That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Joel

Share Your Astonishment! – Sermon for Thanksgiving Day, 26 November 2015

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A sermon offered on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; and Matthew 6:25-33. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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This morning, after I took the dog for her walk and poured a cup of coffee, I turned on my computer and found a message from my friend Melania, who is from Naples but is currently working in Spain. We were students together in Ireland. This is her message:

“Thanksgiving” has always been my favorite American festival. If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better! Don’t miss any opportunity to tell people how grateful you are for them! Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my dear American Friends and acquaintances out there!

Isn’t that lovely? That someone from another country would take the time to send greetings on what is a quintessentially American holiday?

There are a lot of myths surrounding Thanksgiving and we’re all familiar with them . . . the story of English pilgrims escaping religious persecution, their landing at Plymouth Rock, the help they received from the Native Americans, and so on and so forth. Do you know when Thanksgiving actually was made a holiday? 1863. By President Abraham Lincoln. It has more to do with the Civil War and the preservation of the Union than it does with our colonial origins. But it is, as I said, a quintessentially American holiday.

It is a day when we pause to give thanks for the abundance this nation enjoys, the abundances the prophet Joel describes and promises in the Old Testament lesson this morning. It is a day, too, when we reflect on our country’s beginnings, its original, aspirational ideals, and the social progress that has made here and that we have fostered in other places . . . but also a day on which we have to acknowledge our history and the on-going reality of brutal conflicts, of ethnic and racial oppression, of economic disparity here and abroad. It is a day when we must acknowledge that, despite Jesus’ assurance that we need not worry about food or drink or clothing or housing, there are many in this world who must worry about such things on a daily basis.

Another thing I did this morning was catch up on my daily news and blog reading. One of the websites I frequently visit is the On Being blog. On Being is a Sunday morning NPR show hosted by Krista Trippet, a religion journalist. She interviews someone each Sunday morning (at least that’s with our local station broadcasts the show) about their religious and spiritual life. She and several others keep a related blog and today I read a piece by Courtney E. Martin about being thankful. This is her conclusion:

[G]ratitude is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished. (Courtney E. Martin, The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude)

“It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do.” It’s about sharing that astonishment. I think that may be what the biblical command for justice is all about: it’s about sharing astonishment. Only those who live in a just world, who are not suffering from hunger, fear, oppression, illness, warfare, or the myriad other brutalities of injustice can marvel at the grace and beauty of this world. If we are to share our astonishment with others, especially with those for whom worry about food, drink, clothing, or housing is daily a matter of survival, we must put an end to injustice. If Joel’s prophecy of threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil so that all “shall eat in plenty and be satisfied” is to be a reality, it is up to us to make it so.

The stole I’m wearing this morning is the one you all gave me when I was installed as Rector here at St. Paul’s Parish. It was made by vestment creator Lynn Ronkainen of Houston, Texas, a long-time friend of mine and is embroidered with a verse from the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Am 5:24)

I think that may be my third favorite verse from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah and is inscribed on a wall at the United Nations Plaza in New York City: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa 2:4 KJV)

The second is from the end of book of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)

When these prophets speak of peace and justice, I believe they are calling us to share our gratitude with others, to witness to that marvel and astonishment about which Ms. Martin wrote, and to what is necessary to make it possible for others to feel it as well.

This year that may seem more difficult that it usually is, and it’s often difficult enough. This year, with the killings in Paris and Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, with the rise “ISIS” (or “Da’esh” as I am told we should call it) and its particular brand of Islamism of jihadism (whatever you want to call it – it’s not Islam but some terrible mutant creature that claims to be Muslim), with the Syrian civil war and the massive refugee crisis stemming from it, with rising sea levels and changing climate whatever its root cause may be, with economic disparity here at home even though unemployment has improved and many still struggling to meet their basic needs, with all of that . . . sharing gratitude and witnessing to astonishment just seems difficult.

Nonetheless, as we gather around our Thanksgiving Day tables, as we say our prayers of thanksgiving and enjoy our abundance, we need to ask ourselves: What can we do between this Thanksgiving Day and next to help those who are hungry, those who are homeless because of war, those who are oppressed and down-trodden by the brutalities of this world? What can we do to allow them to share our astonishment? What can we do so that they, too, can offer thanks?

