A sermon preached by Nathan Kirkpatrick, priest associate at the Advocate
If they were taking nominations for an eighth deadly sin,
To join the ranks of greed, lust, wrath, pride, envy, gluttony, sloth —
Sandy Deal, my high school English teacher,
would offer lazy writing for consideration.
Lazy writing, she would say,
robs language of its evocative, provocative,
persuasive, catalytic power.
passive voice for no good reason,
an over-reliance on cliches —
all were the bane of her existence.
But her chief annoyance in lazy writing
was the use of the word very.
Ms Deal dared us to expand our vocabularies
so that we would never think to write that a book was very interesting;
instead, it needed to be compelling, arresting,
intriguing, enthralling even.
We would never imagine writing that a character was very sad;
instead we would write that they were morose, brooding, melancholy.
No one was ever very thirsty in Ms Deal’s room, they were parched.
You get the idea.
As I have read and reread today’s Gospel lesson,
it occurred to me how pleased Ms Deal would be
with the biblical translators.
Note where we begin.
Immediately after his baptism,
St Matthew tells us that the Spirit drives Jesus
out into the wilderness
for forty days of fasting and prayer.
And at the end of those forty days,
St Matthew writes that Jesus is famished —
not a little hungry, not very hungry —
that word that comes from the Middle English “to starve.”
More than hungry, more than very hungry,
Ms. Deal would approve.
Sure, there are other translations that say
that, after forty days and forty nights,
Jesus was very hungry or even just plain hungry.
Ms. Deal would not approve
because, of course,
what St Matthew is describing is not just a hunger pang
but a state of being — of being at your limits, beyond your limits,
worn down, worn out,
nothing left, yearning, searching,
longing for a morsel, a crumb
something to sustain, something to satisfy.
Ravenous. Starving. Famished.
And it’s then when Jesus is in that place
that the voices come —
in what the tradition has called the temptation of Jesus.
It’s then that the devil appears and offers him three things.
As you know, as sophisticated hearers of Scripture,
that when we are talking about the devil,
about Satan in Scripture,
we are not talking about the terrifying figure of medieval paintings
or the sinner-devouring creation of Dante
or even the little guy in the red pajamas with a pitchfork.
When Scripture speaks of Satan, of the devil,
it speaks of the angel who went rogue and went wrong,
it speaks of the Adversary, the one who is against us,
the Accuser, the prosecutor who charges and condemns us,
the metaphorical roaring lion who seeks to destroy us.
In this instance in particular, Satan is the voice of self-satisfaction,
self-protection, and selfish ambition:
Turn these stones to bread (self-satisfaction),
Throw yourself down (self-protection),
All that you see can be yours (selfish ambition).
In the reading from Genesis,
Satan in the form of the serpent
is the voice of amnesia —
forget who you are,
forget who you were created to be.
“If you eat this, you will be like God,” the snake hisses,
when we are clearly told just verses before that
Adam and Eve were created in the very image of God
and were already like God in every way that mattered.
It’s when Jesus is famished,
run down, worn out, depleted,
that the voices come, that temptation comes to him.
Satisfy your own need.
Preserve yourself at any cost.
Serve your own ambitions.
And, of course, Jesus foils each temptation,
with the story concluding that Satan leaves him
and the angels arrive to care for him.
In St Luke’s telling of the story,
it ends somewhat more ominously —
with the devil departing from Jesus “until an opportune time.”
I wonder if you know something about
the heart of this story in your own life,
if you know what it means, what it feels like to be famished in your spirit.
I wonder if you know something
about being at your limits, beyond your limits,
worn down, worn out, with nothing left,
longing for something to sustain, something to satisfy.
If you know something about being ravenous, starving,
about being in that very place — that wilderness place —
maybe where grief weighs on a soul;
where regret takes its toll,
where choice and possibility paralyze.
If you know something about
what it means to carry shame with us and within us.
I wonder if you know something
about the voices that sound so loud
when we’re in that kind of soul space.
The voices of self-doubt that taunt
you are not enough and who do you think you are.
The voices of despair that
tempt us to abandon hope.
The voices of suspicion
that make us strangers to one another
and, if strangers, then also threats.
The voices of rage that divide and destroy.
The voices of self-satisfaction that tempt us to get our own first.
The voices of selfish ambition that call us
not to our better angels
but to our lowest scheming selves.
The voices of self-protection
that whisper to us in this moment to stockpile a lifetime’s worth of Clorox wipes or buy out a nation’s supply of surgical masks.
The voices of fear
That say that this is 1929 or 1939 all over again.
If we know something about being soul hungry,
if we know something about standing in the wilderness,
if we know something about the voices that come,
then this Lent
these forty days are an opportunity, a chance really to find our way out.
In 1760, the Anglican priest John Wesley
wrote this to one of his colleagues
who was teetering on the edge of burn out:
“Do not starve yourself any longer
…Do justice to your own soul;
give it [the] time and means to grow.
Fix some part of every day for private exercise …
Read and pray.
You may acquire the taste which you have not;
what is tedious at first will afterward be pleasant.
It is for your life; there is no other way;
else you will be … a pretty, superficial preacher.”
That’s the invitation Lent offers to each of us and all of us.
The paradox is that this fast can become our feast.
We don’t have to starve our souls any longer.
In this season, we can
Feast on the bread of life,
Drink from the cup of salvation.
Fix some part of our every day to read, to pray, to dream, to hope,to work, to remember who and whose we are.
So that we might hear a different voice.
A voice that says:”You are my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
A voice that says: “Be not afraid.”
A voice that says: “You are not alone.”
Whether it’s here on Sunday mornings
or Sunday night’s evening prayer
or Wednesday night’s book study
or contemplative prayer or the weekly house dinner
or walking the stations of the cross around the pond,
or offering food, money or time,
or working the land or cooking for the men’s shelter —
whatever this Lent will give your soul
the time and means to grow.
Figuring that out, committing to it and doing it —
Well, that seems like a very good idea.
Oh. Sorry, Ms. Deal. That seems like a stupendous idea.