Tuesday, February 24, 2015

When You Fast...

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Isaiah 58:1-9a and Mark 1:9-15:

Today we begin a new sermon series which will take us through the season of Lent in which we are going to be looking at spiritual disciplines.  We are only going to be looking at five of all of the spiritual disciplines, but all of these practices’ purposes are to help us strengthen our faith and to deepen our relationship with God.  But, a caution to always keep in mind is that many of them, or maybe even all of them, can be practiced without putting God first, of merely being an outward sign without signifying any inward change, which is why God is chastising the Israelites in the passage we just heard from Isaiah.  One of idea to keep in mind is about the word discipline.  Most of us don’t really like the word discipline, even if it has the word spiritual in front of it, or maybe especially if it has the word spiritual in front of it.  When we hear the word discipline what do we normally think of? (punishment…)   While that is certainly part of the meaning of the word, there is more to it than that.  There is an area of knowledge, especially in higher education, so I could say that theology is one of the oldest disciplines and then there is activities or exercises done, usually following a set of rules, that allow us to increase our skill in something, which is more the discipline we are thinking of here.  That’s what athletes do when they begin practicing.

If you want to become a world class athlete, you can’t just practice your craft for 20 minutes every other day or so.  It has to be something which you do for long periods of time every day, which means you have to choose what other things you are going to eliminate from your life and you take on the discipline in your life of doing what is necessary in order to reach your goal or to attain a certain level of mastery in what you are doing.  So what the spiritual disciplines do is very similar.  They are a set of practices to help us achieve our goal, and hopefully we have such a goal, of deepening our faith, of becoming better in what we do and what we know about our faith, and most importantly of coming into better communion with God.  And so today we begin with our first spiritual discipline and it is the one that most people think of for Lent and that is fasting.

Fasting as a practice has been, and still is, found in most religions, and is practiced for many different reasons.  It is found throughout scripture and is also found in the history of both Judaism and Christianity.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a vigorous defender and practitioner of fasting and required that his minters fast every Wednesday and Friday, the traditional days within Christianity, and refused to ordain anyone who did not follow this teaching.  And yet he also understood some of the pitfalls of fasting and said that “some have exalted religious fasting beyond all scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.  In studiously avoiding the one, let us watch against the other.”  That is that there are two sorts of extremes when it comes to fasting.

The first is to just ignore it all together, and the second is to practice it but to a degree to which it loses all meaning or purpose and only take the form of fasting without any of the attendant benefits.  Indeed, many of you will remember when it was required of all Catholics to refrain from eating meat, which was part of the Friday fast.  But one of the reasons that was removed under Vatican II was because the Pope saw that people were following the letter of the law without understanding the underlying purpose and reason, and so the hope was to allow people to return to fasting with intentionality rather than as a requirement.  That is also the injunction we hear from God in the passage from Isaiah, that doing a fast without the other things that God requires of us renders the practice meaningless.  It is merely form without the function.

Because fasting is not something we hear a lot about today, especially people fasting for religious reasons, there is a lot of confusion about what fasting is and what it is not, sort of like the advertisement for a prayer and fasting conference which said that the registration fee included meals.  A fast by definition means to abstain, and while you can abstain from many things, like television, it’s original meaning and the meaning found in scripture is about abstaining from food.  There are several different types of fasting we see in scripture.

The first is a partial fast.  A partial fast, just like it sounds, is when we remove stop eating only a portion of our normal diet, but we are still eating other things.  In the book of Daniel, we are told that he went on a partial fast not eating rich food, meat or drinking wine for 3 weeks, and he does so as part of his mourning ritual.  A partial fast is what many people undertake during the season of Lent

The second type of fast is a full fast, which is the normal fasting we find in scripture, in which we stop eating all food for a period of time.  Although Mark doesn’t mention it in his version of the temptation story that we heard today, but in Matthew and Luke’s account we are told that Jesus is fasting during his forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, that is he is doing entirely without food.  We can find this fast throughout scripture, undertaken for a number of reasons, and by many people.  If you were here last week, we heard the story of the transfiguration.  Who are the two figures who appear on the mountain with Jesus? (Moses and Elijah)  They both undertake long fasts; can anyone guess how long their fasts lasted? (40 days)  And that is about the extent of time that a normal fast can last, and we’ll come back to why in just a moment.

The final type of fast is an absolute fast, and that is where not only food abstained from but also all liquid is also not taken.  This is the most extreme, and also the most dangerous.  But in Esther we are told that the people undertake a three day absolute fast, and we are also told that Paul takes a 3 day absolute fast after he encounters Christ on the road to Damascus.  While we can do without food for long extended periods of time, we cannot be without water for more than 3 days without severe negative effects taking place, including death.  So if you are ever to think of an absolute fast, never do it longer than 3 days, and my recommendation would be not to ever take an absolute fast unless you have received clear, and I mean very clear, instruction from God that that is what you are supposed to do and again never do it for more than 2-3 days.

There are several reasons in scripture why people would fast.  The first was for mourning, either for a personal or a national tragedy.  Indeed, this is still part of Judaism as there are several fast days set aside recognizing the destruction of the Temple, both times, as well as for the holocaust.  A second reason was for repentance.  This is part of the reason why fasting has become part of the Lenten practices as Lent is a season of repentance.  Indeed, the only ordinary fast called for by scripture is for Yom Kippur, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar, which is the day of atonement, and scripture calls for this to be an absolute fast.  But, several weeks ago we heard a passage from Jonah in which he warns the people of Nineveh to repent or God would destroy their city, and so what do they do?  They repent by covering themselves in sack cloth and ashes and by fasting.  The third reason was in preparation for some religious practice, usually as a purification rite, so for example Moses fasted before he received the Ten Commandments.  Within Christianity, it became tradition to fast for 24 hours before being baptized as well as to fast for one or two days before Easter.  A final reason which we find in scripture, although it is not stated as a specific goal, is that sometimes when people were fasting they would have mystical experiences, in particular visions and dealing with God.

