A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
on March 5, 2017
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are supposed to be heard.
I know a lot of you audibly gasped when I changed my profile picture to say that I was giving up Facebook for Lent. Several people called to ask if I was OK.
Lent is a season in which we attempt to rid ourselves of a habit or behavior or crutch that separates ourselves from each other and from God. The traditional practices of Lent are prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, fasting, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. Lenten disciplines provide a spiritual housecleaning to provide more space for God.
And I noticed that Facebook feeds my anxiety about the fate of our country and planet, my fear, my insatiable hunger for connection, my desire to numb and avoid, my petty competitiveness, my work-aholism and my failure to observe Sabbath, and most of all, my sinful tendency to see the world as “us and them,” when I know there is only “us.” It kinda crowds God out. So I am currently stumbling around in a Facebook-free wilderness. I have taken up reading books, and, you know, interacting occasionally with my husband and children. I am trying to pray more.
It’s my wilderness. You have one, too.
As we know from our Bible, Jesus was led by God into the wilderness where he stays for forty days and forty nights. Afterwards, it says, he is famished. That is when the devil tempts him.
Jesus is in a state, I am sure, both mentally and physically, of utter desperation. He hasn’t eaten for weeks. He is likely hallucinating. He is probably thirsty and tired, and feeling empty and powerless. I imagine he feels as though he is about to die; vulnerable and alone, gaunt and weak. He’s probably even scared.
First he is tempted with food after all that time without, and Jesus says, “one does not live by bread alone.” Then Jesus is tempted with power over all of the kingdoms of the world: “And Jesus answers, essentially, “I worship God, not power.” And then the devil tempts him to prove who he is by throwing himself down, and Jesus refuses saying that we should not be in the business of trying to test God, or make God prove anything to us.
You and I are not Jesus, and so we are far more vulnerable to the devil’s temptation when we are weak and tired and hungry and alone and most of all--scared.
I remind us of this a lot, because it is important to in these hot mess times. Studies show that when people are under stress conditions: like the anxiety of losing wealth or status, like illness, like worry over the decline of the middle class, like poverty, like fear of terrorism or war—we are less likely to love the stranger. In other words, when you and I are in the wilderness of perceived powerlessness--we adopt xenophobic tendencies to fear those different than us; to scapegoat, to blame, to become more tribalistic, and surround ourselves with people we perceive to share the same values and the same characteristics.
We are most vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we see the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance; when we see people in the world as objects to be feared and despised rather than as God’s beloved.
And yet Jesus reminds us: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Which, as we know, means simply this: love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind and your soul, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
And beloved, like everyone else in this country, we have been tempted by the devil to hate and despise our neighbor, based on their political persuasion, religion, immigration status, skin color, gender and sexuality, especially this year. And we have refused to take the bait. We have consistently said “no” to the devil, and yes to love.
Again and again, we have chosen love.
And together, we are practicing the Lenten discipline of giving that love away. A few weeks ago, we were given a reverse offering: I gave you $5,000 and told you to use it for Good; to share the love; to come back and tell the story. Some of my leaders and colleagues were surprised that I was willing to trust all of you without any kind of direction other than that. It was an act of faith; in you and in God. And I didn’t question for a moment that this money would be used well, and for God’s glory. Raise your hand if you participated in this challenge.
Turn to your neighbor and tell them the story of what you did with it.
There will be ways to hear each other’s stories—on our website, in a video Dee Wells is making for us right now. At coffee hour, I’m going to ask that you walk around and ask each other 1) how you spent the money, 2) whether this was an easy or hard assignment for you, and why, and 3) how it felt. You need to hear as many stories as possible.
Here are just some of the ways I know the money has been spent so far:
Jennifer shared her family’s money with one of her coworkers who frequently uses her own money to buy clothing and other needed items for the patients in our program. “Kim does this all the time only because she wants to help others in need. She helps others, and I wanted to help her out this time!”
Jon decided that his $25 would be loaned, via Kiva.org, to Tautua, an unmarried woman with two children living in Samoa who is looking for a loan of $400 to stock her local canteen, in order to make money to pay her weekly living expenses. He committed to add to it by loaning more every month. The quote he saw on Kiva spoke to him: "Dreams are universal. Opportunity is not.”
When I went to the young adult gathering two weeks ago, Dave said that if he had been at church that Sunday, he would have found someone there with the opposite political views as him and taken him or her out to lunch to really listen and hear. Don’t you love that? Talk about making room for God.
You reported feelings of amazement, gratitude, excitement. You reported that this gift was freeing, burdensome, joyful. Some of you gave it away impulsively as soon as you got it, and some of you agonized over the decision for weeks. One of you said that it was the “hardest I have ever thought about how to spend a small amount of cash.” Many of you said that the challenge was meaningful for your children. Many of you said it created in you a desire to do more. Many of you matched, doubling or tripling your gifts. Some of you pooled money with family and friends.
This money, this love has been shared and spread all over the community; all over the country; all over the world. Lives have been changed by this money, most especially the givers’.
I told you after the election that we were made for such a hot mess time as this. And this is why. We choose instead of fear and hate, to infect the world with love. To give it away. Away with you Satan! At First Church, when we are faced with the devil’s temptation to dehumanize and destroy, our response is this:
Hope, not cynicism
Abundance, not scarcity.
Sharing, not hoarding.
Understanding, not demonizing.
Love, not fear.
Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord, our psalmist says. Giving away this money was an act of trust that Love would guide it; that love would work magic on the giver and the receiver. Choose that kind of trust…in each other, and in God. This Lent, let us continue to deny the devil a foothold in our hearts. Let this giving be only the beginning of something far more big and beautiful. Love the hell out of this world.
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.