Abstinence Education

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Sunday, March 11, 2018
Sacred Thirst Sermon Series, Week 4
Scripture:  Matthew 9:14-17 & Psalm 69:1-18
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

I love food. I love thinking about food. I love eating it. I really enjoy shopping for it, which is why I will likely never jump on board those services that do the shopping for you. I love going to restaurants and reading the descriptions of the delectable treats they are just waiting to make for me! I know there’s also a biological explanation for this, but I find it theologically satisfying the know that God doesn’t just sustain us with food but gives us things that bring us genuine pleasure by their exotic tastes. God is truly awesome, but today I thankful that God gives us food that interacts with our bodies in a way that can bring genuine joy to us.

Americans, too, love food. We live in what it quite likely the wealthiest country in human history and because of our economic system there is access to a wildly wonderful array for food that most of us can get with ease. We can buy fruits and vegetables out of season. We have artisanal cuisines in our normal grocery stories. We have restaurants all over the place. Yet, we Americans struggle to eat well.

  • A 2012 study found that 52% of Americans believed that doing their taxes was easier than figuring out how to eat healthy.
  • Over 25% of Americans eat some form of fast food every day.
  • The average American eats over 31 pounds of cheese annually.
  • Americans consume 31% more packaged food than fresh food.
  • We eat over 10 billion donuts every year. (I’m glad there wasn’t a survey of how many cookies we eat at First Pres.)
  • We eat 20% of our meals in the car.
  • We spend 10% of our disposable income on fast food every year.

I can’t speak for you, but to me those statistics are pretty stunning. They show how our lifestyle has led to treating food and our bodies badly. We love food, certainly, but our definition of food keeps broadening. The way we eat impacts our bodies, our farms, our environment, our health system, and our economy. What we eat and how we eat is actually a justice issue, and I believe that Christians should care about how their lifestyle impacts the world and their neighbors.

We see this also in food deserts. These are geographic areas where access to affordable, healthy food options is limited or nonexistent because grocery stores are too far away and because residents do not have transportation to get to stores. I used to spend a lot of time in Pontiac, Michigan, when I connected with mission partners there. Parts of Pontiac would qualify as a food desert. People had to depend upon convenience stores for their food. Most of what is carried in those stores is packaged and expensive. The physical and economic toll it took on the neighborhoods was easy to see. The statistics about food deserts in our land of abundance are pretty startling:

  • Over 23 million people live in food deserts, and around half of these are low-income.
  • This is both an urban and a rural issue. Parts of Muskegon qualify as food deserts, but so do large swaths of rural areas north of us.
  • With fewer options, fast food restaurants become a regular part of the diets of those living in food deserts.
  • Food insecurity also has a high correlation with increased diabetes rates. For example, in Chicago the death rate from diabetes in a food desert is twice that of areas with access to grocery stores.

Now, I know this church recognizes that food is a justice issue. Many of you bring food for our first Sunday of the month food collection, which goes to local ministries to help with food insecurity. Many of you help with Hand 2 Hand, which gets nutritious food to school children, many of whom depend upon the meals at school to give them most of their nutrition for the day. Weekends and school breaks are difficult for families who depend upon this assistance because they lose those school meals. Hand 2 Hand is one way we are trying to stand in this gap. I am so grateful that our church is involved in these ways, and I really hope that this year we grow in how we serve our neighbors through meeting their basic needs.

So, you know I love food. I’m pretty sure most of you love it too. We’ve established that food is connected to living justly in the way of Christ with our neighbors. Now, I’d like to shift our attention to the biblical discipline of fasting. To do this, we have to imagine the world of the Ancient Near East going back 2000-plus years ago. It’s a very different world than 21st century America. Food is not dependable. There really wasn’t refrigeration, so people had to devise ways to store food so that it would keep. It’s an area of the world that is arid and subject to droughts and crop failure. Starvation was a very real possibility, even if the person had done everything right for their crops and animals. It’s part of the reason there are so many commandments and stories in the Old Testament that talk about how people are to share what they have with the orphan, widow, and immigrant in their midst. If they didn’t, those people would likely die. Those are stories and commandments that churches would do well to heed today as part of our witness to God’s love in Christ.

So, when the Bible talks about fasting, it’s speaking about it within a context where voluntarily stopping to eat isn’t a luxury or a way to lose a few pounds. It’s a risky business. It’s the kind of environment where missed meals could lead to devastating consequences.

Yet, people practiced fasting. It’s very interesting – try as hard as you can, but you’ll never find fasting commanded in the Bible. You will, however, find all sorts of places where it appears to an expected part of the spiritual life. Jesus talks about fasting right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “And whenever you fast.” Notice he never says “if you fast” or “should you choose to fast.” No, he assumes that his audience fasts on occasion.