That may seem to be a downer on this day of gratitude and celebration; it may seem an overwhelming task. But remember the words of a gloss on that verse from Micah. It is sometimes referenced to the Talmud, sometimes to the First Century sage Rabbi Tarfon; I don’t really know the source, but I think it filled with wisdom: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As my friend Melania said, “If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better!” Share your astonishment! Work for justice! There is no better way to give thanks.

Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Never Again! – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 29, Year 1 (Christ the King, 2015)

Joel 3:14-15 ~ Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

This morning I am stumbling through the darkened valley of decision. I was pretty certain that this might the day I would have to take my dog to the veterinarian for the last time, that I would be saying “Good bye” to my almost-daily companion of the last eight years. I wished there might have been “multitudes, multitudes” who could share this burden. A sorrow shared is half a sorrow, they say, although I don’t know whether that’s actually the case. Shared or unshared, sorrow is still soul shatteringly deep.

It was 8-1/2 years ago that my wife’s co-worker, knowing that we were about year out from having lost another cocker spaniel (Josephine – “the best dog ever” we still call that little girl), said “We have a stray cocker spaniel . . . ” – my wife’s associate was then president of a local “rescue” organization.

“Let’s just go meet her,” my wife said to me. I laughed out loud! “Meet her?” I answered. “If we meet her, we’ll bring her home!”

Well, obviously, we did meet her, and when she came home with us we named her Fionnaghuala (usually just Fionna or even Fi). She didn’t like me, at all. She didn’t like large, bald men in general. There was some speculation that she might have been abused by someone of my description. Eventually, however, she got used to me although it took her a while longer to be comfortable with other bald men; I’d had her only about three or four months when she bit a parishioner who reached out his hand toward her in friendly, but rather to rapid gesture.

She has gone to the office with me almost every day since that first meeting. She has gone on pastoral visits. She has played with parishioner children and nuzzled the hands of aged church members. She has insisted that the bereaved who have come to plan funerals forget their grief for a minute or two to scratch her ears. She has filled the silence of a lonely church office with her soft, snuffling snore.

But several months ago she developed a heart murmur, which revealed an enlarged heart, which developed into congestive heart failure. Medication has, until the last few days, relieved her symptoms, but it’s clear now that her heart is giving out. She is easily exhausted even just stepping outside to “do her business”; she has dad little interest in eating; she pants and whimpers in her sleep.

So, today, I am in the valley of decision. We went to see the vet. A shot, some special food, another day, another week, maybe another month. But I know the day is coming soon. I have been here before – with Josephine and Rascal and Kelly and Shadrak and Tina and Baron . . . and every time I have said “Never again” and every time . . . . Yes, I’ve been here before.

That’s the nature of the valley of decision. The Lord may have promised the Israelites that “strangers shall never again pass through” Jerusalem (v. 17), but somehow the valley of decision is a place we pass through many times. “Never again” never seems to work out that way!

So, it wasn’t today, but I’m pretty certain that some day soon, I will have to take my dog to the veterinarian for the last time, that I’ll be saying “Good bye.” And I will probably say, “Never again!” And nonetheless, I will also, probably, some day, be back in the valley of decision.

Life Is A Banquet And Most Poor Suckers Are Starving To Death: Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2015

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A sermon offered on the Day of Ashes, Wednesday, February 18, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Banquet“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When I began contemplating a sermon for the beginning of Lent, that famous aphorism by Auntie Mame, a line from the movie of that name spoken by the character to her nephew Patrick, came to immediately to mind and, as I am sure you may be, I was more than a bit surprised. “What,” I thought, “is that all about? What is the Spirit trying to tell me about Lent, what would the Spirit have me tell you about Lent, with that statement which seems so antithetical to everything we have been taught about Lent?”

We have been taught – haven’t we? – that Lent is about “giving up” something enjoyable? In fact, in a few minutes, I’m going to read the Prayer Book’s Ash Wednesday exhortation and remind you that the next six weeks are intended to be (at least in part) a season of “fasting and self-denial.” (BCP p. 265) So what do we do?

Well, I went online (as I often do) to see what people are claiming to be “giving up” this year. Here’s a partial list: red meat, coffee, wine (that’s a big one), alcohol of all kinds, chocolate (another big one), white sugar, cakes and cookies, desserts in general, potato chips, yeast bread, cheese danish, pizza, soda pop, ice cream, and the list goes on and on.

