Isaiah 58: 1-12; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
******** United Church of Christ
March 1, 2006 – Ash Wednesday
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is lost on most people today. The only time we fast these days is when we have to have some kind of medical test for our blood sugar or cholesterol or something more invasive. After the test or procedure is completed we may be ravenous but we are hardly starving for nutrition. When my kids are hungry and declare that they are starving, I remind them that they know nothing about “starving”; only being hungry. Then we talk about where people are starving and what we can do, if not to help directly, then how to be responsible with what we have.
The season of Lent is a season of fasting. The period of forty days, not counting Sundays, mirrors the forty days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, with Satan challenging him in a tempting battle of wits. Jesus emerges triumphant, though perhaps not unscathed, as angels minister to him afterward. He is now ready to begin his ministry with a well-disciplined spirit.
The phrase “spiritual discipline” is another concept, like fasting, that leaves a bad taste in our mouths. I prefer “spiritual practice”. I go to a yoga class three times during a good week, once a week at the very least. It’s called a yoga practice because our bodies are different every day, allowing us to do as much as is possible on any given day. We do our best in our practice and come back the next time and practice yoga again. We never actually get it right; the important thing is showing up, giving it what you have, and being thankful for being able to do what we can.
I read an article recently that referred to motherhood as a spiritual practice, which instantly lifted my spirit and deepened my thought at the same time. Though the government and social structure may not acknowledge all that mothers give to society, it does not matter; motherhood is a spiritual practice of not only raising caring, loving young men and women but also using our passion to create a better society. And if motherhood, then why not all of life as a spiritual practice? What if everything we did, our work, our families, the choices we make each day, we did as a spiritual practice? I think this is the true purpose of Lent: to realize our lives, all of it, as a spiritual practice, an offering to God and to God’s world.
In Lent it’s not that we have to give up something or take on something, but that we get to do this spiritual practice. We get to unburden ourselves from whatever monkey (or King Kong!) we’ve been carrying on our backs. We get to do something for others that can make a real difference in someone’s life. We get to turn away from the noise of our lives and turn toward God and God’s desires for us. In wondering what to do for Lent, there is the question to ask: what is God’s desire for us these forty days?
Choosing our own sacrifice or devotion for Lent really does seem a little too undemanding. The other night on NPR a Catholic priest, Father James Martin, told the story of how his Jewish friend from college named Rob, calls each year on Ash Wednesday to tell him what he must do for Lent. In college Jim Martin’s Jewish friends were fascinated with his Catholicism. He would teach them about genuflecting, the confessional and how to put the kneeler back without creating a commotion. One evening at a local pub the subject of Lent came up. His friends said that self-imposed sacrifice was too easy; how about if they chose his penance?
And so the deliberation began. After a heated discussion it was resolved that beer was an impossible choice. So the decision was that Jim would give up orange soda, which he consumed in copious amounts when studying on those long nights. Since then his friend Rob has made some interesting choices. Some years it has been certain spices. One year Rob made him give up oregano, which seemed pretty harmless at first until Jim realized he wouldn’t be eating pizza for the next six weeks. Jim feels that having someone else choose for him keeps him honest. Because it is not within his control, it feels more spiritual than automatic. The things beyond our control are the most difficult to deal with; they are a cross that ultimately needs to be accepted. As a priest said to Jim when he was dealing with a difficult illness, it wouldn’t be much of a cross if you wanted it.
Whatever we choose to do this Lent or someone else chooses for us, it is not intended that we accept this fast, this cross with the sound of “ugh” on our breath, slumped shoulders, and a broken spirit. This is the other part of the fast, that we do it quietly, privately, without show, as though it were a little secret between us and God. And this is where the smile comes in. We smile because it is between us and God; because we get to do, give up, take on, and conspire with the Almighty, as subversives for God’s kingdom of righteousness; we smile because we get to practice being like Jesus, which what being a Christian is all about. Being like Jesus means the cross but it also means resurrection, and there is not one without the other. Thanks be to God. Amen.