A Sermon preached at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on April 7, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
I was listening to this American Life yesterday afternoon, and there was a story about a preschool teacher tired of being the judge and jury for every dispute in her classroom. She installed a chunky red dial pad phone on the wall where the kids could go to tattle on each other. She called it the “tattle phone.”
After getting the other parents’ enthusiastic permission, David Kestembaum put a recorder in the tattle phone for the sake of this story for NPR. The outgoing message said: “Hey there, you've reached the tattle phone. OK, tell me what happened after the beep. Tell me the whole story.”
The kids went to the tattle phone all day every day except during nap time, and so Kestembaum recorded hundreds of messages.
“Eli told me a lie.”
“Seamus wasn't sharing with me, and I don't like it, and I'm very upset.”
“Nathan farted in my face, and I said, yuck, Nathan. And he didn't say excuse me.”
The real crime? He didn’t say “excuse me.”
The tattle phone made the kids feel better because they got to say aloud the things that felt unfair or made them mad. They felt heard, and the teacher didn’t have to step in to solve every fight and hurt feeling. The classroom was remarkably more harmonious. One kid said talking on the tattle phone felt like eating ice cream.
It made me wish that the church was also outfitted with a tattle phone.
However, the reporter said that eventually the kids stopped using the phone as much.
“Why?” he asked one of the children.
“It stopped working. I tattled on my brother who pinched me, but the phone didn’t make him stop.”
“I know,” the interviewer said to the boy. “You want actual justice.”
Sometimes, it’s not enough to speak up and have your voice heard when an injustice has been done. Reconciliation is hard and holy work. It involves more than listening and being heard. It involves humility, repentance, forgiveness, grace, and the hard work of repair. It requires asking ourselves, “what if I’m wrong?”
“Earth is a forgiveness school,” Ann Lamott says. “You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can wear comfortable pants.”
Most of you don’t know this. But this Church in the midst of a fairly heated conversation about a Bylaw change proposal for the May annual meeting that would put the power into the hands of the church as a whole instead of in the hands of the denominational societies to choose its diaconate members, and how it spends benevolence money.
I sent out an email to all of our “undeclared” congregants—those of you who have chosen to remain “interdenominational” or “blank” in our database, to see if you wanted to “declare” a denomination, and be a part of the upcoming conversations about the bylaw proposals. It was an administrative task for me, in other words. It had surprisingly swift and passionate results. I received email after email from dozens of you declaring you would not “choose” a “team,” that the whole idea of a denominational “society” was anathema to your understanding of this church’s mission. The word “society” was not a Christian word, you said.
222 out of our 359 members, in fact, have officially “refused to choose.”
In the meantime, several of the members of both the Unitarian and the UCC societies have tried to mount a defense against the Bylaw proposals, worried that losing the power to choose who serves on the diaconate is losing a piece of our history; of who we are.
My dearest friend and colleague the Reverend Claire Feingold-Thoryn preached at my installation in 2014, saying:
“Now (First Church in Sterling) has three denominations, which is a lot,
but think of the Christians who worship at the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem.
Many people believe the church was built on the very spot where Jesus was entombed, and rose again.
The place is so sacred that within that one building there are six Christian traditions worshipping:
Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Egyptian Coptic.
The Armenian Apostolic priests have ownership of a
small worship space within the large church,
but the Greek Orthodox own the ceiling of that room.
Hard to imagine how that got worked out.
The story goes that recently the lightbulb burned out
on the ceiling of the small Armenian chapel
and unless the Armenians wanted to worship in the dark, they needed to change the bulb.
However, it was difficult to get to the bulb to change it,
Because the Greek Orthodox wouldn’t let the Armenians
touch their space--
the ceiling where the bulb was.
And the Armenians wouldn’t let the Greek Orthodox touch their space--
which included the floor.
In the version I heard from a tour guide,
leaders from both denominations were on the phone with the Israeli police arguing that they should have the right to change the bulb.
So the next day, the chief of police went down to the church very early in the morning,
just happening to casually be carrying a ladder.
He strolled nonchalantly into the room
with the burnt-out lightbulb,
replaced it quickly
and went back to his office.
Then he called the leaders and said,
“I was just there…
and the lightbulb seemed to work just fine!”
Where are we pushing a door shut,
and worshipping in the dark?
Where are we allowing our cries of “liberty!”
to imprison us?
Where are we laying sole claim
to something that could be so easily shared?
How many Christians does it take to change a lightbulb?