These visions often were accompanied by intense periods of prayer and prayer and fasting have often gone together, and should go together.  That while you can pray without fasting, you should not fast with prayer.  In addition, giving is also linked with the practice of fasting.  In the Sermon on the Mount, there is a triad portion where Jesus links prayer, fasting and giving, and gives very similar instructions for each, one of them being not to let others know what you are doing and to make sure that we are putting God first.  And in this series of instruction, Jesus says, when you fast….  He doesn’t say, if you fast, as if he expects that some will fast and some won’t, but he also doesn’t say that we must fast, which means that we are not under or command to do it.  Instead, it is something which we freely get to choose to do and we also get to choose when we might fast and how we should fast.  For some people, like those who use insulin for diabetes, a normal fast could be medically dangerous, so you need to speak with your doctor about that, and you might have to only do a partial fast, abstaining from certain things.  But for many, a partial fast isn’t really enough, that we need to do a normal fast in order to get the full effects of fasting.

And we also need to note that fasting and starvation are not one and the same thing.  When we are hungry we might say “I’m starving,” but are we really?  The answer is no.  A normal fast will take 20-40 days or more in most people before we begin to starve ourselves.  Up until that point the body is living off of the reserves that it has stored up.  That is why we are told, again in Matthew and Luke, that at the end of his 40 days fast that Jesus was hungry, his body had just entered the starvation stage and so he stopped.  If you are on a longer normal fast you will actual lose the desire to eat, the hunger pains, after 3-5 days and won’t feel them again until your body actually needs to eat.  Because the rumbling in your stomach, the hunger pains we feel when we miss one meal, is simply your stomach acting like a spoiled child.  For most of us, it’s used to getting three solid meals and a couple of snacks throughout the day, and so when it doesn’t get it it throws a temper tantrum.  But just like a spoiled child, it needs to be reined in.   and one of the ways we can do that, of bringing our bodily urges under control, or realizing why we might be eating more than we need, such as trying to overcome anger or depression or other emotions that we mask with food, is to tame those urges, which also means that sometimes fasting can be painful because we have to face all those feelings and emotions.  As someone said, in fasting we do not need to extinguish the fire in the grate, only to prevent the coals from falling out and setting the place on fire.

But most importantly, fasting is about putting our allegiance with God, and trusting in God.  And that means that if the fast is not about God, then we are not doing it for the right reasons.  There are lots of good reasons for fasting that are not religious, but for us as disciples it’s about putting God first in our lives.  The first thing that Jesus says about fasting, which comes again from the Sermon on the Mount, is about motive, and fasting for the right reasons, and not just about show.  If fasting does not center on God, then we have failed in practicing a Christian fast.  And for us as Christians, fasting is not about suffering or doing penance to God, because Jesus already did that.  We might indeed need to seek forgiveness, and fasting can help us in that, but we should truly be fasting because we are seeking deeper communion with God, to be transformed by God.  That means that giving up chocolate for Lent might not be a really good fasting idea because it’s not connecting us with God in a deeper way, unless, for example, we say that we are going to take the money we had been spending on chocolate and giving it to charity, and contemplating if chocolate is being used to cover up something else that God could help us properly deal with.

The other problem, and this is the one I had when I tried fasting is what we do with the extra time.  I once tried fasting once a week for about 3 months, but I wasn’t using the extra time in which I would normally be preparing food or eating to pray or study or doing something to deepen my spiritual life, but instead I simply worked through meal times.  It just allowed me to be more productive in my day.  That is not a good fast.  That was merely the outward manifestation of fasting without any inward and spiritual events taking place.  Fasting is about learning to ignore the bodily hunger and instead to feed and nourish our spiritual hunger.  Hunger is about not having what we need, or more often what we want, and yearning for it, so fasting helps to understand and focus on the things for which we should truly hunger.

We haven’t even begun to even really touch the surface of how to fast and the purpose of fasting, and I had hoped to give some more details about what a Christian fast might look like and how to approach it, but we’ll have to come back to that at some point.  But here is what I will say.  First is that if you have not fasted before, don’t try and start with a 30 day or even a 7 day fast.  That would be like trying to run a marathon when you haven’t even started running around the block.  Instead we need to build into it.  Start with fasting for one meal and spend that time in prayer and give the money you would have spent on that meal to charity.  And then build up to two meals, and do that several times, and then a 24 hour fast.  And second, if you have questions or would like more information please speak with me because I can give you some advice, you can learn from my mistakes, and also point you in the direction of resources that target specifically fasting for spiritual purposes, rather than health purposes.  That doesn’t mean that fasting is an either or, but for us fasting should be primarily first about our spiritual lives.

Rev. Steve Garnas-Holmes, a friend of mine, wrote yesterday about giving up something for Lent and said that it is “not about self-punishment, but self-awareness, not resolve but transformation.” It’s not about giving up something that’s bad for us only for 40 days, but giving it up for good, and “it’s about becoming free to be the people God creates us to be.”  Fasting is about aligning our lives and our will with God’s will for our lives, about freeing ourselves from worrying about what we are going to eat, not as a mere outward form, as those that were chastised by Isaiah were doing, but instead in a deep, moving, transforming and spiritual way so that by our fasts we are never the same people again because it turns out, just as Jesus said, that we are not sustained by food alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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