A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
on the first day of Lent, 2019
March 10, 2019
In Jesus’ upside down kingdom, the Power of Love overcomes the Love of power.
”Do not put The Lord Your God to the test,” Jesus says. I translate that: “Do not put Love to the test.”
Love wins. Every time.
When we baptized Mia and Olivia, I dedicated them to the service of truth, and the practice of compassion. I dedicated them to the ways of peace, beauty, and love. These aren’t easy tasks to dedicate a person to.
Over the course of their lifetimes, they will constantly have to be reminded of who they are, who they’ve chosen to be, and who God has called them to be. Because those things will be put to the test all the time. Especially in middle school, amen?
Satan, the accuser, stands ready to claim us as his own, manipulating our human desire for power and control when we are tired and starving. Willing us to choose power over peace.
We have to stand firm and say, “Do not put love to the test.”
Because there will always be people who try to get you to question who you are.
Jennifer Senior says that “purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power” in an article from the New York Times I read yesterday. The article had nothing to do with Church (it was about the cancel culture in teen literature). But it reminded me of the ways in which denominations are tearing themselves apart right now, not for Love of God, but for love of power.
All of the human groups you and I are involved in have purity tests. From the “clean eating” movement to the mommy wars; from political activist circles to religious denominations.
There is a language we are supposed to know, and a group of norms we must not stray from. There is a a “right” way and a “wrong” way to be a patriot, a parent, a conservative, a liberal. There is a right way and a wrong way to be part of the group. There are ways to signal you are “in,” and ways to be summarily ousted.
Even slacker moms like me try to out-slacker the other slacker moms. “I forgot to feed my kid breakfast today.” “Oh yeah? That’s nothing. I forgot to feed my kid breakfast all week.”
The only people who can pass the purity tests administered by the standard-bearers of these groups are those most untainted by the poison of nuance and complexity. In other words, none of us, including the standard-bearers themselves.
The Church has historically attracted people who desire power and authority, and who have a tendency to abuse that power. This is because the Church has historically attracted humans. (And one more time for those who missed it last week: the Church is not God.)
Church wars throughout the ages have been fought by the standard-bearers over these questions, among others: Is slavery ordained by God? Should women be ministers? Should priests be celibate? Should gay people be ordained or married? Should wives submit to their husbands? Who should be allowed to take communion?
The answers to these questions by church leaders have often had more to do with a desire for power and control of other people’s bodies than a desire to live as Jesus did.
Not all power and authority in the Church is used for bad, of course. Phillip Gulley suggests that the question for the church’s leadership should always be: "Does (the use of authority) build others up or does it put them down?”
If the Church were Christian, Phillip Gulley says, peace would be privileged over power. Putting people down is an act of power, and building others up is an act of peace. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” If the Church were Christian, its leaders would be a constant check against fanaticism disguised as purity. If the Church were Christian, it’s leadership would look for ways to lift up those who are cast out, build them up, and follow their lead. Love would be the only “test” we would administer to determine worth. Mercy and forgiveness would be our study habits. Grace would be the only way to “pass.”
In the Church, scripture is considered authoritative. Therefore it makes sense that the Church’s weapon of choice in the quest for purity and power is the ancient words in this book. But this book is not God. In fact, Jesus taught us that we can judge the authority of scripture based on whether it builds others up or puts them down.
That’s our lesson from today’s scripture. Anyone can quote scripture out of context. I can. You can. The devil can quote scripture, too. But Love will always win.
In our passage from the Gospel of Luke on this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus is bone tired. He is literally famished after fasting in the wilderness for forty days. He is weak and exhausted. He is in a state of utter desperation, both mentally and physically.
It is at this point when Satan puts him to the test.
Jesus is offered bread at his hungriest. “If you are the son of God, turn this stone to bread,” Satan says. Jesus turns him down. “It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone,’” he says.