Is that really what this season is about, though? If Mame is correct and life is a banquet, if our faith is correct and this banquet is provided by God the Father who, Isaiah prophesied, intends to “make for all peoples a feast of rich food [and] well-aged wines” (Is 25:6), and if the Father is truly represented by Jesus of Nazareth who said, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10), is turning our backs on food really what this season is about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not. If this season of Lent is about giving something up, it’s not about putting on a show of fasting and self-privation, otherwise Jesus would not have said what he said in today’s Gospel lesson about giving of our resources as alms for the poor in a secret way, about praying in private, and about washing our faces and looking content rather than deprived when we do (in fact) fast from foods.

This is a season when we are called to fast, but not from coffee, or wine, or cheese danish, or pizza, although those foods people listed may be symbolic of what this season is all about. We are to fast, as Isaiah said, from injustice, from oppression, from seeing others go hungry and doing nothing about it, from pointing the finger, and from speaking evil. These are the things about which we should weep and mourn, these are the things from which we should fast, rending (as Joel said) our hearts and not our garments. We should fast from these things because they are what prevent us and the other poor suckers from enjoying that banquet, the things that cause us and the other poor suckers to starve to death while God spreads that feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

My colleague in ordained ministry, Lutheran pastor Phil Ressler has put together a list of forty things he suggests we fast from during this season of Lent. I could not improve on his suggestions and so I want to just read Pastor Ressler’s list (and his comments) to you and add my own homiletic endorsement:

  1. Fear of Failure – You don’t succeed without experiencing failure. Just make sure you fail forward.
  2. Your Comfort Zone – It’s outside our comfort zones where new discoveries are made.
  3. Feelings of Unworthiness – You are fearfully and wonderfully made by your creator. (see Psalm 139:14)
  4. Impatience – God’s timing is the perfect timing.
  5. Retirement – As long as you are still breathing, you are here for a reason. You have a purpose to influence others for Christ. Our work is not always tied to a paycheck.
  6. People Pleasing – I can’t please everyone anyways. There is only one I need to strive to please.
  7. Comparison – I have my own unique contribution to make and there is no one else like me.
  8. Blame – I am not going to pass the buck. I will take responsibility for my actions.
  9. Guilt – I am loved by Jesus and he has forgiven my sins. Today is a new day and the past is behind.
  10. Over commitment – Do less better and accomplish more.
  11. Lack of Counsel – Wise decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.
  12. Impurity – Live lives pure and without blemish.
  13. Entitlement – The world does not owe me anything. God does not owe me anything. I live in humility and grace.
  14. Apathy – Life is too short not to care.
  15. Hatred – Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
  16. Negativity – I will put the best construction on everything when it comes to other people. I will also minimize my contact with people who are negative and toxic.
  17. The Spirit of Poverty – Believe that with God there is always more than enough and never a lack.
  18. Going Through the Motions – The more you invest yourself, the more you will get back.
  19. Complaint – Instead of contributing to the problem, be the solution.
  20. The Pursuit of Happiness – God wants something greater and more lasting than happiness. It is called joy.
  21. Bitterness – The only person I am hurting by holding on to this is myself.
  22. Distraction – Life is filled with distractions that will take our eyes off the prize.
  23. Giving up – God never gives up on us.
  24. Mediocrity – If you are going to do something, then give it all you got.
  25. Destructive Speech – Encourage one another and all the more as you see the day approaching (see Hebrews 10:25).
  26. Busyness – It is a badge of honor to be busy. But that does not always translate to abundance.
  27. Loneliness – With Jesus I am never alone. He is with me wherever I go.
  28. Disunity – If two of you agree on earth about anything, it will be done for them by the Heavenly Father (see Matthew 18:19).
  29. The Quick Fix – Rarely does true transformation happen overnight.
  30. Worry – God is in control and worrying will not help.
  31. Idolizing – Don’t assign anyone a standard they cannot live up to.
  32. Resistance to Change – Change is certain. It is not if we will change, but how we will change.
  33. Pride – Blessed are the humble.
  34. Small View of God – Don’t tell God how big your problem is, tell your problem how big your God is.
  35. Envy – I am blessed. My value is not found in my possessions, but in my relationship with my Heavenly Father.
  36. Ungratefulness – You have been blessed in a way greater than you realize.
  37. Selfish Ambition – God has a mission for me that is bigger than me.
  38. Self-Sufficiency – Jesus is my strength. I can do all things through him (see Philippians 4:13).
  39. Sorrow – Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5b).
  40. My Life – Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25).

