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.)
“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:
- Fear of Failure – You don’t succeed without experiencing failure. Just make sure you fail forward.
- Your Comfort Zone – It’s outside our comfort zones where new discoveries are made.
- Feelings of Unworthiness – You are fearfully and wonderfully made by your creator. (see Psalm 139:14)
- Impatience – God’s timing is the perfect timing.
- 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.
- People Pleasing – I can’t please everyone anyways. There is only one I need to strive to please.
- Comparison – I have my own unique contribution to make and there is no one else like me.
- Blame – I am not going to pass the buck. I will take responsibility for my actions.
- Guilt – I am loved by Jesus and he has forgiven my sins. Today is a new day and the past is behind.
- Over commitment – Do less better and accomplish more.
- Lack of Counsel – Wise decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.
- Impurity – Live lives pure and without blemish.
- Entitlement – The world does not owe me anything. God does not owe me anything. I live in humility and grace.
- Apathy – Life is too short not to care.
- Hatred – Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
- 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.
- The Spirit of Poverty – Believe that with God there is always more than enough and never a lack.
- Going Through the Motions – The more you invest yourself, the more you will get back.
- Complaint – Instead of contributing to the problem, be the solution.
- The Pursuit of Happiness – God wants something greater and more lasting than happiness. It is called joy.
- Bitterness – The only person I am hurting by holding on to this is myself.
- Distraction – Life is filled with distractions that will take our eyes off the prize.
- Giving up – God never gives up on us.
- Mediocrity – If you are going to do something, then give it all you got.
- Destructive Speech – Encourage one another and all the more as you see the day approaching (see Hebrews 10:25).
- Busyness – It is a badge of honor to be busy. But that does not always translate to abundance.
- Loneliness – With Jesus I am never alone. He is with me wherever I go.
- Disunity – If two of you agree on earth about anything, it will be done for them by the Heavenly Father (see Matthew 18:19).
- The Quick Fix – Rarely does true transformation happen overnight.
- Worry – God is in control and worrying will not help.
- Idolizing – Don’t assign anyone a standard they cannot live up to.
- Resistance to Change – Change is certain. It is not if we will change, but how we will change.
- Pride – Blessed are the humble.
- Small View of God – Don’t tell God how big your problem is, tell your problem how big your God is.
- Envy – I am blessed. My value is not found in my possessions, but in my relationship with my Heavenly Father.
- Ungratefulness – You have been blessed in a way greater than you realize.
- Selfish Ambition – God has a mission for me that is bigger than me.
- Self-Sufficiency – Jesus is my strength. I can do all things through him (see Philippians 4:13).
- Sorrow – Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5b).
- 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)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.