By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Origen: “the practice of hospitality does not simply mean that we should entertain those who come to us. It means also that we should go out and invite others to come in.”
Meals are the primary object around which hospitality centers.
In the ancient world, meals were ceremonies – events in which role or status is affirmed.
Those at table together generally shared a common set of ideas and values and frequently a common social position as well. What, where and with whom one eats were critical questions.
Again this is related to holiness – the idea of being set apart – and purity.
In the ancient Roman world, when meals were held that included those of varying social rank, they were frequently relegated to a different room to eat different food. Thus Pliny the Younger writes (see p. 381).
A pastor serving a poor, rural Appalachian congregation was visiting with members who requested that he remain and eat supper with them. What they served him was refried beans. By their own admission, they’d been refried three times. They were swimming in grease and, as the pastor looked down into his bowl, he saw several little fruit flies swimming in there as well. He wanted, desperately, to decline their offer of hospitality. But then he recalled the bible verse from Luke, chapter 10 in which Jesus sends out the 70 to minister in his name and he instructs them to “eat what is set before them.”[i] Remembering that scripture, the pastor ate those beans. Shortly thereafter, he visited his doctor and shared with the doctor his concerns about what he’d consumed. The doctor gave him some comfort by reassuring him that, if those beans were really as greasy as he’d described, than all that excess grease and fat probably allowed the flies and anything else to just glide right through. That pastor knew and understood the value of hospitality in our Christian tradition.
This morning’s gospel story is a story about hospitality and how the simple gift of hospitality can bring dramatic change to our lives and our communities. In the ancient Mediterranean world, meals were the primary event around which hospitality centered. Our bible is filled with stories about meals. Genesis chapter 18 records the story of three mysterious travelers who cross paths with the ancient patriarch Abraham. When Abraham sees them, he runs out of his tent, chases them down, bows before them, and implores them to receive his hospitality. He invites them to rest and draws water that they may wash their feet. Then a tremendous meal is prepared and set before the visitors: bread, curds, milk and a calf that has been slaughtered and prepared. After eating, these three mysterious travelers proclaim a promise, confer a blessing upon Abraham and his wife, Sarah, saying: “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” It is a story illustrating the cycle of blessings that are unleashed through the practice of hospitality.
In ancient Mediterranean culture, meals functioned as ceremonies that affirmed the roles and relationships between the diners. Hospitality was one of the most significant values in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was related to honor; another highly important value. So people were very cautious about table fellowship. More often than not, hosts did not observe an open table because one’s dinner guests reinforced or affirmed the reputation of the host. Those who ate together generally shared a common set of ideas and values, as well as a common social position.
Jesus, however, preferred an open table approach. After all, “exclusive fellowship required an exclusive table, while inclusive fellowship required an inclusive one.”[ii] Jesus, who came to serve the least, the last, and the lost, sets an undiscriminating table; a practice that many around him found quite offensive. And in this morning’s story of Zacchaeus, Jesus does it again.
Now, it’s important to know just a bit about ancient tax collectors so we can understand why Jesus’ choice of dining with Zacchaeus is so shocking and controversial.
Rome was, of course, a vast empire fueled by an expansionism that required a large military. So Rome turned the screws on her own people – mostly peasants – to fund this enormous army through taxation. Here’s how it worked:
Roman government officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs and those amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth in place could even afford this venture. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go out and do the collecting. It was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble and it was assumed that the local businessmen – the chief collectors – would also bill a little something extra for themselves.
And so, given the notorious reputation of chief tax collectors, we shouldn’t be surprised that the crowd that day would hardly have opened up a spot in the “front row,” so to speak, to accommodate Zacchaeus’ vertical disability. But Zacchaeus is determined and so he runs ahead and climbs a tree, hoping that in doing so, he can catch a glimpse of Jesus. Now, if Zacchaeus was lucky, everyone had already turned their attention toward Jesus because in that culture, any honorable adult male would never have run or climbed a tree. It was considered childish, humiliating behavior. As it turns out, Jesus comes to a stop just under the tree and looks up and invites Zacchaeus to come down out of that tree so he can host Jesus in his home for dinner. The crowd is aghast. There must have surely been good, religious professionals in the crowd that day. Why wouldn’t Jesus, a well-respected rabbi, have honored one of them with his presence?
