Life Sparks through the Stubble

rev-anne-bartlett-photoThe Rev. Anne Bartlett, retired Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, will be interim-interim (!) pastor of the Congregational Church until the appointment of a settled pastor in January, 2016. Rev. Bartlett served Trinity as Rector from 2000 to 2010. In retirement, she has served as consultant for congregations in the Diocese and as supply clergy. I was with our Ashland congregation for Lacey Hunter’s Ecclesiastical Council and was privileged to hear Anne’s first sermon. I thought she provided a helpful framework for this time of transition. I asked if I could share her sermon with you, and she agreed. Thanks, Anne!

~ walter john boris
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“Like Sparks through the Stubble”

All Saints Sunday – 1 November 2015
Ashland UCC
Psalm 146, Mark 12:28-34
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett

Good morning, Church! Hello, all you saints!

What a morning! It’s All Saints Sunday. And Communion Sunday. And I have been told today is Reformation Sunday, which is something for you all to celebrate. And you said good-bye just last week to your beloved interim pastor, Diane. And next week, right here, right now, you’ll be meeting Christina, who very well may be your new settled pastor. And we just had a little litany officially welcoming me as your interim-interim pastor for the next couple of months.

Do you think we have enough going on?

First let me say what a joy it is for me to be chosen to “hold the fort” for a little while. Oops, that metaphor is a bit militaristic, isn’t it? Maybe instead of “holding the fort,” we could think of our time together as The Anticipatory Time.

You have been so faithful in your time of transition. You have grieved the loss of a beloved pastor, you have worked hard and well with Diane to do the work of transitioning – letting go, looking at yourselves, identifying your present strengths (which are many) and your weaknesses and your growing edges. You have all been discerning, not just the Search Committee, about who you are and what the Holy One is now calling you to be and to do. You have realized that lay leadership is the name of the game as you move forward into the size of congregation that you have been for some time. You have kept your renowned hospitality going strong, welcoming all who come through your doors into your midst. You have continued to study and to tell your own faith stories to each other, how the Spirit has shown up in your lives, often surprising you no end. You have cared for one another. And you have cared for those in our wider community who have no community to care for them. You have kept the faith in this in-between time.

So on this All Saints Sunday, I salute you, you beloved saints of this lively congregation. As St. Paul often reminded us, we are all saints of God. Sometimes cranky saints, sometimes fractious ones, sometimes more passive perhaps than the Spirit would like us to be. But saints we are, by virtue of our seeking and sometimes of our finding. I believe way down deep it is our yearning that makes us saints…our yearning for glimpses of the divine Mystery that is always breaking into the world, for those with eyes to see; our yearning for the moment when souls touch and a communion beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond explanation is felt, made real; our yearning for those moments when we know that we are beloved, all of us, the whole creation, and that in spite of everything, all is well; our yearning that Love will indeed conquer fear, even in our own lives; our yearning (and this is our explicitly Christian language) that we might see Christ in the faces of those we encounter and even, God willing, sometimes inexplicably see Christ even in our own faces.

Now one of the odd things about my being here this morning and for the next couple of months is that I am in some respects a stranger in your midst. Oh, I do know many of you, and I delight in your friendship. I have known and admired this congregation for many years. And in my own way, I had to deal with my own sense of loss when Pam moved away.

So when I was approached to being considered for this interim-interim position, I said, “Why me? You’ve got great bench depth!” Meaning: there are more than a few, fine, retired UCC clergy right here in the congregation. Why bring in an Episcopal priest, an outlier, for heaven’s sake? That seemed a little strange to me. But then, you all are little strange.

I’m still not sure I know the answer to that, but I heard something along the lines of wanting someone really different for this short-term gig. Well, here I am.

I want to ask at the outset that you forgive me when I will probably go on Episcopal auto-pilot at some point. I’m afraid it will happen most often around the inclusive language issue. I am going to try my very best to be aware and sensitive about that, and I do a pretty good job when it comes to inclusivity for humans but no doubt I will slip at times when it comes to using the occasional “Lord” or “kingdom” or saying “Jesus the Christ” instead of “The Human One.” So when I set your teeth on edge, please know it’s not that I’m being deliberately provocative. It’s just that I am coming from a tradition that is still a bit different than yours.

