ever intentionally fasted?
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
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
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.
sermons by Pastor Joan