Sermon for Feb. 21, 2021
We’re beginning a preaching series today on the book Love is the Way by the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, Michael Curry.1 And in this season of Lent, when many of us are giving up something we enjoy that’s really tasty, it seems almost unkind that Michael Curry spends much of Chapter 3 of his book describing his grandmother’s cooking.
Now, what do I know about soul food? From direct experience? – not much, other than to say that soul food is what you find down at Niece’s, just south of Meyer and Troost, which also has maybe the best breakfast in Kansas City. Of course, as Bishop Curry describes, this wonderfully rich and satisfying food originated from the scraps that kept the slaves alive, trash more fit for hogs than humans. After emancipation and the abolition of slavery, these scraps were the food most Black people could afford, given that what they had was “nothing but freedom,” as historian Eric Foner describes it.2 But, as Bishop Curry says, his ancestors made those scraps into something new and wonderful, seasoning them richly and cooking them with an artist’s touch. “My ancestors took a little and made a lot,” Curry writes. “They took what was left over and made sure no one was left out. … That’s a miracle. That’s taking what is old and making something new.” (55)
Curry describes soul food to help us see what he means by “making do,” which is how he answers what I think is the most compelling question in these first three chapters of his book. Here it is: “How do I find the energy to keep loving when the world seems to be going the other way?” (50). Well, we find the capacity for that by “making do” – living in what Curry calls the “miraculous mixture of hardship and hope” (50); “making garbage gourmet.” (56)The Black experience in America, and here in Kansas City, is certainly a study in that. But we also heard about a “making do” experience in today’s Gospel reading. This is one of those readings that we hear and then, piously and politely, we try to ignore the elephant in the living room. Well, here’s the elephant: When Jesus is baptized, a voice comes from heaven pronouncing, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). But then, one breath later, we hear this: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” (1:12-13) Really? This is what you get when you’re God’s Son, the “beloved”? That’s what God’s love looks like – being driven into the wilderness?
Well, Bishop Curry’s book might help us with this. When he says his ancestors were “making do,” that doesn’t mean what it might mean for most of us – getting by, in a holding pattern, making it through a rough patch. For Bishop Curry’s ancestors, and for many people of color today, “making do” means “figuring out how to both survive and thrive” in circumstances that history has put upon you (55). It’s figuring out how to make soul food from the master’s scraps. It’s figuring out how to live in the wilderness.
In today’s Gospel reading, I think that’s what Jesus is doing out there in the wilderness – “making do.” Does he want to go spend 40 days in a wasteland, being tempted by Satan. I imagine not. In fact, the situation is imposed on him. In our English text, the verb is “drove” – “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). In Greek, the sense is the same – the verb is ekballei, and in this usage it means, “to lead one … somewhere with a force which he cannot resist.”3 I get the sense Jesus was not going quietly … much like Bishop Curry’s ancestors. So, there he is, out in the wilderness, being tested by Satan. And he has to make do.
In Mark’s Gospel, so short on details, we don’t learn what that looks like. So, I’m now going to commit one of the cardinal sins of preaching and look to one of the other Gospels – Matthew, in this case (4:1-11). Matthew tells quite a story of Jesus and Satan out in the wilderness. There, we learn Jesus has been going without food, which may not be too surprising, given the landscape. And once he’s seriously hungry, that’s when Satan shows up for the test.
Satan says, if you’re God’s Son, filled with power, turn the stones into bread, and eat up. Jesus’ response is important – what he says, but also where it comes from. Quoting the Law of Moses, he says, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).
Then, in an instant, Satan transports Jesus to Jerusalem, setting him on the pinnacle of the Temple and trying to get his goat. Satan says, if you’re God’s beloved Son, throw yourself off this place, because after all, this Father who supposedly loves you “will command his angels concerning you,” and “on their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Now it’s Satan getting in on the act and quoting Scripture, this time Psalm 91 (91:11-12). But Jesus shows what Scripture’s for – not for proof-texting but for guiding your life – and he says, quoting Moses, “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Deut 6:16).
