Have you ever intentionally fasted?

May I see by a show of hands, how many of you have ever intentionally fasted? I'm talking about a fast with spiritual intentions, not what you do before a blood test at the doctor's or by accident when you are just working so hard you forget to eat? I'm not talking about broken New Year's weight loss resolutions or the chocolate you said you were giving up for Lent.

I ask just to see if you have any experience with what the Matthew text is talking about? Many years ago, I attended a church that had the custom of fasting once a month. The members of the congregation would begin with the last meal of the day on Saturday and refrain from eating anything for approximately 24 hours or until the evening meal on Sunday. Sunday's worship service was known as Fast and Testimony. You had the opportunity to stand before the congregation and share your life stories that witnessed to Jesus, or insights you had gained during your fast. Then, there was a dedicated offering that included the amount that you figured you had saved by not eating - and that amount went to feed the poor and hungry.

I really enjoyed that service. It was one way to provide for the less fortunate and it gave everyone a chance to speak out loud and publicly declare many of the joys that were on our hearts. And, then, because everyone was fasting, my misery from hunger had company and we would commiserate about what that next meal was going to be. As a young adult, we would take it as an opportunity to get together and try out new restaurants.

While all of that was rewarding and fun, I know now I truly missed the point of fasting. We were guided by this passage not to sit around and complain about feeling hungry, so, it simply became a discomfort to get through, rather than an experience to engage in fully. The experience of fasting does not, of course, have to mean going without food. It can be any kind of self-imposed restriction where you will feel some physical, mental, or emotional sense that you are being deprived of - something that is normally in your daily routine. Something you have come, often unknowingly, to depend on. What, you may ask is the good of that?

For one, it confronts you with yourself. Not the beautiful side that you dress, couif and make-up in front of the mirror each morning, the person you want to present to the world. Rather you are face-to-face with a less than perfect you. The grumpy one whose bodily needs are starting to win over the rational mind or your best intentions. Cravings distract you from your planned activities. It is at this point, most of us decide to abandon or shorten the fast.

Instead, this is the place where we ought most definitely stay. It is the first leg of the journey, so to speak. St. Augustine once said that fasting makes room for God. For as long as we fill our perceived needs with surface solutions, we have not perceived our need for Jesus. But if we choose to continue in this place of hungering for something, we begin to sense the longings of creation and hear the voice of Jesus encouraging us to meet those longings head on.

Years ago, when I gave my token monetary donation to the poor on Fast and Testimony Sunday, I did not hear or feel their hunger pangs because I all too quickly ran to TGI Fridays to squelch my own. I did not want to feel what millions feel every day around the world.- Those who stop smoking for 24 hours rarely think of the struggle of alcoholics and drug addicts who long to live free again. That's because the first stage of a fast is about self. But the longer we are able to sustain our own self-denial, the closer we can grasp the plight of those Jesus died to save. And, the closer we draw to the will of God.

Many of you may remember the movie Gandhi filmed in 1982 or read the book about his life? He was a native of India during the days when it was a British colony. Gandhi had been educated in England and returned home as an accomplished attorney. Riding in first class accommodations aboard a train in South Africa, he literally was thrown off the train for being brown skinned and daring to sit where only the privileged sit. It did not matter that he confronted the conductor with what he was used to doing in England, "I always ride first class."

As he picked himself up from the dusty ground, he stood and surveyed the scene with new eyes. He began to see the plight of the poor, underprivileged, oppressed, marginalized people that lived under the yoke of a wealthy minority. Slowly, he realized that to truly understand and represent these people he would deny himself the luxuries his education could provide. We see Gandhi change from his Western clothes, to homespun, from shoes to barefeet. He established a community in which all shared equally in all the work including raking and covering over the latrines, Muslims, Hindus, whites, browns, all living peacefully with no class structure.

While our fasting and our self-denial will rarely bring us to such extreme action, it can and will carry us to a place of new awareness. For as we empty ourselves, Jesus will fill us. As we experience longing for whatever we once had, we begin to recognize dependency and weakness. We see that external things have power over us and we are not able to change that. We begin to question the choices we have made that have brought us to such a place. And then we begin to see how universal is our plight. We see that we have had so much and the others have so little. We pray that society will change and that Jesus would show us our purpose and participation in that change. It is the birth of compassion.

Yet, compassion can be overwhelming because it draws us closer to Jesus, closer to the God that was willing to carry our deepest longings, our selfishness, our weightiest sins as far as death on the cross. Jesus, human like us, lived humbly. He sent his disciples out without a change of clothes. He told them not to worry where their next meal was to come from. He asked them to trust that their every need would be met. Give up everything and follow me. The ultimate fast. Divest yourself of your earthly longings and gain new life.

People like Gandhi and Mother Teresa understood the power of self-denial. Through their poverty they ministered to thousands. But it begins with the first fast. In that first fast you wrestle with yourself and your earthly needs, but slowly your eyes open to the world that Jesus sees, to the people he loves.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan