Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Guest Sermon by Jan Robitscher of Berkeley, CA on fasting in Lent

“Will you call this a fast,
     a day acceptable to the Lord?”
(Isaiah 58:5)
Lent I Friday                                                                                                     Jan Robitscher
            Isaiah 58:1-9a                                                                           All Saints Chapel
            Psalm 51:1-10                                                                          CDSP
            Matthew 9:10-17                                                                                   March 7, 2014
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you know what today is? It is Friday, March 7 and it is the first Friday in Lent. But do you know what else it is? It is the National Day of Unplugging, also known as the Sabbath Manifesto.  Yes, a “fast” from all things wired for a day. I took the pledge!
Sounds easy, but for some, not so much.  Fasting, in any form,  is not part of our culture, but this was not true in earlier times.
Fasting (at least from food) has two sides: one practical and the other spiritual. It goes without saying that the poor always fast out of necessity, and that for some who have health  reasons, fasting from food is impossible. Until recently (and still the case in some cultures) food, and especially meat and all things dairy) was scarce in the early Spring. So people, whether poor or not, fasted as much by necessity as by choice. And they did it together, as a community. 
But our reading from Isaiah takes us far beyond the practical. Clearing the cupboard was one thing; clearing the heart was quite another. The people Israel fasted all right, but it didn’t seem to do any good. They complained to God:
          Why do we fast, but you do not see?
                    Why humble ourselves, but do not notice?” 
And the prophet, with full permission from God, gives them the straight answer:
          Look, you fast only to quarrel and fight
                    and strike with a wicked fist.
          Such fasting as you do today will not make
                    your voice heard on high.
It is not enough to fast--from food or cell phones or other pleasures. It matters WHY we fast, what is the disposition of our heart, and what are its FRUITS.
On Ash Wednesday we heard the components to our Lenten practice:
          Self-examination and repentance
          Reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word (BCP, p. 264)
Although alms-giving is not specifically mentioned, it is certainly implied. Moreover, these practices are interrelated, as the Early Church Fathers knew. St. Peter Chrysologus, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, preached about fasting. Although he named the practices differently, his point is well-made:
          There are three which faith stands firm,
devotion remains constant and  virtue endures.
          They are fasting, prayer and mercy [alms-giving].
          Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy
          receives. These three are one and give life to each
          other.... Let no one try to separate them...
The fast that God chooses, then is borne out in acts of mercy:
          To loose the bonds of injustice...
          To let the oppressed go free...
          When you see the naked, to cover them...
          Not to hide from your own kin...
In our Gospel reading, Jesus turns fasting on its head by eating with tax-collectors and sinners saying: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick”. The disciples ask why John’s disciples do not fast. Jesus assures them that they will fast “when the bride-groom is taken away from them.” Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection, came to overcome sickness, evil and death, and he comes still. If our fasting is a front for a heart fraught with quarreling and the “wicked fist” of anger or ruptured relationships, we need the healing Jesus offers. If we have separated fasting from prayer and alms-giving, we need Jesus’ healing to help us reconnect them for the fruit of good works. 
St. Peter Chrysologus
So, while we are not constrained to fast or abstain from food by dietary laws or by the scarcity of food, or even by the Church -- and while we don’t have to take the “Un-Plugging Pledge”, maybe we have, in Lent, an opportunity, to use  our fast from these things to turn our energies a different way, toward God. St. Peter Chrysologus put it this way:
          When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God
to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry.
          If you want mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness,
          show kindness. If you want to receive, give....
Then, says Isaiah the prophet:
          Then your light shall break forth like the dawn
                    and your healing shall spring up quickly...
          Then you shall call and the Lord will answer;
                    you shall cry for help and he will say,
                              Here I am.
Maybe we could fast with hearts made clean by healing and forgiveness. And maybe we could fast not alone, but in community. Such fasting might bear fruits--of the fast that God chooses-- that could make Easter for us a whole, new, amazing experience!

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