(See Pastor Ressler’s parish website and the original list here.)

I’m going to come back to this list in a minute, but I want to return briefly to Isaiah’s prophesy of God’s great feast. What sorts of foods do you suppose will be set on that banquet table? There is at least one category of foods I’m sure will not be there.

Among nutritionists today one often hears the term “empty calories.” Many of the foods and beverages we Americans like to eat and drink contain these empty calories. In general, they are calories from solid fats and unnecessary sugars added to our diet. These ingredients add calories to the food but few or no nutrients.

Solid fats, by the way, are fats that are solid at room temperature. There are natural solid fats like butter, beef fat, and shortening. There are also unnatural solid fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, that added when convenience foods are processed by food companies or when they are prepared by fast food restaurants. Unnecessary the sugars are sugars and syrups that are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.

God’s banquet table, God’s feast of rich foods and well-aged wines, does not – I’m pretty sure – contain any empty calories.

But there are areas in our country where empty calories are nearly the only thing that the residents have available. The USDA refers to these areas as “food deserts” and on the department’s website we find this description:

Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. (USDA website)

The foods and beverages predominantly available in those areas, and to all of us no matter where we live, the foods that provide the most empty calories for Americans include the following: cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts, soda pop, energy drinks, sports drinks, sugared fruit drinks, processed cheese, pizza, ice cream, and processed red meat products such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs.

Did you notice something about that list? It’s practically the same as the list of things people said they were giving up for Lent! It is, perhaps, a good thing to give these things up because they prevent us from enjoying the healthier foods and beverages set out on God’s banquet table! The abundant life promised by Christ and for which Lent is to prepare us is a life of health and vitality, not a life filled with empty calories, and this is true both physically and spiritually!

Which brings me back to Pastor Ressler’s list. I suggest to you that the things on his list are the empty calories of our spiritual and emotional lives, and just as the empty calories of our physical life lead to physical diseases the empty calories of complaining, mediocrity, busyness, people pleasing, resistance to change, pride, worry, and all the others lead to spiritual illness and emotional malaise. They prevent us from enjoying God’s abundant banquet of joy, love, hope, and peace.

Auntie Mame was right, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” This Lent give up being one of those “poor suckers,” fast from the things that may be causing your soul to starve.

Give up those empty emotional and spiritual calories, and God will “redeem your life from the grave and crown you with mercy and loving-kindness; he [will] satisf[y] you with good things, and your youth [will be] renewed like an eagle’s.” (Ps. 103:4-5)

Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Quick! Grab a Pruning-Hook! — From the Daily Office — November 25, 2013

From the Prophet Joel:

Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your ploughshares into swords,
and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joel 3:9-10 (NRSV) – November 25, 2013.)

Sword MakingRead it carefully, it’s not what you think it is. It’s not what you expect. It’s not a call to make agricultural implements out of the weapons of war . . . it is quite literally the opposite!

It’s another surreal moment with scripture, like that reading from Revelation we had a few days ago! It’s God saying precisely what we do not want God to say . . . but isn’t that the way with God?

And like Revelation is sometimes understood, these words from God spoken through the Prophet Joel are about the end times; they are about judgment. God is summoning the nations do battle with God! God is coming to pronounce and carry out judgment, so he is ironically calling the peoples of the world to defend themselves against God. Earlier Joel had used a courtroom and law case metaphor, so this is just an escalation of that call to present a defense.

“I’m comin’; you best get ready,” is what this prophecy says. “Defend yourselves!” Can we do so?

Can we defend the failure all around us to feed the poor? In a country where our elected leadership has cut food assistance to the poor by $40 million while continuing and expanding corporate subsidies to agribusiness (and other industries), can we do so?

Can we defend the failure all around us to house the homeless? In a country where there homes sitting vacant because of the “real estate bubble” and the “foreclosure crisis” while families live in their cars and camp under highway bridges, where there are in fact more vacant homes than there are families in need of housing, can we do so?

Can we defend the failure all around us to care for the widowed and the orphan? In a country where we spend more per capita on health care than nearly any other industrialized nation but rank 37th overall in health care outcomes and have the 46th ranked life-expectancy for an adult, can we do so?

