Stealing Our Attention
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
As I was preparing for this sermon, I was fascinated to discover that the world devil derives from two Latin words: dia, which means across, as in diameter. and ballo, which means to throw, as in ballistic. Devil, then, literally means “to throw across.” Which was later translated as “to slander” or “to attack.”
I think we like to think of the devil as this personification of evil. This red man with horns and a pointy beard. We want evil to be concrete, contained, represented in Voldemort or Freddie Krueger or Hitler. Over there. Ready to attack, or to tempt us to participate in their evil.
But the word devil as it is rendered in the translations is a verb, not a noun. The devil exists not in some simple personification. The serpent might have made a suggestion to Eve, but Eve was the one who decided to do what God told her not to. (And listen, there’s a lot to unpack in that story—like how women have been blamed for centuries for the existence of sin—but that’s for another sermon.) For today, I want to talk about how the devil is in the doing, or not doing.
I think another way we might translate devil, dia and ballo, is “to throw off course.” Or “to distract.” And I don’t think it’s a huge jump to move that meaning from this one person or this one serpent to the things we do. The things we do that throw us off course. The things we do that distract us.
This is, of course, what is happening in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is being tempted to go off course. To get distracted.
First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. After all, he was just coming off a 40-day fast and was famished. But the fast was done. He would get his bread soon, if he was willing to wait. He knew that turning stones into bread would be an abuse of his power, of his privilege. To succumb to that need for immediate gratification would compromise who he was and what he believed. So he tells the devil, “you know, I trust God will give me what I need when I need it.”
Second, Jesus is tempted to test his safety, his security. Since you know that angels will bear you up, that God will not allow you to come to harm, throw yourself down from this high place. And Jesus says, “that’s not how faith works.”
Third, Jesus is tempted to throw away who he is, who he is called to be, for the sake of material power and prestige. And that’s when Jesus gets real stern.
“Away with you, Satan!” he says. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Jesus would not be thrown off course. He would not be distracted.
“Worship the Lord your God. Serve only God.” That is our course. And Lent is a time of clearing distractions. It’s a time to focus our attention.
On Thursday evening, my wife Rachel was kind of squirming. She seemed really restless. I just looked at her. “What is going on with you?”
“It’s the devil,” she said. “Tempting me. All I want to do right now is sit on the couch and watch tv with you. And I can’t think of any reason not to.”
See, she and I decided that we would give up watching tv for Lent. It was literally the first night we were put to the test.
I think we’re all familiar with the Lenten practice of giving something up. A lot of people give up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or facebook. And I think a lot of us were taught that depriving ourselves meant greater faithfulness. Or that experiencing discomfort somehow got us closer to Jesus. Or that giving something up was self-inflicted punishment for our sins.
But this practice of giving something up isn’t about deprivation or pain or punishment. It might feel that way because we’re so used to turning to certain things or habits for quick comfort that when those go away, it feels, well, uncomfortable.
It’s why Rachel was squirming. And I don’t want to throw her completely under the bus, because I was a little lost myself. We were so used to numbing out in front of a tv show every night that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves or each other when we took that away.
But we started talking. About our day. About our fears. About our parents. We laughed a lot. We gave each other loving attention that we wouldn’t have given if we were sitting in front of the tv rewatching Orange is the New Black.
“Worship the Lord your God. Serve only God.” That seems like such a narrow command until you really stop to consider who God is. Most simply, God is love. Simply and honestly loving another being is a form of worshipping God.
Beyond that, we see God reflected in all creation around us. We serve God by loving that creation, tending to that creation.
Love starts with attention. Noticing something or someone and letting your senses linger there. Letting yourself get curious. Letting yourself wonder how that thing or person fits in the family of things.
Simone Weil wrote, "Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer."
Lent, then, gives us an opportunity to discover what steals our attention. What really is the devil in our life?
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Lent is the time to figure out what in our lives might just be about distraction, numbing out, going off course. What in our lives isn’t about love. And to let it go for 40 days. See what happens. See how it feels.
I think it might feel like what Wendell Berry wrote about in one of the poems we’ll read for our community’s Lenten practice this week.
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.