But here is where the story gets interesting; and here is something new I discovered just this very week. As the crowd grumbles and mumbles, slandering Zacchaeus beneath their breath, Zacchaeus responds. He says, “Look half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” Now that may be a little different from your bible translation because most of our bibles translate that Zacchaeus will give to the poor and that he will pay back to any who have been defrauded through this dubious Roman tax plan. Yet, the verb form used is somewhat ambiguous. It is not future tense. It is a present tense verb that can express either that someone is currently doing something; or that they are about to do something.
Now, you may consider this hair-splitting and wonder why I’ve taken up sermon time to talk about verb tenses. But here’s the thing: one translation communicates that Zacchaeus truly was quite the scoundrel in sorry need of some significant confession and repentance; while the other translation communicates that Zacchaeus has been inappropriately judged and censored by the crowd around him. So, our judgment of Zacchaeus becomes a bit of a slippery slope. Well, except that – for the most part – we need not even wrestle with this dilemma at all because our bible translators have removed all doubt.
And that’s where this morning’s lesson truly lies. How easy it is for us to judge those we do not know; those we hold at arm’s length. So long as any demographic remains “those people,” we can rest in moral certitude expressed through phrases like, “If they really wanted to work, they would.” Or, “they’d be able to pay their rent if they weren’t so irresponsible with their money.” Or, “no wonder their son is on drugs; they never took the time discipline him.” And so on and so on.
Our judgments will always be assumptions if we are separated from one another. But, if we sit down to table together, we can get to know one another and avoid that trap of long-distance assumptions.
Friends, meals were the primary event around which hospitality centered; but the true objective of hospitality is to embody the unfiltered, unbiased welcome of Jesus. Adele Calhoun writes, “Because we have been welcomed into the love of Christ… [w]e can incarnate the welcoming heart of God for the world.”[iii]
Church, over the next few months, Trinity will launch some new initiatives designed to help us build relationships with our neighbors and eating meals together is a critical component of building those relationships. Sometimes we want to quickly drop off a casserole and be on our way. But, while offering people food may fill their stomachs, it does nothing to build community. It is only when we take time to sit and break bread together that we express true hospitality and a build authentic community.
In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus honors Zacchaeus by allowing him to offer Jesus food and hospitality, by crossing the threshold and entering his home, by sitting down at his table. Lauren Winner in the book Mudhouse Sabbath reminds us that “offering hospitality to others… offers us up to new levels of vulnerability and even to the possibility of being taken advantage of.”[iv] When we practice true hospitality it is more than an invitation into our home or to sit at our table. When we practice true hospitality, we invite people into our lives and open our hearts. For those who are “recovering perfectionists,” Winner further comments: “we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining… into [true] hospitality.”[v] In the practice of hospitality, we do more than give, we open ourselves up to receive, knowing that we do not hold a monopoly on the incarnating of Jesus. In fact, we may be surprised to see Christ great us in the very person to whom we opened our lives and our table. Parker Palmer wrote of a French village during WWII whose citizens risked their lives to welcome and shelter Jews. When a pastor there was asked why they responded as they did, he replied, “I could not bear to be separated from Jesus.” Like Abraham, in that story of the three mysterious travelers, we too may discover that those to whom we show hospitality bring a blessing to us as well.
For Trinity to be a growing church it must be a Christ-centered community where we place as much emphasis on community as on Christ for that is how we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
So here’s what I hope we’ll all think about – and act on – this morning: We can begin to practice, right now, for Trinity’s upcoming community-building events by fine-tuning our expressions of hospitality in a myriad of contexts. Here are just a few ideas:
An open table can sometimes be a little scary because we live in a world where we are increasingly being taught to fear strangers; to fear “the other.” Our world runs rampant with divisions, prejudices, xenophobia, and isolationism. But what a privilege it is that we can incarnate the hospitality of Christ because we carry the presence of his Spirit within us. We all need to remember that, since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension; we – his disciples – are now Jesus’ only option for setting an open table that was always his preference.
[i] See Luke 10:7
[ii] Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh; Fortress Press; 2003; p. 382.
[iii] Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun; InterVarsity Press; 2005; p. 139
[iv] Mudhouse Sabbath: an Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline (the study addition) by Lauren Winner; Paraclete Press; 2005; p. 56.