The devil leads him up to the top of a mountain, and shows Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world. “To you I will give all of the glory and authority, if you worship me.” And Jesus says, “It is written, worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”
Then, Satan brings him to the pinnacle of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” And then, catching on to Jesus’ affinity for the Word of God, Satan quotes the words of the psalm we read this morning: “for it is written,” Satan says, “he will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.”
Even the devil can quote scripture.
Jesus says to him, “do not put the Lord God to the test.”
“Do not put Love to the test,” Jesus says.
The identity test for Jesus is not so much a test of who he is, but how he will live out his identity as Son of God. The devil knows perfectly well who Jesus is. The devil does not question who Jesus is, but tries to get Jesus to question who he is -- and Jesus does not fall for it.
There will always be people who try to make you question who you are. The test is not so much a test of who you are, but how you will live out your identity as beloved by God.
This past summer, I received a message to the First Church in Sterling Facebook page. It was from a Facebook profile with a picture of a man wearing Nazi insignia on his sleeve, though I failed to realize that when I first read his message. He asked me if our church was welcoming to people in interracial marriages and to the LGBTQ community. Naively, I answered him cheerfully in the affirmative. “Yes, all are welcome. We believe all people are children of God.”
When he received my response, he proceeded to answer me by quoting long scripture passages about the immorality of black people and white people inter-marrying, and scriptures advocating that homosexuals be put to death. I responded by blocking him and reporting him.
Soon afterward, he gave our church a one star review on Facebook saying that “this church and its minister are false prophets who fail to take into account the truth of scripture, and they block you rather than admit they are harmful liars.” And then he posted a picture of his gun on his profile with veiled threats to harm people who “do not take the word of God seriously.”
Our church responded by leaving dozens of five star reviews on our Facebook page.
Kristin Turner wrote: “The thing about love is - it doesn’t run out. We’ve been given bountiful, overflowing, endless, grace and love. At First Church it’s yours. We love First Church because it encourages us and reminds us to share love as Jesus did, carelessly, with all, especially those who have trouble loving us back, especially those who hate us, or who are hard to love. Often the people hardest to love, need love and grace the most - and thankfully, we’ve been blessed with enough of both to share it.”
Ann Taft wrote: “First Church of Sterling literally saved my life. After being hospitalized for major depression and suicidal ideation, my first public outing was to First Church. I was met with such unequivocal LOVE. As an ex-Catholic, I feel welcome here. My family who are atheists feel welcome here. My family who are American Baptist feel welcome here. I’m also proud that my children are being raised in a community where they are not told “Believe this,” or “Don’t believe that,” but are instead asked “What do you believe, Beloved?”
Jayne Perkins wrote: “This loving church community will love the hate out of our world by spreading love to all. Those who write lies about us are easily noticed as they contradict everything we are. But we will pray for every person who has hate in their heart. Especially those who create bots to spread their horrible messages.
God is LOVE. Love will always win.”
DO NOT PUT LOVE TO THE TEST. Not when First Church is on the job.
The post has since been removed, but perhaps the most beautiful moment was when the First Church “mob” started engaging with the man’s post on our page, citing Bible passages about loving your neighbor and the enemy. “We’ll pray for you. We believe you, too, are beloved by God, internet Nazi.” Jeff Maxwell even invited him out to coffee. I told him that was a bad idea.
The internet troll eventually left us alone because we bored him with our love, and he disappeared into the ether. His hate did not become your hate.
There will always be people who try to get you to question who you are, who will try and put you to the test. The test is not so much a test of who you are, but how you will live out your identity as beloved by God.
Here’s a reminder:
You are made in the image of God, all of you. You were fearfully and wonderfully made, and created for God’s glory. You are known and named Beloved. You were called to build bridges, not walls. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” You were called to be the hands and feet of THAT peace. The Power of Love will overcome the Love of power because of YOU. The Church was made for such a time as this because the Church is YOU. Even the devil can quote scripture. But you—you must never forget who you are.
Bring peace where there is no peace. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other.
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.