A Sermon preached by the Rev. Robin Bartlett
on May 5, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling
in honor of Rachel Held Evans #becauseofRHE
Rachel Held Evans shockingly died yesterday after a freak illness. Rachel was a progressive Christian author and a woman of valor many of us knew and loved through her brave, funny, beautiful writing. She was only 37. She leaves a husband and two kids 1 and 3. I quote her because her words deserve to live long upon the earth, even though her body does not.
“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
We are prone to believe we are not worthy to be God’s disciples, because we don’t believe ourselves to be good and faithful enough. We forget that all we ever needed was to be hungry and say “yes.”
Today, I have a confessional story. Because if we’re going to be a confessing church, it’s my job to go first.
A couple of years ago, I was more depressed than usual. Depression is not a new phenomenon for me, and not something you have to worry about. I have struggled with mild depression for much of my adult life. It’s just a part of who I am, and I know how to manage it.
My depression was dark enough to truly scare me only once—eight years ago during my divorce. I found my way into darkness so deep then I wasn’t sure I’d come out. But I did! And I’m here! God takes old broken things and makes them new. Sometimes he names them Andy and Isaac.
But here’s what depression looks like for me most days: My average, every day, nuisance of a clinical mental health disorder has been manifested since childhood as this inner jerk in my brain who tells me that I am a terrible person.
Despite self awareness, years of therapy, psychology school and divinity school, many brilliant books, great friends, an award-winning sense of humor, plenty of Zoloft, a loving husband and family and congregation, and lots of ice cream and pedicures, I haven’t been able to fully evict that jerk from my head.
Two years ago, I knew I needed to go back to therapy to get some help for this. Just cause it was winter and my life consisted of couch and work and back to couch. I have been in therapy many times in my life, but hadn’t found one here yet. And I found a therapist who was really quite good. I liked him enough to keep going to my appointments.
And then one day in the darkness of winter, I forgot I had a therapy appointment. For no reason. I was home on my beloved couch, vegging out. I wasn’t doing anything important. But I realized I had forgotten about half way through the appointment. I was frozen, too embarrassed to call, because this was the second time I had forgotten.
My therapist called ME. He left me a message because I saw the caller ID and didn’t answer. “Where are you?” He said. “I thought we had an appointment today! Call me back!”
And I felt so embarrassed that I hadn’t called him to begin with, that I didn’t call him back.
“If you call him and tell him that you just forgot, he’ll think you’re a flakey, irresponsible idiot who is undeserving of your job,” the jerk in my brain said. So I put it off.
Then a week and another week went by, and I was so ashamed that it took me so long to call my therapist back that I…..didn’t call him back.
“I’ll call him next week,” I thought. And then a month went by, and another month.
“You’re so irresponsible. You hate it when people do this to YOU,” the jerk in my brain said.
The jerk in my brain often tells me to “ghost” people because that’s easier than healing.
“Maybe I’ll write him a letter,” I thought. “I mean, he’s used to depressed and flakey people, and I’m sure he doesn’t take it personally.”
But then a year went by, and I was too ashamed to write him a letter a year later.
The jerk in my brain told me that I didn’t deserve a good therapist since I couldn’t even keep an appointment, or be responsible enough to call him and tell him why I disappeared.
My depression made me particularly forgetful and unable to move from my couch to do anything besides go to work. And my paralysis made me mad at myself. So I got stuck in a shame spiral that kept me from my own healing.
That’s a loop many of us get stuck in. Often when you have disappeared from church, you have a story like that for me.
The jerk that has taken up residence in our brain telling us we are worthless and its too late has a louder voice than God, and so we deny our discipleship and stay home.
I swear if we listen hard enough, we might be able to hear: “Follow me. I will lay nothing heavy or ill-fitting on you. Come away with me, and you’ll recover your life.” You don’t have to be perfect. You are loved. You deserve healing. Just show up.
When we deny our discipleship, we don’t need God’s forgiveness. We already have that. We need to forgive ourselves.
This week, in the final resurrection appearance, we encounter Peter, the disciple who denies his discipleship. In fact, as predicted, he denies knowing Jesus three times after his arrest. Peter betrayed his friend, his Lord… He ghosted because he was scared. I’m sure the shame of that made mourning Jesus’ death worse.
“He told everyone you would deny him,” the shaming jerk in Peter’s brain declared. “You are not worthy to follow him.”
In this scene, Peter decides that it’s time to push the regret aside and return to his life. So he gets off his couch to go to work. Everyone needs to make a living, and a broken heart still goes on beating. He sets out in the darkness to fish.
