And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret and your Fahter who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6: 16-18
Fasting is one of those practices that during my lifetime has not been very heavily practiced by most Christians I know, but it is beginning to make a comeback, especially among young spiritual seekers who are seeking real and gritty spiritual practices of how they might draw closer to God. You see, we do a lot in this church in most churches to make it very easy for people to come in, to be a part of what is going on. We try to make the music appealing and the experience enjoyable and the seats comfortable and the temperature correct for the bulk of people, but sometimes to go deeper we need to be taken out of our comfort zone. We may wonder if there is something more to this relationship with God, and the answer is yes indeed there is and so I’m going to talk about fasting tonight and I don’t believe you can talk about fasting without actually using fasting as a spiritual discipline and so yes I do fasted, and have over this Lenten period, and I share this not to say, “Hey, look at me and the great and holy things I am doing.” Because it is something that I struggle with, because I know the way I should be living, but often I fall into the very temptations that Jesus turned away from. Yet I don’t like being hungry, of being forced to slow down. I know I too often buy into the societies message that we shouldn’t do without anything and that depriving myself of something is not only unhealthy, it is un-American. “If you are a child of God you shouldn’t be hungry, make bread and eat.” Fasting for me is an act of confession that sometimes I have so much that I no longer value what I have, that the food begins to lose its taste or appeal, that no matter what I have that it is never enough. Now I’m a good cook, a very good cook even and if you have eaten at my table or tasted something I’ve made most people would agree with that, yet even after I’ve made a good meal for my son and I, and even right after I have eaten I can see an ad for Red Lobster, or Buffalo Wild Wings, or Olive Garden, or Applebee’s, or any number of other restaurants and I can be hungry not for what I just ate but what is being paraded before my screen that I should want. Fasting is a confession that the food I eat sometimes looses its taste because I’m already full and I’m eating because the food is in front of me and so I eat. It is a confession that even though my spirit know s it is not true that I have bought into the illusion with my heart that having more is the way to happiness and by accepting less I am placing my practices and times and treasures where I hope my heart will someday follow. I confess that often I begin to believe that I am entitled to all the good things that are out there and that I no longer appreciate the things that are there. I fast as part of a confession that while I may know that I cannot serve God and money more often than not I am damn willing to give it a try. I know that I may not be worth mentioning in the same breath as Jesus and Paul, David and Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Daniel and Esther but they all fasted in the midst of their relationship with God and maybe just maybe they knew something. I know that in the Bible fasting is assumed, and it is not a coincidence that Jesus says “when you fast” rather than “if”. That there is something about the act of fasting as a spiritual practice that places us in a place where we might be able to draw close to God.
I’m going to invite you to consider something foolish with me, something I attempt to practice, which is in its own way an act of rebellion against the way things are. And so perhaps the place to begin is a confession: I have fasted, not every day, but typically one day out of the week throughout lent-this is not the first, nor will it be the last time I have fasted, and rather than taking away from life it frees me for life. Now we live in a world with two competing realities: one is to fit in to the perfect image, and particularly for young women but increasingly for men as well, to try to fit into the image of the models in magazines and actresses on the big screen-I am not advocating fasting as a method to achieve a thinner body to achieve some ideal that most of us were never meant to obtain. But the draw of that image is powerful and real, and even I struggle against it. But there is another reality that I think tries to consume each of us, and that is the reality that calls us to consume. We are consumers and the only thing that makes us happy is consuming, or so we are told.
I refuse to be a consumer, for that to be the primary measure of who I am. I refuse to be a slave to my belly. I empty myself trusting that God might fill me, for as Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill that which is already full.” In trying to follow Jesus, I humbly try to take some of the same paths he did, being willing to be guided by God into the wilderness to struggle against my own bodies desire to eat, not because eating or feasting is bad, but because there are times to feast and times to fast, and knowing the difference makes the feasting sweeter. I do it to enjoy life, not to deny life. I do it because it forces me to slow down for a day, to rest more and push less hard, it forces me into greater times of pause as I wait on God and listen. It reminds me of the injustices that are out there in the world and those who go to bed this night hungry, not because they choose to but because they have nothing while others have far too much. In my hunger I am reminded that blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (Matthew 5.6) or even more haunting in Luke’s gospel in the 6th chapter blessed are those who are hungry now for they will be filled…but woe to those who are full now for they will be hungry.
Now this is a discipline that I take and use, it is not for everyone. I don’t fast if I’m sick or if I feel like I am struggling with my emotions. But like recovering after being sick and you realize how well you feel, eating after fasting allows you to savor that which is there. I long to draw closer to God, not to be taken away from the world-but so that I too might learn like God to love the world in its struggles and illusions. One of the things I have realized is that God may call us away from the practices of the world so that we may be transformed to go back and point to the things that are good. To allow our eyes and ears to be opened to the places where the kingdom of God has indeed broken it.
It is only fair to acknowledge Bishop Michael Rinehart’s post on Why Fast? which made writing this sermon both easier and more challenging. Easier because he said many things I would want to say and said them very well, but more challenging because it was harder to find my own approach to this after he said it so well.