March 23, 2014
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Matthew 9:14-17 and Isaiah 58:1-9
During this season of Lent we are focusing on holy habits; practices that will assist us in developing a devotional life, a life of continual awareness and expression of our love for God and for one another. These holy habits are what John Wesley called “means of grace,” or means of spiritual formation. Meditative, reflective scripture reading and prayer on a daily basis are foundational to a devotional life.
But also for Wesley, fasting — abstaining from food and drinking only water for a stated period of time — was a foundational holy habit. Just as he advised daily scripture reading and prayer, saying “it is for your life; there is no other way,” he also believed that fasting was an essential part of spiritual formation, writing “the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man that never prays.”[i] And when I read that, I thought, “Thank goodness, this only applies to men!”
I know very little of fasting as a spiritual practice, so preparing for today’s sermon has been an educational as well as a spiritual experience for me. I grew up in a home where the presence of food was celebrated, not its absence. There was a food for every occasion – not just the usual birthdays and holidays. My mother was the joyful celebrant of the daily sacrament of supper, the watchful supervisor of the clean plate club, the medical practitioner who doled out chicken soup, or ginger ale and saltine crackers to bring about healing; the soothing counselor who believed chocolate could make any difficult situation less dire. And she believed that any day was a better day if it had cake in it. For my family, food was love. It is no wonder then that my favorite personal spiritual discipline is what I call “sacrificial eating for others”!
In our Methodist household, fasting went along with fish on Fridays and other unusual practices, which were not part of our Protestant background! We just didn’t do those things. But as I have been reading this week, I think in our emphasis on feasting, we missed out on the benefits of fasting. But regardless of our upbringing, in our culture today fasting as part of spiritual development is definitely a minority practice.
The Bible, however, is full of examples of fasting. In the Old Testament Moses fasted 40 days on behalf of Israel’s sin. Several fasts of King David are recorded, primarily surrounding the death of significant persons in his life. Esther fasted, as did Ezra, Nehemiah, and Elijah. In the New Testament Jesus fasted 40 days after his baptism and before the beginning of his ministry, the disciples of John the Baptist fasted, Paul fasted 3 days after his Damascus Road conversion. And these just name a few of the biblical record of individual fasts
The people of Israel were also called upon to fast communally, especially once a year on the day of Atonement when they reflected on their sins of the past year were called to repentance. Fasting was a part of the repentance; it was bringing the body as well as the mind, heart, and soul into the process of discomfort over sin and desire to turn another way. As one person has described it, fasting was then and should be now “a whole body natural response to life’s sacred moments.”[ii]
But as is possible with any spiritual practice, fasting drifted into self-righteousness and self-absorption. Instead of being a response to a sacred moment, it became a manipulative tool used to guarantee results. Our scripture reading from Isaiah that Robert read speaks to that failing. God comments on the futile effort of the people to get God’s favorable attention as a result of their fasting. They complain, “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
And God’s response is “you have separated your piety from your practice. You fast and put on sackcloth and ashes to please me, but while doing these things you abuse your workers and become quarrelsome, angry, and violent.” The fast that God requires is not some kind of magical transaction with God to earn “brownie points” or “stars in our crown,” but a whole body response to the plight of the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, the naked, and the homeless.
I confess that I had always read this passage from Isaiah to mean that helping the poor and oppressed, performing acts of charity, could and should take the place of fasting. Naturally I would think that. But I have come to see that we should understand fasting, or “body poverty” is an act of solidarity with the poor and a demonstration of faith and hope for them.
In and of itself, however, fasting is not enough, and must be joined with acts of justice and compassion. John Wesley wrote, “What we give up in food can be converted into gifts to the poor; what we give up in time not spent eating can be converted into time spent relieving injustices.”[iii] One of the things I have always loved about John Wesley is his belief that warmed hearts make active hands, that the grace of God that has been given must be shared, and that personal holiness and social holiness are two halves of the same whole. Dr. Theodore Runyon, one of my teachers at Candler, explained it this way. “The love to us from the world’s Savior flows through us to all the world’s creatures, especially those in need and in distress.”[iv] I would like to suggest that this week we practice fasting – at least omitting one meal, or better yet two, and committing the money we would have spent on those meals to our offering next Sunday for the One Great Hour of Sharing. It’s a modest start, but if we’re going to see what this holy habit is like, then here’s a good opportunity to do so, and in the Wesleyan spirit!
