a sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on Good Shepherd Sunday
April 22, 2018
at First Church in Sterling
sermons are meant to be seen/heard.
Please won’t you pray with me.
We know love by this: that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3: 16)
Valarie Kaur says that revolutionary love is defined by “seeing no stranger.” Jesus taught us to love in just that way. He defined love for us by boundary crossing—eating with the leper and the tax collector, giving the shunned and marginalized woman at the well something to drink, touching the untouchable, healing the sick, healing separation across religious difference, healing our separation from God. And finally by laying down his life: going to the cross to die, and forgiving the enemies who killed him with his last breaths.
So here’s how we can practice revolutionary love as Jesus taught us:
See no stranger, and lay down your life for one another. Every single other.
Easier said then done, right? We teach our kids “stranger danger”! And of course we want to safeguard our community from people who might wish us and our children harm. So we do CORI checks, and we make plans for vigilant door locking and disruptive persons policies. We are terrified to lay down our lives….even sometimes for the people we love, much less for people we don’t know.
Love as Jesus taught is simply not safe or easy. And, man, that stinks because we so desperately want to be safe and easy. Sometimes, revolutionary Love is uncomfortable at best, and dangerous at worst.
But Love also makes us brave.
On Wednesday, we gathered at Eat Pray Learn with 70 other people from inside and outside the church, led by our own beloved and brilliant Peder Pedersen on the moral crisis of climate-change.
There was one man at the gathering from outside the church community who kind of caught your pastors off guard, because he was proudly and vocally against the premise of the presentation. He may have come just to be a gadfly. As a result, it was one of the more contentious discussions we have had at Eat Pray Learn in polite New England. I mean, we had less contentious discussions on Islam and race and being gay and Christian! Seriously!
So Megan and I were kind of anxious.
Valarie Kaur said at the Revolutionary love conference we went to two weeks ago that you and I need to learn how to orient ourselves to the stranger as “a piece of me I do not yet know.”
That’s exactly how a group of our folks oriented themselves to this man who was disagreeing with the content of the presentation. In essence, a group of our church members walked right up to him at the end and said, “Hi! You must be a piece of me I do not yet know!”
And then they invited the man to church. When he looked surprised and skeptical and said he was “agnostic”, they said, “GREAT!”
Charlie Gray told him a story that he has told us before:
“This congregation has conservatives and liberals in it, believers and non-believers, people who believe climate change is real and those who don’t, and it’s great! We love each other! Last year, when I was still deciding whether to become a member of this church even though I’m an atheist, I realized that the church had changed me. And then I hugged a Republican, and I liked it!”
The man visiting us just looked confused. But we all beamed with pride, and nodded at each other vigorously. (We are kind of weird, let’s be honest.)
But, we know love by this.
I have a confession to make before you and God. I have been a bad liberal, and I humbly repent.
I watched the Roseanne Show on Friday. For those of you who don’t know, there was a lot of left-y backlash and calls for boycotts—particularly by my clergy colleagues—of the new Roseanne show because Roseanne Barr supports Trump. Also people just plain hate Roseanne universally, across the political spectrum. She’s a divisive character, to be sure.
All that backlash made me want to watch it!
I found the show purely heartwarming. Partly because I absolutely ADORED the original Roseanne. But also because it reminds me of us, the people who give me hope when hope is hard to find. The people who I now call home. The people here in Sterling who in so many ways remind me of my childhood home in New Hampshire. The people here in this congregation who remind me of my home in God.
On the show re-boot, Roseanne and her sister are fighting each other. Roseanne voted for Trump because of the economy and because he “tells it like it is.” Her sister Jackie voted for Jill Stein and feels bad about it, so she walks around wearing a pink hat and a “nasty woman” t-shirt.
The two stopped talking to each other for a year after the election. They come back together in the first episode because of their shared love of Roseanne’s children and grandchildren, who have just come home to live with Roseanne and her husband Dan, trying to scrape together money to pay the bills. The grandchildren include a surly teenager, a gender-non-conforming 9 year old boy, and a black girl, all beloved.
The first episode features all of them around the table, the sisters finally reunited. Roseanne says grace, thanking God that her son DJ came home safe from the war in Syria, and that they are all together, and for God’s love. They all bow their heads more deeply in reverent agreement, tears in all of their eyes. And then Roseanne looks at her sister Jackie pointedly and thanks God for MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, amen, and the fight starts all over again.