Can we defend the failure all around us to honor human life? In a country that regularly sends unmanned aerial vehicles (otherwise known as “drones”) into foreign nations to murder perceived enemies (including our own citizens) without warning, where thousands die every year because we value the “right to bear arms” so highly that we will not enact even reasonable regulations for the ownership of firearms, can we do so?

Quick! Grab a pruning-hook! Start straightening and sharpening it, because I think we’re going to need more than a few spears.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Valley of Decision – From the Daily Office – November 17, 2012

From the Book of Joel:

Multitudes, multitudes,
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
in the valley of decision.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joel 3:14 – November 17, 2012)
 
Desert HikingThe “valley of decision” is probably another name for the Valley of Jehoshaphat referred to in an earlier verse of this chapter of the Prophet Joel. Jehoshaphat (a Hebrew name pronounced “yeh-hoh-shah-faht”) is a compound word of two other Hebrew terms, Yahweh (one of the names of God) and shaphat (meaning “to judge” or “to decide”). Jehoshaphat, therefore, means “God will judge” or “God will decide”. Geographically, the valley of Jehoshaphat, the valley of decision, lies between the city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.

It seems to me that the image, “the valley of decision,” makes a marvelous metaphor for the whole process of making judgments in life. We speak of “mountain-top experiences” to describe those “Aha! moments” when insight or revelation comes upon us suddenly; the metaphor of passing through a valley seems an apt image for the alternative of the mundane decision-making in which every person engages every day.

How do people make decisions? How do we sift through piles of information without being overwhelmed by the plethora of alternatives? What are the factors that lead us in a certain direction? As I pondered the image of the “valley of decision,” I recalled my college days when a weekend away with friends usually meant a back-packing foray into the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego or the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area northeast of the city. Often these hiking excursions took us to places where few human beings had walked before; we had compasses and topological maps to guide us, but often there was no trail picked out by earlier hikers. We had to forge the trail ourselves. Often we found ourselves at the top of a hill overlooking a desert valley with no clear path. “How are we going to get down there?” was a frequent question.

Years after those college-day hikes, I went to graduate school and received a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Nevada. Among the things we studied (and supposedly learned) were the steps of management decision-making. The decision-making process, we were taught, involves the following steps:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Identify limiting factors.
  3. Develop potential alternatives.
  4. Analyze the alternatives.
  5. Select the best alternative.
  6. Implement the decision.
  7. Establish a control and evaluation system.

Standing at the top of a hill in the middle of the desert carrying a 50-pound pack at the end of a day of hiking, one does not stop to engage in that formal a process! Making our way downhill into the valley did mean carefully considering the path not only as a way down, but also as a potential exit route since we had no idea what we might find below or on the other side. However, we had to get down the hill and did so by making small, individual choices as we took each step down into the valley.

When we make big decisions, we do not have infinite resources and we frequently do not have a lot of time to gather information and analyze data. Furthermore, we human beings are significantly limited in the amount of complexity with which we can cope. So even though we may try to make decisions on the basis of some formal, rational process, we often resort to simplifying assumptions; we accept that our information is limited; and we settle for a less-than-thorough analysis of available data. We constantly use simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts that psychologists call “heuristics”; these reduce the complexity of our decision making. They are like the small individual choices we hikers made step-by-step going down into those desert valleys.

When we reached the bottom of the hill, when we were down in the valley, we had answered the question, “How are we going to get down there?” We had entered into and reached the bottom of our “valley of decision,” made the decision, not in one grand effort of rational analysis and pre-planning following the logical steps of that graduate school management class, but simply by taking a series of small steps.

Life is like that. There are very few mountain-top “Aha!” experiences. There are a lot of valleys of decision and not a few steep hills of decision, as well. We go through life taking small steps down into valleys and up onto hills, reaching decisions we may not even realize we are making. Everybody does it! Multitudes, multitudes are in the valley of decision every day.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Fasting Is a Given – Sermon for Lent 4B – March 18, 2012

Revised Common Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; and John 3:14-21

Continuing our series of sermons in answer to parishioner questions, today we will explore fasting. A member of the congregation asked, “What is fasting and why do we do it?”

