Choosing The Right Kind of Fast:
An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Every year in our house we begin the conversation about what to give up for Lent about two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. Often we forego some sort of food item—it was pizza one year, chocolate another. Sometimes it’s a desire to eat more like average people in the world, like the year we tried to eat mostly rice and beans (I say “tried” because that was also the Lent that my dad’s health declined, and we discovered it’s hard to eat so specifically when you travel and become a guest in someone else’s home.) We do this, of course, to adhere to the call we all have to fast during these forty days of Lent—an invitation I’ll invoke in the name of the Church in a few minutes. And often, if I’m honest, these sorts of fasts become a test to see if I can push through on my own will power rather than the intended outcome of drawing me closer to God. Of becoming humble and recognizing that all good gifts come from God.

It seems the people of Israel did this too. Isaiah declares these words from the Lord: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.” And then God utters the words that come to him from those same Israelites who have given up a meal. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”  And God responds, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” And then in words that should chill us to the core on a day when we fast, when we put ashes on our foreheads to remember our mortality, God asks incredulously: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” Finally, to be sure that the Israelites get the message, God spells it out clearly: “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?”

Which sort of puts my giving up chocolate or pizza for 40 days in perspective. Come Easter, of course, I’ll have my fill of sweets once more. I’ll pull out my deep pizza pans, pouring over recipes, and spend hours making the best dough. If my exercise of eating less over the next 40 days doesn’t lead anywhere other than my patting myself on the back, then it isn’t exactly the fast God desires, is it? 

I’ve been stocking up more and more food since the pandemic began. Partly this is due to the desire to limit my trips to Market Basket to once every couple of weeks for most of our necessities. Partly it’s because we have the room in the rectory for the excess. But it’s really just a sign of my privilege. I’d bet a single mom working multiple jobs for minimum wage wouldn’t have either the disposable income or the extra space to store 30 pounds of flour, or 25 pounds of rice, or the five extra boxes of cereal, or the couple of jars of honey, the extra bags of coffee beans, or the three jars of peanut butter. But me, that’s all there and more.  Even if I eat more simply this Lent, I guarantee you I won’t go without.

Food insecurity has spiked this year. Prior to the pandemic, about 13.7 million households—10.5% of households in the US—faced food insecurity at least once during a given year. Estimates fro 2020 put it at nearly 23% of all households; nearly one out of every four families or individuals facing a time when they weren’t sure where their next meal would come from. And families with children are at a higher risk, with recent estimates of about 14 million children in our nation missing meals this year. 14 million. Non-white families, of course, are hit harder, with Black and Hispanic households disproportionally affected, and white households falling under national averages. 

It’s a lot to take in, and our eyes glaze over on the numbers, but I want to tell you about one last set. One economist suggests that the US could eradicate food insecurity in our country for about $70 billion. That sounds like an awful lot of money, and it is. It’s way more than you or I could solve alone by giving donations to the local food pantry, or sending our money to similar food banks further afield. Yet in 2019 our country spent over $731 billion for military and defense. If we redirected 10% of our spending on security, we could make sure every child, every man, woman, ever single hungry person in this country could get enough to eat. While that might make you raise your eyebrows or say, “Yes, but we need to keep ourselves safe from our enemies,” let me remind you that even if we did, even if we went from $731 billion to $661 billion, our military spending would still be greater than the next 8 countries combined. You see our nation stockpiles weapons like I stockpile peanut butter, rice, and flour.

But that doesn’t let us off the hook. While our nation could—and frankly should—fix this, we ourselves can also do our part too. What if this Lent you chose to give 10%—or more—of your food budget to a local charity fighting hunger? What if you gave some of your stockpiled food away?  What if our fast includes fasting from an overflowing pantry for ourselves and sharing it with others who are in need? Perhaps that is the fast the Lord would choose for us; the fast God might desire. If we chose to do this, well, hear these words of the Lord from Isaiah: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”

Friends let us choose to make this Ash Wednesday and these 40 days of Lent about the type of fast God desires. Let us reframe the narrative of scarcity that we wholeheartedly believe and rather see the abundance God has provided for all of us. There is more than enough food to feed every person in our country—and, frankly, in our world. So as we eat a little less this Lent, let us help others eat a little more. Let us satisfy the needs of the afflicted and have our gloom become like the bright sun of midday. If we do, all of us might be experiencing new life come Easter. May it be so.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

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