Fasting by feasting

*** a sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 and John 60:30-35, 41***

Today is the beginning of Lent – a 4o day period of repentance and fasting as we prepare for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection in which we focus on our relationship with God, often giving up something as a sign of our desire to walk the way of suffering and sacrifice with Christ.

For many of us, this is not a new commitment; not a new journey. Many of us have, in fact, grown up in homes and churches where the Lenten language is familiar and fasting is  common practice. Really, even the secular world now recommends that people participate in this Christian custom because of the health benefits associated with abstaining from certain meals or food groups.

So, at the beginning of this well-worn, world-sanctioned season, let us acknowledge that, like the Israelites, we are well-practiced in these particular religious rituals: we lament in loud voices, we come forward for the imposition of ashes with sad faces, we dress somberly, we dismiss our colleagues’ invitations to lunch with an offhand “I can’t. It’s Lent. I’m fasting.”

But often, like the Israelites, our outward actions do not reflect our inner state. Truth be told, we feel smug in our self-imposed suffering; proud of ourselves for our willpower, our discipline, our sacrifice. And just below the often-authentic desire to repent, to be different, lurks the unconfessed belief that God will owe us something good for what we’re putting ourselves through, for doing the right thing.

And yet, like the Israelites who went through the right religious motions, we miss the point of this period, of this practice, and the fast we offer is not really the kind of fast that God desires.

Sure, we may cut out sugar, but that means nothing if our lives lack the sweetness of God’s love. We may give up caffeine, but it’s pointless when we still cling to to our grudges, our disagreements, our prejudice. We may go without meat, but what does that matter when we show no concern for those who go without bread, without shelter, without dignity, without justice on a daily basis? We may even waive all but one meal a day, but if we won’t abandon our ambitions, our pride, our busyness it’s all for nothing.

This struggle is not a new thing. Even Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, wrote in the 4th century to the Christian community of the time:

“Do not limit the benefit of fasting to the abstinence of food, for a true fast means refraining from evil. Loose every unjust bond, put away your resentment against your neighbour, forgive him his offenses. Do not let your fasting lead to wrangling and strife. You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother; you abstain from wine, but not from insults – so all the labour of your fast is useless.”

How do we get it so wrong? And how do we, on this first day of Lent, put aside the “right” religious rituals to which we have become so accustomed and enter into a true spirit of sacrifice and penitence?

Our Scripture reading from John’s Gospel holds the key.

The story is set after the miraculous feeding of the 5000 where the crowd wants to crown Jesus as king, and a time of teaching at the Feast of the Tabernacles where the crowd wants to kill him for preaching against the legalism that binds them in favor of what God really wants.

In the conversation with those who have followed him hungry for more, the question from the people reveals their preoccupation with their history, with the beliefs and practices of their ancestors handed down over many generations: “What miracle will you do?” they ask him. “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, bread from heaven. So what will you do?”

Jesus shocks, and even offends some of them, by explaining that he is the real miracle – the true bread sent from heaven to give his life for the world.

It is a disruptive moment in which Jesus challenges their tradition, their faith; in which he proclaims that they should not be following Moses, a man who worked miracles, but God in heaven who made such miracles possible. He contests their tendency to follow after that which is temporary and unsustainable while that which is transformative and eternal is right in front of them. He opposes their desire to be satisfied – to be full – by revealing that it is only in the brokenness of his body and the giving of his life that they can enter into the abundant and the everlasting.

Perhaps our preoccupation with tradition is why our fast fails; for instead of fixing our eyes on our Father in heaven, we focus on that song, that ritual, that preacher who – for a moment – made us feel satisfied.

Perhaps it is our infatuation with the tangible: we fast from food, from television, from Facebook, from the things that we can physically give up rather than the powers that possess our minds and our spirits – the lust, the fear, the hatred that has taken hold in our hearts.

Perhaps it is our absolute lack of understanding that the fullness of life is not found by mourning and praying and fasting for forty days but in a costly and ongoing commitment to the broken and shared life of Christ… which is why so many of his listeners grumbled. They wanted a ready supply of food for their stomachs, not a lifetime of sacrifice and surrender. And, honestly, are we any different?

