Sermon preached on Sunday, May 13, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
with help from the "Aging Gracefully" Group and Al Long, who won the auction sermon topic.
It is Treasures of the Community auction weekend, So I thought today would be a good day to preach the Treasures of the Community auction winning sermon from last year. This sermon is worth a lot of money. I don’t know exactly how much Al Long paid for this, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of one million dollars.
Al has been a participant for a long time in the “aging gracefully” group here at the church that meets twice a month on Thursday mornings and is led by Barb Dumont. He wanted me to preach on the collected wisdom of the group, because he thinks we all have something to learn from this group of elders aged sixty something to 101.
Please won’t you pray with me…
Mother’s day is a hard day for many.
Amid all of the new moms with cherubic babies just born or just baptized, and soccer moms, and moms of teenagers godblessyouall, and proud grandmas who get to return the kids to their parents whenever they want, and mothers getting ready to plaster on lipstick and a smile and shove their small rambunctious children into a booth at brunch even though some of them would probably rather be on a massage table on a beach in Fiji (which you all richly deserve, of course):
In this room sits mothers who worry every day that they are failing at motherhood.
In this room sits mothers whose children have died, and mothers who have been separated from their children.
And mothers who have ambivalent relationships with their children.
And children and adults whose mothers have died.
In this room sits single parents and widowed parents.
And people taking care of aging mothers and adult children at the same time.
Women who have miscarried or aborted pregnancies.
Folks who were raised by emotionally unavailable and abusive mothers. Folks who were raised without a mother.
People who desperately wish to be mothers and aren’t yet.
And women who never got to fulfill that wish.
And on and on.
“My main gripe about Mother’s Day,” Ann Lamott says, “is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing. And we are all mothers.
No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day, but no one is more often blamed for the culture’s bad people and behavior. You want to give me chocolate and flowers? Great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children. But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.”
This place and these people right here is part of the chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. Valarie Kaur says “we are birthing a future where love is a public ethic.” That’s our definition of motherhood.
Jesus teaches us that we are one in the family of God. Jesus teaches us that because we belong to God, we belong to each other. Jesus radically reconstitutes the human family to include all of humanity. And then Jesus demands that we love one another as we are loved by God. Meister Eckhart says that like Mary, we are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born. If we are doing it right, we are all mothers birthing more love into the world.
M&Ms for EVERYONE!!
This is the last day of the Easter season, the Sunday before Pentecost. Ascension was Thursday…the day in which Jesus ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father.
It is significant that on ascension day Jesus officially leaves us alone to fend for ourselves down here, leaving us with the tools we need, if only we would remember what they are. This is the day we are supposed to remember who we are: protectors of one another, nurturers of the Way of Love, birthers of a new heaven and a new earth.
The reading from the Gospel of John we heard today is in the lectionary every ascension Sunday. In it, we get to overhear Jesus praying before his arrest.
Jesus doesn’t pray very often in scripture. He prays with action, with his body—he heals and feeds and serves. So when Jesus prays with words, we sit up and take notice. In fact, we take it so seriously the few times that he prays in scripture that we pray his prayer every Sunday: the Lord’s prayer.
This prayer is different. In it, Jesus isn’t teaching us to pray, he’s praying for his disciples. Jesus prays at table so that the disciples can hear him, which is so tender. “The words that you gave to me I have given to them,” he says to God.” “I pray that they are one as we are one.”
(I picture the bedsides I have sat next to as a parent lay dying, praying that the holy words of Love they have passed down to their children abide. “God, the words that you gave me I have given to them. I pray they will take care of each other when I’m gone.”)
We also read a different ascension story this morning from 2nd Kings in the Hebrew Bible. Elisha is a follower of the prophet Elijah. Elisha knows that Elijah is about to be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Over and over again, Elijah assures Elisha that though he is ascending, he will be with him always. “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
(I picture the bedsides I have sat next to as a loved one lay dying, adult children saying to parents, “it is OK to go, as long as I live, you will always be with me. I was listening.”)
When I met with the Aging Gracefully group on Thursday, I asked them to mother us on this day: to pass down holy words of love to the family of God. I asked them to pray an extended prayer for us as Jesus prayed. I asked that I be allowed to overhear just as the disciples overheard Jesus. It was a surprisingly hard task, as they don’t yet think of themselves as “wise ones.”
