Monday, February 22, 2016

Fasting: Starve the Emptiness

Mark 2: 18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people[a]came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ 19 Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

The weather had been unstable.  One day brilliant and warm, the next day stormy with a wintery edge to the wind. An autumn day in Judea, long long ago. Your friends and even strangers call you a God-fearer.  Not born a Jew, but you know Torah better than a few descendants of Moses.  You learned the household practices and public rituals. And then you heard him.  This Jesus of Nazareth.  The things he says and the things he does, he makes Torah come alive, fills it with flesh and blood, and love.  Some people say he used to study with the Essenes, and yet others with the Pharisees.  An old woman who walks with you says he is somehow kin to John, the one who is baptizing down at the river. 

Somehow, you don’t really care about that.  He is like no one you have ever met, and entirely just like everything you want to be.  The day of Atonement, a fasting festival is coming, and it makes you wonder.  So you speak up, and ask out loud in a clear voice: Why don’t we seem to fast? 

Starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.  How do you starve emptiness? Is it reasonable or possible to deprive nothingness? Not the emptiness of a solitary room, but the blankness of bored lives, the way you can feel lost in the middle of a crowd, how we might feel very shallow in the presence of plenty. 

“Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast, but yours don’t?” It is a very reasonable question.  Everyone you have ever known, every religious system they have ever heard of, the Essenes, the Zoroastrians, they all fast.  From something.  In a material world that can shift from grains of sand to stores of grain in a season, fasting reminds us of survival, of abundance and fragility.  Food is survival memory.

Fasting in religious practices across time and place is commonly tied to penance, protest, mourning and discernment.  When experienced with holiness it has been known for millennia to well, work.  The followers of John the Baptist fasted, the Pharisees fasted.  Yet, Jesus, who did fast, is not asking them to fast.  There is this first somber hint of Jesus’ coming death, which is a reminder that this Gospel is not a live tweet, but a faith story of memory mixed with the needs of a Markan community, who will be people who religiously fast in the name of Jesus.  Fasting is a core practice of Judaism to this very day, and the early communities we know in the New Testament are still deeply embedded in Jewish community life, that it is no surprise that some fresh evolution of fasting will soon become a part of Christian practice.

Yet, like so often, Jesus turns it upside-down.  Right now, in this text, while Jesus is teaching and healing,  right now is the time not to fast, but to Feast.  While he is with us, he will reach into that other side of the survival memory.  We will break bread together.  He invites us to starve the emptiness and feed the hunger.  Again and again, and in the days after his resurrection, he invites us to feast.  A feast of new life and fresh understanding.  A feast of clarity about the brokenness of the world around us, and how this man, his life and his teachings, are the way to salvation.  Recalling the words of the book of the scrolls of Isaiah,    he invites us to a new fast. One that feeds the hunger.  Real hunger for real calories for real people, and the kinds of hunger that folks with full cabinets feel.  Live in him and he will starve the emptiness.  How does Jesus starve the emptiness? By feeding the hunger.  The hunger for forgiveness and compassion.  The desire for real solutions to real problems that can loosen yokes and shelter the refugee.  Whatever you give to the Lenten season, my advice is this. 

Whatever fast or project you choose, and you should choose something, how can it starve the emptiness and feed the hunger?  Fasting is a practice across religions for one simple reason.  It works.  For all the human error and brokenness of the strangeness of religious systems of the questionable pursuit of embracing the Holy, over time what remains is what ‘works’.  Fasting works because it invites us to redraw our parameters.
Poet-philosopher David Whyte suggests why in his essay, ‘Withdrawl’.

“We make ourselves available
            for the simple purification
            of seeing ourselves and our world
            more elementally and therefore more clearly again.
We withdraw not to disappear,
            but to find another ground from which to see;
            a solid ground from which to step,
            and from which to speak again,
            in a different way, a clear, rested,
            embodied voice,
                        our life as a suddenly emphatic statement
                        and one from which we do not wish to withdraw.”

Jesus’ answer as to why he wasn’t fasting with his followers, is that what he invited us into is a kind of fast that is actually a feast.  Neither chocolate nor cheese, nor sackcloth and ashes, but an invitation to a different way, that is a clear, refreshed and holy statement.  Starve emptiness, feed hunger.  This is the fast, the fast that is a feast, that Jesus chooses. 

(There is no doubt the refrain from this homily came from this song.)

Holden Ecumenical Evening Prayer
February 18, 2016
Pioneer Methodist Church
Walla Walla, Washington

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Boxes and Butterflies

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky.  Boxes on our calendars, boxes in our attics. We even put critters in boxes: ant farms, fish tanks, and butterfly houses.  These booths for living critters allow us to keep them in one place, to hold a precious un-holdable,  to glimpse the wonder of life itself. 

