A sermon for the UU Church of Concord, NH
preached October 7, 2019
at the UU Church of Concord, NH
by the Rev. Robin Bartlett, one of your alumni
UU church of Concord! It is so good to be back.
I grew up in this church, the daughter of Peter and Christy Bartlett and Beth (Bartlett) Armstrong and Stew Armstrong. I was born into this church family in 1976 and was christened here the same year. I was the only baby in the nursery that year. The only other Sunday School kid at the time was a teenager, Rachel Anderson and she babysat me in the nursery, and her father is sitting right in front of me. She is also a UU minister now. Coincidence? I think not.
I was raised to believe in the Holy Trinity here: Emerson, Humanism and the Democratic party. I lit my first Christmas candle on your altar as the littlest angel. I sang my first solo here. I cooked my first turkey dinner here. I learned all about sex and anatomy here in AYS, now called OWL. I came of age here in 8th grade. I had my first wedding here.
A lot of my childhood memories contain the smell of this building, which I can still conjure up in my nose. I left almost 25 years ago in 1994 when I graduated from Concord High, but I have never forgotten you. You helped me find my voice. You brought me to my first anti-war protest on Washington. You supported me in high school when I protested the school musical. You cheered me on when I received the NH young feminist of the year award that same year. You gave me the gift of Unitarian Universalism, the free faith which has nurtured me throughout my spiritual journey. This journey has led me down many different paths, including into the ministry. The Unitarian Universalism you gave to me held me from the Richard Dawkins-esque atheism of my youth to the progressive Christian church in Central Massachusetts I now lead. Imagine a tradition so wide in its welcome that it has room for both Dawkins and Jesus!
Though I have been ordained for 5 years as of this month, this is the first time I have preached from your pulpit. Thank you, Michael, for this daunting opportunity. I think I see my sixth grade teacher, and my piano teacher from that same era. So this is not nerve-wracking at all.
This is why, at the risk of comparing myself to Jesus, I chose a reading from the Gospel of Luke to read today.
In this reading Jesus is beginning his ministry. He has returned to his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, and everyone has heard about him at this point. He had begun to teach in the synagogues, and word was spreading. He was praised everywhere he went. He was on his way to becoming, in other words, a bit of a celebrity preacher.
And now Jesus is offered his “hometown boy makes good” moment. He gets to preach in his childhood congregation. He gets up in the pulpit, looks over the crowd of people that contain his 6th grade teacher and several of his high school teachers and his parents’ friends and the elder who scolded him for loading up on too much cake at social hour, and unrolls the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.
Expectation fills the room. People catch their breath. He stands in front of them, probably thinking a flood of thoughts. Maybe his palms were sweaty, and maybe he swallowed hard.
Jesus cleared his throat, and read this text from the Prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then, with all eyes on him, and all of the people waiting with baited breath to hear what he might say next, Jesus sits down. I call this the “Jesus mic drop.” Jesus takes the scroll, reads the text, decides it’s all the words he needs to say, drops the mic.
And then he sits down.
I can only imagine what the people in that Temple were thinking when Jesus sat down. They were expecting to hear a sermon—some commentary on the text. They were expecting so much more than what he gave them, which was from the scrolls that they had heard probably hundreds of times already. “The eyes of all the synagogue were fixed upon him,” the text says.
“DUDE. Did he forget to write his sermon or something?” “Is he for real? THAT’S IT?!”
And all eyes still on him, still sitting in his chair, maybe because he senses they need more from him, Jesus adds: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
That’s it. That’s his commentary.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I have come here to proclaim the same thing. But I want to say it a little differently because I grew up in this church, and I know a little bit about your theology.
So this is the Robin Bartlett Revised standard version: The spirit of Love is upon me because I have been anointed to bring you good news to you who are brokenhearted. All of you who are held captive will soon be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will receive justice. And I am proclaiming this—2018--the year of Love’s blessing—the year of the Love Revolution. Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
I didn’t have the lay reader read the rest of the scripture, because I’m hoping that what happens next to Jesus doesn’t happen to me. Jesus gets driven out of town. The congregation takes him to the top of the hill to throw him off of the cliff. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” And he walks right through the crowd and leaves.
Dianna Butler Bass, in her sermon “the power of today” says: “(The people in the synagogue) were likely shocked. What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord's favor?”