Then Satan goes for the spiritual jugular and offers Jesus the easy way to royal power and dominion. He transports Jesus high above the kingdoms of the world and says, Look, “all these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me” (Matt 4:9). But again, Jesus stands on God’s Word instead, the Word that empowers him even though it’s also God who drove him into the wilderness in the first place. So, Jesus goes to the Law of Moses once again, snarling, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’” (Deut 6:13). And Satan disappears, defeated.
That’s right. The war isn’t over yet – in fact, it’s just begun – but Jesus has won this battle. Let’s see … in Scripture, when has Satan been defeated before? Well, really, he hasn’t. Job stood up to the test, but he didn’t send Satan packing.
In this time in the wilderness, Jesus has proven something I’m not sure we knew before: Satan can be conquered. The power of evil, overwhelming as it is, does not get the last word. And “making do” has proven it – proven the power of Love over the power of evil.
How does that happen? And more to the point, how do we tap into it? Well, in his book, Bishop Curry talks about a process for it, a “recipe” or a “methodology,” whereby the power of Love takes “an old reality and [creates] a new possibility.” It’s about overcoming evil with good, as St. Paul wrote (Romans 12:21). It’s like soul food: “Making garbage gourmet.” (56)
Here’s how that recipe goes. First, lean on tradition – not in the sense of “the way it’s always been” but in the sense of the stories and wisdom and direction that have guided God’s people for millennia. That’s what Jesus is doing out there in the wilderness. Driven out on his own, away from his community, seemingly away from the Father who loves him, Jesus remembers – and the Word of God flows from his heart. So, first, learn and remember the tradition that sustains us.
Then, second: Practice imagination. Jesus was a Jew in first-century Palestine, living under the thumb of the Romans. Now, defying Rome was something his people did all the time, in quietly subversive ways, as people everywhere do in the face of oppressive power. But defeating that power was something else. There wasn’t a lot of precedent for that in the experience of Jesus’ contemporaries. Revolts didn’t go so well. But Jesus imagined a different future. He called into being a future that others literally couldn’t imagine – a world where Love overcomes oppression, where good defeats evil, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where peace rules. Scripture has a name for what he was imagining – “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15), the reign and rule of God. It’s what we ask for every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We can name it, but Jesus could see it and imagine it into being. So, Bishop Curry would say, the second step in the recipe of “turning the problem of reality into possibility” is to imagine it (56).
And the third step in the recipe is this: Add God to the equation. This was the core of Jesus’ answer to his test out there in the wilderness. Satan was offering him lots of things. He invited Jesus to draw on his individual power. He asked Jesus to lean on the assumption that, if we back ourselves into a corner, God will bail us out. He offered Jesus the power of the world as tycoons and kings live it. But Jesus changed the outcome by adding God to Satan’s equation. As Bishop Curry says, when you change the variables of an equation, the outcome must change, too; and when you factor God into the equation, the outcome must change for good.
Well, here we are, beginning the season of Lent once again, walking with Jesus out into the wilderness. So, let me ask you the other elephant-in-the-living-room question today: What do you fear you can’t change? What do you fear you can’t overcome? What do you fear might be so powerful that you can’t conquer it?
This Lent, take a cue from Jesus in the wilderness, and look Satan in the eye. Remember the tradition that upholds you. Imagine a liberated reality. And add God to the equation. Then, get ready. Because when you do that, in the ancient words of the Great Litany, you will “finally beat down Satan under [y]our feet” (BCP 152).
Michael. Love Is the Way. New York: Avery, 2020.
2. Foner, Eric. Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
3. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, electronic database, 2011, quoted at Bible Hub. “1544. ekballo.” Available at: https://biblehub.com/greek/1544.htm#. Accessed Feb. 18, 2021.