During Lent, many people fast from meat, chocolate, alcohol, or other vices. Fasting is a spiritual practice that can draw us closer to God by helping us remember that we are not self-sufficient but rely on so many things beyond ourselves to survive. What are we asked to give up or take on during this season of Lent? According to God, what is a faithful fast?
Isaiah 58: 6-12
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
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.
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.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
How do you mark the Season of Lent, these forty days before Easter?
The number forty has much significance in the Bible: it rained for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah; the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years on their way to the Promised Land; Jesus fasted and was in the wilderness for forty days following his baptism, preceding his ministry. The number forty represents a time of testing and trial; a time of preparation for something new and something life-changing.
In the middle ages, Lent became a time of giving up something as a sign of penitence as we prepare and ready ourselves for the transformation and new life that is Easter. And oftentimes, fasting, in some way, shape, or form, was a part of that Lenten preparation.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline practiced not just in Christianity, but in almost all of the major forms of religion. It requires that we abstain from something, oftentimes eating or drinking, or a certain activity. Today, it’s common to hear people fasting from chocolate, meat, alcohol, or even social media during the season of Lent.
During the period of fasting, as we abstain from something, we remember that we are dependent on so much. As we reach for that piece of chocolate or glass of wine and remember, “oh wait- I’m fasting from that”, we are invited to consider how we might depend on God more and more, reach for God and God’s grace and love more and more.
It is also pretty common these days for people to take on something for Lent rather than give up. To take on a new spiritual practice or a way of being in the world. The idea behind it is similar: to change something about our daily lives, to interrupt it enough, so that we are more aware of God’s presence and love in our lives and in the world.
I’ve actually tried the kind of fasting where you just don’t eat, refrain from eating altogether for a full day, sometimes longer. It’s as if you’re keeping vigil, kind of like our Muslim sisters and brothers might do during the day for Ramadan.
Fasting was a spiritual practice my parents often adhered to when they were seeking guidance or help from God. They’d pray and fast and hope to hear from God in a new and clear way. There was something about emptying yourself that allowed them to be filled with God instead. And my mom has stories of experiencing God and hearing God’s voice in miraculous ways during these times of fasting.
My parents did this every once a while, and I grew up with this tradition, admiring it, understanding the role it could play in a Christian’s life. So, in college, I learned about this program through World Vision called The 30 Hour Famine. For 30 hours, students are encouraged to fast, the purpose of which is to be in solidarity with those who are going hungry in the world, and to raise awareness about hunger while raising funds to combat hunger. Their catch phrase, if you will, is, “Be hungry…so the world can be hunger free.”
So, I tried it. And about six hours into it, I realized I am really, really bad at fasting, really bad.
It doesn’t point me to God or connect me to others in some profoundly deep and meaningful way. It doesn’t awaken something within me that helps me see or experience God in the world or in my neighbor. Fasting just leaves me hungry and angry – “hangry” as Alison mentioned during the children’s meditation.
I thought I was supposed to eventually get beyond the hunger to a state of some kind of transcendence. You know, where I am attuned to God in a brand new way. But that never happened. I could not see beyond myself or my hunger. And as I ate and broke my fast, I committed instead to be thoroughly grateful for the privilege of abundant food and to experience God in every delicious and delightful bite.
I’m sure this says a lot about me and my faith: my own selfishness, my inability to deny myself. All that, I’m sure is in there.
But I’ve also realized that we’re all created differently, and we all connect with God and with God’s people in different ways. Perhaps fasting works for you as it does my parents. But maybe there are other ways, other spiritual disciplines and practices that work better for different individuals.
And if I’m really honest, my failings in fasting have helped keep me from being overly self-righteous. To be fair, I’m plenty self-righteous about other things, so imagine if I were good at fasting, too.
I think Isaiah, in this passage, is combating some of our self-righteous tendencies and lifting up instead compassion and action. He is calling the Israelites to rethink their worship, to reexamine their spiritual disciplines, the ways in which they have become “religious” and to consider if that is still in line with how God wants them to live their day to day lives.
Today, Charlane read for us Isaiah 58:6-12. These are powerful words from the prophet Isaiah; they should startle us and shake us, challenging us. But we left out some of the verses that precede this passage, that lay some of the context for why Isaiah says what he does.
So please open your pew Bibles and read with me these verses again.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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?
Friends, this is the word of the Lord, Thanks be to God.
