A Sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on October 22, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be seen/ heard
We humans like to set up false dichotomies. We have to choose between either or, black or white, good or bad. It’s true or false. There is rarely room for in between. While it’s easier that way, this lack of nuance is freezing our hearts.
Lately, I’ve noticed that we have political debates in which we are asked to choose between this false dichotomy: the sacredness of symbols vs. the sacredness of humanity. I’ve noticed this most recently in the debates about our nation’s flag. The argument that is set up by liberals is that if you care more about a “piece of cloth” than lethal systemic racism against a group of people, then you are heartless. The argument that is set up by conservatives is that if you care more about a protest than a significant national symbol of unity and the ultimate sacrifice by a specific group of people it represents, then you are heartless. You must choose between black citizens and veterans or black citizens and police officers. You must choose between black lives and all lives.
Well, I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
There seems to be no room for this fact: both symbols AND humans are sacred. Symbols are sacred because they represent something that matters deeply to one’s humanity. Human beings are sacred because they belong to God.
Standing with a hand over your heart for the national anthem in honor of our country’s military is sacred. Kneeling in protest for all of God’s children to be treated with inherent worth is sacred.
I refuse to choose. As a child of God, I choose all.
What is considered sacred is one of the most important tenets of our faith tradition, debated over millennia. It is written into the second commandment. It is debated in churches and in our nation’s classrooms. It is a complex conversation.
This week, a colleague inquired among my other clergy colleagues about whether or not there were American flags in their worship spaces. “Absolutely not!” They exclaimed. “Thank God, no.” Others said. “Nopiest note. I hate that. Is that a New England thing or something?” Someone suggested.
“I have one in my church,” I said sheepishly. “And I like it.”
I know why my colleagues are uncomfortable at best with the American flag in any place of worship. And no, it is not because they are a bunch of un-Patriotic liberals, although who knows…that may factor in. Many clergy and many people of faith believe that the flag is idolatrous in a house of worship…that in church we worship God, not flags. That our only symbol should be the cross, not the stars and stripes.
Choose! “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s! And to God what is God’s,” my clergy colleagues might say.
But I said to them, “I think now more than ever in this hot mess time in our country, having a symbol at the front of our sanctuary that reminds us of our nation’s highest ideals: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is the message of the Gospel we may need to hear.
Well, I don’t think that went over too well. (I feel sort of proud that I seem to be equally offending conservatives AND liberals lately. Sterling, man. It rubs off on you.) But I have officiated or attended so many military veterans’ funerals in my lifetime, and there is nothing I can say in a eulogy or no words I can utter in a prayer that come close to the careful and prayerful folding and presentation of the American flag to a grieving widow at a gravesite burial, taps playing reverently. It is sacred.
I refuse to choose.
Religion and politics have always been conversational minefields, especially when you mix them. Talking about politics in the church is particularly controversial, even illegal. You can get your tax-exempt status removed for plugging candidates or positions on questions. We all know that doesn’t stop many churches from creating voter guides, and pastors using the pulpits to tell their congregations who to vote for. Even talking about politics when you are a minister of a church on social media can get you in trouble with your congregation and the surrounding community. (Or at least that’s what I hear. I wouldn’t know, personally, of course.)
Talking religion in the political sphere is also a lightning rod. Debates over the separation of church and state have been going on since this country’s founding, and it is often debated whether our constitutional guarantee of religious freedom should be considered freedom FROM religion in the public sphere.
When we meet Jesus in this story from the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees are trying to trick him into ticking everyone off by mixing religion with politics; pitting symbol against God and humanity. They are hoping this is the final nail in his coffin, if you will. They try to fake him out with mock respect: ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
They are trying to get him to choose a party, to check a box, to put a stake in the ground. They are trying to trap him in either hypocrisy or something illegal. They want to get either his followers furious with him for choosing the government over God, or the emperor mad at him for choosing God over the government.
He doesn’t have coins in his pocket, but he asks them to take out theirs’ “Show me the coin used for tax. Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer “the emperor.” Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.” Check mate. He refuses to take the bait. He refuses to be caught in a false dichotomy. He refuses to choose. They leave, amazed.
This teaching isn’t just for ancient Jesus times. It is completely relevant for our lives today. As hard as liberals and conservatives try to figure out what Jesus would do in the voting booth, or how he would feel about our current political platforms from gay marriage to a flat tax, Jesus makes it clear that he has much bigger concerns in mind.
He says, essentially, that governments and taxes and leaders are necessary, so obey the law of the land. But don’t defile the things that belong to God. And what belongs to God? We do. The earth and all its people. Liberals and conservatives. Tax collectors and Pharisees. Black people and white people. NFL protestors, veterans and police officers. Jews and Muslims. Women and men.
The whole world is God’s and everything in it. Including us. Especially us. We spend too much time trying to decide what matters more to God: symbols or humanity. Maybe Jesus is trying to tell us they both matter.
