Fast Food – Sermon for 3/18/12

Isaiah 58

Your Prayers Won’t Get Off the Ground

1-3 “Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

3-5″Well, here’s why:
“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?
6-9″This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

Matthew 6:16-18
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

James 2:14-26
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Cleanses & fasts are huge right now in the dietary world. There’s that crazy lemonade fast with the maple syrup & cayenne pepper. There’s the cabbage soup diet, juice fasts, Isagenix cleanses, and all kinds of things out there to make you healthy & thin. However fasting in scripture is more often a spiritual practice that is intended to align our minds and hearts with God’s intentions for our communities.

While there is a lot said in the Bible regarding fasting, there’s not a lot of popular discussion of or writing about it. In fact, between 1851 & 1954 there was not a single book published on the subject. Mentions, sure, but no whole books. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, during the Middle Ages, fasting was practiced to an extreme, with the most rigorous regulations and extreme self-flagellation. That type of extreme fasting is devoid of true spiritual power which is replaced by the false sense of security given by strict legalism. Second, we are told in our culture that if we don’t satisfy every appetite we might starve, do without or, worse, be UNCOOL.

There is a difference between fasting and hunger striking, which is intended to draw attention to a cause or gain political power. In the bible, fasting focuses on spiritual purposes, which will be our discussion today. Most biblical fasting pertains to abstaining from food. There are 3 types of fasts in the Bible: 1) the normal fast; 2) the partial fast; 3) the absolute fast. The normal fast is abstaining from food, but not water. The partial fast is a restricted diet, but consists of some food and water. The absolute fast means abstaining from both food and water. Most of the time in scripture, fasts are a personal observance but there are occasions for corporate, community fasts as well.

The Isaiah passage is accusing Israel of being a people of champagne talk and kool-aid action. They are observing all the religious rituals but they are not behaving differently in their lives outside the temple. They are participating in the rituals, following the rules, and yet outside of their observances they are cheating people in business, neglecting their care of the poor and looking away when they see injustice. Because of this, God has allowed them to go into captivity and be separated from their land and their homes. And the people are shocked by this. They can’t believe that they could do all the right things and still get in trouble. God goes so far to say that their prayers don’t get further than the ceiling because the disconnect between their words and their practices is so profound. The issue is, their exercising of spiritual practices was completely external, not at all part of a true spiritual practice. The external observances are supposed to be an outward expression of a inward transformation.

In Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings on fasting flow right out of a discussion on prayer and financial giving. They all three have something in common – secrecy. How many times have you heard “OMG – i’m doing this juice fast and I’m STARVING.” Fine, it’s not really for spiritual purposes. But how many times have we (myself included) said, “OMG – I’ve given up _______ for Lent and I’m DYING for it!” Kinda the same thing. I feel I can say this because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can be a bit of a drama queen. Whenever we’re engaging in a spiritual practice with the end goal of true spiritual transformation, the results should be seen in our actions: the combination of faith and works. We are most like Jesus when we serve, but the energy, passion and desire for service should come from inside us, when we are truly on a path of pursuing God in our everyday lives.

I liken this to Tebowing. I am a big fan of football, but not a fan of Tim Tebow’s public displays of his faith. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and all the anecdotal evidence I’ve read says that he’s really a great guy in real life. His stock went way up to me when he declined an invitation to go on a date with Kim Kardashian. However, the whole Tebowing thing- not a fan. I have yet to see him do his move when the Broncos lose. If he were to do that after he got sacked or after they missed a field goal, I’d be all for it. But it’s bad theology to only be open about praising God when things go well, and it’s not very Sermon on the Mount to make such public displays of your personal practices.

Another thing I notice about this passage is the way Jesus opens the conversation – “when you fast.” There’s an assumption that there will be fasting. However, it’s not a command. Because of the context of this passage, I think Jesus is telling us that prayer, fasting and generosity are all part of a healthy spiritual practice.

I can only think of one time when I’ve fasted based on a spiritual practice and it was only half a day. This was many years ago when I worked at my grad school’s library. I very distinctly heard God tell me not to pack a lunch that day because food would be provided for me. Lest you think I belong on a 24-hour Christian Network, I hasten to add that this isn’t something that happens often. But I have also learned that when God goes to the trouble to say something so directly, it’s best not to question and just go with it. I didn’t say anything, didn’t pack any food, just went to work. I started to get hungry, just kept going, drank water, etc. Around 1ish I begin to think this was crazy, and that I was imagining it and I was just going to grab something before the cafe closed, when one of the students came to my desk and said, here’s the rest of my lunch – some fruit and yogurt. I’m not hungry anymore so you can have it. I never told her what was going on, before or after she gave me her food, but I always go back to that experience to remind myself that God has always taken care of me, even in the most mundane of circumstances.

Another popular trend in the food industry, and something we all love is “comfort food”. What is your go-to comfort food? I like to make things my mom made. Last week I did a chicken/broccoli/curry thing she used to do and the week before it was liver & onions with mashed potatoes. I love liver & onions. Food just makes us feel better and I think that’s normal. However, any time anything that’s not God, becomes your consistent go-to comforter,it can get in the way of a genuine connection to God. Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all these things will be added. Things that we use to comfort us are not always food. Are there things in which you find security that you use to center yourself?

