I took a half day on Friday to attend a free conference put on by the University of Chicago as part of their ongoing “border crossing” series, connecting seminarians and doctoral students with working pastors and professors. The topic of this conference was “The Prophetic Interpreter: Preaching and Teaching from Scriptural Traditions in Pluralistic Worlds.”
It was a solid conference, and I was glad to have used a day of continuing education (which isn’t always the case at these events). The keynote address was delivered by Dr. Ellen Davis, a professor of bible and practical theology at Duke University’s Divinity School. She took us all on a survey of the prophets of Hebrew Scripture, and spent some time reflecting on the powers necessary for prophetic speech.
One of her insights that I most appreciated was the idea that prophets, like poets and storytellers and many other kinds of artists, need to have a sort of “third eye” operating – a kind of vision that sees connections between ideas and events, that can draw on the material of everyday existence to craft parables and metaphors that allow others to see the world from a new point of view. When we think of prophets in this way, our idea of who the prophets of our era are broaden considerably – not just the Martin Luther Kings and Helen Prejeans, but also the Tony Kushners and the Indigo Girls, all artists of words and masters of delivery that speak truth to power.
Dr. Davis was asked a question after her lecture about how preachers and other students of scripture can bring that kind of artistic sensibility to the huge sections of scripture that aren’t poetry. Her answer was wonderfully simple, “just do what they taught you in eleventh grade: read slowly, more than once, assume the author wasn’t being stupid, and that every word was chosen for a reason. Be curious about the text.”
That reminded me of a bible study I was a part of last November at another conference in Minnesota. We were studying the same passage we heard from the gospel of Luke this morning, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The retreat leader was guiding us in a form of bible study called lectio divina. That won’t be unfamiliar to many of you who’ve been in bible studies with me, either at a church council meeting or in one of our small groups. Lectio divina is an ancient, devotional form of reading the bible. Although many folks trace this method of bible study back to the Rule of St. Benedict, there are plenty of examples of this kind of devotional reading in scripture itself – including the passage we heard read from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes, “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” (Rom. 10:8b) That’s a nice, succinct summary of lectio divina, reading scripture with the assumption that the living word of God is near you, waiting to be put on your lips and in your heart.
So, back to this bible study last fall. There were about thirty of us sitting in a circle in a big room with a panoramic window view of a small lake and blue skies and bare autumn trees. It was a much more conducive environment for getting comfy and listening well. That’s not a critique of our worship space any more than it’s a word of encouragement to you all to be sure to read scripture at times and places other than a hard wooden pew on Sunday mornings. The leader told us that she was going to read the passage from Luke four times, and that we were to engage with the scripture in a different manner during each reading. The first reading, the one called lectio in this method, we were asked to listen to the story with all of our senses fully engaged; to pay attention to words or phrases that leapt out at us and that brought us into the story. Then she began to read,
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. (Luke 4:1-2)
Well, already my monkey mind was leaping all over the place, and I was seeing and hearing things that just weren’t in the passage at all. I tried to discipline my mind to imagine the sights and smells of the wilderness where Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit, but instead I just kept imagining the people that fill Haberland Hall on Tuesday and Thursday mornings waiting for their food from the pantry; or the people who come to our door every other day of the week asking if we can help them with food or bus fare or just some money to get them through the week. No matter how I tried to train my thoughts on the group exercise, I just kept thinking about city streets, and the all too common experience of hunger.
So I gave up and decided to go with it – maybe this was the Holy Spirit moving in my own bible study. I read the bible a lot. I have lots of chances to revisit each of these passages. So I decided to see where my mind, guided by the Holy Spirit, wanted to take me. And as I relaxed into this creative visualization I began to notice that I was imagining that it was Jesus in the food pantry line, and knocking on the door, and begging on the corner. That the city was the wilderness, and that Jesus was spending his forty days among the city’s poorest, those considered least important by the city’s values of prosperity and upward mobility. With my ears tuned to those concerns I heard the devil’s words in a new way, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
The first temptation then is to escape from hunger. I thought about how much of a temptation this is for all of us. There’s a book I’ve been reading in preparation for this Lent by L. Shannon Jung, a professor at the Saint Paul School of Theology, titled Hunger and Happiness: Feeding the Hungry, Nourishing our Souls. One of the basic premises of his book is that, despite the world’s over-population, the planet is actually capable of producing enough food so that no one goes hungry. Hunger is not an issue of scarcity he contends, or at least it’s not food that’s in short supply – it’s the will to make sure that all people are fed that’s lacking. He writes,
“As I write this book, our nation’s economy – and the global economy – has slipped into a severe recession and may be on the way to the greatest depression since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The economic meltdown has done much to reinforce the belief in scarcity, a belief that gives rise to the fear that there will not be enough for me/us. Such fear leads to greed, to hoarding, to holding at arm’s length t
hose who seem to threaten our getting ‘enough.’ Add to this the fact that we live in a society obsessed with work and wealth, consumption and possession as the source of happiness, and it is an easy step to blame the victim: the poor are poor and hungry because they lack the will or ability to ‘succeed’ in what is seen as the zero-sum game of national and global economics.