I think this gospel lesson is sort of funny. I know, I know, it is a big deal. However you might admit it is kind of weird. ,Then it also has the comedic relief of the sleepy disciples coming up with one more bad idea.  However, the part that is really amusing, is in the way that I can see myself reflected in the story.  Oooooh, precious.  Look it is Moses, the premium prophet is standing here, let’s put him in a booth!  And look, Elijah, second only to Moses, is this an all-star game?  We cannot let him fly away again, so yes,  so let’s put him in a box too!  And Jesus, the anointed, the Christ, look at him…so he looks different.   Can we make a little box for him too?  Perhaps with a light blocking curtain?  Little boxes on a hillside, it is easy to see this become a strange attraction, a mini Stonehenge, a living hall of fame.  Let’s take the radical call of God for us   to liberate all people, and let’s tuck it away where we can find it again when we want to.  Prophetic demands for justice, managed.  Holy invitations to leave everything and follow, contained.  One of the most amazing things we have ever seen and do not quite understand; well, we understand things in boxes.

Most of us are familiar with the butterfly life cycle.  Caterpillar crawling around in the dirt on all those legs, eating and eating and eating leaves.  Then a cocoon for a while, and then voila..beautiful butterfly.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar made it all look quite cute and mundane.  Here is the thing.  That cocoon, it doesn’t form around the caterpillar skin.  Nope.  The caterpillar skin rips open with the cocoon material INSIDE!!!  If I were a caterpillar, and my little caterpillar brain could wrap its head around the changes that lay ahead, I would be beyond scared.  I might eat excessively to numb the fear.  I might try to google DIY ways to stay young forever.  I like my caterpillar legs and caterpillar stripes, and, well, no thank you.  I do not want to experience such painful changes.  I will stay here, and nibble on leaves until I get nibbled on myself!

Lent begins on Wednesday, and it is in some ways, a cocoon time.  A frightening journey into the worst of humanity, into the graves we dig for ourselves into our selfishness and meanness,  into the grubby messy reality of lives that are lost and broken and hurt begins on Wednesday, and it is in some ways, a cocoon time.  A frightening journey into the worst of humanity, into the graves we dig for ourselves into our selfishness and meanness,  into the grubby messy reality of lives that are lost and broken and hurt and angry.  

We are about to get broken open, not once, but twice.  Our veil of a caterpillar life will be torn in two, and then after a time,   that precious shell, that will break too.  There is no change without letting go, without naming our discomfort and sorrow, without scrubbing away our dragon skins.  Jesus will suffer, he will die by our terribleness, but that is not the end of the story.  The future that our caterpillar brains cannot imagine, is that wings of love, justice and freedom are already inside of us.  No matter how many ways we try to box God in, love, forgiveness and liberation can always break through.

The venerable Rowan Williams offers us this,
“So the Holy Spirit, who always brings Jesus alive in our midst, is very specially at work in the Eucharist, making it a means of spiritual transformation. Because of this we go from the table to the work of transfiguring the world in God’s power: to seeing the world in a new light, to seeing human beings with new eyes, and to working as best we can to bring God’s purpose nearer to fruition in the world.”  (Being Christian, Eerdmanns)

Perhaps the glow of Christ at the transfiguration is us. Perhaps on that day the disciples saw the world in a new light and they saw a world of disciples reflected in him.  We with our new eyes, living in a fresh light, the world of faithful people turned to Jesus. Following his call to be love, to do justice, to choose wings over boxes.  Perhaps in Jesus that day, they saw the eternal Alleluia,  the brilliance of love, the hope of the saints, and the tears of the martyrs.  Streaming through the past and the present and the future, reflecting back from him.  Or maybe, shining through this one person, this light, this friend, this Holy One who call’s you his beloved.  

Alleluia is our destiny, the resurrection of Easter will be our butterfly wings.  We are called into a brave participation in Jesus’s life, a willingness to risk ourselves beside him in this messy broken world.  To find that brilliant alleluia, we have to practice a stout vulnerability, the kind that leaves the old skin and little legs in the dust.  To live into Alleluia, we will have to be astounded by the breadth and depth of honesty we are capable of.  Ash Wednesday is directly ahead of us.  We are invited to face courageously the shedding of our old selves, to be still , yet not unchanging and not in a box.  Instead a cocoon of prayer, examination and reformation.  Yet..the thing our little caterpillar brains cannot conceive of…we are going to be butterflies!  We can emerge with wings!  Wings!  Can your caterpillar brain even imagine them?  What do your wings look like?  Christ invites us to rise, has made us to soar.  Alleluia.  Thanks Be to God for the grace of wings for which we can hardly ask or imagine.  
Alleluia. Alleluia, Alleluia. Amen.

February 7, 2016
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington