“All in the Same Boat”

March 19, 2017

Please note—the documentary, 4.1 Miles that is mentioned in this sermon can be viewed by clicking this link: https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000004674545/41-miles.html


Isaiah 58:1-9a

Matthew 9:14-17


“The disciples of John came to Jesus saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not fast?”

The hymn “Kind Maker of the World” is in the “Lent” section of our hymnal, but we don’t sing it here. The words, attributed to the sixth century Benedictine monk who later became Pope Gregory the Great, ask God to hear the prayers of all “who keep this holy fast of Lent” so that “this fast of forty days may work Thy profit and Thy praise!”

The “fast of Lent” fell out of favor with many during the Protestant Reformation. Ulrich Zwingli, the great Reformer in Zurich, was involved in what became known as “The Affair of the Sausages,” when in 1552 he was present at a dinner at which two of his followers ate a few slices of sausage during Lent.

I know! Shocking.

Zwingli’s sermon, “Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods,” defended this action, arguing that Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent. Yesterday morning at the men’s breakfast, several of us quietly acknowledged our Zwinglian heritage, enjoying sausage and bacon with gusto even during this “holy fast of Lent.”

Martin Luther also had mixed thoughts about fasting, rejecting it if were considered a good work through which one could obtain God’s grace and favor, stating in Luther’s unique way, that “No gluttony and drunkenness could have been as bad or foul…Better had people been drunk day or night than to fast in this way.”

And while John Calvin looked much more favorably upon fasting, he felt that misunderstanding of fasting could “easily lapse into superstition,” especially during Lent, in which case it would be better not to fast at all. He recognized that there had been many abuses of fasting in the church’s history and that the rich seemed especially adept at finding ways to twist the discipline of fasting so that it allowed them to have even better food and drink.

Even so, he felt that there were times, especially difficult times, in which pastors should urge the people to fasting and prayers. He remembered the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that we heard this morning: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

By the time Jesus says this in the Matthew’s gospel, he has already affirmed the Torah, which commanded one day of fasting each year. And Jesus has even given some guidelines for more frequent fasting.

At this point in his ministry, it was clear that something new was happening with Jesus. What was accepted was meeting something strange and unexpected. Rather than rejecting a familiar religious practice, Jesus was inviting people to look at the deeper purposes of this practice.

Perhaps after hearing about those Reformers and about Jesus you’re thinking, to paraphrase the president: “Nobody knew fasting could be so complicated.”


And perhaps we can get a fresh perspective from our Muslim friends.

Maybe you have neighbors or colleagues or friends who fast during the month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan begins in late May and ends in late June. Every year adult Muslims who are in good health observe this time by fasting from sunrise to sunset. This has been called “punctuated fasting”—similar in a sense to the traditional fast of Lent, in which Sundays are feast days, little Easters, times for celebrating.

In Ramadan time is spent reading scripture and in prayer. It is, as one person put it, “a joyous month of spiritual growth and late night family meals”—a time to remember that, as the Qur’an says about this month, “God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship.” The goal of this fasting, of course, is much more than getting through the day without food. One person says that the fast of Ramadan equips people with a creative sense of hope and an optimistic outlook on life; it gives a sense of closeness to God; it provides a clear mind and a light body.[i]

Our Muslim friends remind us that fasting should lead to a new perspective and toward new action.

As Jesus suggested when questioned by the disciples of John, as the month of Ramadan shows us, fasting is not for all times. But it may be for such a time as this.

For it was Calvin, again, who said that “if either pestilence, or famine, or war begins to rage, or if any disaster threatens any district or people—then it is the duty of the pastors to urge the church to fasting…Accordingly, Christ, when he excuses the apostles for not fasting, does not say that fasting is abolished, but appoints it for times of calamity and joins it with mourning.”

Perhaps these are days that call for fasting. Perhaps with wars raging and disasters threatening, I as your pastor should encourage you to fast, as even Congregationalist in colonial America did when the clergy felt it was warranted.

I don’t jump at this, however, because my own experience with fasting is limited. When I was in divinity school I took a course called “Spiritual Disciplines in Comparative Practice.” We explored Christianity and Buddhism not so much as theological systems but as living traditions to be practices. What was prayer like for Christians and for Buddhists? How was silence used? And what about fasting?