God promised in Isaiah that if Israel changed its motivation for fasting from selfish reward and abuse of power to compassion for and solidarity with the poor, then they would be blessed. In the verses immediately following today’s reading, God says that if they care for the oppressed, the hungry, the afflicted, then “The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail . . . you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” (58:11-12)
Again, this promise is not transactional; it is not automatic. Our actions are not binding on God. But, if we as the people of God, turn from selfishness and the abuse of power to assist the poor and to work on their behalf, then justice may come in ways we’ve never imagined. If we believe that “fasting is connected to God and to God’s vision. If we come to God with God’s vision in mind and surrender our entire person – spirit and body – . . . for that vision, then perhaps we might discover that God’s blessings will pour forth.”[v]
If that were to happen, then God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven; God’s vision for the world would become a reality. And that is the vision Jesus was teaching his disciples both by word and by example. In today’s gospel reading, John’s disciples asked Jesus why they and the Pharisees fasted often, but Jesus’ disciples did not. And Jesus answers that fasting is an appropriate expression of hope in the future coming kingdom of God, but that it is not appropriate to fast when the kingdom is actually present, which it was in him. Then it is time for feasting. He says, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” But later, he says, when the bridegroom is no longer with them, it will be appropriate to fast.
I have to admit that I was surprised by that verse. I knew that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights, but that his disciples did not fast and they were criticized for it. I guess I was hoping that, like the disciples, this spiritual discipline might be one we could skip. But, then, there it was in black and white. We are called to fast as a response to the absence of Jesus and the recognition that the world is not yet what God envisions it to be. This kind of call to fasting is similar to the call in Isaiah because it is grows out of an awareness of the world as it is and the hope and confidence we have that God’s love, peace, and justice will be established on earth as it is in heaven. Just as fasting in solidarity with the poor is the body’s response to poverty, so fasting in anticipation of God’s future is the body’s expression of hope.
What I have come to learn about fasting is that it is the spiritual discipline that joins our body with our mind and our spirit in the devotional life. Especially when accompanied by prayer it is an expression of our whole selves; it joins our material body to our immaterial spirit. It keeps us from a dangerous dualism that holds the spiritual as being more “real” or more “important” than the physical. And it enables us to develop a devotional life that unifies body, mind, and spirit. Scott McKnight writes that “fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true.”[vi]
Frankly, I didn’t want to go here. I wanted to say a few brief words about abstaining from food as one way of fasting, and then move as quickly as possible to exhort you to abstain from other things that might have become idols in your life – like your cell phone, e-mail, FaceBook, Twitter, or other social media. I wanted to say fasting is a bit old fashioned; today in the 21st century we need to fast from our gadgets that control us. And maybe we do. But try as I might, I can’t get away from the feeling that unless we periodically experience abstaining from food, from actual physical nourishment, we will not ever fully realize our dependence on God as the ultimate source of our existence or develop a real sense of solidarity with the world’s hungry and oppressed, or increase our joyful anticipation of the time when those injustices are no more. Fasting, I have discovered, gives us a way to respond with our unified selves to the issues in our lives and in the world.
I know the power of reading scripture; and prayer is never far from me. But, I have never fasted before except to lose weight, and that, of course, doesn’t count. So, I’m going to do it this week and give the value of the missed meals to next Sunday’s special offering. I get hungry just thinking about it! I invite you to do it with me because there is strength in doing it together, and we can be encouraged by Wesley’s advice, “Let it be done unto the Lord . . . let our intention be this . . . alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” May it be so for you and for me as well. Amen.
[i] Scott McKnight, Fasting, 2009, 82.
[ii] McKnight, xiv.
[iii] McKnight, 105.
[iv] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, 1998, 163.
[v] McKnight, 111.
[vi] McKnight, 11.