Preached on March 11, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are meant to be seen.
Please pray with me in the words of the psalmist:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen
Many preachers say some version of that last line from our psalm before they preach. It is essentially a last minute, game-time plea to God to say: “Lord, help me preach today, because my kids were home for two snow days this week climbing all over me and screaming at each other as I wrote this. Lord, help me, because I am human and therefore unworthy of this big, old pulpit with your name emblazoned above it, so forgive me in advance for screwing this up.”
Mostly we pray this prayer to say: “Lord, help me to channel your Law of Love through my very human words. I pray at the very least whatever I say is acceptable to you.”
Truthfully, it’s impossible to know if the words of my mouth are acceptable to God. (God hasn’t struck me with lightning yet when I’m in the pulpit, so I’ll take that as a good sign.)
I do know that a good gauge is to test my words by the meditations of my heart. Love is the only filter through which I can even attempt to utter the Word of God.
Thankfully, God doesn’t rely on human’s words as the only conduit. God’s Love is written into the earth itself; the grass and trees; the sky and air; the moon and the stars. Even the rocks would shout it out, our Palm Sunday texts say. Our psalmist says that the heavens are telling the glory of God. “In the heavens, he has set a tent for the sun.” When we’re lost in the darkness of our separation from each other and from God, the sunrise is our daily invitation to come back to life.
The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun.
That song from Annie is not my favorite from the show. It always struck me as overly optimistic and trite…until ten years ago.
On July 27, 2008, people gathered in the sanctuary of my dear friend Jake Morrill’s childhood church; the church my friend, Chris Buice pastors: the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. They gathered to watch the children and youth of the congregation present the musical Annie Jr. Suddenly, a shot rang out. At first, many thought the noise was part of the musical, but they quickly realized there was a gunman in the sanctuary. Some people ran from the room, others threw themselves and their children under the pews.
The gunman killed Greg McKendry when he moved in front of others to shield them from gunfire. The gunman wounded several other adults including Linda Kraeger, a visitor to the congregation, who later died of her wounds.
People in the sanctuary, including my friend Jake’s father, John Bohstedt, tackled and subdued the gunman, who had concealed his shotgun in a guitar case as he entered the church. The police arrived and took into custody the shooter, David Adkisson, who had written a suicide screed left in his car condemning liberals, homosexuals, Muslims, and black folks. Adkisson was ex-military, had recently lost his job, was a frequent consumer and purveyor of dangerously violent anti-liberal rhetoric on the internet, and his ex-wife was a member of the congregation.
Hurt people hurt people.
A witness said, "Everybody did exactly what they needed to do. There was very little panic, very little screaming or hysteria. It's a remarkable congregation of people. I've never seen such a loving response to such an overwhelming tragedy.”
Healed people heal people.
When the community in Knoxville held a vigil the night after the attack, some of the kids who were performing in the production of Annie Jr. the day of the shooting began singing:
“The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, they’ll be sun. Just thinkin’ about tomorrow, clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow, ’til there’s none.”
Everyone joined in.
“When I’m stuck with a day that’s gray and lonely, I just stick up my chin and grin and say: the sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you gotta hang on ‘til tomorrow, come what may. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya’ tomorrow, you’re only a day away.”
The sanctuary was rededicated just a few weeks later. "We reclaim our sanctuary," Reverend Buice announced to an overflow crowd. "This sanctuary which has been defiled by violence we rededicate to peace."
Prior to the rededication, Reverend Buice in his homily emphasized the unity of all people regardless of race, sexual orientation or political persuasion.
"We are all liberals. We are all conservatives," Reverend Buice said.
He heralded the heroic crew of unarmed “lefty” types in his congregation who had wrestled the gunman to the ground.
"Reports tell us the shooter thought liberals were soft on terror," Reverend Buice said, injecting humor into his comments. "He had a rude discovery.”
The 800 people in attendance gave a loud extended standing ovation to its congregations’ heroes, including my friend Jake’s father.
They ended the service singing “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”
If you need evidence of God’s overwhelming love for us, look no further than the people who risk their lives to save others. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the children singing songs of hope amid death and destruction. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than a church re-opening its doors again just as wide after being defiled by violence, refusing to fear. If you need evidence of God's overwhelming love for us, look no further than the sun’s return, a daily invitation to come back to life.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Love.
We have been on a wilderness journey through the dark together this Lent, and these lanterns represent the search party God has sent out to find us: the little lights in the dark that illuminate the path home.
All of the lessons we have learned during this Lenten season point back to the beginning; our original blessing; our original belovedness. Today is no exception: our scripture from John reminds us that God so Loved the world that God gave his only Son.