Fasting doesn’t have to be from food. Fasting is about removing obstacles that keep us from connecting to God and acknowledging our dependence on God’s protection and provision. We started our Lenten discussion with Moses’ removal of his shoes as something that aren’t bad in an of themselves but were, at that moment, blocking his full experience of God. I’d like to challenge you to spend some time this week thinking about things that might come between you and your full experience of God and maybe think about a fast from them. See what the difference is in your relationship to your families, co-workers and friends. Open yourself to the possibilities of how much bigger God can be in your everyday lives and see what a difference it can make.

The Soul Felt Its Worth

John 1

The Word Became Flesh

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcomeit.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Time Magazine declared 2011 to be the year of the Protestor. Starting in Tunisia, the energy of people long oppressed around the world came together to overthrow governments and businesses that had catered to the wealthy and took from those who had nothing left to give.

The first stanza of O Holy Night tells us that when Christ appeared, the “soul felt its worth.” To have God become flesh and dwell among us is to know that we matter – that we matter to God and therefore should matter to each other. The protests around the world are people standing up and saying “We matter. We should be treated with respect and justice.”

What is light but a protest against the darkness? If we were to turn out the lights in this building, we would all be in darkness, not just a few of us. Darkness around the world affects those of us who think we’re living in the light.

Today’s scripture tells us that the birth of Christ enables us to become children of God. The Greek work in this passage is more accurately translated, “children who are, by very nature, God’s”, implying a genetic connection. If I were to show you a picture of my parents, you would see very clearly the strong resemblance I have to both of them. It’s not something that I have to try to do or make happen. I look like them because I am related to them. I also act like them because I am related to them.

The coming of Christ gives us the ability to look and act like God because we had a living example of how God would act in the world if God came in the flesh. When we choose to follow this path, we are called to become people who are light in the world, casting out darkness and ending the oppression of the weak.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Louis Etongwe, age fifty-two, liberates slaves from the homes of wealthy families in the states ofVirginia,Maryland, andNew Jersey.

No, that’s not a news bulletin from pre–Civil WarAmerica. Louis lives in modern-dayWilliamsburg,Virginia, and in seven separate incidents since 1999 he has rescued teenage African girls from domestic servitude and sexual bondage. Remarkably, Louis has no training in immigration law, he has no social services organization standing behind him, and he funds his activities with the money he earns from a modest salary working for the telephone company. “I act out of principle,” Louis says without a trace of hubris. “I can’t sit by passively when predators take advantage of the defenseless.”

Louis’s story of becoming a modern-day abolitionist is found in David Batstone’s book Not For Sale, a book that has become a world-wide movement to end slavery and human trafficking, at its highest rates in human history.

The third stanza of O Holy Night tells us that the “slave is our brother”. If we truly saw the slave as our brother, would we be dealing with this epidemic? We like to see ourselves for the most part as free people, but for most of us, that freedom is an illusion. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that unless there is freedom for everyone, there is freedom for no one. Frederick Buechner tells us that “your life and my life flow into one another…so unless there is peace and freedom for you there is no peace and freedom for me.”

The protests in Tunisia began when a merchant who had been so constantly oppressed by local police and government that he soaked himself with turpentine and set himself ablaze outside his local police station to protest his treatment. This horrendous act was caught on video and circled the globe through social networking sites. He died a few days later, but the movement gained a life that spread around the region and eventually around the world.

The end of oppression is an exciting thought, and one that has been a big part of this past year. I have to wonder, however, if as people who claim to be followers of Jesus, if we shouldn’t have been part of the end of oppression years ago. Jesus told his disciples that if they chose not to offer praise to God, the very rocks would cry out. The protests that have happened around the world that were not initiated by Christ-followers are an examples of the rocks crying out because no matter what, God’s will is done, and we know from scripture God’s will is the end of oppression.

Oppression takes many forms. There are the obvious forms of oppression, like slavery, child labor, and unjust political regimes. The hidden oppressors that live inside us can be much more insidious and prevent a true connection between us and God. We are addicted to drugs, alcohol, food. We are depressed. We are cowering under the shame of a sexual assault or of our own life choices. We have secret habits that we think we have under control, but in reality they control us. We are buried under debt and living beyond our means. No one is immune to oppression. Oppression is darkness, and the light of God’s love is the only cure. We must shine the healing sunlight of truth on these oppressors and with the support of our communities, rid ourselves of the things that oppress us and keep us from becoming who God intends us to be.

When one is oppressed we are all oppressed. The calling we have in Christ is not a small one. It is difficult, dangerous, costly and complicated. It is also not optional. We’re starting a new year, and most of us think in terms of resolutions and changes of habit that have to do with our outsides. We all say we’re going to lose weight, join the gym, get more rest, slow down, get healthy. Rarely do any of us follow through with these resolutions. This year I would challenge us all to make the more manageable resolution to be light to the world in some way every day. You can do this by buying someone coffee, giving encouragement, volunteering for a cause about which you are passionate, tutoring kids after school, or serving at a soup kitchen. Make the resolution and with the support of your community, follow through. Oppression within yourself, your community and the world can come to an end. Make a choice today to protest the darkness with light.