You are probably thinking the same thing. Have you been reading the news? There is no way that this scripture is being fulfilled today. This can’t be the year of Love’s blessing. Today, I heard that a powerful judge lied under oath after being accused of sexual assault and is still getting confirmed to the highest court in our land. Today, the president of the United States is mocking a sexual assault victim. Today, our country is more divided than it has been since the aftermath of the Civil War, and the modus operandi is pure cruelty. Today, immigrant and refugee children are still separated from their parents in detention camps. Today, there’s a Muslim ban, trans folks are regularly being murdered, and black men are getting shot and killed in their own homes.
You can’t be serious that this scripture has been fulfilled TODAY.
We don’t often talk about the power of today. Instead, we spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past, and freaking out about the future. “Harness the power of TODAY,” Jesus says, in his one-line commentary. Jesus sounds like some kind of self-help guru. But that's what he says.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, THIS is the year of the love revolution. Because TODAY the spirit of Love is upon us.
I just went to see my dear friend from Concord High School Geno Carr in his Broadway musical debut this summer, in “Come From Away.” Have you seen it? Do any of you know Geno?
Talk about Hometown boy makes good. (Geno and I sang our first duet together in Junior High chorus at Rundlett, so I’m just saying….my big break may be coming next.)
“Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town about the size of my small town in Sterling, Massachusetts—9,000 people— where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world— were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the “plane people” for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers. They tried to communicate in languages not their own and kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo. They got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home. They comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States. The people of Gander distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar.
They found places in the town church for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Christians to pray together. They found places underneath the cross on the altar for the Muslims to put their prayer rugs, and for the Jews to say the shabbat blessing and for Hindus to chant mantras. Imagine a church in small town Newfoundland so wide in its welcome it can hold all the world’s religious traditions under one roof!
The people of Gander generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world that day. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
Like the first responders who ran to the crumbling twin towers instead of away, the people of Gander, Newfoundland taught us something about revolutionary love that terrible day.
In the midst of unprecedented terror, the people of Gander proclaimed that TODAY the spirit of Love was upon them.
Despite desperate family members searching for thousands of lost loved among the rubble, the people of Gander declared TODAY we have been anointed to bring good news to those who suffer.
Despite hate winning the news cycle, the people of Gander declared that today Love has sent us to proclaim release to those held captive by hate.
Despite stories of Muslim folks being targeted and killed in retribution for the terrorist attacks, the people of Gander declared that those who were blind to their own prejudices now may see one another. TODAY.
Despite language and culture barriers, the people of Gander declared with their actions that TODAY is the year of Love’s favor. TODAY the oppressed will go free.
Today, Sunday, October 7th, 2018, love’s blessing is upon us.
Today you have been anointed by the spirit of Love, to bring good news to the poor. The poor is all of us—we who live in a culture that starves the spirit, thrives on separation and greed, plies us with a steady diet of fake news and the thin gruel of empty consumerism. Our good news is that there is depth and joy and love beyond the lies we are fed by those who wish to exploit us. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are bringing good news to the poor.
Today we are releasing captives: those of us who have been held captive by the toxic religious and ideological orthodoxies of our youth. In shared faith, we are given uncompromising, unrelenting, indomitable freedom. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are setting the captives free.
Today, our eyes are being opened to what we were once oblivious to—to what was once hidden or silenced. We are uncovering the truth of sexual assault, the truth of white supremacy, the truth of patriarchy, the truth that we aren’t what we thought we were as a nation or as a people. Our eyes are open, and we are responding not just with exhaustion, cynicism and despair, but in the streets, in the board rooms, and in the voting booths. Today the scripture is fulfilled. We are recovering sight to the blind.
Today the oppressed are being set free. I know that you have a deep commitment to welcoming and supporting New Americans who have come to this country as refugees. Your circles of support have been helping these families establish new lives since 2008. The families, from Burundi, Iraq, Bhutan, and Congo have enriched the lives of your church in ways you never imagined. You are needed now more than ever. TODAY the scripture is fulfilled because of all of you. The oppressed are receiving justice.
And still, you and I know there is more work to do.
The people we serve TODAY need us now more than ever. And TODAY we can transform from people who succumb to the worst of who we are, to people who live in to the best of who we can be. The moral revolution this country needs is here in this room. The Church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we welcome the stranger and pray for our enemies. The church was made for such a time as this: demanding that we LOVE our neighbor as ourselves.
WE were made for such a time as this, because together we can do very hard things.
Today is the day. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward one another. The spirit of Love is upon us. Bring good news out into a hurting world that desperately needs love’s healing. Today.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org