Barb and I asked them a series of questions.
First, we asked what the significant adults in their lives passed down to them. They talked about the morality they “caught” not through words, but through their parents’ and grandparents’ actions: the value of hard work, honesty and integrity.
They learned from their parents to keep their noses clean, to be on time or early, the importance of religion, the importance of family, the importance of saving money and giving it away.
And the group also talked about the prejudices that they learned from parents and grandparents: hatred for Catholics and Italians and French Catholics, Jews and black folks. These lessons were passed down both subtly and explicitly, and they were toxic, and scaffolded by the culture around them.
“The churches never preached against racial and religious hatred and separation,” one of our elders said. “In fact, the churches exacerbated it.”
Our job in every generation is to sift for gold: love amidst the grains of sand of prejudice and hate.
I asked our Aging Gracefully group what holy words of wisdom they had to pass down to younger generations:
One of our elders feels overwhelmed with sadness by the racism that causes immigrants to be treated like dirt, that causes black people to be arrested at Starbucks or shot by police. She says, “We know from science that every single one of us on earth shares the same genes. We are family. We need to step up to the task of making the world better, and making it true that we are all God’s people, answerable to each other.”
Another said: “Stories matter. We pass on stories. Tell your stories. Stuff happens in your life that you have no control over. You still have choices. Pick a community that you feel a part of: where you know the police man and the fire fighter. Stay close to your family.”
And another said: “I value this place so much. What I want to say to my great grandchildren and grandchildren and to all the children is to ‘pay attention to what is going on at First Church in Sterling because something very important is going on right here that I am a part of. Keep going, keep listening, keep acting.’”
Another said: “Seek out community. Seek out a place where you feel valued and loved and can give love. Be in a small group that talks about significant things, personal things, worries, priorities, how you live. Show up. Be present. Be fully present to the person standing in front of you. Listen well, ask questions. Don’t talk so much. Do things that are outside your comfort zone. Be with people who are different from how you see yourself. Try new things. There is so much energy in having made the effort.”
Another said: “The best time to have conversations with your grandkids is in the car. Tell them that when things seem terrible, ‘time will tell you more. Give it time. Time lets you see things in a different way. Keep your confidences. Be trustworthy. Nurture your spirit. Find what comforts you, and what helps you cope spiritually.”
I got the best answers of all when I asked our aging gracefully group what they wished people had told them when they were younger.
Here’s what they said:
Be more planful vs. reactive/reactionary
Buy your own home. Don’t rent.
Put down roots. Find a community you can feel part of. Make connections. Value the connections you have.
“I wished early on that I was told it was valuable to fail. I am a perfectionist raised by a perfectionist. Life is easier if failure is part of your repertoire,”
One elder who will remain nameless said: “Yes. I tell the folks at water color group I am a better artist than you because I have failed more than you have failed.”
Finally I asked, what do you still have to learn? Here were the answers:
“I am always learning. Life has taught me I am not as smart as I think I am.”
“I have to talk less and listen more.”
“I have to learn to ask better questions.”
“I have to learn love for self, STILL.”
“I have to learn from folks younger than me to take more risks; to be more spontaneous; to live in the moment.”
“I need to learn to stop planning ahead and stop living in the past.”
“I still wish I knew how to care for others better.”
We are birthing a future where love is a public effort with the help of our elders.
I am going to close with a poem that Don Wilson wrote about Aging Gracefully.
Straight-back Chairs by Don Wilson
Let us sit on straight back chairs,
not too comfortable, not comfy so--
let us sit, spine erect,
feet flat, knees bent
elbows resting lightly by our sides.
Let us talk of cabbages and kings
or other things
that matter more to us,
Let us wonder, ponder and explore
what living means and
what we do
in the great scheme of things.
And lets turn our senses on,
look sharp and hear,
not just to listen,
but hear the intention,
the thought behind the words.
Let us be heard
when we, too,
have things to say,
yet stumble when we convey
our inner selves
Proud, we hold heads high,
chin up, dry-eyed,
unless a cry escapes
and one tear
rolls down our cheek
so someone gets a peek inside
to what we hide.
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.