Two of the requirements for the class were to spend 24 in silence and 24 fasting. They didn’t have to be the same twenty-four hours.

Of course not.

But I made the mistake of combining solitude, silence, and fasting.

One afternoon in the spring I went to the monastery of the Cowley Fathers, an order of Episcopalian monks who live in the midst of the striving success that is Cambridge, MA. Now, they didn’t have a website in those days, but their current site asks: “Where do you weave silence into the fabric of your daily life? When silence comes, do you rush to fill it? If God seems distant or uncommunicative these days, maybe you’re simply not listening enough. God doesn’t shout.”

I went to listen.

I went without food.

And the sudden depravation of both was almost too much. I still remember how vivid everything seemed when I walked out of the monastery 24 hours later. The blue of the sky. The brightness of the sun. The noise of the traffic. It felt as though all of life had taken on a new intensity during those hours that was not being revealed.

I have never fasted since.

Maybe it’s a problem of youth. I recently read someone saying: “I fasted once as a young person, giving money to charity to match the cost of food not eaten. I never did it again.”

“The disciples of John came to Jesus saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not fast?”

Through fasting we bring the daily bombardment of our senses to a halt. Each day we receive countless messages telling us: eat this, drink that, buy me. News is available 24 hours a day. Fasting calls a temporary halt to the input of the world so that we can be still and listen to God’s still, small voice. Sometimes fasting involves food. In our time, however, maybe you’ll turn off the TV, or stop reading the newspaper or curb your rampant consuming in some other way.

This year there are all sort of suggestions for fasting during Lent: A “Fast from people” has been suggested, encouraging us to say “no” to social events. Stay off email and social media. Take a break from your book club. Basically, keep your days to yourself and God except for Sundays at church (unless as one wag in this congregation suggested, you decided to fast from church in these forty days.)
Some suggest fasting from the news, turning off the TV and the web. My guess is that there are many in this congregation who feel that they could probably benefit from such a fast in these days. If we fast from the news simply for relief, however, we are missing the ways in which such a fast might help us come back to the news with a greater commitment to the well-being of this world.

If we fast only to give simply what we would have otherwise spent, we are missing the ways in which fasting might help us to vividly see the abundance of God and lead us into a greater generosity.

If we fast simply to be strengthened so that we can continue in the world as it is we have missed the point.

So we are still brought to consider what it is God desires.

And here, of course, the prophet Isaiah is painfully direct: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

A couple of weeks ago Ray Muston suggested that I watch that short documentary 4.1 Miles that he told you about this morning. It was nominated for an Academy Award. The film follows a coast guard captain and his crew on the Greek island of Lesbos as they rescue thousands of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea during the height of the European refugee crisis. It is troubling and inspiring to watch. People are rescued from small rubber boats. A mother and her two children are pulled from the water. It is a round the clock operation.

The captain says that “Life used to be under control. It was calm. Now, every hour ten of us are asked to rescue 200.”

At one point a woman describes the situation: 3-4,000 people arrive every day. There is no infrastructure on the island to support these numbers of people. The children’s hospital is filled with refugee children who have lost their parents. Nobody is looking after them.

And the reply comes: “It’s up to us to help everyone, then.”

I heard those words and thought, “We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we?”

Life used to be under control. Now, it’s up to us to help. The ongoing refugee crisis, a planet that we continue to threaten with destruction, millions of people worried that their health care, their meals, will soon vanish.

Jesus said of those who would follow him: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Friends, this is the time for fasting. But let us heed the advice of the prophet Isaiah in the kind of fast that we will take upon ourselves as individuals and as a congregation: Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide…?

And yes, one way we do this during Lent is through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering that supports work with refugees around the world, provides shelter for those who have lost it, gives medical care to those who need it. It is a small way in which we stop hiding from our sisters and brothers in need.

That is one way. But I urge you to start looking for others ways in which you and this congregation can take on the fast that God desires.

“The day will come,” Jesus says. “Then they will fast.”

We are called to a fast that uses less so that others might have more.

We are called to a fast that seeks less for ourselves so that others might have something.

We are called to a fast that helps us to live simply so that others may simply live.

We are called to a fast that instills within us a creative sense of hope and an optimistic outlook on life, that makes real for others God’s desire that they have ease, and not to suffer hardship.

[i] http://www.eden.rutgers.edu/~muslims/fasting.htm