A sermon preached on Sunday, June 3, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better seen.
Jesus’ unpopularity cost him his life.
I don’t know about you all, but I have wasted so much of my energy trying to be popular so as not to be destroyed. In elementary school, I got picked last for teams in gym because I was terrible at sports, so I tried softball. In middle school, I tried my hardest just to blend in by getting the right Benetton polo shirt and wearing it every day. In high school, I tried to pretend that my not being popular was on purpose. I was too cool to be popular.
My mom told me that this desire to be popular would go away when I left high school, but she was wrong. Life is like one big middle school cafeteria. There is pressure to have the “right” friends, the “right clothes”, the “right” job, the “right” kids.
And leadership involves forever balancing the need to do what is right with the overwhelming desire to be liked. It may one day be the death of me, to be honest. When you try to make everyone happy, ain’t no one happy.
Today we honor our high school seniors who are about to be blessedly freed from the social expectations of high school in the coming week. I wrote you a letter to impart my last pieces of wisdom to you.
Dear Sam, Sofie, Sophia, Caitlin, David, Brian and Emily,
You are about to graduate from high school, and you are all slated to venture on to new places in the coming months. Famous for being particularly hard on Sunday School teachers in your childhood because of your special kind of exuberance, you have made this church yours’. Your steadfast presence here has been felt and known, many of you for your entire lives on this earth. Some of you have barely missed a Sunday since I met you. You have served on leadership teams and taught our Sunday School classes and lived our mission out in the world in La Romana and Saturday lunches and Worcester Fellowship and Christian Youth Conference, and marches for justice and more. A large piece of our congregation’s heart and soul goes with you as you leave.
The psalm we read this morning is my favorite, psalm 139. It is the psalm of the inescapable God. The “he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake” God. Instead of a creepy surveillance system, I see this song of praise as a constant reminder that we cannot flee from God’s love.
And this is especially true as you prepare to say goodbye to an old life, and embark on a new one:
Your path is set before you, and Love’s promise never leaves you.
We tried our human best to teach you about this inescapable Love, and so this morning, we are simply praying that your roots hold you close, even as we pray that your wings set you free.
On your confirmation day two years ago, you promised to do some things that you probably now forget. I want to remind you of these promises today.
Seeking the truth in freedom starts by telling the truth about who you are.
We live in what various social commentators refer to as a “selfie culture.” By which they mean a culture that promotes a widespread obsession with self-expression, self-esteem, and self-promotion, evidenced by the proliferation of self-portraits on social media. Don’t let your elders try to suggest that this is a product of your generation that you are responsible for, or that you are uniquely narcissistic and self-promoting. First of all, its not true, and second of all, they are on social media just as much as you are.
Social media is giving us the perfect virtual vehicle to create a false self; to curate perfect lives for the titillation and jealousy of our so-called friends and followers. But make no mistake, this cultivated image of perfection is no different from the manicured lawns and white picket fences that hid the truth of violence and addiction and depression and ugly racism and misogyny that went on behind the closed doors of suburban white families’ homes of the 1950s.
We have always tried to hide who we are.
Our projected images and protected selves are not new, but they continue to make us lonelier and more disconnected from each other and God.
Because we desire to be loved for all of who we are, not just for the carefully curated images we see fit for public consumption. God searches and knows us, even the ugly parts of us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Be brave enough to tell the truth about who you are, and seek the truth about others. Even the darkness is not dark to God. Bring what you hide into the light. It gives other people around you permission to do the same. Your relationships will be far richer for it.
2. The second promise you made was to walk in the spirit of Jesus. In other words, be unpopular.
Walking in the spirit of Jesus is not easy. Jesus made people angry. He broke all the rules, and surrounded himself with all the wrong people. Jesus moved into the neighborhood and embraced the losers. Jesus welcomed the alien; the immigrant; the brown; the black; the refugee; the stranger; the leper; the outcast. Jesus embraced the poor. Jesus healed the sick, touched the untouchables, set the captives free. Jesus showed us with his flesh how to treat each stranger as a piece of ourselves we do not yet know.