We are spiritually malnourished. The zero-sum economic game in which abundance for some must be matched by scarcity for others has not led to true happiness or a sense of well-being for those who seem to be ‘winning’ the game. Many of us feel as though we are on the wrong path.”
Or, as Jesus replies to the devil (quoting Deuteronomy), “one does not live by bread alone.”
The true nature of the devil’s temptation isn’t a plot to ruin Jesus’ focus, or to get Jesus to indulge in some display of divine power. It’s that the devil tempts Jesus in the same way that the devil, or the devilish priorities of our world, tempt each of us – by leading us out of community and solidarity with those who are hungry. The voice of the devil is always telling us that those people’s concerns aren’t our concerns, that their problems aren’t our problems, and certainly that their predicament isn’t our responsibility. Just take the bread. There’s no need for us to go without just because someone else doesn’t have as much.
Most of the time, at least in my experience, the devil wins. I look away from the person trying to make eye contact at the highway off-ramp. I tell the person looking for some spare change that I can’t help. I think to myself, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” But that’s not true, because – if it were – it would imply that the unfortunate person I refuse to help is there by some lack of God’s grace, when – in fact – it’s clearly a lack of graciousness on the part of our human communities that most afflicts that person in their moment of need.
In lectio divina, the second time through is called meditatio, a time of theological reflection on the passage. I’ve looked back at the sermons I’ve preached on the temptations of Christ in the wilderness in the past. It’s a great portion of scripture, and there’s so much that can be made of the nature of each of the subsequent temptations – the temptation to grasp at political power as a way of securing our place in the world, the temptation to confuse religious authority with divine will and to hide behind our church credentials. But this year I’m still stuck on the guided visualization we did in our lectio divina bible study, the image of Christ hungry on the streets of Chicago, and the devil’s temptation to forget about him there. To just get back to eating some more bread.
On this first Sunday of Lent, and throughout the upcoming season, we will hear the call to repent, which means to “turn around,” to go back to the nature of the covenant God made with all of creation at the dawn of time when the world and everything in it was seen by God and called “good.” We are called to the Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer – fasting as a way of conforming our bodies to the priorities of Christ Jesus, who began his public ministry by intentionally experiencing hunger so that he would not lose sight of the very people who most needed the healing and liberation he had come to proclaim; almsgiving as a way of conforming our household budgets to God’s politics, which hadn’t changed all that much in the centuries since the book of Deuteronomy commanded that
“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and…you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there be became a great nation, mighty and populous.”
Which leads us to the third Lenten discipline, prayer, which is also the third way of reading in lectio divina, called oratio. Having read closely, and thought deeply, we are moved to pray worshipfully – to ask God to transform our lives, often by lifting up those words and phrases that first leapt out at us and using them to name the elements of our lives and our world that keep leaping out at us. This year our forty day Lenten journey begins with a story of a hungry God, a God who hungers for relationship with us, who hungers for justice for those children of God left suffering despite the world’s abundance, which is actually evidence and proof of God’s own abundance. These are the images that leap out at us and demand not only our prayers, but lives transformed by prayer.
The final step in lectio divina is called contemplatio, it’s the moment when you stop reading, and thinking, and praying and just be. It’s an opportunity for silent communion with the Holy Spirit, a chance to rest in the reality of God. I will admit that contemplatio comes a little more easily when you’re looking out on a still blue lake, but we try to allow for these moments of grace to take place in worship as well because it’s during these moments of integration that we begin to really sense that these stories are our stories, that our lives find their meaning in these grand, overarching narratives of God’s solidarity with us and our hunger for a world transformed.
Let’s stop here for now, and allow for some silence at this point. Notice your hunger, or your lack of hunger. Get ready for the Lord’s Supper, the modest meal to come where no one is fed too much, or too little. Consider what it will mean for you when we are dismissed with the words, “go in peace, remember the poor.”
Return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.