July 22 Sermon

“Walking with God: Fasting”                                                                                 2 Chronicles 20:1-4
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                   Matthew 6:16-18
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL                             
July 22, 2018

On August 21, 1988, 7,000 people, mostly farmworkers, gathered to celebrate a Catholic Mass in Delano, California. César Chávez, longtime leader of the United Farmworkers Union, broke his 36 day, water-only fast at the end of the mass.  He was in some sense barely alive. Ethel Kennedy, widow of former Senator Robert Kennedy, had begged him to stop days earlier. Chávez’s response was that “it’s not a fast unless you suffer.” His doctors said he was in danger of losing his life. As he ended his fast, others were asked to take on fasts of 1, 2, or three days. [1]

The union, comprised largely of poor, Hispanic farmworkers, and had successfully won campaigns for better pay and working conditions over the 60s and 70s. By the 80s, however, the political tides shifted both in California and in the nation, and the Union lost a lot of its power. As often happens during times of organizational stress, people argued more and more about what the Union should be doing. Chávez wanted a breakthrough. He wanted to refocus on making positive change. Wome were having unexplained miscarriages. Children were born with deformities and a lot of cancer. There were very, very high cancer rates. Their health was in danger. The growers claimed they only used safe products All of the evidence pointed to the use of toxic pesticides. Change was needed.

So, when nothing else seemed to work, Chávez fasted. He chose not to eat any food. In doing so he participated in one of the most ancient religious practices, a practice that is today highly misunderstood and either abused or avoided altogether. Growing up, nobody in my church ever talked about fasting. I didn’t know anyone that did it – or so I thought – and thus figured it was one of many things that people back then – and only people back then – did. I never really thought about fasting until I learned the story of Chávez’s fast, at a time that I was active in working for farmworkers’ rights. Maybe there’s something to it, I wondered. Since then I’ve considered it a few times, but even then it’s the only spiritual practice I’m preaching about in this sermon series that I’ve never actually tried myself.

But I have become convinced that there is something to it – that it is something that we today should consider, not just people back then. Why would we want to fast today?

Well, for starters, because fasting is one of the most common thing that people of faith have done for thousands of years. Richard Foster notes that “[t]he list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the Queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son.”[2] He goes on to note that many of the “greats” of church history fasted regularly. The early Christian instruction book called the Didache called for people to fast twice a week. The history of faithful people is a history of people who fasted. A careful reading of today’s gospel passage found that Jesus simply assumed that all of his followers fasted. He didn’t say “if you fast.” He said “when you fast.”

There are individual fasts and group fasts. Individual fasts are when one person fasts in order to grow in faith. Group fasts are called for different reasons, such as a national emergency. We heard just one of many such stories from 2 Chronicles today. When Judah was invaded, the king’s first response was to call a fast. His first response. I could go on and on and on.

Jesus’ words about fasting that Karen read this morning are often used to say that Christians shouldn’t fast. But that reading requires complete ignorance of the Jewish practices in Jesus’ time. He himself would have fasted regularly. Jesus doesn’t say that fasting itself is the problem. The problem is when people fast in order to be praised by others, not to grow in faithfulness. Then on the other end of things, some people have gone so far as to say that Scripture requires fasting. This is also untrue, and it’s worth noting that something doesn’t have to be required by law to be worth doing.

Since I’ve never fasted myself, I can’t talk about its benefits from personal experience. It brings me no joy to admit this; I do think it says something about how neglected the practice is that I as an ordained minister in the church haven’t once tried. If you have fasted, I hope you let me know what it has been like for you. I do know enough about fasting, both from study and conversation with people who have fasted, to say what its benefits are. So, I’m inviting each of you to join me in a group fast. Next time I preach on fasting, I won’t have to admit to never doing it! Now, I’m not calling for the 36 days of César Chávez. Depending on the group’s experience, We’ll start much smaller, probably with a partial 24 hour fast. If you’re interested, I hope you take two minutes to fill out the interest form I emailed out on Wednesday. There are some printed copies here, as well.

As we fast, there are many things that might happen. Here are a few of the most likely:

  • First, we can expect to be more focused on God. This may sound silly, but it is one of the most common experiences people will report.
  • On the other hand, especially at first, a lot of stuff will come to the surface. As Foster says “More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us…If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately….Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.” This is difficult but good, because when things surface then can be healed.
  • Fasting reminds us that we don’t need everything we think we need, and that God is enough. If we are well-fed, our bodies are used to three meals a day, but most of us can go without for a least a few days with no damage to our health.
  • Fasting puts us in touch with the suffering of so many people. There are so many people dying of hunger each day – one common statistic says 30,000 children die each day of starvation. These are the people who live in what Gandhi called an “eternal compulsory fast.” But for those of us with the ability to eat regular meals, that reality too easily becomes another statistic. Fasting helps us imagine, if just for a day or two, what daily life is like for so many. Through fasting God has called many people to a deeper commitment to works of justice and mercy.
  • Lastly, fasting has been known to work wonders in churches when people have done it together. There are no guarantees, of course. The only guarantee is that there will be no benefits if nothing is tried.

Before I go further I should say quite clearly that some people shouldn’t fast, such as pregnant people, people with diabetes, people with some heart conditions. It’s always wise to talk to a doctor first. And please know that even if you can’t give up food, there are ways for everyone to participate in a group fast. Muslims, who fast every day during the month of Ramadan, know this well. If you sign up to fast with me, you’ll be fully included.

I should also be clear about how to start: I’ve tried to say over and over again that a spiritual practice is just that – something that must be practiced. To start a water-only fast for a week after never having fasted before is dangerous. Instead, most people with experience recommend starting with a noon-to-noon fast, skipping only dinner and breakfast, and drinking fruit juice. You can gradually grow from there. Of course, the best way to practice spiritual practices is in a group. Lest I sound like a broken record, have I mentioned that you can sign up to join a fasting group?

There is a reason that 7,000 people came to celebrate Mass when César Chávez ended his fast. Fasting is one of the most powerful things people have done for thousands of years. Scripture shows that for countless of God’s people, fasting has changed their lives. Fasting brought them closer to God. Fasting caused a turnaround when it seemed that everything was lost. Fasting made room for God’s Spirit to work. Doesn’t that make it worth a try, at least once? I think so. So let’s do it!

[1] https://www.democracynow.org/2014/1/23/cesars_last_fast_how_cesar_chavez

[2] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (London: Hodder, 2008), 60.