The simple answer is that fasting is going without some or all food or drink or both for a defined period of time. An absolute fast is abstinence from all food and liquid for a period of at least one day, sometimes for several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substance. The fast may also be intermittent in nature; for example, Muslims fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan which is intended to teach Muslims patience, spirituality, humility, and submissiveness to God. Fasting as a spiritual practice is common to all major religions. Mahatma Gandhi once noted:

Every … religion of any importance appreciates the spiritual value of fasting … For one thing, identification with the starving poor is a meaningless term without the experience behind it. But … even an eighty-day fast may fail to rid a person of pride, selfishness, ambition, and the like. Fasting is merely a prop. But as a prop to a tottering structure is of essential value, so is the prop of fasting of inestimable value for a struggling soul.

In the Bible, the people of God in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures fasted for a variety of reasons:

  • They were facing a crisis. For example, the prophet Joel called for a fast to avert the judgment of God. (Joel 1:14, 2:12-15), and the people of Nineveh, in response to Jonah’s prophecy, fasted to forestall God’s judgment (Jonah 3:7).
  • They were seeking God’s protection and deliverance. For example, King Jehoshaphat in the Second Book of Chronicles proclaimed a fast seeking victory for Judah over the attaching Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chron. 20:3).
  • They had been called to repentance and renewal. The Psalmist, for example, in Psalm 109 cries:
    O Lord my God,
    oh, deal with me according to your Name; *
    for your tender mercy’s sake, deliver me.
    My knees are weak through fasting, *
    and my flesh is wasted and gaunt. (vv. 20,23)
  • They were asking God for guidance. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai before he received the tablets on the mountain with God. (Deut. 9) St. Paul did not eat or drink anything for three days after he converted on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:9)
  • They were humbling themselves in worship. The Book of Acts reports that it was with “fasting and praying” that the members of the church in Antioch “laid their hands on [Barnabas and Saul] and sent them off.” (Acts 13:3)

So fasting has a long and venerable history in all religions including our own. Indeed, Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. You may remember the lesson from Matthew’s Gospel which is always read on Ash Wednesday in which Jesus admonishes the disciples:

Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

In this passage Jesus doesn’t say, “If you pray … if you give … if you fast” but rather “when you pray … when you give … when you fast.” He simply expected his followers to do so. Did you know that fasting is mentioned more than 30 times in the New Testament? For a Christian, then, fasting is not an option. It should not be an oddity. Fasting, according to Jesus, is just a given.

During this season of Lent when we “give something up,” we are engaging in the spiritual discipline of the fast. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with Jesus during his forty days in the desert. We do so in remembrance of and in solidarity with our spiritual ancestors, the Hebrews, who spent forty years in the desert, often without food or sustenance. In today’s reading from the Book of Numbers, for example, “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’” God’s wrath, of course, was kindled against them because of their complaining, but they were humbled by their privation. When we “give up something” (whether it be food or drink or some other thing that we enjoy), we are fasting and our fasting is a reminder of our own humility and own hunger for God. By refusing to feed our physical appetites, what St. Paul in today’s epistle lesson calls “the passions of our flesh” or “the desires of flesh and senses,” we become aware of our spiritual hunger.

The Baptist preacher and author John Piper, in his book A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, encourages fasting with these words:

If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, “This much, O God, I want you.” (Pg 23)

Fasting is a way to bring into view those things we may need most to set aside but of which we are often unaware. In today’s lesson from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the coming of the Son, “light has come into the world” and then says:

All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:20-21)

In his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, Quaker theologian Richard Foster commends fasting as a way of bringing things to light:

More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (Pg. 48)

But when we fast, we must not delude ourselves into believing that the fasting itself is earning us any “brownie points” – it is not through our good deeds, including our fasting, that we earn salvation. Indeed, we cannot earn salvation. St. Paul reminds us of that forcefully in today’s epistle: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

Thinking that the act of fasting itself could earn God’s reward was condemned by God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah:

[You say,] “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: 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 shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isa. 58:3-8)

So fasting is a spiritual discipline, but only when done with the proper prayerful attitude, the proper religious understanding – when done “in secret” as Jesus said in the Ash Wednesday reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Fasting is not so much about food, as it is about focus. It is not so much about saying “No” to the body, as it is about saying “Yes” to the Spirit. It is not about doing without; it is about looking within. It is an outward manifestation to an inward cry of the soul, a surfacing of those things that need to be brought to light, not to be condemned, but to be saved.

Let us pray:

Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through our Lenten fast; that as we observe it by bodily self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men, Collect for Friday after Ash Wednesday, pg. 34)