Today we begin our Lenten journey together; we begin our annual journey to the center of the Christian year – to the great 3 days in which we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Today is about too many things to name in any one sermon on any one Ash Wednesday. And so let me try to pick just one and see if we can’t find some clarity around its meaning.
Fasting. Fasting is one of the so-called Lenten disciplines – the others are prayer and almsgiving.
I think people kind of instinctively understand how prayer, practiced as an intentional spiritual discipline, is a good thing, a thing that helps us grow spiritually. I mean, how could spending time in conversation with God not be a good thing?
Almsgiving, as well, is probably pretty easy to understand. Growing in generosity, actively giving help and support to those in need, these are also pretty easy to understand in terms of spirituality, right? It’s a good thing to open up and to turn one’s attention away from the self and out in loving concern for another. I mean, if the whole law and prophets are, in fact, summed up, as Jesus says they are, in loving God and loving neighbor, then almsgiving is easy to understand as a helpful spiritual discipline.
But fasting? Fasting tends to be harder for folks to get a grip on. How does my hunger help anyone or anything? How does my risking a potentially hazardous lowering of my blood sugar help me become a better disciple – a more faithful follower of Jesus? I’ve been told that the point is that when one avoids bodily pleasure or practices denial of fleshly needs and desires that that person’s spirit is enriched in the process, kind of like a person who, having lost the sense of sight, might find their sense of hearing enhanced. Now, that may work for some, but just being honest, all that happens for me when my blood sugar gets low is I get cranky, and dizzy, and less productive. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not as spiritual as those other folks.
But I think our reading from the Prophet Isaiah today can help us gain a deeper and more helpful understanding of the purpose and nature of fasting…
I’ve heard it said that the purpose of Lent is a return to normalcy, or a return to what should be normal life for faithful disciples. We should be intentional and faithful in our prayer life. We should be intentional and faithful in our sharing of time, talent and treasure. And, along those lines, we should be faithful in practicing fasting. Only, God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, tells us what sort of fast God’s looking for. And note that it’s not about what you give up, and it’s certainly not about foregoing social media, or chocolate, or coffee, or (God forbid) booze, for the next 40 days. What God’s looking for is increased justice.
Hear God’s words again through the prophet Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
This is what God’s looking for!
But note again how this passage begins:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
I think we need to hear those words addressed to us today. I think we need to own up to our frailty, to our sinfulness, to our failure to understand how our affluence blinds us and makes it so hard for us to understand the value of God’s kind of fasting. The fact that I can’t get a little hungry without becoming a grouch only reveals my sinfulness all the more.
Remember Luther’s definition of sin is to be curved in on the self, in other words, to be self-absorbed and either unable or unwilling to see the needs of others, or to be concerned about the needs of others. I think our affluence blinds us from seeing that hunger is the norm, need is the norm, lack is the norm for a majority of the earth’s population.
So, though fasting isn’t really about what you give up, perhaps it is an opportunity to gain some insight and to grow in compassion and in understanding of what and who truly sustains us in life…
Jesus commends the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, in the Sermon on the Mount, but urges us to think about the meaning of these disciplines beyond the mere practice of doing them.
- When you fast, wash your face and do your hair
- When you pray, pray in your closet
- When you give, do it simply and quietly
The point is that God knows, and God sees, and God rewards. The point is that God’s the One who sustains us, and frees us, and compels us, then, to help to sustain, and to free, and to love, and to serve others in God’s name.
This is the fast that God desires. This is the reason for practicing the disciplines of Lent – to return to the sort of life God has wanted us to live all along. This shouldn’t be about just doing something, or about giving something up for the next 40 days, and then going right back to living how we’ve always lived. This is about a return to normalcy – a return to how God has always wanted us to be. This is about no longer being curved in on ourselves, but unclurling, opening up, so that God’s light can shine out through us, so that the dawn of God’s light, and life, and love can break forth…
So let us keep a faithful fast together, as we journey to the center of our faith in the keeping of the Great 3 Days. Amen!