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Feasting our Way through the Fasting Season

Lent 1, Common Lectionary Year C

Isaiah 58:1-8, Luke 4:1-13

©2019 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

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Friends, it’s been seven years we’ve journeyed together with me as your Minister of Word and Sacrament; and each year my gratitude deepens to be part of a community where it is our life together that inspires my task as preacher of these ancient words.

The Lenten theme this year, “Fasting and Feasting,”was conceived and born not in my study, butin the kitchen renovation, in the F4 gatherings, in the recent pre-Lenten Midrash Bible Study on the Gospel of Luke, and in the Lenten Imagineers gathering a few weeks ago.

While the Christian calendar moved us towards Lent,which for many Christians is the “Fasting Season,”our activities have become more and more centered on the sacramental act of sharing food, of feasting, which seems a contradiction, but is it?
What would happen, the Imagineers wondered, if we juxtaposed the two (fasting and feasting) if we were to let fasting inform our understanding of faithful feasting, and vice versa?

Now’ it’s worth pausing for a moment here to remember that until very recently, Protestants didn’t really “do” Lent, or ashes, and especially not the fasting thing:
too Catholic, too penitential, too wrapped up in guilt, or rules.

Except here in Quebec, which is still, culturally at least, vestigially Catholic.
It was the topic of conversation at the hairdresser’s on Thursday;- another impromptu “RevE on the hotseat”-
Young adults, and my hairdresser who is my age,
Italian Catholic and hasn’t been to Mass in 17 years,
all talking about giving up this or that for Lent,
but with no real clue why!

So it’s worth figuring that out. At its most basic, many but not all Christians take on a ‘fasting season’ because, if Luke is right, Jesus did.
Rooted in his Jewish tradition,
where Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Torah on Mt Sinai,
and Elijah fasted on Mt Horeb before receiving his commission,
Jesus took himself into the desert emptiness to empty himself too, creating room for God’s newness, God’s wisdom, and a clearer sense of call and commission.

It didn’t take long for Christian practice to copy Jesus, in his acts of prayer, healing, teaching, baptism, and feasting with a shared meal, and fasting. During the great disruption known as the Reformation (16th C),a lot of these daily, homely disciplines of Christian life were set aside, and it’s only in the last two decades or so, that Protestants have begun to reintroduce some form of Lenten spiritual practice into their weekday lives. And with some wise caveats, that owe much to the wisdom of the prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah, all of whom paint a picture of the sort of fasting practice that God desires of us, not just in Lent,but in all life.

The way Isaiah describes the fast God chooses for ushas nothing to do with creating
a religiously sanctioned way to lose a few pounds by giving up chocolate or croissants, or in my case Chicago mix popcorn. Let’s dig a little deeper into that text that we used as our call to worship. Isaiah writes:
“People delight to know the ways of God,
but then they ask “Why do we fast,
but you do not see us, Holy One?”
To this, Isaiah gives voice to God’s agonized frustration;
“You fast, but you still oppress your workers!
You bow your head like the heavy head of a bulrush,
you wallow in sackcloth and ashes, while doing nothing
to lift up the head of the poor, or clothe the naked!”
Then God’s response is startling in how it is less about giving up, than taking on, less about fasting from, and more about feasting on:
Hear it:
“This is the fast I choose for you, my people:
that you loose the bonds of injustice,
undo the leather bindings of the yoke,
and that you let the oppressed go free.
And there’s more:
The fasting I choose for you,
is to share your own bread with the hungry,
to bring those in search of sanctuary into your own homes,
and to clothe the naked with your own clothing,
and to be there for your own kin, your own families.

That fasting can be the sort of self-emptying of those things that are not life-giving!
This God-desired fasting actually clears space for intentional action to ‘feast on’
those activities and attitudes that promote life and abundance and blessing for more than just ourselves.

And there’s even more in Isaiah; he has God say,
“This sort of fast will create a light in the world that is as bright
as the sunlit dawn that breaks the grip of night.
With this fast, when you call, you will hear me answer,
you will seek me, and see me in that you are doing.” (Is 58:1-9 para)

Fasting, then is more like feasting on God’s abundance
than it is about temporarily giving up a token of our privilege,
or indulging in self-interested acts of charity.

Fasting, for God, is about us living God’s Dream;
that dream of healing wholeness for all creation
that dream of a justice that extends itself to protect the widow,
the orphan, the alien and stranger,
that dream of abundant provision where the hungry are fed,
the homeless are sheltered, and the prisoners of systemic oppression are released to live fully within the family of God’s creation.
Fasting, for God is about us seeing ourselves as God’s love in flesh and bone.

This is what Jesus learned, those 40 days, in conversation with Tempter:
Fasting from a hunger for power
Fasting from self-indulgence
Fasting from the delusion that we are in control of God’s world,
so that he could instead see his mission
as exactly the ‘fast God chooses.’
The next thing Jesus says, after Tempter leaves him,
is the clarion call of his commission,
“to bring good news to the poor,
release to captives, freedom of the oppressed and
proclamation of God’s jubilee feast for all.”

And what about us?
What sort of fasting and feasting will mark our Lenten Season
as the People of the Way of Jesus Christ at Cedar Park?
From what practices, actions, or attitudes shall we fast
in order to make room in our hearts and lives,
to share the feast of God’s goodness within and beyond these walls?

A poem, attributed to a US pastor of the last century
has recently experienced the viral sharing of the web,
in large part because it manages to hold the paradox of
faithful fasting and feasting that we find in Isaiah,
and in Jesus’ teachings of the Dream of God.[1]

We’ve adapted it to our own context at Cedar Park,
and turned it into a simple calendar that we can follow
throughout the Season. It also shapes our weekly worship
by providing the commissioning for the final blessing.
There are copies enough for all,
and on the website, or via email from me, Martha, or ECL.
You can use it en famille, you can share your reflections on it
via our daily FaceBook posts which go worldwide these days,
and we can use it to help shape our community Sunday faith
into weekday faith in action.

And speaking of faith in action;
we will feast our way through this fasting season
through our annual Lenten food ministries, which this year
take the form of multiple possible activities
which extend God’s abundance to those most in need of it.
During the connection time following worship this morning,
you’ll have chance to sign up for a plethora of possible hands-on
activities – baking bees to provide food for the Aboriginal housing programme, as well as food donations for two West Island food banks.
This is the fast God chooses for us: to share the feast of God’s blessings
with all. No questions, no exceptions, with all.

[1] Fasting and Feasting. William A. Ward. (Various versions available on the web. No primary source is located at time of writing this sermon).

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