“We’ll go with you,” the disciples say. They, too, have to go back to the every day-ness of their lives, after all. So they do what we all do after someone dies—just the have-tos. The taxes, the laundry, the 9 to 5. It doesn’t matter that the world will literally never be the same, it still goes on.
So the disciples get into the boat, cast their nets in the water, and come up empty. They can still fish, but without their beloved friend, all is empty.
Just after daybreak, the risen Jesus appears on the beach and says to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast your net on the other side, and you will find some.” And the disciples do what this strange man says, and catch so much fish then that they can’t even carry the nets to shore.
Peter recognizes Jesus right away. “It is the Lord!” He puts his clothes back on to swim to shore. It’s not too late to dine with his friend, after all! He will show up disarmed and ready!
“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says to his friends. It’s the first communion with the risen Christ.
Rachel Held Evans says, “My Jewish friends like to joke that you can sum up nearly every Jewish holiday with, “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat!”
Communion is a weekly celebration of just that.
He took bread, and gave it to them. He took fish, and gave it to them. Bagels and lox.
Now they all recognize him. Love is always recognized at the table, in the taste of food. Just like we can taste the love baked into the pie made from our grandmother’s apple pie recipe long after she dies, the disciples can taste and see that he is always with them, and that his Love lives on in abundance.
They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.
The story doesn’t end at the table. After breakfast, Jesus says to poor, broken hearted Peter:
“Do you love me?”
He asks him three times, as many times as Peter denied Jesus.
“Of course I love you, Lord. You can have my heart if you don’t mind broken things,” Peter says.
“There’s only one response, then,” Jesus says. “If you love me, feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Follow me. Stretch out your hands. Go where you do not want to go.”
Beloved, this is the Gospel. If you love God, forgive yourself. Then feed. Tend. Follow. Stretch out your hands. Go where you do not want to go.
If you love God, give God your heart. God doesn’t mind broken things. In fact, God makes all things new, even banged up, bruised, lovable you.
If you love God, come out of the shame spiral the jerk in your brain talked you into. Get naked and swim to shore. Believe God when God tells you who you are.
If you love God, don’t just commune with creation alone on a beach. God is there, and the ocean is beautiful, but its not enough to heal. Show up in relationship. Show up in human community, even the ones who don’t pay you to be there. Go where you do not want to go. Stretch out your hands.
If you love God, feed one another. At the dinner table and the communion table. Your presence is enough and the table is already set. So just show up, regardless if you brought something for the potluck. Regardless of if your best friend died, or your favorite pastor is on sabbatical. Regardless of if you’re angry or brokenhearted or depressed. Don’t ghost because its easier. And if you do, it’s never too late to come home.
You are already forgiven. So forgive yourself, and show up for your life.
If you love God, follow God. To the places where the forgotten people are. To your knees, where you serve from. To the cross, because we are all marching toward calvary. To the resurrection, because love always rises.
I want to share these words with you from Glennon Doyle wrote about her friend Rachel Held Evans yesterday, because they should sound familiar to all of us who have lost a loved one who relentlessly told us we were more than our brokenness.
“Whenever I want to scare myself, I consider what would happen to the world if Rachel Held Evans stopped writing…..”
Doyle said yesterday that this was the first sentence she wrote in the foreword of one of Rachel’s books.
“Rachel died today,” she said.
“Rachel was a friend to the hurting, the questioning, the outcast, the underdog and the forgotten. I have never seen anyone - no one- match her courage and relentless commitment to use her pen and heart and might to fight for the least of these within the religious establishment. She refused to abandon us. She was relentlessly brave and she always won for us- she always came out on top because in brilliance: she had no peers. No one could out smart her or out brave her or outlast her. She was our warrior.
We needed her.
Without her, I feel scared.
In the world of people claiming to speak for Jesus- Rachel was the closest I’ve ever known. Without Rachel, we are going to need to become as brave and beautiful as she believed us to be. We are going to have to become leaders, now that our leader is gone.”
Beloved, this is the resurrection message.
This is what Jesus was trying to tell the disciples. I know you’re scared. If you love me, become as brave and beautiful as I believe you to be. Show up, shameless, for your lives. You are going to have to become leaders, now that your leader is gone.
Be a friend to the hurting, the questioning, the outcast, the underdog and the forgotten. Be relentlessly brave. Be a warrior for love. All you have to be is hungry. All you have to do is say yes.
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.