Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2022
16 “And 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
We are embarking on another thematic series this week focusing upon spiritual disciplines. This particular week, we will be looking at fasting. Most of us have little experience with fasting a spiritual discipline. In our FIRL groups it was initially difficult to see how voluntarily giving up food would help us become closer to God. A very few had tried fasting and were more likely to feel hangry than devotional.
We are much more familiar with fasting as a means of weight control. There is evidence to suggest that it works. The same activity, however, can have entirely different purposes. Spiritual fasting is about enhancing our relationship with God. It is a time to reflect, to discern and to ask questions we rarely ask. What feeds us? What is nourishing? What do we really need? Who feeds us? How do we explain inequities that lead to starvation? How do we explain the inequities that lead to our bounty?
When used as a spiritual discipline, fasting leads us into discernment. It precipitates questions and insights into our place in the world with God and each other. Here are a few examples:
Fasting pointedly reminds us we need food to survive. Especially in a community where we have plenty of food, we can take food for granted—and with it, our fundamental dependency as creatures. We make an idol of our supposed self sufficiency. Actual, physical hunger challenges our complacency and entitlement. Hundreds, if not thousands of people make it possible for us to eat. We almost never think of them, much less appreciate them for giving us the means to survive.
Fasting exposes what we hunger for. There are whole books written about the ways we use food to cope with anxiety more than to feed our bodies. When we stop using food to soothe us, those anxieties increase. We have to find new ways to cope with life or we will live trapped in a hopeless attempt to feed our hungry hearts.
Fasting viscerally exposes the need to balance our need for physical food and our need for spiritual food.
In the temptation story, the devil tempts Jesus to place his personal needs first. The devil says, “you have the means, why should you go hungry? Turn the stones into loaves of bread.” Physical hunger can lead us to forget our priorities. When Jesus says, we do not live by bread alone, he makes a choice to continue depending upon God instead of taking matters into his own hands. He made the same choice in Gethsemane. It is almost a violation of our human need to survive to choose to stay dependent upon God. It is not natural to us. It is literally supernatural.
Please do not take this to mean we can live on “every word that comes from the mouth of God” alone. I promise you will starve. This is not a binary problem. In real life, spiritual hunger and physical hunger exist in fluid tension with each other. Choosing one side of the balance to the exclusion of the other is a distortion and can make an idol out of starvation. In real life, this is a discernment problem. Real life hunger focuses that problem very concretely. It confronts us with our desire to ensure our own safety.
Because spiritual fasting is chosen, not forced upon us, we can learn self discipline. We can learn that we can be physically hungry and still be ok. There are a lot of things in real life—people and activities, as well as foods that we say we have to have that are not as important as we thought. We cannot discover what we really need when we choose to live without what we think we have to have.
Fasting allows us to live in solidarity with the hungry. We will be a lot more mindful and compassionate if we notice what it is like to have our stomachs growling.
Unfortunately, anything that can be used can be misused—and fasting is no exception. When any spiritual disicipline is used to draw attention to ourselves, it is self serving. Loud prayer, noisy giving or ‘disfiguring’ fasting reveals our hunger to be noticed. We want attention and we want the good opinion of those around us. There is nothing wrong with that any more than fasting to lose weight. It becomes wrong only when our lives become devoted to such attention at the expense of trusting we are seen and loved by God. It becomes a way to prove ourselves and earn favor instead of trusting such favor has already been given. In truth, we might well use Lent to live more authentic selves by giving up counting the number of ‘likes’ we get on facebook. Piety which seeks approval from others is unlikely to lead to a better relationship with God. Similarly, giving up food to lose weight is its own reward. It too, is unlikely to lead to a better relationship with God. And finally giving up what is convenient is unlikely to challenge and confront us spiritually. If you don’t like eggplant, I doubt you’ll learn much by giving it up for Lent.
Let fasting lead us to the great commandment: Love God and Love Neighbor. We can experience our creatureliness, our dependency, our limitations and our sinfulness when we fast. When we learn those things we will live more humbly and gratefully with our God and with each other.
The reward that God promises when we intentionally seek God is the discovery of God’s care and the life that gives life. There is no greater reward.
Let it be so.