A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on All Souls Sunday, November 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
43 women from this church were at the women’s retreat last weekend. I’m probably confirming every stereotype that you have in your mind about women’s retreats, but simply saying who we were and what we needed during introductions on Friday night was enough for the tears to start flowing, and they didn’t stop.
Cindy Popp-Hager told us about her mentor who said “God made bodies to carry water.” Ours were just overflowing, that’s all—it’s what we were made for.
We had #metoo conversations and told stories about surviving cancer and abuse and mental illness and the death of so many who we loved. We expressed all the love we had in our hearts for our people and our animals and our earth.
"What does your heart break for?" We asked each generational cohort. The millennial women answered the question with the word “everything.” As our beloved women fell apart one after the other under the weight of everything, it became clear to me that we have been holding our breath for two years.
On Saturday, we got news of the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh by an anti-semite who declared “death to all Jews.” It came on the same week that pipe bombs were sent to democrat leaders; the week that a gunman tried to enter a black church in Kentucky, failed and murdered two black folks shopping at a Kroger’s instead. A man held up his hands when the gunman approached and said, “stop, don’t shoot.” And the gunman said, “white people don’t shoot white people.” A man who has a long history of misogynistic and anti-immigrant sentiment on-line shot two women in a yoga studio this week, as well.
White Supremacy is rising up, and it is poisoning this land with death. The dehumanization we are immersed in has taken a bitter toll. If we want to become Saints worthy of our ancestors breath, we need to engage the process of re-humanization.
Our scriptures from All Saints day are full of the rising tide of evil:
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
And our scriptures are full of the confidence that God will rise us up higher than that which seeks to destroy us:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
“My head is lifted up above… my Lord will take me up…on the mountain, the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.”
Beloved, this is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns death to life. This is the rising up we are promised by a God who turns hate to love, who pierces darkness with light. We will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, and we will rise.
Some of you remember this story. Two years ago, the War on Christmas came to Sterling. A Facebook post went viral about the Sterling elementary school's principal declaring that students would no longer be writing letters to Santa or using Elf on the Shelf in the classroom, in order to be more inclusive of the children who didn't celebrate Christmas. Parents were outraged. "Political correctness has taken over our school!” Parents cried on Facebook, on a thread that was shared over 100 times, and all over the country.
Comments said things like: “This is America! We celebrate Christmas here! The minority has taken over the majority and we’re not gonna take it anymore. Go Trump! This is a Christian nation. If you don’t like it, homeschool your kids.” When the debate meandered over to the Fox 25 Facebook page, someone blamed the downfall of America on all those Muslims.
There were hundreds and hundreds of comments. All talking, no listening.
Kate Pietrovito, who had never come to our church before and who I had never met, wrote to me. "A reporter wants to come to Sterling to interview someone about the War on Christmas. Will you talk to him? I want you to nip this story in the bud because this is the last thing we need." I said, “sure."
And so a reporter from Fox 25 came to interview me on the day of a bomb scare at the school, soon after the children were evacuated. And I was interviewed saying that Christmas has not left our little town, that my children did not come home and say that the principal had cancelled Christmas, that we still celebrate Christmas with gusto in our house and church, that the real story is a bomb scare. I invited everyone to church (of course, because I’m always marketing.) I also said that this was a time for measured calm. (An angry parent who thought the “other side” was not well represented called me a “very soft spoken pastor”, which is the first time I have ever been called soft spoken in my life.)
I told all of you that Sunday that the mosque in Wayland, MA received a letter that was sent to mosques all over the country. The letter calls Muslims “vile and filthy people” who face a “day of reckoning . . . there’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald Trump....."The president-elect," it said, will “do to you . . . what Hitler did to the Jews.”
I said to all of you: Make no mistake about it, this letter is part of the real war on Christmas. Because the real war on Christmas is the war on Christ, who taught us that God is Love, and that all are one in God.
And you and I from all over the political and ideological spectrum made a pact to be revolutionary love in the world from that day forward. And we sent our prayers to the mosque, and we wrote cards to the school principal, and we promised to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world whenever we encountered hate.
And the next day, a mother I had never met before named Becky wrote to me. "Dear Rev. Bartlett: This week I saw the clip of you on the news about holidays at Houghton. This beautiful season can be about learning each other's customs and then celebrating with our families at home. I hope that people will take your words to heart and embrace everyone with love. Since they are being raised Jewish...my only hope is for my girls to always feel comfortable at school." She said. “As long as I am a religious leader, I will stand for your daughters,” I said.
Becky is a member of the Congregation Agudat Achim, a Jewish synagogue in Leominster. She invited me to an interfaith service there and we became fast friends.
Last Sunday, Becky was scheduled to come to our church to speak to our children in the "Building Bridges" class, to teach them about Judaism. I was at the women's retreat when she texted me early in the morning. "What a day to build bridges," she said. 11 people were murdered as they prayed at the Tree of Life synagogue, just the day before. What a day to build bridges, indeed.
I told the women at the women's retreat that we stood for Becky's daughters in 2016, and we will stand for them now. We sang "Peace, Salaam, Shalom" which means peace in English, Arabic and Hebrew. We prayed for peace. We prayed that our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh and all over this country be held in love as they grieve.
Peace Salaam Shalom…..
On Friday night, 25 of us went to the synagogue in Leominster to be with Becky and her congregation, to pray the prayers of the martyrs, and to call on the name of God together. Megan asked them what we could do to be truly good neighbors and friends to the Jewish people, and one congregant told me that he breathes a sigh of relief every time he sees our “no place for hate” sign when he drives by the church.
Beloved: This place needs to be more than just no place for hate. That’s too low a bar. This church must be the frontline of the Love revolution, now more than ever. There is a war on Jews, a war on Muslims, a war on women, a war on our children, a war on immigrants and refugees, a war on people of color, a war on veterans, a war on our trans siblings, a war on the poor, a war on the press, and so there absolutely is a war on Christ. The frontlines are right outside your doors. Let’s not hide our heads in the sand. Let’s not eat or drink our feelings, or numb them away scrolling through our phones. Let’s feel them all. Let’s go straight to the cross like our God did for us and feel the pain of ALL of our brothers and sisters. And then, like Jesus, let’s rise. On this all saints Sunday, our people are literally dying, and we are called to be the rising while we are still alive. Do not wait until death to become like the saints.
Until there is justice, there is no peace, so be the rising.
We can turn death to life, so be the rising.
The voting booth is a place for grace to sweep over this broken land, so vote on Tuesday to be the rising.
All are one in God for all are God’s, so be the rising.
Faithfulness requires building bridges, not walls, so be the rising.
A broken heart still beats, so be the rising.
Creation is beautiful and shimmering and fragile, so be the rising.
Heaven is here on this earth so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, be the rising!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so be the rising!
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other, so be the rising!
A life with love is a life that’s been lived. If your heart breaks for everything, that’s God reminding you that you still have a heart. Use it. Become saints while we’re still alive.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org