[v] Ibid; p. 63.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 4:3-42 (focusing on verses 9 & 31-38)
Avocados are one of my favorite foods. I went through my entire adolescence without seeing or tasting an avocado. (I can tell you they’re not your standard Appalachian produce.) I started eating them in my late 20’s and have grown increasingly fond of them. But the thing about avocados is that they need to be at the perfect ripeness which can be tricky to discern. Now, I’ve honed my skills over the years and here’s what I’ve determined: you want a darker shade (the lighter green never seems to fully ripen); you want just the slightest give when you press the skin (too much give means it’s going to be rotten inside), the smoother the outside the better the inside (I have no idea why that’s the case), beware of indentations (which will be rotten spots when you cut it up). Most of the time, I do pretty well. Sometimes I get fooled. It appears perfect on the outside and when I open it, it’s rotten on the inside. When that happens, it makes me angry at the supermarket. But sometimes I have an entirely different problem. You see, when I get home with my avocado, it generally needs to lay on the counter for a couple days to reach optimum ripeness. But if I let it lay there too long, it will begin to go bad. It’s happened. I get busy and forget to put my avocado in the refrigerator and I miss my narrow window of avocado perfection. The opportunity is lost. That makes me really angry at myself. I think, “You just wasted something great just because you weren’t paying attention.”
This morning’s scripture is just a small portion of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s a story that ends with an agricultural proverb, a metaphor of sorts, which challenges us to look around and notice people who are ripe and ready to respond to the good news of Jesus.
Now this story of Jesus in Samaria consumes 42 verses so I didn’t share them all. But I do want to summarize what takes place in the verses I didn’t read. Verses 5-7 set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are in Samaria, Jesus is resting by a well, the disciples go off to buy food, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw up water. And that is the point at which Jesus and this woman enter into a dialogue with one another that ultimately results an entire village being brought into relationship with Jesus.
The dialogue begins with Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. She notes how unconventional his request is when she says: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Then, our gospel narrator sheds some light on this peculiarity by informing us that Jews do not “share in common” with Samaritans. Now hold onto that thought because we’re going to circle back to it in just a moment after I finish my summary of this dialogue.
The woman and Jesus talk more about this water. Jesus’ words reveal that he’s referring to something more than H2O at the bottom of a well and his words pique the woman’s interest. Next, Jesus invites her to go get her husband. When she remarks that she doesn’t have a husband, Jesus reveals that he already knows that and so much more about her. She’s surprised, caught off guard, and assumes Jesus must be a prophet so she asks him a very important question about worship. You see, Jews and Samaritans worshipped in different places and the Jews down south were pretty fussy about the temple in Jerusalem being the only acceptable place to worship God. Worship was and still is, in large part, about encountering God and John’s gospel will reveal that Jesus is the way to encounter God. Their discussion at the well goes even deeper and Jesus reveals to the woman who he is. Incidentally, this is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus discloses his identity. He does so by using the exact same words God used to name himself at the burning bush with Moses when Moses asked God’s name. God replied: “I am.” Likewise, Jesus says, “I am.”[i]
Now, having summarized this dialogue of 19 verses, let’s circle back to that verse 9 that I mentioned where our narrator informs us that Jews do not “share in common” with Samaritans. Now the Greek word used there[ii] was generally used in reference to dishware and utensils; meaning that Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t have “shared in common” dishware which sounds pretty odd to us. But part of what distinguished the Jewish people – part of what identified them as God’s chosen people – was the way in which they ate. This is what we know today as kosher. Way back in the 14th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy,[iii] God gave the Israelites rules about what foods they could and couldn’t eat. Today, strict Jews – generally, Orthodox Jews – follow those rules to the letter. They even have special dishware for especially holy days, like Sabbath, Yom Kippur, Passover, etc. But why; we Christians might wonder. What is that all about?
Well, it’s about holiness. There was distinctiveness about how Jews were to eat and dress and worship; rules that defined how they were to generally behave because those rules acted as boundaries that set them apart from other ancient people and cultures. The word “holy” means “set apart.”[iv] The Jewish people had been “set apart” for God. They were to be holy just as God was holy. Holiness is defined in relation to God. Let me say that again: holiness is defined in relation to God. People, places, even things become holy because of their relationship with God.
Now, according to most Jews of Jesus’ day, Samaritans[v] were not holy and had no legitimate relationship with God. They were unholy, unclean. So, any respectable Jew would steer clear of them… except for Jesus who, within this story, is the one who initiates the relationship with this Samaritan woman.
