in 1988, and neither did I. I hadn’t gotten there yet so I didn’t know that you had to wear a $40 Bennetton polo shirt in one of three colors (green, blue or purple) with acid wash jeans every single day. I didn’t know yet that I needed a fabric Esprit canvass bag and to look exactly like everyone else.
At the pinnacle of the shopping trip, I tried on a brown, wide-brimmed hat in the women’s accessories section. It frankly looked adorable on me, even with my bad new haircut. My mother loved it, too! She kept exclaiming over what a “hat person” I was. Before seventh grade, all that mattered to me was my mother’s opinion, and my mother thought I was the most beautiful person in the world.
Mom bought the hat for me, even though it was rather expensive and she was a single mom with no money. That hat was instantly my favorite thing. I went home and stared at myself in the mirror wearing the hat, posing and grinning.
The first week of school, I was invited to the movies by a new friend I made.
To get ready for my movies debut, I put on one of my best new outfits: a white, silky button-down top, buttoned all the way to my neck, baggy khaki pants with the cuffs pegged and rolled, and my new hat. I felt pretty mature and like I had a new lease on life as I primped in the mirror. I met my new friend, and her mom drove us to the movies.
Almost as soon as I got there, I noticed a group of cool eighth grade girls pointing and giggling at me. I wasn’t sure at first, but soon the pointing and giggling turned into raucous laughter. “Look at that 7th grader’s hat! She looks like a boy!” they roared loudly. I left the movie theater, and red-faced, threw my prized hat in the trash. I called my mother on a pay phone to pick me up. I was sobbing uncontrollably.
She did, driving white knuckled all the way there. I didn’t even see the movie, and I never got to go to Friendly’s afterward to order my favorite Reeces Pieces sundae.
That memory is even more disturbing to my mother to this day than it is to me.
As parents and grandparents and the people who love you (which is all of us), we want to cloak you in armor when you go back to school. Not because we worry about your education, but because we want you to know yourself beloved and beautiful and whole, just as you are. We want our opinion of what you look like to be most important. We want your teachers to really see you, and your heart. We want you to have friendships that are life-giving and mutually supportive. We want you to feel a sense of belonging. We don’t want you to assimilate to the sameness of the crowd….we want you to be who you are, just as God made you. We want you to know that your haircut doesn’t matter because every hair on your head is numbered by God and adored. We want you to know that getting the best grades doesn’t matter because you don’t have to be perfect or even good to earn God’s love or our love. We want you to know that being good at sports doesn’t matter because what matters most is that you walk softly on this earth, knowing that it is God’s.
Here’s what we worry about most of all: We don’t want you to be mean to other kids to fit in, or because of your own insecurity. We are even more terrified that instead of being the kid who is picked on, that you will be the mean kid that picks on others. We want you to be brave and kind. That means loving others the way God loves you.
We know we are asking a lot of you. Following the Way of Jesus is not easy, and it takes a special kind of bravery.
Sometime between 60 and 100 AD, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter that we call “Ephesians.” He wrote this letter for non-Jews who had recently hopped on the Jesus bandwagon. We call those folks “Gentile converts,” which is a fancy way of saying “new Christians.” Paul wanted to tell this group of new Christians how to live in a world full of bullying, meanness, violence and greed.
He was writing to people in a place called Ephesus where there were lots of rich people who owned slaves. These rich folks had power over everyone, including their children and their wives, and they weren’t used to sharing power, or treating people who were weaker equally.
But they were forming a new Christian community that suddenly included women, men, youth and children, rich and poor, slaves and free. So Paul wanted to tell them how to be more caring and good to one another…how to relate as equals even though they never had been before.
This new way of living was radical, and it was even illegal. And so it made people in power angry. The Apostle Paul, therefore, was trying to tell these new Jesus followers not just how to live differently, but how to do it without attracting attention. Because if the rulers of the place figured out what the new Christians were doing, they could be persecuted…bullied by those in power, even thrown in jail. In fact, Paul wrote this letter from his jail cell. There was a lot at stake.
In Paul’s final words in his letter, he uses war imagery to tell the Ephesians what they should do to protect themselves. “Put on the whole armor of God” he tells them. Put on the “belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness”; “the helmet of salvation” and the “sword of the Spirit,” he says.
As new Christians, they had stopped using weapons altogether. They took literally Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek”, and to lay down their swords.
But Paul was not really asking them to arm themselves with weapons of war, but to dis-arm their enemies by wearing the shield of faith. He was telling them to put on the dis-armor of God.
The dis-armor of God isn’t military armor at all. It’s not a bulletproof vest; it’s the breastplate of justice. It’s not the ability to make fun of others until they feel less than, it’s deep trust in the power of faith to stop the burning projectiles of evil and hate. Whatever helps to prepare us to proclaim the Gospel of Peace is where our power comes from. It doesn’t come from weapons or weaponized words.
That is what real strength looks like, my young friends. Dis-arm yourself, so you can dis-arm your enemies. With humor, with kindness, and yes, with love. A bully wants you to get angry, to fight back. When you respond with anger or fear, the bully wins. But if you respond with kindness, the bully is caught off guard, and you win. Adults—this is especially true of us, as well.
So beloved children and adults of First Church:
Put on your dis-armor of God.
Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.
This year at school, say what is true always. Don’t lie and cheat. Own up to your mistakes. Be true to yourself. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, even if it is different from all of the others. If your friends are doing something wrong, stand up for what’s right. If a weaker child is suffering, reach out to them and stick up for them.
This year for shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.
The Good News our scripture talks about can be summed up this way: God loves you wastefully and extravagantly. God loves everyone else that way too. If you are going to put on the peace of God for shoes, you will walk in that love.
Hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.
The devil says that you are not worthy, that you are less than, that your clothes are not cool enough, that you are not smart enough or good enough. Don’t let other children and adults tell you who you are. Put on your shield of faith: the one that reminds you that you are worthy, you are whole, you are precious, you are loved. Wear it always.
Put on salvation as your helmet and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Salvation is a fancy way of saying that we are destined to be united with one another and with God. So when we have fallen short or messed up or hurt someone, that’s not the final word. The words that people say to us pass away, but the word of God stands forever. Take the sword of the spirit with you, to remind you that love wins in the end. If love hasn’t won yet, it means its not the end.
Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all people everywhere.
Beloved children of God, pray for every single person that you encounter this year. Do it before you go to bed, and before you get up in the morning. Pray for the weird kids, the weak kids, the kids who have different learning needs, the kids who worship differently than you do or not at all, the kids whose religions are not represented during the school’s holiday celebrations. Pray for the mean kids, the popular kids who are insecure themselves and just trying to fit in. Pray for your teachers, who work hard to love all of you, and give you the gift of literacy, who nurture your creativity, who open a world to you that is so much bigger than the world you currently live in. Pray for the lunch ladies and the people who work so hard to make your school clean and safe. Pray for your parents and grandparents, because you are their heart walking around outside of their bodies. Letting you get on a bus each morning is a daily exercise in letting go.
And we will pray for you. On the first day of school, and every day of our lives.
Your parents still think you are the most beautiful person in the world. Believe them. That’s the way God loves you, too.
God loves everyone else that way, too.
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.