Thursday, October 17, 2013

Searching for Everyday Sacredness: Fasting

April 29, 2013, 1:04 PM

Searching for Everyday Sacredness: Fasting

Isaiah 58
Matthew 6:5-18
I don’t often preach on something about which I know nothing.  This is a discipline that intrigues me, just not enough to have tried yet other than before surgery or for a medical test.  Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines practiced by most of the world’s religions. 
A Jewish fast may have one or more purposes:
  • A tool for repentance
  • An expression of mourning
The only fast day mentioned in the Torah is in Leviticus 23:26-32 for the Day of Atonement which is a communal day of repentance and mourning.  It is a 25 hour fast from both food and water.
You’ll notice that in the gospel passage, Jesus does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast.”  I think we can assume that fasting was part of religious observance for Jesus and his culture.  Jesus cautioned his disciples not to draw attention to themselves when they were fasting—the fast was intended to be between them and God and not a public display of piety. 
The explanation that I liked best is on the cover of your bulletin.  It comes from Gail Ramshaw’s book Treasures Old and New
Ancient Judaism interpreted the scarcity of bread as divine punishment. . . . Because eating is a partaking of the goodness of God, fasting indicates that the supplicant [seeks] divine forgiveness.  The idea is that people who are fasting are practicing death: they are signifying their ultimate dependence on God by minimizing their natural dependence on food.[1] 
There is something in this explanation that resonates with Christians today who fast for clarity of vision and a deeper connection to God or dependence on God.  Fasting is a way to interrupt normalcy.  Brian McLaren writes:
To forgo normal eating—whether through a complete fast or through a partial fast—becomes a kind of dietary pilgrimage, a way of making sure we haven’t let the rhythms of the everyday put us to sleep, a way to make sure that our habits have not become addictions, that our kitchens have not become prisons.[2]    
So, is fasting guaranteed to help you feel closer to God?  McLaren says:
In my own experience, fasting exemplifies trust in the tradition.  Anyone who has seen my waistline knows that I won’t be accused of asceticism in regard to food.  But years ago I began the practice of fasting . . . for a meal, for three meals, even for a few days on a few occasions.  I don’t do this religiously, but rather occasionally.  Anyway, when I fast, I don’t in any way feel closer to God.
     In fact, when I fast, I mostly feel closer to pizza.  And glazed doughnuts.  And tortilla chips.  When I simply miss a couple of meals, they call to me, they haunt me, they stimulate culinary fantasies that in turn stimulate my salivary glands.[3] 
He tells about starting a fast and stopping on an errand at a Duncan Doughnuts.  He took the first bite and suddenly remembered his fast.  Should he just admit defeat and fall off the fasting wagon—and maybe buy a bear claw or jelly filled sugar doughnut?  They looked awfully good.  Or should he listen to the little angel voice in his head and throw away the doughnut?  And he had to laugh out loud at the tug of war that was going on in his head.  He threw away the doughnut.   He writes
Even though I didn’t have the foggiest notion of exactly how fasting was supposed to work, somehow that moment of laughing at myself told me that even though I was failing at fasting, the practice of fasting was succeeding.  I got back on the wagon for the rest of the day.  
     Nobody ever explained to me how fasting is supposed to work. . . . I just trusted my mentors and the tradition they represented, even though I couldn’t “analyze and account in detail for its effectiveness.”  Now, based on my experience, if you asked me how the practice of fasting works, here’s what I’d say . . . admitting quickly that my understanding of fasting is probably more developed than my actual resistance to doughnuts, and that’s kind of sad.
     During that day of fasting, I felt and acknowledged my weakness in the face of impulses and cravings from my body.  Doing so was so humbling that it erupted in a good laugh at myself.  The laughter expressed a kind of sympathy for myself. . . .And it also expressed, I think, a kind of joy in learning something, an acknowledgment that I had little idea how much of my life was controlled by bodily appetites.  At least at that moment, through the subconscious magnetism of sugar and fat that drew me into the parking lot, into the store, and up to the counter, I had a better idea of my weakness than I did before. 
     Second, when I fasted that day, I practiced impulse control.  Of course, I didn’t even know how out-of-control my impulses were until I had taken the first hundred-calorie bite.  But when I dropped those five hundred remaining calories of delight into the trash can, I said a completely unheroic, embarrassed, and humbled no to my craving.
     Simultaneously, I asserted to myself the importance of something other than impulse gratification.  In this case, the “something other . . . was a kind of vague desire for spiritual growth . . . maybe not very impressive, but at least better than a doughnut.
     Fasting that day also helped me trade something I could see for something I couldn’t.  Somehow admitting (with a laugh) my spiritual poverty and weakness of will opened me up to receive a different kind of sweetness and satisfaction.  Again, I didn’t know exactly what that sweetness and satisfaction might be, but because of my trust in my community of mentors and the tradition they carried, I had a hunch it would be worthwhile.[4]  
I will tell you that I know some people who have tried fasting for spiritual renewal, or in search of spiritual clarity and they have found it to be very helpful. 
There are other ways of fasting.  Giving up favorite foods during Lent is a kind of fast.  I have done that—without finding any sacredness, just deprivation.  On the other hand, I find today’s reading from Isaiah to be very exciting.  Isaiah very clearly tells us that God will not be swayed or manipulated by our fasting.  Fasting may help us to see ourselves more clearly and to teach us to depend on God, but it is not to gain God’s favor.  “This is the fast that I choose,” declares the Lord,
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[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
There is something so pure and vivid and true in these words.  How can I be in right relationship with God, if I am not is right relationship with my loved ones, my neighbors, and the whole of my community?  How can I say I love God if I do not honor the rest of God’s creation?  If we want our families, communities, nation and world to thrive, then we have to seek justice.  Justice is harder to work toward than fasting from food and for all the same reasons.  Our social addictions are as dangerous and life-threatening as physical addictions and as hard to break.  They take a willingness to trust, perseverance, and prayer.   
There’s a story in the three synoptic gospels about Jesus coming down the mountain after he has been transfigured in the presence of a few of his disciples.  He is approached by a man whose son has fits that throw him into the fire (perhaps epilepsy).  The disciples have not been able to heal the boy.  After Jesus does heal him, the disciples ask Jesus why they were not effective.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells them that this type of healing requires prayer and fasting.  It may have been abstinence from food that Jesus was talking about, or it may have been a heart that is willing to enter impossible situations committed to the welfare of the other.  I see so many more possibilities for finding everyday sacredness in the small daily decisions that enable sustainable living, that protect the environment, that honor human dignity, and that work and sacrifice for economic justice.  Seriously, way harder than throwing away a doughnut.  What is the fast that you will choose?


[1] Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002),
[2] Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 28.
[3] Ibid., 72.
[4] Ibid., 72-73.

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