There is another section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that has been fought over by the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox for centuries.
It’s a little bit of flat roof, baking in the Middle Eastern sun.
Currently the Ethiopians control this space,
however, the Coptics have a monk stationed in a folding chair on the roof every day,
to express their claims on the territory.
One hot day eleven years ago, the Coptic monk in the chair moved from the agreed-upon spot
to a place in the shade a few feet away.
This was interpreted as a hostile move,
leading to elderly monks throwing furniture and punches over the crossing of an invisible line on the church’s roof.
How we fight over the roof while the whole foundation crumbles.
How we hoard our history while losing our mission.
How we draw lines invisible and hard as glass
to protect ourselves
and then find ourselves in jails of our own making.”
Reconciliation is hard when there is change afoot: when “the way we’ve always done things” is threatened by people who don’t share our past. Those of us who have been serving on committees and in societies and making the coffee for decades or even generations get anxious when new folks are given equal say and equal rights to the church’s inheritance.
Enter the famous story of the Prodigal Son.
This is the story of a ridiculously, embarrassingly loving father who bestows grace upon grace on his younger, johnny-come-lately son. His younger son demands his inheritance before his dad even dies. His dad dutifully gives it to him! And then the son goes off to the city and squanders his dad’s money on extravagant food and women, and before you know it, it’s all gone. He ends up a pig farmer, toiling in dirt in the hot sun with animals he was raised to believe are unclean. And the prodigal son thinks to himself, “my dad’s slaves are better off than I am! I think I’ll go home!”
He returns home to beg forgiveness. He tells his father he’ll work for him with his father’s slaves, and he weeps apologetically. And his father embraces him right away, and commands his slaves bring out a feast for his son, and they have a gigantic welcome home party to celebrate.
Earth is forgiveness school. You might as well start at the table.
The older brother is furious. He stayed home this whole time, tilling the fields, doing what had to be done, working hard to earn his inheritance. How come his good-for-nothing brother gets the spoils? His dad answers, “Son, we have to celebrate, because your brother was once dead, and is now alive, was lost but now he’s found.”
God’s grace is offensive. It’s unfair. It’s unjust even. It doesn’t matter what the brother did, or even why he came back. He’s welcomed home with a hero’s welcome. He’s given equal stake in the Father’s assets. His voice and his life matter just as much as his brother’s.
Frankly, the older brother is right. He’s right that his father is ridiculously permissive and wasteful with his love. His brother likely wouldn’t have come home and apologized if he hadn’t run out of cash.
In the story, the younger brother doesn’t even ask forgiveness from his older brother.. Clearly, he knows that his father will be easier on him. It’s much harder to reconcile with one another than with God. Reconciliation among equals requires the surrender of pride, the surrender of ego, the surrender of the privilege of being right, the surrender of everything that keeps us estranged.
Sometimes we have to swallow our desire to be right for the sake of relationship.
Now, I love being right more than anyone on the planet. However, I don’t know about you, but relationship is why I’m here. Relationship not just with God, but with all of you. Therefore, I’m starting at the table. This is the table where unity is possible; where we get a glimpse of earth as it is in heaven.
And so, I want to come to this table to re-pent, to re-think. To ask myself the most holy of all questions, “what if I am wrong?”
I identify with this dinner table only. I am no longer interested in identifying with any of the groups that separate us from one another. I choose this table, with all of you. I choose our mission, which is to create heaven on earth. I seek to identify only with the One who calls us all home.
Why? A denomination is not a religion. The Church is not God.
God is one. We are fragmented, God is not. The Church is separated, God is not. The world is a hot mess of groupishness, God is not. God is not a democrat or a republican, a Unitarian or a Trinitarian, a Christian or a Muslim. God is not black or white. God is one, and Father of all.
If you want to follow the way of Jesus, figure it out, and get back to the table.
Get back to the TABLE OF UNITY,
Get back to the table OF AN END TO DIFFERENCE and INDIFFERENCE,
Get back to the TABLE OF REMEMBRANCE,
Get back to the TABLE of REPENTANCE,
Get back to the TABLE OF FORGIVENESS,
Get back to the TABLE OF RECONCILIATION.
Our mission is nothing less than fomenting a LOVE REVOLUTION. We can’t do that when we are distracted by in-fighting. So figure it out and get back to the table. COME HOME. Because THEN we will be gathering in the spirit of Jesus. Then we will understand a little bit about the kingdom of heaven we seek to create in the world.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org