Friends, this story demonstrates a radical transgression of boundaries in order to bring those whom others would deem as unclean into relationship with the holy God through Jesus. Let me say that again. This is a story about transgressing conventional boundaries in order to bring those on the “wrong side of the border” into a relationship with God through Jesus. Logically, Jesus should have had nothing to do with this woman. She was a Samaritan, she was a woman and she had a somewhat dubious living arrangement. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Yet, once again, Jesus initiates relationship with her and Jesus doesn’t pick away at her personal life. In fact, it appears that he only references her multiple husbands to demonstrate his divine knowledge of her. And the fact that this is the first person in John’s gospel to whom Jesus reveals his divine identity, is the craziest fact of them all. It is through their relationship that she, too, will become holy – one of God’s chosen ones – not based on her diet or her ethnicity or even her lifestyle; but based solely on her response to Jesus.
This is a story about transgressing boundaries. This is a story about the need to move into unfamiliar, even hostile, territory. But this is also a story about a bountiful harvest; a story of people who are ripe and ready. Friends, Jesus could see what the disciples did not see. So, “look around you,” Jesus says to them. “See how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” This woman was ripe and ready to hear the good news Jesus had to offer her. This woman’s spiritual condition was like that perfect avocado: laying on the counter ripe and ready. When Jesus’ disciples return and survey this situation, they don’t see what Jesus sees. They’re thinking to themselves, “Why is he speaking with her?” No doubt, those disciples saw an unclean Samaritan woman. They could not perceive her as a part of them. They were holy Jewish men enrolled in this itinerant rabbinical school. She was an unclean, Samaritan woman. What they saw likely repelled them. But Jesus saw something different. He wasn’t put off by who she was, where she was or even what she’d done. He wasn’t put off by her gender[vi] or her ethnicity or even her lifestyle.
And so, this story ought to challenge us to consider: what do we see when we look around? [Well, not in here, mind you; but when we walk through those doors.] Can we see people who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus? Have we gotten close enough to even know? There’s a danger for us as Christians; the danger that we become so comfortable with one another that we circle the wagons and batten down the hatches. There’s plenty of that going on in our world right now; people building walls to separate themselves from those who seem dubious or threatening or just plain different. It’s nice to be with other people who share our beliefs and our values and, to a large degree, even our lifestyle. But friends, we need to get over that. If we’ve insulated ourselves by surrounding ourselves with other Christians, then we simply are not Jesus’ disciples because to be a disciple means we’re learning to emulate the behaviors of Jesus and Jesus never hesitated to transgress those boundaries. Jesus loved to reach out to the people others avoided. So, this morning I want to ask you – and me – where do we need to go? What boundary do we need to cross? Who do we need to see differently; not seeing them as someone offensive but as someone who may well be ripe and ready to hear the good news of Jesus?
Last week I read a blog about a recent Barna Research survey.[vii] The survey revealed that 51% of North American Christians polled possess attitudes and actions that are more like some of those holier-than-thou Pharisees we read about in the gospels than like Jesus. In other words, our attitudes and actions reveal that we may get caught up in maintaining our boundaries and preserving our purity and, like the disciples in this morning’s story, miss the opportunity to show the kind of hospitality and mercy Jesus showed. In fact, according to the standards Barna applied, only 14% of Christians revealed attitudes and actions consistent with those of Jesus. The writer of the blog, Carey Niewhouf, identified some things he sometimes hears Christians say to other Christians that reveal this kind of Pharisaic, judgmental attitude. One was this: “You shouldn’t hang around people like that.” Another was similar: “I’m simply more comfortable with people from my church than I am with people who don’t go to church.” Niewhouf writes: “One of the reasons churches aren’t growing is because Christians don’t know any non-Christians.” He points out that, if we want to see our churches grow, “go to some parties and get to know some people who are far from God. You will discover that God likes them. And you might discover you do too. And people – who at one time didn’t follow Jesus – might even start following Jesus.” My response to that survey is more concise. I’d say that, if all of your friends already go to church, it’s time to make some new friends.
There’s no time like the present for us to look around and see people that are ripe and ready to hear – and even more importantly, to experience through us – the good news of the love of Jesus.
[i] See John 4:26 and Exodus 3:14 (the Greek translation). This is the Greek phrase ego eimi, meaning “I am” in both places.
[iii] See Deuteronomy 14:2-21
[v] Around 721 BCE the Assyrians conquered the northern tribes of Israel. People of other nations were brought into the territory of Israel and, in time, the Jews intermarried with these foreign people resulting in the ethnic designation “Samaritan.” Because they had intermarried and mixed Jewish and Gentile blood, they were deemed impure or unholy. They also mixed the worship of God with the worship of foreign idols.