This year, may the Lenten invitation be clear: not just to fast for the sake of fasting, or because that’s what we think good Christians do, or because we hope to earn God’s favor going forward for the rest of the year; but rather to feast on Christ, to feed on the eternal, to nourish our souls with God’s Word, to spend time in his presence, to open ourselves up to uncomfortable conversations, to make ourselves vulnerable and available to that broken and shared life, and to be surprised by the abundance…

of mercy,
of generosity,
of forgiveness,
of love,
of peace,
of joy  that emerges when this season centers around the Bread of Life and the fullness of life on offer in Christ.

A true fast starts with and is sustained by feasting on the One who gave up all that we would never be hungry, never be thirsty. Will you grumble and complain, or partake and eat in the Feast that is set before you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent: Feast or fast?

A Service for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-9 (1-14) and John 6:30-41

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Call to worship (based on Isaiah 58:1-9 – The Message)

Shout! A full-throated shout!
    Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
    face my family Jacob with their sins!

We’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
    and love studying all about You.
To all appearances we’re a nation of right-living people—
    law-abiding, God-honoring.

We ask You,
‘What’s the right thing to do?’

    and love having You on our side.
But we also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

Well, here’s why:

The bottom line on our ‘fast days’ is profit.
    We drive our employees much too hard.
We fast, but at the same time we bicker and fight.
    We fast, but we swing a mean fist.

God says,
“The kind of fasting you do

    won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
    a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
    and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
    a fast day that I, God, would like?


This is the kind of fast day God’s after:

    to break the chains of injustice,
    get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
    free the oppressed,
    cancel debts.
What God’s interested in seeing us do is:
    sharing our food with the hungry,
    inviting the homeless poor into our homes,
    putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
    being available to our own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,
    and our lives will turn around at once.
Our righteousness will pave our way.
    The God of glory will secure our passage.
Then when we pray, God will answer.
   We’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’

Prayer of Confession

O God who sees through our pretty words and religious rituals,
our fancy dress and false smiles,
our huge egos and hurried excuses …

to the poverty of our faith,
the hardness of our hearts,
the emptiness of our lives;

we humble ourselves before You
at the beginning of this season of Lent,
longing to journey closely with You
but not entirely sure how …

to enter the way of suffering
with hearts so full of pride and resentment and ambition,
with hands so clenched against mercy and compassion and generosity,
with minds so set on our worries and opinions and plans,
with voices so silent on peace and justice and hospitality.

Forgive us for the brokenness that separates us from You and from one another:
we have followed our pride,
given in to our pleasures,
ignored truth,
neglected love,
abandoned righteousness.

Seat us in the desert place
where we may be starved of self-conceit and sin,
deprived of extravagance and comfort,
and reminded once again that from dust we were made
and to dust we shall return.

The ashing commences with the words:
“Fast from sin and feast on Christ”

The Absolution

As Christ fasted for forty days and forty nights within the wilderness, attended only by wild animals and angels, yet triumphed over temptation, may we know that we do not live by bread alone but feast in the forgiving, redeeming, transforming power of his love.

Amen.

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Scripture reading: John 6:30-35, 41

So the people asked, “What miracle will you do? If we see a miracle, we will believe you. What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert. This is written in the Scriptures: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven; it is my Father who is giving you the true bread from heaven. God’s bread is the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The people said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Then Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

***

Some people began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.”

Holy Communion

The peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.

the peace is shared ….

Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Everliving, ever-loving God, it is indeed right to give You thanks and praise
for the feast You have set before us –
the bread and the fruit of the vine which the earth has given
and human hands have made;
and for the eternal Feast which awaits us –
made possible through Your Son, Jesus Christ,
who came to heal and bring wholeness by the forgiveness of sins.

And so we remember how on the night that he was betrayed,
he took bread and broke it and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your body – broken for me.
I feast in remembrance of You.

In the same way He took the cup, gave thanks and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who felt empty that they might be full.
This is Your blood – poured out for me, for the forgiveness of my sin.
I will feast in remembrance of You.

And so, in the memory of your great love, we call upon the Holy Spirit
to bless the holy bread of life and the cup of eternal blessing
that they may be for us the food of heaven
and the assurance of eternity.

the elements are shared with those serving communion …

Here, at the start of this season of Lent, we come to the Lord’s table,
to weep, to fast, to mourn, to pray.
Marked by the ashes of your grace,
nourished by the feast of Your love,
may we be broken like bread and poured out like wine
in a world longing for peace and for justice.
Amen.

Benediction

God does not want pious faces or solemn parades
but hearts full of justice and mercy.
In the name of the One who gives us our daily bread,
and forgives us our sins,
may we bear the fruit of holiness and love in this season of Lent.
Amen.