This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fasting/Conservation/Justice


Isaiah 58:1-12

I.
            Traditionally, the season of Lent has been a time of fasting.  In agricultural societies this was more than a spiritual discipline; it was often a matter of survival.  This is hard for us to understand.  We have things like refrigeration and a global transportation network that brings us food from all over the world, all year long.  But for ancient people, by the time February rolled around, communities were running low on the food that had been stored since the harvest. 
            They might not have had much meat left that had been killed and preserved the previous fall, and they couldn’t slaughter more because they needed the rest of the animals for the future.  Eggs couldn’t be eaten because they needed them to become new chickens.  Milk was for new calves and lambs, so they couldn’t drink that either.  So, in late winter and early spring, it was necessary for agricultural peoples to refrain from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products.  And neither could they eat any of the grain that was saved to plant in the spring, or to feed animals.  We, of course, know nothing about such calculations; but this was life-and-death for our forebears.
            It so happens that Jesus was crucified and resurrected at Passover, which is always around spring equinox.  Ancient people were fasting anyway; now the church added a new interpretation to the fast.  It was a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter.  My friend who is a Russian Orthodox priest still doesn’t eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, or oil during the 40 days of Lent.  Roman Catholics used to abstain from meat at the same time.
            The spiritual benefits of fasting have to do with the fact that fasting stresses your body.  On the one hand, this makes you more amenable to spiritual experience.  Jesus fasted prior to his temptation by the devil.  Native Americans fast prior to embarking upon a “vision quest.”  The Torah has laws about fasting, mainly for the Day of Atonement.  People have known for millennia that not eating for a while clears your mind and facilitates different states of consciousness.  On the other hand, nothing makes you more consciously aware of your own mortality and your connectedness to the earth than fasting.  When you’re fasting you can harbor no illusions that you are a disembodied spirit.  No.  It is very clear that you are a body with biological needs.
            The point of fasting is literally reducing your consumption, or not consuming at all.  When we do this we are made viscerally aware of our own dependence on the earth, and on the Creator.  When we fast we reduce our footprint, as it were, so that the earth has time to recover and be regenerated for the future.  At the same time, the spiritual benefit of fasting makes us more focused and appreciative.  We are better able to say “thank you” and receive new experiences.      

II.
            The problem is that, by the time of Isaiah, people figured out how to technically keep the rules of religious fasting, while not inconveniencing themselves much at all.  Perhaps they just compensated for what they were not eating by eating more of other things.  We know that they used their visible fasting as a way to make themselves look good and be admired by others, and even justify gaining power over them.  Isaiah says that wealthy people were using their fasting as a way to oppress poor workers, perhaps by driving down the wages of farm workers by reducing demand, thus pocketing more money.   
            Fasting can easily degenerate into a religious work you do for show, or for other equally bad reasons.  And Isaiah is well aware that this happens.  He hears God say to the people, “You serve your own interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”  In other words, you fast as if it was all about you.
            What Isaiah urges is not self-centered abnegation, which, as Jesus points out, is more often to draw attention to yourself.  Fasting is not self-punishment or some feat of ascetic achievement we can all admire.  It is not about paying your dues to earn some benefit or status.
            No.  Isaiah famously reports God saying: “Is not this the fast that 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?” 
”If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” then that will be a real fast, one that God appreciates and rewards.
            In other words, God insists that fasting must not be separated from justice.  Fasting has to be about setting people free from oppression, violence, inequality, exploitation, hunger, and illness.
            We can see how the careful response to the shortages of resources in late winter had a justice component.  If we simply consumed everything to our heart’s content there would be nothing left.  The whole community would die out.  There would be no animals to bear new animals, and no grain to feed them, and no seeds to plant.  The earth needs room and time to regenerate.  We need to invest something of what we have now so that we will have a future.
III.
            What we don’t see is how our economic regime that depends on and positively demands consumption is what generates injustice.  We don’t see it because we are at or near the top of the food chain.  We don’t see what it costs in terms of labor, wealth, heartbreak, suffering, and disease to keep us in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.  We do occasionally see what our consumption is costing us, in terms of expanded waistlines, clogged cardiac arteries, diabetes, asthma, and various forms of cancer.  We do sometimes see that this system is spawning mental illnesses like depression, that it is putting intolerable stress on families, and breaking up communities.  We might perceive the polluted air, soil, and water that is an inevitable cost of unchecked consumption.  But mostly we either don’t want to know or realize that trying to change it would be too costly.
            But Scriptural mandates like the Sabbath, and Christian traditions like the Lenten fast, do change this system.  In these disciplines we are encouraged to carve out some time and some space that is not dedicated to consuming as precipitously and as voluminously as possible all the resources of the earth.  In these we decide to opt out, even if only for a few days and weeks here and there, of a system based on the exploitation of other people’s labor.
            For that agricultural reality of late winter, when it was clear that conservation was an imperative, and that without it the people would be foreclosing on their future existence, is something we need to understand right now.  Only now it’s not our farm or our farming village that is at stake, but the whole planet.  The whole creation is at risk from our overconsumption.  We are in a late winter of our own making, and it pertains to the earth itself.  Conservation is an imperative now, and it is a matter of justice.
            Jesus’ fast brought him into direct conflict with the devil.  It offended the devil, who feeds on our waste and consumption.  So he tempts Jesus with three tests that appeal to Jesus’ self-centeredness: bread for his belly, fame for his soul, and power for his altruistic spirit.  All of which Jesus categorically rejects.  He refuses to be a bread-maker, an entertainer, or a politician.  He refuses to have it be all about what he can consume in terms of food, fame, or power.  It is not about him but always God… which proves that he is God-with-us.
            Jesus comes to fulfill what Isaiah says about what a real fast is.  It’s about justice, equality, healing, liberation, sharing, hospitality, and satisfying the needs of the afflicted.
 IV.
            I am convinced that if we do not start to follow Jesus – not just affirm or worship or make theological statements about him but actually follow him by living the kind of life he lived – that we are doomed.  Not to follow Jesus is to attract the wrath of God, who cares more for the good and blessed creation than for our sins of greed, gluttony, avarice, envy, anger, and so forth.
            Our seasons of fasting need to resolve into lives of conservation, stewardship, protection, healing, and justice.  We have to start walking lightly on the earth, as Jesus did.
            And one place to start is in Lent.  We Presbyterians don’t have any rules about Lent.  There is no tradition or hierarchy telling us what not to consume.  We get to use our judgment. 
            Most of the time we judge not to bother.  But I hope we learn to witness to God’s goodness by reducing our consumption significantly, and redirecting our resources to helping, healing, and liberating people.
            Then we will be able to relate to the promises of Isaiah:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  Then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.”
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