[vi] Even today in many Middle Eastern countries men and women don’t mingle publicly. And rules governing such social behavior were especially stringent in Jesus’ day. A man simply did not enter into public conversation with a woman he didn’t know. It would have been deemed dishonorable. In addition, remember that at this time in Jesus’ ministry he was perceived as a rabbi and the reputation of a rabbi was severely compromised when he spoke with a woman. There was a rabbinical saying: “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at last will inherit Gehenna – or “go to hell,” we might say.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Our youngest dog was sick this past week. Hope has a bit of a finicky stomach. When she gets sick, we typically give her gut a few hours to rest before we fill it up with food again. Now if you have ever had multiple dogs in the house, you know that one of the most difficult things you have to do is feed one without feeding the other. It makes me feel terrible as Hope stares at me with those… well, those sad puppy dog eyes. It’s not as if I can rationally explain in any comprehensible way that, were I to fill her belly with food right now, she would likely feel worse. There is no “dog logic” in that. All that Hope knows is that her sister is being fed and she is not being fed. No one enjoys the feeling of hunger.
Today is the first Sunday of Lent and each year on this Sunday the gospel scripture is an account of Jesus being tested in the wilderness. During this Lenten season, we’ll be focusing on spiritual practices that find their roots in Judaism and the spiritual practice that plays a prominent role in this morning’s story is the practice of fasting. Now, most Methodists today do not fast; which is interesting because John Wesley felt so strongly about the spiritual practice of fasting that he would not ordain to the Methodist ministry anyone who did not fast twice a week! So confident was Wesley in fasting as means of grace.
This morning I want us to consider what fasting may have meant for Jesus within this gospel story AND what fasting can mean for us today. How might fasting increase righteousness; an key theme in the gospel of Matthew? How might it effect change in our lives and in our world?
After our gospel writer presents the story of Jesus’ birth and the holy family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod, nothing more is said of Jesus’ youth. Chapter 3 of Matthew’s gospel begins with the words “In those days” and we discover that “those days” of which Matthew writes are that period of time when John the Baptist was carrying out his ministry in the wilderness. Now John does more than baptize. He issues a call to repentance, particularly pronouncing judgment over Jewish religious leaders who engage in hypocritical, self-aggrandizing behavior.[i] But most importantly, John heralds the arrival of Jesus. When Jesus comes to John for baptism, as he comes up out of the water, a voice from the heavens proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And then, boom; still dripping wet the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. After Jesus successfully passes that test, his public ministry begins. So this time in the wilderness is significant time. One might say that – stuck between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry – this story is the bridge that connects the announcement of Jesus’ identity with the living out of that identity. Let me say that again: this story is the bridge that connects the announcement of Jesus’ identity at his baptism with the living out of that identity through his ministry.
Now, since Old Testament times, Jews fasted. They fasted for a variety of reasons. I talked about some in my class this morning in the parlor and we’ll talk more when we gather with Rabbi Cohen this Wednesday evening. But in this sermon, I want to narrow in on the reasons for fasting that relate most significantly to this story.
First, fasting prepared the one who fasted for holy war. In the Old Testament, Jews would engage in fasting before a battle believing that fasting availed them of God’s power. Likewise, here in this story, Jesus is engaged in battle; in holy war. But his opponent isn’t the Philistines or any other Promised Land nemesis. His opponent is the devil or the tempter (those are labels our gospel narrator uses); or the Satan as Jesus addresses him. The word devil, diablos, means slanderer. The word satan means adversary. So Jesus recognizes the one with whom he is engaging as his adversary. In this gospel episode, we see that slander is a weapon employed by this adversary. And so this devil, this Satan, makes his best attempt at taking Jesus down by slandering the heavenly Father; misrepresenting who the heavenly Father is, how he exercises power, how he cares for his own, and even slandering the heavenly Father’s divine word. This is fake news at its best or worst… depending on how you see it. This one with whom Jesus does battle is in the practice of deceitfulness as a tool to undermine the reputation of the heavenly Father. But, while fasting may weaken his body, Jesus seems to display this long held belief that fasting can avail him of the heavenly Father’s powerful intercession which leads to victory over the adversary. So #1: fasting prepares one to do battle with, and in fact to defeat, the powers of evil and sin; those which are adversaries to God and God’s righteousness.[ii]
#2: a second function fasting plays is that it can result in divine revelation. Fasting sometimes accompanied prophecy and prophecy is, simply put, about receiving God’s authoritative Word, a revelation from God.[iii] Notice in this story that Jesus fends off the adversary by quoting scripture, God’s authoritative Word. Each defense, each rebuttal, Jesus offers is a quote from scripture. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues to reveal a special understanding of God’s Word and a special call to explicate it. Jesus even defines his ministry as a fulfillment of that Word.
