Learn: A Practice in the Way of Love
Updated: Mar 9, 2020
A Sermon Preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
The First Sunday of Lent
Texts: Gen. 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Ps 32,
Rom. 5:12-19, Matt. 4:1-11
March 1, 2020
The Rev. Charlie de Kay
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now
and for ever. Amen.
There are so many great texts here to explore: the death of innocence in the Garden, and much more. Sadly, we only have time to attend here to the Gospel lesson. So, what’s going on in this story from Matthew? We’ve heard it many times, but really, what’s the devil up to? What’s the tempter, formerly in the Hebrew Bible the chief prosecutor in the heavenly court, now perhaps the proper name for one cast out – some say a fallen angel – what’s his game?
Fresh from his Baptism in the Jordan, and surely a witness to a spectacular divine vision of God’s Kingdom – a restored earth with a people reconciled with God, one another, and all creation – “the Garden 2.0” – Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested (as another “Son of God” the Israelites who were likewise transformed by their rescue in the water and tested in the wilderness 40 years). Having fasted 40 days and nights and famished, Jesus hears the whispering lure of bread, circuses, and political power, calling like a poisoned siren song.
What’s the devil’s game? To throw a physically weakened Jesus off The Way of Love, to distract him, to corrupt him, to expose human weakness and exploit it in an effort to overthrow any chance for the fulfillment of God’s dream of a heavenly kingdom. This cosmic battle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world is at the core of Matthew’s gospel, “This is,” what, as one Matthew scholar put it, “what Matthew is about.”
Jesus may be physically diminished from all of that fasting, but it has left him spiritually empowered. With the agility of a prize fighter or a fencing champion, Jesus battles back the tempter’s whispers with loud responses from scripture. Just as he will when the scribes and the Pharisees come to “test” him, the Word of God (specifically texts from Deuteronomy) serves him as his shield and sword. One could imagine first century tabloid headlines of today’s mortal combat blazed with the unfamiliar sentiment: “Saved by Deuteronomy!” as descriptive of how the Messiah protects himself and defeats the enemy.
Ancient tradition claims scripture holds power. A power to reveal God to God’s people, a power the catechism describes as “God still speaks to us through the bible,” and a power to protect God’s people from losing our way in our pilgrimage of life, a power to protect one from sin, from darkness, from physical and spiritual corruption. God’s Word is Life. And, as Jesus parries Satan, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
On Ash Wednesday, and then in a deeper conversation last Thursday night, we explored the first of the practices of The Way of Love, the new curricula for spiritual renewal from the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry’s office. This was the practice called “Turn” in which we – like a plant turns to follow the sun – we intentionally turn (repeatedly through our day) toward the Love of God.
The second holy practice outlined in The Way of Love is called “Learn.” Here “The Way of Love” invites all of us to train up our spiritual muscles and synapses, leading toward the kind of resilience Jesus displays against Satan in the wilderness, by spending time each day with a scripture text. We will talk about it more deeply on Thursday evening at our Lenten Program. If you cannot make it Thursday night, there’s a wealth of resources for you – questions to ponder, scripture to consider, short videos and more on the Episcopal Church’s website. In a nutshell, this spiritual discipline invites us to develop the habit of seeking wisdom through a daily practice of reading scripture. This call is hardly a new idea; it’s ensconced in the Prayer Book in the Ash Wednesday liturgy in the invitation to the observance of a holy Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
One of my clergy colleagues reflected that in her North Shore parish, Lent is the only time of the entire year when it’s okay for her church members to openly express their yearning for God. Engaging scripture is a powerful way of connecting with God in our hearts, reaching out across the ages to the Mystery that is God. If you’re not sure where to begin, focusing on Jesus’ life and teachings is a rich place to start.
When we engage with scripture daily, the practice informs how we hear scripture on Sunday mornings, giving it a profound depth and new levels of meaning.
When we read the bible regularly, we own the ancient stories such that we can see our own lives and particular experiences through the lens of God’s people through history. Such focus is an important piece of the work toward what St. Paul considered spiritual maturity, all the while opening up windows of perception on our stories and God’s presence with us on the Way.
Now, we are not a church that makes wild, outrageous claims – we tell the truth as we know it. And the truth is that while we cannot promise a healthy spiritual life will provide a mystical shield to protect us from being exposed to the ills and the evils of the world (be it bigotry and hate, the corona virus, environmental degradation, or income equality), a healthy spiritual life is apt to be a bulwark, a deep strength as we respond to such crises, providing a tested and proven moral center and a deep well of hope grounded in the power of true faith.
Yesterday, at the deanery retreat devoted to The Way of Love, Christopher Sikkema, the manager of special projects for the Presiding Bishop’s office described his response when the bones of this curriculum were first introduced: Chris said, “I got teary, . . . I still get choked up . . . when I think about how this was the first time in 38 years the church was reaching out to ask me to do something other than participate in a ministry or to make a financial contribution.”
Now, of course, time is our most precious commodity today. Such a practice as I’m describing need not require a large time commitment. It could be as simple as receiving a short bible passage and a reflection from Forward Day By Day, or the Society of St. John the Evangelist, or any number of other online spiritual resources, many of which will - for free - send you scripture to chew on directly to your email inbox. Or, some folks have been known to keep a bible by their bed.
As we open our hearts in prayer and reflection in this gem of a chapel/church today, may we be blessed to hear the church’s call to trying out a specific set of holy practices this Lent as a way to renew our faith, to nurture our spirits, and to grow and mature as Christians.
The specific ask is to try the practice of “holy reading” every day for a month. Who knows, it might just help us to follow Jesus and, in so doing, to – stealing the title of a Humphrey Bogart movie – Beat the Devil.
That’d be something else, don’t you think?
 New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII, Matthew, M. Eugene Boring, p. 162. Matthew 4.4. Cf. Deuteronomy 4.1-2. See, for instance: https://episcopalchurch.org/life-transformed, and https://episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love.  The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 265. Comment made at the Evanston Deanery Retreat, “Leap Into the Way of Love,” February 29, 2020, Techny Towers, Techny, Illinois.