Not commanded but expected. There is plenty in our world that fits those categories. For example, if you invite someone to your house for a meal, the guest often asks, “Can I bring anything?” Even if the answer is no, the guest still will often show up with some expression of their gratitude – a bottle of wine, a candle, a thank you card. Certainly as the guests are leaving, they will thank their hosts and offer to help clean up, to which the hosts will respond, “So glad you came, and there’s no need to help with the dishes. I’ll have them done in no time!” These are all social expectations, but there is no law on the books declaring that a guest must show up with a host gift or say “thank you” or offer to help with the dishes. But if the guest did none of those things, the host might wonder if the guest was grateful or had a good time.

Of course, fasting has a much deeper purpose than social etiquette. The Bible speaks of fasting from cover to cover. Fasting stretches all the way back to Moses and continues through David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, and on to Anna, Paul, and Jesus. Many Christians through the centuries included fasting as a part of their practice of faith including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. Certainly it’s been a part of the cloistered lives of the convent and monastery.

There are various reasons for fasting given in the Bible. Often people would fast when they were in trouble. Esther called all the Jews to a fast when she was risking her life to keep her people from genocide. In a time of national emergency Ezra fasted. Staring down his own horrific behavior led King David to repent and fast. Paul fasts for three days after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus. Both Matthew 4 and Luke 4 tell of how Jesus started his public ministry by forty days in the wilderness where he fasted and prayed. There the Devil temped him three times, as Pastor Jill recounted last week. This was a fast of preparation for his ministry, death, and resurrection.

For a moment, let’s dig a bit into Psalm 69. It’s agonizing to read. David is praying as hard as he can for God to help him. “The waters have come up to my neck,” he writes. “I sink in the mire, where there is no foothold…the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” I’ve seen people pray like this before, like parents who are battling pediatric cancer with everything they can and still watching it rob their child of life. This is a prayer of desperation, of loss without the help of God.

As I read this psalm, I was reminded of the cenotes that Jess and I went in on our trip to the Yucatan in Mexico last year. Cenotes are giant underground caverns that water has made in the limestone. These caverns are deep and dark. Neither of us are particularly adventurous, but that day we were part of a tour that did zip-lining and rappelling. The final stop on our tour involved rappelling into one of these cenotes. The tour guide always had me go first, so I had to put on a brave face as they attached the ropes to my harness and told me to lean back and drop into this pit. The descent to the pool of water was over forty feet. The pool of water itself was over 100 feet deep in places. The only way out was to have the guide reattach the rope to me and to be hauled up. Without their aid, I was helpless.

I imagine David praying his way out of a place like the cenote. The only one who can help is God. So David pleads. He prays as hard as anyone can. He also fasts. Those who are threatening him mock him for what he is doing, but he continues to fast and pray, waiting for the Lord to act. Fasting is a way of getting your body involved in your spiritual life.

“More than any other discipline,” Richard Foster writes, “fasting reveals the things that control us.”[1] In our day and age, we’ve learned that there are lots of things we can fast from. The cover of the bulletin offers a lengthy list, but as I’ve been considering the original purpose of the fast – to abstain from food for a period of time, I wonder why we’re so loathe to give up food and what kind of mastery over us that reveals, for fasting does reveal what controls us.

Fasting is what we would call a discipline of abstinence, which means a discipline where we refrain from certain actions that are fine in and of themselves but that unthinkingly become too important. These disciplines of abstinence include things like solitude, which combats the need to be seen and valued by other. Or silence, which combats our need to fill all our time with noise. Or frugality, which combats our desire to solve issues through our purchasing power.

There are also disciplines of engagement, and these are things where you add something to your life. Prayer and meditation both fit into this category. So do worship, study, celebration, and service. In general I think these disciplines of engagement are a bit easier for us to grab hold of than a discipline like fasting, for who really likes giving up food? “Discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time,” Hebrews 12:11 conveys, “but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

There is not time this morning to get into how a person actually can fast in a healthy manner, and certainly when we fast we should want to do it in a way that builds us up, particularly in a world where we know about the dangers of eating disorders. I will take time in my class between services to get a bit further into this.

I would at this time challenge you to fast sometime between now and Easter. Your fast could be one regular meal skipped purposefully. It could be a 24-hour fast. I wouldn’t recommend more without more guidance. I started the sermon this morning by connecting American eating habits with justice. I think it would be incredibly healthy for us as a church to focus our prayers and fasting on ways we as a church can be more mindful about what we eat, how we eat, as well as about how we can be better at addressing the food needs in our community. If you skip a meal or two, take the money you might have spent on that meal and support a food related ministry. This is something that is better done with the support of others, so if you do this with others, pool your money and go serve a meal at Supper House. There is so much you can do, and God will meet you there just the same way that God met Jesus in the wilderness and tended to his needs.

Richard Rohr shares that “Jesus went into the wilderness, ate nothing for forty days, and made himself empty….Of course, emptiness in and of itself isn’t enough. The point of emptiness is to get ourselves out of the way so that Christ can fill us up.” Fasting empties us so there is space for Christ to be at work in our lives that are so full. We all have a sacred thirst, and sometimes we need to spend time with our hunger and thirst to realize the depth of our need for God.

[1] Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline, p. 55.