Imagine loving the human project so much that you give the precious, priceless gift you most adore in the world to prove that you truly mean it.
Occasionally, one or two of you have asked me why I so often pray for Love’s sake instead of in Jesus’ name. “Is that some sort of Unitarian thing?” You have asked me.
And I always answer, “No, silly. Unitarians don’t pray!” Kidding. Unitarians, I’m kidding.
I pray for Love’s sake because Love is God’s name for Jesus. “This is my Son, the beloved,” God announces at his baptism, and again at his transfiguration. Praying for Love’s sake IS praying in Jesus’ name. His name is Love.
By the way, this isn't the love you find in cheesy Hallmark Valentine cards we invoke with Jesus’ name. This is the turn-over-tables, crack-the-whip, self-sacrificing, servant leadership, washing feet, crossing borders, making-the-untouchables-touchable, bringing-the-margins-into-the-center, die-for-the-sin-of-empire kind of Love.
Jesus’ name is REVOLUTIONARY LOVE . That’s why I have never liked this text I’m preaching on today from the Gospel of John. And for some reason, John 3: 14-21 pops up in the lectionary every year to torment me.
John 3:16 is arguably the most famous sentence in the Bible. Many of you have it memorized: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Many Christians use John 3:16 as a purity test and a cudgel. It is displayed on screen savers, spray painted on over-passes, and emblazoned on football uniforms.
But the next lines in the chapter are the harshest purity test of all, written right there into the Gospel. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And then John 3:18 says “those who do not believe in him are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.”
The passage begins with beloved, and ends with condemnation. On first read, anyway. John 3:18 "condemns" all my Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my atheist friends, my Buddhist friends. It “condemns” some of us here today. It condemns me on a bad day, and pretty much condemns my entire family except maybe Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and Isaac. I love Aunt Sandy and Uncle Rol and I adore Isaac, but a God who only saves them and condemns everyone else is no God I would worship.
This God of condemnation sounds more like the shooter in Knoxville than the God of limitless grace. The shooter at the Tennessee Valley UU church accused the Unitarians of being un-believers, in fact, in his suicide note. He probably felt like he had license to kill them. “After all, those who do not believe are condemned already,” he might have thought before he fired the first bullet.
Last week, I told you that sometimes when you wish to see God you have to look harder.
Some congregations have Bible-thumpers, but we have what I can only describe as a Bible-adoring sister-in-Christ here in this congregation. If Mary Pat Bailey were an ancient prophet, she'd be like Ezekiel and eat a scroll...that's how she consumes the word of God...she ingests it like food. She breathes it like air. She drinks it like water. Her beloved childhood Bible is dog-eared and covered with tear stains…written all over the margins. She carries it everywhere.
When MP has trouble with a text, she crosses out the references to God and Jesus with her pencil and writes "Love." She remembers what Jesus’ name is, and just writes it right in there. Too often I forget to pull out my Mary-pat Bailey revised standard version of my Bible. Too often I am so stuck in my head that I forget to interpret the text with the meditations of my heart.
So, today I want to invite you to turn in your Mary Pat Revised Standard Version of your Bibles to John 3: 14-21 and listen to me read this passage again.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must Love be lifted up, that whoever believes in Love may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave us only Love, so that everyone who believes in Love may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send Love into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Love. Those who believe in Love are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of Love. And this is the judgment, that love has come into the world, and people chose hate rather than love because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in Love.”
The heavens are telling the glory of God through it’s messengers of revolutionary Love.
Let’s talk about eternal life for a moment. The root word of salvation is salve. A salve is a balm…a healing. God so loved the world, that God gave us only Love to heal us all. Salvation means healing, and all means all: the negative nellies, the guy who flipped you off in the traffic jam, the gossipy soccer moms, the golfers with truly impressive dad guts, the drag queens on Ru Paul’s drag race, the prisoners at MCI Concord, the weird kids with piercings in strange places, the opioid addicted small town dwellers that the economy forgot, the gamers and LARPERS and the Sci Fi enthusiasts, the mediocre disciples, the believers, the non-believers, the questioners, the questioning believers--all will be healed in Love. All have an invitation to turn their face to the sun. People who choose hate choose darkness. Hurt people hurt the world. But people who choose deeds done in love are healed people. And healed people heal the world.
The heavens are telling the glory of God through its messengers of Revolutionary Love.
If you need a reminder of that truth, turn your face to the sky. The sun will come out tomorrow, and the healing will begin; light like a balm for wounded souls. Love does not perish, but has eternal life. It’s only Love that never ends.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org