Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13
preached at First Church in Sterling, MA
February 14, 2016
When I was in college, I had the most ridiculous bumper stickers. The kind you would imagine any reactionary lefty, completely black and white thinking, “politically correct” 19 year old to have. I didn’t even have a car, but I had bumper stickers. I put them on my dorm fridge. They said things like “I’ll be post feminist in the post patriarchy” and “Coexist” and “Ralph Nader for president”…remember him? Nothing like simplistic, bumper sticker politics.
The one that I’m most embarrassed about said this (and I humbly repent):
“The road to hell is paved with Republicans.”
I’m embarrassed, because what a ridiculous thing to think, and how diametrically opposed to my understanding of who God is. My beloved grandparents were all Republicans, and many of my friends growing up in the red state of New Hampshire were, too. They were loving people, who wanted the same things I did: happiness, freedom, a loving and healthy family, kindness and community. Yet, I was raised by lefty parents in a lefty church during the Reagan years, and I was taught (not always explicitly) to believe that Republicans didn’t care about the poor, didn’t care about justice for the oppressed, didn’t care about my rights as a woman.
I bet some of you were taught similar stereotypes growing up about people like me. Liberals are lazy, they want “free stuff”, they want to police all of our words for political correctness so that we can no longer have free speech, they want to punish people for being rich.
And so on.
Well, what a bunch of bologna sauce that all is. We can’t even see each other.
Essentializing one another like that is the most destructive (and human) thing there is.
We can’t even see each other.
When I picture the devil, I always picture those cartoons I watched in the eighties. Looney Tunes, or whatever. In cartoons, there is always a red devil with a pitchfork and horns and a tail on one shoulder whispering in one’s ear, and an angel on the other with a glistening halo whispering in the other ear. Whatever the devil is suggesting you do is far more fun than what the angel is suggesting you do, and what the angel is saying is always appealing to one’s goodness and morality. The whole concept of the devil as a separate being is a little….cartoonish in my mind, and therefore sometimes hard for me to take very seriously. Not to mention, it’s often used as a cop out—“the devil made me do it.” Or, worse, the devil is associated with something that needs to be excorsized from one’s soul, like homosexuality at those awful “pray the gay away camps” that I consider an abomination unto the Lord our God who created us just the way we are, in her image.
But maybe I should take the devil a little more seriously than I do.
Because I’m quite sure that evil exists in the world, and we need not look any further than our own hearts to find it.
Evil doesn’t always look like Sandy Hook and ISIS and abortion clinic bombings. Sometimes it looks like unexamined bias. Sometimes it looks like assuming that the man I met at the bar who is voting for Donald Trump is heartless, or the black teenager I pass on the street is going to rob me. The evil in my heart looks like a tendency to categorize and objectify human beings, rather than truly see them. And I’m quite sure that I wrestle with that evil every day; I don’t know about you. I know that evil can look rather subtle, and erodes my heart slowly but surely. The road to hell is not paved with Republicans, or Democrats…the road to hell is paved with assumptions that I am different than or better than, or more deserving of God’s love than anyone else is.
The devil in my heart is tremendously tempting because he appeals to my desire for power and sustenance and control; my desire to be right, and everyone else to be wrong. And I am most apt to be tempted by him when I am lost in the wilderness.
In our scripture today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was led by God into the wilderness, where it says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. And interestingly, the devil and Jesus are both quoting scripture at each other—both quoting passages from the Hebrew scriptures. Remember how I said last week that this book right here can be twisted and used for evil? Here is a prime example of the devil himself using scripture to try and tempt Jesus away from God.
And Jesus is the one at a disadvantage.
The devil tempts Jesus when he 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. He likely feels as though he is about to die; vulnerable and alone, gaunt and weak. He’s probably even scared. First Jesus is tempted with food, 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.
Jesus passes every test by interpreting the texts not by the Letter of the Law, but by the Law of Love. He’s Jesus, that’s why.
You and I are not Jesus, but like Jesus in this story, we are far more vulnerable to being tempted by the devil when we are weak and tired and hungry and alone and most of all--scared.
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—people 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.
It should come as no surprise that we are most apt to be tempted by power when we are feeling powerless. We are tempted to believe we can control terrorism through religious persecution. We are tempted to believe that our comfort level and safety is more secure if we move to a town where there is little racial, ethnic and economic diversity. We are tempted to believe that we can control an insecure economy by hoarding our own wealth, and by excluding and demonizing people groups like Mexican immigrants or so-called “welfare queens.”
We are less likely to welcome the stranger when we are afraid.
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 own beloved. And so we exploit the worst stereotypes we can think of about each other, so that we can no longer see one another; so that we can no longer see God in one another.
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.
My favorite blogger, Glennon Doyle Melton, wrote a blog post this week called “How to use your fear to make something beautiful.” I just love that title. We all have fear. Our job is to abide by the law of Love anyway, and transform fear into beauty.
I think that’s why we come to church: so that we can use our fear to make something beautiful together. And we create beauty in the face of fear every day. In response to two separate terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and in San Bernardino this year, do you know what our congregation did? We reached out to our Muslim neighbors to get to know them better, to tell them that we see them, to begin to understand our points of connection, as well as our differences. And this Tuesday, nineteen of our children and adults went to the Worcester Islamic Center to learn more about Islam, and meet our Muslim neighbors in Worcester. They will come here to First Church in March for Eat, Pray, Learn on March 16 so that we can learn more about each other, and worship together. That’s how we use our fear to make something beautiful.
In response to protests in Ferguson and all over the country, and to a white supremacist killing people at a historic black church, Mother Emmanuel, in Charlestown, South Carolina this summer, do you know what our congregation did? We held a prayer vigil for the victims, and we began a faithful, imperfect conversation on race. We reached out to our police officers, and to the people of color in our community to ask how we could get to know one another better, and fight racism--together. Instead of battening down the hatches, we committed to learn about and connect with people to talk about the sin of racism. That’s how we use our fear to make something beautiful.
We use our fear to make something beautiful when we apply this same grace to ourselves, because if we are not starting our Lenten journey knowing we are Beloved children of God, we won’t get very far. Nadia Bolz Weber says: “when voices other than God’s try to tell you your worth – when the categories of late stage capitalism or the siren song of professional advancement or the various ridiculous ranking systems in society, or your own head tries to tell you your value and trust me, this will happen--but when it does may you again remember your baptism – remember that you have renounced the Devil and all his empty promises and are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit and that you belong to God, because nothing…nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”
Let’s commit to this practice: when we are afraid; when we are angry, and tired and hungry and lonely, let’s use those emotions to make something beautiful. That’s how we renounce the devil and his temptations, together. Get thee behind me, Satan. Because nothing and no one else gets to tell us who we are but the one who made us and named us Beloved.
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.