Sunday, March 16, 2014

Tzum: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

During Lent 2014 I am again using chapters from Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath as a guide to exploring some of the practices and traditions of Judaism as a way of focusing on Jesus in an attempt to follow him more closely. This is the sermon I preached when I first did this three years ago:

During the season of Lent our church is studying some chapters from Lauren Winner's book Mudhouse Sabbath. The sermons during this time will also follow through on some of her writing, but the sermon author claims all mistakes and goofy ideas as his own.

To us, this probably seems like an odd instruction for Jesus to give. We're not used to people highlighting their fasting times the way the ancient Jews and others might have done, by putting ashes on our faces or tearing our clothes. While those were appropriate things to do during mourning times, Jesus says his people should not do so every time they fast. In fact, most of the times it seems like they should act like nothing's different.

In fact, they should try to keep their fasting a secret! If it's possible, no one should know about it. I'm sure Jesus would not have meant that they should lie if someone asked them, but anything short of that would seem to be in order so they could hide the fact that they're fasting. And that seems a little weird to us, I imagine.

Now, if the teaching was to avoid bragging about fasting, we could see the sense in that, couldn't we? "Hey, everyone! I'm fasting, and I'm doing it because I'm so much holier than you are. In fact, my fasting is making me even more holy, so I'm going to stay away from you as you go on about your sinful and much less holier than me day. Jesus loves you!" Bragging about fasting and the holiness it's supposed to represent would be an awful way to talk about it. If Jesus says that, we would agree right away that we shouldn't do it. Good teaching, Jesus! Thanks!

But he says, nope, don't even talk about it or give any indication you're fasting. Go on about your business in as ordinary way as you can. When we think about it, though, we might be able to help someone who's fasting if they let us know that's what they're doing. We would know not to invite them out for lunch, or to serve snacks if they came to visit. We might know that they have a real craving for a Snickers at 2:15 in the afternoon so we would call them at 2:14, talk about something irrelevant and entirely un-food-related until about 2:30 or so, and help them get past the craving time. Jesus' words, though, seem to block that idea. Why?

In the book Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner recounts a discussion with her rabbi after she had broken a fast she was supposed to be observing. Surely, she said, it was not that big a deal? God being God, surely He was not affected by the fact that a flawed human being goofed and ate a corned beef sandwich? Part of his response to her was that she was supposed to be learning that what she was really hungry for was God. Her physical hunger was a tool to remind her of this.

I think one of the reasons Jesus told his followers to hide their fasting was to keep its focus on this lesson of complete dependence on God. If our friends and our community help us get through our fast, our focus may fade away from God a little and be drawn to them. We need to remember we depend on others, but we need even more to remember that we depend on God. Jesus' own words -- quoting Deuteronomy -- when tempted by Satan to miraculously provide himself bread  are "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."

Food is one of the most basic needs we have as living creatures. We can't live without it, and there's no substitute for it. A thick hide and warm fur may do for animals that don't have shelter, but nothing can take the place of food for the body. Doing without food by choice is against our natures, but it reminds us we as living creatures depend on God even more deeply than our bodies depend on food. Without food, we die. Without God, it doesn't matter if we live.

In a way, a fast is like taking the Sabbath and drilling down even deeper at a message it teaches. Remember that one of the points of resting on the Sabbath for the ancient Israelites was to underscore their reliance on God for all they had when they wandered in the wilderness. Their lives did not depend only on their own work and efforts, but even more so on the work and the grace of God. The fast sharpens this message to its most elemental point: We rely on God not just the way we rely on our work or our energy, but even more, we need God the way we need food.

Because it's easy for us to overlook or forget that too easily, we should fast so we can remember. Maybe a complete fast for a period of time, or maybe a long-term fast from one particular item. But whichever it is, we will need it to draw us away from ourselves and our needs as simply living creatures, and draw us towards a loving God and our needs as God's creatures. 

No comments: