Sunday, December 22, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Fasting and Feasting"

Isaiah 26:16-19 

16 O Lord, in distress they sought you, they poured out a prayer[b] when your chastening was on them. 17 Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Lord; 18 we were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind. We have won no victories on earth, and no one is born to inhabit the world. 19 Your dead shall live, their corpses[c] shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead. (New Revised Standard Version)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week Four

Sitting on a simple wooden bookcase in my apartment is a simple, spiral-bound book full of handwritten letters that my great-uncle Albert Mouradian wrote home during his service in the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the Second World War.  Knowing my family’s penchant for meticulously maintaining its history, I appreciated being handed down a copy of this collection of letters for myself.  After seeing the fake passports that my great-grandparents used to smuggle themselves into the United States as refugees during the First World War, after hearing the stories about their lives in the Ottoman Empire prior to their escape, I have known for many years that there is a wild and incredible story that led up to my being where I am today.  But it was not until Christmas seven years ago—when I was already an adult, that Albert’s letters were compiled, copied, and distributed to the family, including me.

The book contains all that I know about a man I have never met: what he looked like as a child, his handwriting style, and how he died—as a Marine, K.I.A. in the battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.  The Japanese name for the battle of Okinawa was tetsu no ame: the rain of steel.  If there is a more poetically appropriate name for war, I have yet to find it.  And family legend has it that after the testsu no ame, for nearly a decade, Albert’s father, my great-grandfather, was unable to smile.  He would not smile again until nine years later, when my mother was born.

Albert’s letters home in the weeks and months home were—are—an emotional reminder of the nature of fasting: fasting from the presence of a loved one, fasting from the knowledge of their safety, and, ultimately, fasting from their being alive altogether.  A nine-year fast on being able to feel joy?  I could not do it.  But that is what I want to talk about with you today: the nature of fasting, and of what it is you have been forced to fast and abstain from yourselves: something as trivial as a drink, or as profound and wanting as the love a friend—or God Himself—provides.

This liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?). and almost over by now!  Even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  This week, we finish up and to the chapter of Pastor Chris’s book entitled “Fasting and Feasting,” in which he writes in part:

I have observed that frenetic people dine in a way that is hurried, distracted, and apathetic about the things that matter most.  I have also observed that people who eat intentionally, taking time to savor flavors, and engage the people around them, realize they are nourishing both their bodies and souls.  This posture overflows into other areas of their lives, and they seem to live from a spring of wisdom and peace.

Which came first, you wonder: the frenetic life, or the unfortunate table manners?  Thankfulness for the meal at the table is more than just an indicator that something in our life has gone awry, it is an all-out warning that we need to make some changes, to check our priorities.  That’s where we are headed.  We are taking time to dial back our internal metronome.  As we slow things down, we will begin to see things we never have before…

My problem, and possibly yours as well, is not that I spend too much time fasting or too much time feasting.  My problem is that often I do neither.  I simply consume my food.

I would take Pastor Chris’s observation about his food and extrapolate it to almost the entirety of our lives: in other words, that our problem is that we simply consume our lives.  And we consume without thinking, which in mine eyes is a way of fasting.  After all, if fasting is the denial of something for yourself, then if you are not getting the most out of something, you are by definition fasting.  You are in distress, or even in mourning, like a bereaved parent.

Isaiah compares this to a woman in an especially painful pang of labor as she strives to give birth to her child: when we are in distress, we are like a new mother, and we writhe and twist and contort in pain, only to see that what we have created is not a child, but the wind—pure air, nothing at all.  In turns out that all that pain and labor was for naught.  It is a tremendous loss.

And seriously, is that not something you could relate to?  Doesn’t everyone have something in their life that has turned out for nothing after so much time, so much sweat, so much heart, that gets poured into it?  Even in the midst of wartime—if you’re down in the trenches, if you’re in a battlefield where only inches are being gained and lost, where victory and defeat are measured not over the course of months but over many years, and where seeing the God’s-eye view of anything is damn near impossible—it can feel like all your are doing is running on the most diabolical treadmill ever made.  You are getting nowhere and giving up so much to get there.

And that is another form of fasting.  You are giving something up: your very reason for being.

There is a reason, though, that Christmas is officially labeled a “Feast Day” on the Christian liturgical calendar, and not just because of that ever-elusive, permeating thing that we call “tradition.”  It is because the greatest fast of all time, our fasting from right relationship with God, is about to end in the most unpredictable, wonderful, awe-inspiring way possible.

God is going to become one of us.  God is going to become a crying, screaming, kicking baby.

God is going to become one of what Isaiah calls the “dwellers in the dust.”  God is going to become dusty and dirty and mortal and…human.  Solely because He loves us that much.

And that God-as-a-crying-baby thing?  Yes, Jesus starts out that way.  But his cries evolve over time.  In the beginning, he will cry as any other baby.  But as the years progress, as He matures and grows into His calling as the Messiah, He will be the one to cry out the refrain of Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live, and their bodies shall rise!  O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy, for your dew is radiant, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.”

To those long dead.   To those who feel so beaten down, so used up, who have fasted from everything joyful for so long that they felt as the dead, to those who have died to their own radiance, to those who have died to the world and to everything in it, the Christ child comes.

At the time of His crucifixion, for three days the world went without the presence of Jesus.  For three days, His friends, His family, those closest to Him, lamented His absence.  But in three days, He returned, resurrected and whole.  It only took three days.  Three long, watchful days.

Today is the 22nd.  In three days time, Jesus comes, though not as an apparition, or as a resurrected being, but as one of you.  As one of us.  In three days, our fasting shall be over.  Our days of simply consuming our lives will be over.  And finally, at long last, the feast can begin.

In three days time, whatever starvation diet that you have put yourself through in your life can—and should—cease.  The fasts necessitated by financial insecurity, by outright poverty, by homelessness, by abuse and violence, these are the fasts that God calls us away from, that God calls us to help lift others out of, because every one of those fasts represents somebody else being made poor, somebody else being told that there is not enough to go around, somebody else being told, like Joseph and Mary were on that fateful night, that there is not enough room at the inn.

What a colossal lie.  What a huge, unbelievable falsehood that Jesus’s earthly parents were fed.

Because in their son, there is always a spare room at the inn.  In Christ, there is always an extra seat at the table.  And in Christ, there is always a feast, even when our physical lives feel naught.

In three days time, our ways of simply consuming, or of fasting outright, will come to an end.  Those ways must come to an end.  It can happen no other way.  It can be no other way.

For as the angels will soon say to the shepherds, born unto you on this day, in the city of David, is a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

In three days time, born unto YOU is a Savior, who Scripture says shall be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

In three days time, God shall come to be with us.  God shall come to be with you.

Are you ready?  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 22, 2013

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