I wasn’t born an Episcopalian, you know. I actually grew up in a big, Midwestern Presbyterian Church. One of my brothers is a Presbyterian minister. I became the black sheep of the family when in my late ‘20s during a particularly difficult time in my life, I found myself worshipping in a little Episcopal church in the neighborhood. It took me a year to find my way through the Book of Common Prayer. When I was ready to officially become one of them, my dear, bewildered mother had a number of questions for me.

“Just how Catholic are they, anyway?” she would say. (Coming from her own Southern Baptist childhood in Wichita, Kansas, being close to being Catholic was a significant issue for her.) “What about all that kneeling? What’s that all about?” she would ask. And, even more startling to her was the idea of saints. “Darling,” she would ask me, “do you really pray to the saints?” She was, to put it mildly, somewhat appalled that her only daughter would want to join such a strange group of Christians who had some very dubious practices and rituals and beliefs…and clothes.

“No, Mom,” I would answer, (and remember this was nearly 50 years ago now), “Episcopalians are Anglicans, not Catholics. We’re the bridge church between Catholics and Protestants. And kneeling is just another position for the body to worship. We also stand and sit and move around quite a bit, far more than Presbyterians ever do. And about the saints: No, we don’t pray to them as much as pray with them. They are our extended family. Our Encouragers. We’re all saints – some better than others, of course – and we do have a list of official saints, but it’s all very democratic how we choose them: we vote them in at General Convention. Lay people, priests and bishops, we all have a vote.”

“Bishops!” exclaimed mother. And I knew I had lost her again…

So isn’t it lovely that fifty years later, here we are, in a UCC Church celebrating All Saints Sunday, when we remember not only the superstar saints of our shared Christian tradition but also all of those we love and see no longer who have shone with God’s love and light for us, ordinary men and women who have helped us along the Way.

Frederick Buechner once wrote…

“On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”

What does it take to be a saint? Love. Can’t do it without love. And specifically, returning in our own feeble way love to God for the love that God is ever and always bestowing upon us. We are never far from the kingdom of God – oops, there it is; my first language glitch; let me try again: we are never far from the kin-dom of God if we are loving the Holy One with all our minds and all our hearts, all our strengths and all our souls. Our growth in sainthood is determined by how big we allow the Spirit to enlarge our hearts so we can love more widely and more deeply and more consistently. Our growth as saints is calibrated by how closely we commit to aligning our spirits with the Holy Spirit so that more and more it is God’s will that is being done through us, not the petty preoccupations of our own little ego’s. There’s a lot of surrender involved in becoming a saint. Not my will, O God, but thine.

So that’s the vertical dimension of the Love commandment, loving God with as much of our whole being as we can manage on any given day, in any given moment, which on some days, in some moments, frankly isn’t very much. It’s a good thing God’s love for us is not predicated on nor proportionate to our love for God.

And the horizontal dimension? That’s the second great commandment, the second alignment of our hearts and mind and souls and strength: to love one another as we love ourselves. In Christian terms: to see Christ in each other, to see Christ indeed in all of creation. And when we love our neighbor, the stranger, the outcast, the one who drives us crazy, the one whose political beliefs are so diametrically opposite from our own, the one we find dangerous or superficial or stupid or just plain wrong, when we love that one, then our hearts grow bigger in their capacity to love as God loves us. All of us. All the time.

So let us praise God, dear people of God! Praise God for our lives, for every breath, for all the saints who have been part of the history of this faith community, the ones who started it way back when, the ones who kept it going when times were hard, the ones who gave of the themselves, for love of God and for love of you who now gather here. Praise God for all the previous pastors in this place and those who will come, for all the prayers that have been said here, for all the laughter and all the tears, all the sorrows, all the joys, all the doubts and all the dreams….O praise God! For what has been, and whom has been, and for what and for whom is yet to come.

O praise God, you saints of God!
Praise God.
Amen.

Posted in Sermon, Transition and Change
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