So, that is what fasting likely meant for Jesus within this wilderness story. But what might fasting mean for us today? What does fasting have to do with righteousness: a being in right relationship with God and others? Can it strengthen our relationship with God and others? Can it actually effect change within us and through us? What does the spiritual practice of fasting – hardly a popular concept in America – have to offer 21st century Hoosiers? How might this be, in fact, a spiritual practice?
Well, first of all, fasting – particularly when it is accompanied by prayer, worship and the reading of scripture opens us to God’s divine wisdom; it can foster deeper communication with God. In Acts, chapter 13, we’re given a view of the church at Antioch. It is in the midst of their prayer and fasting that the Holy Spirit directs their next steps in ministry. Now, I’m not aware of there being any source that tells us precisely how fasting and prayer joined together spark this synergy. But here’s my own opinion on the matter. Going back to the illustration of my dog at the beginning of my sermon, every day I put food in my dogs’ bowls. I doubt they think much about it. It just happens. But when Hope saw that food go into her sister’s dish and saw nothing being put into her dish, she seemed particularly and keenly aware of the fact that I was the source of her food. Britt and I have been the source of her food for nearly 8 years. But, this automatic routine, this sort of “dietary entitlement,” was interrupted by her sudden state of hunger and vulnerability. Likewise, most of us don’t lack food. For most Americans, hunger is not imposed upon us. For most of us, fasting is a choice. We eat on a regular basis and, while we may pray before our meals giving God thanks, it is often something automatic and routine. But when I am hungry and unable to eat, I am suddenly and keenly aware of my vulnerability and when I am vulnerable I am more open to what others might offer me. Likewise, when our prayer or worship or reading of scripture takes place within the context of a fast, we are more aware of our vulnerability and weakness and may give greater consideration to our reliance on God; our vulnerability opens us to God and his Word. So, while we don’t want to think of fasting as something magical or manipulative, it can certainly place us in a state or condition of greater openness to and reliance upon God. Fasting can cultivate a state of readiness to truly hear and receive God’s Word. Methodist pastor Jacqui King writes that, “fasting sets the stage for hearing God.” Another Methodist pastor, Bret Walker, writes of his experience with fasting: “Every mealtime or anytime I feel hunger pangs, I use that time to pray… I bring my physical hunger, put it out of the way, and find my spiritual hunger.”[iv] Friends, many of our lives are ridiculously hectic and overrun with multi-tasking. John Wesley believed that fasting opened up more time for prayer. What might happen if, in the middle of our crazy hectic day, we used our lunch break to recluse ourselves to some quiet space (you don’t have to go out into the wilderness) for just a short time to pray and read scripture? Imagine how that oasis, that holy space, in the midst of our day might impact the rest of our day.
Second, in an interesting way, our fasting can also work against the powers of sin and evil and, again, not in some magical way but in a very practical way. Fasting can effect change in us and in the world. John Wesley believed that fasting was an even more powerful means of grace when it was accompanied by giving to the poor. So, often when people fast, they calculate what they might have spent on their lunch and give that money to a hunger ministry, like Food Finders or the Tippecanoe Food Pantry or Bread for the World. Sometimes, people choose to fast from a particular food “luxury” (especially during Lent) like beef, for example, which incurs significant “production” cost both financially and environmentally. In other words, we acknowledge the reality that some are not able to afford healthy, nutritious food and, through some form of fasting, we transfer the resources we would have used for ourselves to others in need and in doing so we effect a change – albeit small – by disrupting the cycle of hunger and poverty.
Friends, we are not Jesus, but like Jesus, by engaging in the spiritual practice of fasting, we can become more open and vulnerable to God’s Word through prayer and scripture. Like Jesus, when we fast, our self-sacrifice can work towards defeating the injustice and evil of hunger and malnutrition. Fasting is not something magical but, when practiced with sincerity, it can cultivate the righteousness Matthew’s gospel proclaims; a rightness in our relationship with God and with others.
[i] See Matthew 3:7-12
[ii] See Ezra 8:21-23: the Israelites fast before they set out to return to Jerusalem in order to protect them from any armies or enemies they might encounter along the way.
[iii] See 2 Esdras 5:12-13.
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