Don’t strive to be a good Christian, strive to be a follower of Jesus. Be agents of God’s love and Justice, not agents of social expectations. It takes no special bravery to be a polite church-going Christian in this Christian-centric culture, but walking in the spirit of Jesus means risking it all.
3. The third promise you made was to grow in your faith. In other words, be unpopular.
Joining a spiritual community is not cool. Join one anyway. Some of you may think church, if you’re being honest, is a little boring, or irrelevant. You are wrong. Places like this save lives and mend hearts. So find a place like it. Not because your parents want you to. Find a place like this wherever you go for the sake of your own survival. And not the survival of your mortal soul. Please. A God that would send you to some firey pit to suffer because you don’t worship the right way is no God I would worship.
Find a church like this one because there are very few places that will move you to awe despite your anger, confusion and depression over the state of the world and God's seeming refusal to fix it. Find a church because of the people who show up. These will be the people you can count on to show you what God’s face looks like. These will be the people who will show up with casseroles and cards and macabre humor when you need reminders that you will survive because they did, too. They will wipe your tears. They will celebrate your marriage and your babies. They will be there when there’s an illness or an addiction or a divorce and a death. They will offer forgiveness. They will keep you alive.
4. You promised to witness to the needed work in the world. In other words, be unpopular.
Look around you. This world is a hot, hot mess. The needed work is healing. You have a part in that. Sometimes the world’s healing will require your discomfort. It might even involve breaking the law.
In our scripture reading from today, Jesus breaks the law. He offers bread to those who aren’t supposed to eat it because people are hungry. He heals a man even though the law says not to because the man is dying. He witnesses in anger the hardened hearts of those in authority. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They are silent.
Your job is to be loud when others are silent.
Too often we are told that baby Jesus, meek and mild, is the one we should worship, instead of Rabbi Jesus, rebellious and righteous. Choose the latter.
The retired soccer star Abby Wambach said in a graduation speech at Barnard College last month:
Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was (freaking) Little Red Riding Hood.
You know the fairy tale: It’s just one iteration of the warning stories girls are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods and is given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your head down hidden underneath your Handmaid’s Tale cape.
And she does… at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s of course when she encounters the Big Bad Wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN.
I stayed on the path out of fear, not of being eaten by a wolf, but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck.
If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this:
“Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood; you were always the wolf.”
…. I decided that the most important thing for me to say to you is this:
……WE. ARE. THE. WOLVES.
In 1995, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after being absent for seventy years.
In those years, the number of deer had skyrocketed because they were unchallenged, alone at the top of the food chain. They grazed away and reduced the vegetation, so much that the river banks were eroding.
Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer through hunting. But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer. Wisely, the deer started avoiding the valleys, and the vegetation in those places regenerated. Trees quintupled in just six years. Birds and beavers started moving in. The river dams the beavers built provided habitats for otters and ducks and fish. The animal ecosystem regenerated. But that wasn’t all. The rivers actually changed as well. The plant regeneration stabilized the river banks so they stopped collapsing. The rivers steadied—all because of the wolves’ presence.
See what happened here?
The wolves, who were feared as a threat to the system, turned out to be its salvation.
My beloved First Church youth: Be the wolves. Threaten the system, and you will be its salvation. You cannot escape from the power of Love no matter what you do or say, so be unpopular on God’s behalf. Risk telling the truth about who you are so you can uncover the truth about others. Don’t settle for being a “good Christian”…follow The Way of Jesus instead. Go to church, not because it’s expected of you, but because it will save your life. Do not let the hardness of other people’s hearts harden your’s. Break the rules, stretch out your hands and heal.
You can help save the whole world.
Finally, some people say you can never come home again. That’s a lie. Your home is always here in this place. I love you. God loves you. God loves everyone else, too. If you need a reminder of these truths, you can always come home again.
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.