An Acceptable Fast
Isaiah 58: 5 – 9
Matthew 5:13 – 20
Chilmark Community Church
February 5, 2017
Have you ever fasted? For most of us, the closest we come to fasting is going without food after mid-night prior to having morning blood work done – or perhaps prior to surgery. Fasting is not something we normally or easily choose to do. Occasionally, fasting may be part of a spiritual discipline. Almost every religious tradition has a component that suggests or requires fasting for measured periods of time. Most traditions warn against fasting for the wrong reasons – – the most predominant warning being that a person should not fast in order to appear pious or holy. In both Christianity and Judaism, when fast days cycle around in the liturgical year, the wisdom is that no one else should know one is fasting – that one is to wash one’s face and groom one’s hair – dress well, smile, function normally – and not speak about the discomfort or the hunger that accompany fasting. Fasting can serve a spiritual purpose. When done with careful intention it may indeed open the mind and the heart to God in expansive and meaningful ways.
In antiquity, it was believed that fasting might open a fast track to God’s approval – perhaps make God more inclined to judge the people favorably. But the verses from Isaiah sound like the people weren’t satisfied with the results of their fast. They weren’t getting a payoff on their investment. We get the slightest hint of a dialog between God and Israel. The people’s voice asks of God “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why do we humble ourselves when you don’t even notice?” But the voice of God through the prophet responds: “Look, you serve your own interests when you fast, and you continue to oppress all your workers. Your fasting only makes you quarrelsome and you fight and strike out with a wicked fist. Fasting the way you do today will not make your voice heard by God.”
God continues: Do you think this is the fast that I choose – – a day to humble oneself? Do you think I want you to bow down your heads head like the bulrushes, or that I want you to lie down in sack cloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to me? Perhaps we can use our imaginations a little here – – and see bull rushes – – or perhaps the tall invasive grasses – the fragmites – that edge some of our ponds – bending low in a high wind – humbled by a storm – and yet they bounce back as soon as the wind stops – – their humility is a temporary state. Sack cloth and ashes were literally that – rough garments – scratchy on the skin – – picture wearing the coarsest burlap you have ever seen on a steamy day in August. Then imagine drawing a bucket of ashes from a cold fire pit and dumping them over your head and body until you are completely covered. With these practices the idea was to assume a posture of total abnegation and humility – – extremely uncomfortable and dirty – – in order to appropriately fast. For some individuals, fasting and praying in this manner may have resulted in the desired state of communion with God. But for others, it was pretty much an outward show of false piety.
God’s idea of a fast is different. It has nothing to do with people starving themselves or abasing themselves with harsh self-humiliation. God’s fast has to do with addressing the injustices in society – – with addressing the social systems that oppress people and weigh them down like a heavy yoke – things like chronic unemployment, unaffordable child care, the loss of the dignity of being able to provide for one’s family. God’s fast doesn’t require starving oneself but rather requires the sharing of one’s bread with someone who is hungry. God’s fast does not require creating barriers, but rather bringing the homeless and the refugee into a safe circle of care – – God’s fast requires that the naked – – all human beings who are desperately vulnerable – – who cannot make their way in the world – – God’s fast is that they be covered, clothed, by a compassionate justice that sees them, cares for them and takes action to attend to to their needs.
Matthew’s Jesus reaffirms that his mission is to fulfill the flowing intention of God as it comes through in the great law given on Sinai and through the witness of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and Malachi. Jesus is pretty clear that there are consequences when the law and the prophets are set aside. He warns that those who ignore the issues of justice and righteousness and who draw others along with them will be “among the least in the kingdom of heaven” while those who are careful to pay attention and to teach others about the kind of fast that God requires will be great in the kingdom of heaven.
What we notice in Jesus’ words, however, is that no one is excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who live by the law of God and those who ignore it – – everyone enters. When Jesus says that those who have ignored the laws of God will be “Least in the kingdom” and those who have paid attention and acted in accordance with it will be “great” – – he is not setting up one more hierarchy that separates people. Jesus is talking about the great reversals that are a common thread throughout the bible that will be a reality in the kingdom of Heaven – – the kind of reversals we read in the beatitudes where those who mourn will be comforted – where the meek will inherit the earth – where the hungry will be filled – where those who weep now will laugh – – and conversely – – that those who are full now will be hungry and those who laugh now will mourn and weep.” The curious dynamic is that we will all be in it together in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew’s Jesus is not the “gentle Jesus, meek an mild” of our childhood prayers when he stands in the line of succession from the great prophets who demanded of the people that they pay attention to the fast of justice and mercy and compassion that God requires. Matthew’s Jesus does two things in his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets. First – he affirms and validates the power of the scriptures to get us re-centered and rooted and grounded when we get off track. Hearing Jesus’ insistence on the centrality of the scriptures was critical at the time that Matthew was writing when the Jewish and early Christian era was in such turmoil. There was conflict within the Jewish community as they tried to chart a course for Judaism following the destruction of the temple. And there was conflict between those who would eventually break away to follow Jesus and those who would remain in the tradition. Matthew’s Jesus reminds the conflicted community of where their guidance and direction come from. The second thing that Matthew’s Jesus does by his insistence on attention to the law and the prophets, is that Jesus becomes for us the greatest of compassionate healers. He draws us into line with God’s vision for humanity. He shows us the way and he, indeed, becomes The Way. By aligning himself with the law and the prophets and by challenging us to follow him, Jesus invites us to become healers and reconcilers in a terribly broken and chaotic world. This is our most challenging calling. Jesus even warns about the challenge when he says to his followers “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account.” He seems to indicate says we might actually be happy about that – – because it affirms that we are on the right track – – in good company with him and all the prophets who came before him. When we receive resistance or criticism for aligning ourselves with the teachings of Jesus, we might understand this as an indicator that we are doing the right thing.
We will celebrate communion together in a few minutes. I want to remind us once again of the circumstances of that early event. It happened on the eve of Jesus’ arrest. In modern language, he would be condemned for sedition and treason against Rome for daring to preach and teach the message of a God of justice, loving-kindness, liberation – a God of reversals who’s intent is to turn the world upside down by ushering in a realm where no one is left out. Jesus would die for the kind of preaching and teaching that called Rome to account. Jesus lived and died as an acceptable fast. He shared that last meal with his disciples to give them a constant reminder of the living fast they were to embody. He used simple foods that they would eat every day. And he said to them “every time you eat and drink bread and wine together remember what I am about.”
We stand in a great invisible lineage of human beings who have, indeed, remembered, who have embraced the acceptable fast that God desires and who have passed the memory on to us. Perhaps as we gather at the table, we might imagine that incredibly long line of witnesses here with us – filling the sanctuary with their presence as we share in communion and re-commit to taking our place in that line. May it be so.