Sunday, 28 February 2016

Lenten Fasting - A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent - Revd Sue Watson

I need to ask you a question: is anybody giving something up for Lent? And what sort of things are you giving up?

What do you think this is all about- depriving ourselves of the things we enjoy? Why do we do it- or attempt to do it? I wonder if it’s so that we can pat ourselves on the back and congratulate ourselves on our will-power, when we arrive at Easter and we’ve succeeded? And succeeded in what?

I’ve found myself asking these questions recently, as I prepare-yet again- to give up red wine for forty days- minus Sundays, which are, after all, feast days, not fast days!

What am I trying to achieve and who will benefit from my exertions?

Well, I know that I’ll benefit, if I’m healthier and if I lose weight – which I doubt I will…but will it be of any other use, to give up something I enjoy, just to take it up again when Lent is over? It’s a question worth pondering.

I guess ‘giving something up’, if you like, is a watered-down version of the idea that Lent has always been one of those times when the church has called upon the people to fast. ‘Giving something up’ isn’t a complete fast, but it is abstinence- abstinence from a particular thing such as meat, or chocolate…

Since the early centuries, the Church has suggested three things that we should undertake during Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is for this reason that the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday every year is Jesus’ advice on prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18):    “ Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward in heaven…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 Father, who sees in secret will reward you.”

In other words, don’t do it in public to make a show- do it privately, so that God knows, but no-one else – and Jesus applies this direction to prayer and giving alms, as well as to fasting.

In years past, the notion of a fast on certain days was common: Friday, for example, the day of the crucifixion, was never a day to eat meat, hence the fish and chip tradition! But there have also been many other days when fasting was required, for example: the eves of Christmas, the Purification and the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Easter Eve and the eve of certain saints’ days, as well as the Ember days and the three Rogation days.

I have heard it said that there is currently a growing interest in society in fasting, for spiritual reasons. That may be so, but if you search Google now, most of the references you find to fasting are about dieting: the five-two diet, intermittent fasting, the five day fast. In a part of the world where food is so readily available to most of us, society at large tends to think of fasting as a way to lose excess weight.

But the notion of fasting is very Biblical and it has a spiritual purpose. Fasting was a regular practice in Israel, often a communal as well as an individual activity, with the whole community engaged in fasting together: when the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus they asked “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responded by saying that fasting is not for the time when the bridegroom is with his disciples, but the time will come when he is no longer with them…and then they will fast. Here we see that Jesus sees fasting as something reflective, associated with a certain sadness, or sense of something lacking and an activity designed to keep in touch with God…and so he clearly expects his followers to have times of fasting when he is no longer with them.

So what is fasting and what exactly is it meant to achieve?

Fasting, broadly speaking, is the voluntary avoidance of eating something that is good. When Christians talk about fasting, we normally mean restricting the food that we eat. We can fast between meals by not eating snacks, or we can engage in a complete fast by abstaining from all food on certain days. The English word breakfast, in fact, means the meal that breaks the fast.

While fasting takes the form of refraining from eating for a period of time, its purpose is to do with taming our bodies and taking the focus off our bodily needs so that we can concentrate on higher, more spiritual things.

 Of course, there is the issue of how we get to the point of ignoring the hunger pangs, so that all we think about is food, defeating the object of focussing more on God and our relationship with him! That takes time to learn and to practice. But the practice of letting go of our obsession with feeding and comforting our physical bodies will, in time, allow our minds to focus on our spiritual, rather than our physical needs. It will open the door to a closer awareness of God, heightened sensitivity to his creation, and, indeed, to other people and their needs.

This isn’t of course, to say that food isn’t a necessary requirement for healthy living…that would be silly: when Jesus is in the wilderness and fasting, the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. Jesus didn’t respond by saying that he didn’t need bread – what he said was that living needs both bread and the word of God: As the Gospel of Matthew says: “One does not live by bread alone… but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”- a quotation from the Hebrew scriptures, Deuteronomy Chapter 8. We need to get the balance right between our focus on our bodily needs and on our spiritual needs. Sometimes these are out of kilter and fasting is a way of correcting the balance.

So, the advantage to me, as an individual, of fasting might be that I lose weight, that I’m therefore healthier and that I have been able to focus my attention more on my heavenly Father through prayer and meditation and now find myself closer to him. That would surely be well worth the effort.

But is it enough? This kind of fasting and prayer as a very personal and individual thing, bringing benefit just to oneself is not the whole picture.  The value of fasting and prayer goes much deeper than this and there is a further step to take: there are consequences for getting closer to God.

When Jesus talks about piety- our religious practice – he links three things: prayer, fasting and giving. ..our religious practice, says Jesus includes all three of these things, not just prayer and fasting, but looking outward, looking towards others in their need, supporting those who are without the basic necessities of life- giving our money and our time to them, campaigning for changes in oppressive behaviour by governments and institutions which practice unfair discrimination, highlighting corrupt employment practice - caring in whatever ways we can.

What Jesus is talking about here is seeking justice for all: and this flows outwards from true religious observance- from fasting and prayer: all three things are inter-connected: prayer, fasting and caring for the needs of others.

In the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel fasted together but were far from God and God says to them, through the prophet: “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways as if they were a nation that practised righteousness…”In other words, their fasting was hollow, it was not linked to righteous behaviour or the requirements of God- justice and mercy. Let me read to you the words of God, spoken by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel:

‘Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, 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?
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.’

Jesus fasted in the wilderness, he prayed in the wilderness and then he exercised a ministry among the people which proclaimed justice and mercy for the poor and the excluded, healing and wholeness for all those in need. He sought out the despised and ate with them, he offered forgiveness to the wrong-doer and he brought joy and feasting to those who chose to follow him. He calls us to do the same.

And, as was promised, when Jesus called out to his Father on the cross for help, the Lord answered and said: “Here I am” and he raised him up on the third day

May our Lenten fast, whatever its form, lead us to act in the world as he acted: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.


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