It’s what Thanksgiving 2016 looked like at every dining room table in America!
Perhaps most poignant to me was the grandfather, Dan, obviously failing to understand his gender non-conforming grandson’s desire to wear sparkly dresses and make up, but giving him a knife for protection because he loves him so much he wants him to survive at his new rural school.
I laughed and wept, because I see US. I see us: our people who share a love of our collective children. Our people who don’t necessarily understand each other yet, but listen so that we might one day not just accept but AFFIRM one another. We who do the hard work of trying to see one another as a piece of ourselves.
I see us: our folks wearing pink hats and nasty woman t-shirts on our way to the women's march and high-fiving our Trump voters on the way out the door.
“Did you do some rabble-rousing, or what?“ one of our conservatives asked me when I came back “home” after that march was over, wearing a pink hat made for me by another one of our beloved congregants. He even looked somewhat proud, because he and I both know we are one. I know he is a piece of me. He knows I’m a piece of him. He thinks I’m misguided, but loves me anyway. I KNOW he is misguided, but I love him anyway. We share the same children, and we love the same community.
We know love by this.
John the Evangelist says in his first letter: we know love by this: that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
John asks: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
This epistle was written probably in Ephesus, around AD 95-110. The work was written to counter docetism, which is the belief that Jesus did not come “in the flesh”, but only as a spirit.
The letters detail how Christians are to discern true teachers: by their ethics, and their LOVE, not just by their beliefs. In other words, if the word doesn’t become flesh, its not God’s word. If a teacher doesn’t ENACT love, they are a false prophet. They are not the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t just talk about Love, he lays down his life for his flock.
The story of God is the story of what we say becoming WHAT WE DO. The story of God is the story of God’s WORD wearing skin and moving into the neighborhood to teach us something about what revolutionary love LOOKS LIKE FEELS LIKE SOUNDS LIKE SMELLS LIKE TASTES LIKE. Love with skin on. The One who saw no stranger taught us with his real human body what it meant to recognize one another as a piece of ourselves.
We know love by this.
There are people here that preach this scripture every day with their LIVES so much better than I ever could with my words.
Today we celebrate our congregation’s caring ministries. Today we celebrate how God’s love abides in this church. Love with skin on.
Today we celebrate the good work of the called to care team: people who see their brothers and sisters’ need, who shut up and listen, who show up and hold a hand. Love with skin on.
Today we lift up the good work of the diaconate and the caregivers. We honor the simple act of looking into the eyes of hungry people coming to a table of hope and saying each person’s name: “Jon, this is the bread of life for YOU. This is the cup of salvation, poured out for YOU.” Love with skin on.
Today we lift up the good work of the diaconate who see brothers and sisters in need in our community and write checks for rent and food and gas and oil, and don’t ask questions. Love with skin on.
Today we celebrate our meal givers: people who see a brother and a sister in need and help them to taste and see that the Lord is good. Love with skin on.
Today we lift up the people of our church who hear about a hospital stay or a special birthday or a new baby or a death, and send a card so that we can feel how seen and known and loved we are. Love with skin on.
We know love by this.
Valarie Kaur taught us at the revolutionary love conference that the birthplace of empathy is wonder.
She acknowledged that we are programmed evolutionarily to fear one another and to keep ourselves safe. We can’t help it. We’re only human, and our brains our made this way.
When we see someone walking down the street that looks different or strange, we can’t stop ourselves from the immediate unease that comes when we encounter difference. We can’t rewire our brains to remove the fight or flight response.
But we can choose what our next thought is. We can practice asking ourselves, “I wonder if they have children. I wonder what they are having for dinner tonight. I wonder why he looks like a boy and he wants to wear a sparkly skirt. I wonder what his religion teaches him about love. I wonder what keeps her awake at night.”
Just by wondering about those we have not yet wondered about, we are able to see the wound that needs tending, Kaur says.
So my dear friends if you seek to follow the One who teaches us to see no stranger, wonder more.
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in REVOLUTIONARY LOVE and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
Bless all of you who tend to the wound in yourselves and the wound in others, who love one another just as God has commanded us. Thank you for showing us the way to be brave; the way to wonder; the way to be God with skin on.
We know love by this.
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.