We laid Shelly Kennedy-Leonard to rest yesterday at her previous Catholic Church, St. John’s in Clinton, and now she surrounds us with the saints in light.
This week, with her family’s permission, I explained in an email a little bit about Shelly’s spiritual journey to you. She testified last year that she left her Catholic church largely because the conservative politics preached from the pulpit she found to be an anathema to her faith in a loving God. She found God here in this in this church’s welcome for all; in the people who radiated warmth and kindness; in the love that flowed so freely.
And yet, the symbols of the Catholic church didn’t leave her.
She went to St. John’s every day of her illness to sit surrounded with the symbols of God’s love carved into the wood there; painted onto the stained glass; emblazoned on the icons of Jesus. The empty church was safer than the people…the symbols didn’t talk back. She was alone with God.
I came with Shelly to pray at St. John’s in Clinton a few weeks ago when the people weren’t there. She was trying to figure out a way to come back here to First Church, now that her cancer diagnosis was public; now that she was raw and her family was skittish and fearful; and she wanted some control over what well intentioned people at coffee hour might say to her kids and her husband.
She wanted to explain her faith to me…how much the Catholic church had meant to her, why she had to leave, why the practices and prayers called her back in her time of illness. “Robin, I left this place because of my kids. I left this church because I remember squeezing Matt’s hand and gritting my teeth and sweating trying to get through the sermons. I left this place because the men who represented it didn’t represent God. I didn’t want my kids to hear what they were saying because it wasn’t about Love, it was about judgment. But the priests are just men. They aren’t God. God is still in this place. God fills this place. I still find God here. So I come here when the people aren’t here mucking it up. Do you understand?”
“You leave your home but it doesn’t leave you,” I said. I thought of my ex-pat friends living in Europe who described weeping at the first bar of the national anthem, every time it played. Your home doesn’t leave you. Symbols matter.
She asked if we could pray. She kneeled on the kneeler, and I joined her. From my position, I looked up at the impossibly high ornamental ceilings of that beautiful Cathedral of a church, where she saw God in every beautiful thing there: stained glass, carved wood, the castle-like altar, the candles, the holy water she crossed herself with as she genuflected, and I, too felt awed before the mystery of God. I finally closed my eyes. We rested our hands lightly on our foreheads as we knelt in silence.
“What do you pray for when you pray?” I asked when we were done.
“A miracle,” she said. “For God’s love to surround me and heal me.”
She asked me: “can I kneel when I pray at First Church? Will that offend anyone if I do that?”
I said “I think it will give others permission to.”
And so Matt and Harry, Shelly’s husband and 9-year-old son, made this kneeler for her, to bring a little bit of St. John’s with her to First Church. And on October 8th, the last Sunday she came here, she sat in the front row, and kneeled on this kneeler for the prayers. One of her last wishes was that Matt and Harry make more kneelers for the people of First Church so that we could join her if we wished.
I could never find kneeling disrespectful after this conversation.
Shelly kneeled because that was how she gave herself over to God. It was an act of humility and respect in the vastness of God’s love for her.
Kneeling is an act of humility that few Protestants participate in when they pray in church. Like everything that has to do with the cultural and religious markers of showing proper respect and humility before God, the dichotomy between the sacredness of symbol and and the sacredness of humanity is contentious between Catholics and Protestants. I read this from an anonymous Catholic:
When my son was about 5 years old we went into a Catholic Church where the smell of incense hung in the air. We were protestants at the time.
The priest came out and was talking with us about the beautiful church. My son was sniffing the air and smiling. The priest asked him what he thought of the church.
“It smells holy.” He replied.
The priest then asked him what his church smelled like.
“Coffee.” Was his answer.
This man wrote this to be disdainful to Protestants, of course. But to me, coffee smells like God, too. And not just because it consists of magic beans that turn into a warm comforting liquid helping me to refrain from selling the children on Craigslist every morning. But because the smell of coffee reminds me of gathering in love, of hospitality, of coffee shop conversations, and connections with people, which is one way I know Christ.
Both are sacred. Both symbol and humanity. Both belong to God.
On the day she died, Shelly had the priest come to the hospice to do the sacrament of the sick. Some of her last words were the Hail Mary. And her pastor (I) came to comfort, and to bring the love of the community that knew her name.
All of that was God. Shelly refused to choose.
Beloved, give to God what is God’s. Give yourself to God by serving in your community, by raising good kids, by showing up at church. Give yourself to God by serving your country in war or Americorps; in soup kitchens or on mission trips. Give yourself to God by protesting for our country’s highest ideals, or fighting for its freedom. Give yourself to God by taking a knee, or by standing and saluting the flag. Give yourself to God by standing and bowing your head, or kneeling and genuflecting before the cross.
Give to God what is God’s: YOU. It is to Love you belong. Give yourself to the people of God because God ensures that we belong to each other. You don’t have to choose between the cross and the flag; between incense and coffee; between standing and kneeling; between tribes and symbols; between the nation and the Holy. Choose all of the above. Choose love.
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.