The Israelites were fasting, but their behavior wasn’t changing. In fact, they were oppressing their workers and fighting amongst each other. And that missed the purpose of fasting altogether.
Richard Rohr, who may be a bit of a modern-day Isaiah for the Christian church, although based on his writings and what I’ve seen of him, I bet he’s a lot more pleasant to have around than the prophet Isaiah would’ve been, says this to the church: “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself.”
The earliest Christians called our faith, “The Way.” “The Way,” as in a way of being in the world, a way to live our lives.
Since then, we have created, for better or for worse, a religion, an established religion.
There are good things that come with that: tradition, liturgy, beautiful songs and sanctuaries, a calendar to which we might order our lives. If we gave up the “established religion” part of Christianity, I would be unemployed, so trust me, I see the great, many wonderful things about this.
But to be honest, that’s why most pastors like me, can’t also be prophets, not in the way Isaiah, Jeremiah, or even Jesus was. I benefit way too much from a church and a worship that clings to the way it’s always been. It works in my favor to uphold it. That’s probably why the institutional church tends to be so slow to change.
But I try, and I know Victor and many of colleagues do, too, to listen, the best we can, to our sisters and brothers on the margins, on the edges of Christianity who call out from the wilderness, critiquing and challenging our faith, the church, and my preferred style of worship.
I try to listen because oftentimes it is much easier to just be religious. And much, much harder to be like Christ, to live as God commands.
Some of us have very set ways in which we have chosen to be religious. For many Presbyterians in Europe and in North America, we have become the “Frozen Chosen,” am I right? We are frozen to our pews, occasionally rising from them and sitting back down if we are able, but mostly, we listen and let worship come to us. There is very little participation or back and forth. But others of us come from different traditions, where a response is not only appreciated, but necessary. The preacher and the worship leaders want to know that the people are not only listening but connecting and feeling God’s presence, and they know this through the “amen’s” and the clapping and the responses that come from the congregation. Worship is a two-way dialogue in some traditions.
And we can get really mired about which way pleases God more when it’s really just a preference, our preference, not God’s.
I laugh a little when people come up to me and share how much they “got out” of worship on a Sunday, or, on the flipside, how little they “got out” of worship. Because, see, by nature, the very word “worship” itself denotes that it is not about us. It is about God. Worship is what we bring to God. And we can bring worship in silence; we can bring worship through song; we can bring worship through loud laughter and clapping; however we may bring our worship, what God really seeks is an honest and humble heart that is willing to listen and grow and be molded by God’s love.
And I assume, that’s what people really mean when they say they, “got something” out of worship, that something about the service transformed them in some way, empowered them to live differently in the world. That is the fast, that is the worship that God seeks. It’s actually a lot simpler than all the things that we feel like we have to get “right” or “perfect.” It’s simpler, but it’s not always easier.
At the root of it, I think for Christians our worship and the spiritual disciplines that God calls us to are rooted in the cross. Take, for example, the Hope and Joy cross on the chancel this morning.
See, the cross has a vertical element to it. I’ve been told that represents our relationship with God, the up and down. But it also has a horizontal element, representing our relationship with one another.
I invite you to draw your eyes upward, towards the heavens. Know that God loves you and invites you to a deeper and fuller life.
I now invite you to look at your neighbors sitting next to you in your pews. (I know it’s awkward, try it any way.) Just as God loves you, God loves each of these people, and all whom you will encounter today. Love them, too. Seek justice and love and peace on their behalf and yours.
That is “The Way” first introduced by a homeless, Palestinian Jew named Jesus. He said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is all that simple. And it is all that hard. That is the heart of worship, the purpose of fasting and any spiritual discipline we might endeavor: to love God and to love neighbor.
Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church would not ordain me, a woman. But I admire and learn from him nonetheless, proving that we can all love and learn from those with whom we disagree.
He said this at the beginning of this Lenten Season:
Do you want to fast this Lent?
Fast from hurting words and say kind words
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude
Fast from anger and be filled with patience
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope
Fast from worries and trust in God
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity
Fast from pressures and be prayerful
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others
Fast from grudges and be reconciled
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen
Friends, let us seek a fast that is pleasing to God, one that breaks the yoke of oppression and feeds the hungry and clothes the naked.
Bryan Stevenson who wrote the New York Times Best Seller Just Mercy says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”
We, as a church, have committed to breaking cycles of poverty. As such, we have committed to justice.
So, yes, this is our prayer during this Season of Lent: “O God, may justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Amen and amen. May it be so.