My wife Ellen and son Rowan were discussing Lent and how some people give up something for Lent. As they talked, Rowan said that he would give up chocolate for Lent. Ellen reminded Rowan that he doesn’t like chocolate and that you should fast from something you actually enjoy, so you would know you were really giving something up. Rowan, paused and said, “Oh, I’ll give up Root Beer for Lent. I’ll drink Orange Soda or Sprite instead.” Well I am glad to say that he has kept to his fast and while eating at Bill’s on Friday, he said no to Root Beer, and yes to Sprite.
As we journey these 40 days of Lent, we are encourage to keep it holy by praying, fasting and giving alms. Fasting may be the most challenging for us. Like Rowan, we might like to give up something that’s easy. But in fasting, we are encouraged, to make it a true sacrifice to have meaning for our lives. I remember a parishioner who a few years ago quit smoking, he had smoked a pack a day for a long time. He kept that fast all of Lent, he struggled, but it began a journey of health and wholeness which is one of the points of fasting and sacrifice, that it leads us to a better self.
But fasting too often in our society is seen as just dieting (it’s about the waist line) and it is not seen as a sacrifice. We do it for personal reasons and it has no meaning for others or God. And yet there is much more to fasting in a Christian context and I think of Robert Herrick’s poem of the 17th Century on keeping Lent:
Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
A downcast look and sour?
No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
And that’s to keep thy Lent.
Fasting is about our hungry souls and what we need inside us as well as the hungry souls in the world and what they need. Fasting is useful if it leads us back to ourselves becoming more whole, more connected with our hearts to God and to our neighbors. Herrick’s poem reminds me of the last 2 verses of Psalm 51 we read on Ash Wednesday:
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
What God is really interested in, is our hearts, hearts that are grief-rent, broken and contrite because it is then, we can truly see our need for God and God’s love of us. When we are satisfied, when we make no sacrifices, when all is well and good and our platters are full then we have no need for God, we have no need for others… But if we understand ourselves more deeply, knowing that indeed we are God’s beloved and also broken by sin then we know we need God and we need one another. Fasting can help us do this.
As Jeremy Taylor said in the 17th Century, “All fasting is to be used with prudence and charity; for there is no end to which fasting serves but may be obtained by other instruments; and, therefore, it must at no hand be made an instrument of scruple; or become an enemy to our health; or be imposed upon persons that are sick or aged, or to whom it is, in any sense, uncharitable, such as are wearied travelers; or to whom, in the whole kind of it, it is useless such as are women with child, poor people, and little children.”
Fasting has its rightful place on our Lenten journey, to help us. But this Lent, we also remember faithful members of the church who through their lives of sacrifice and suffering, looked to their hearts and saw the plight of people in need and of hungry souls wanting to hear God’s word. We remember Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and The Rev. Absalom Jones . Each in their own way, saw the need of hungry souls around them and responded.
For Elizabeth Wright, after graduating from Tuskegee Industrial School in 1894, she was determined to open schools for the training of African American men and women in South Carolina. She helped found Voorhees College in 1997; a college affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and established her school on industrial and agricultural education. She became a pioneer in Black education and social reform. Like many others before and after her, she possessed a sense of mission and commitment to social justice that she was able to prevail over enormous obstacles and leave a remarkable legacy.
Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746, bought his freedom in 1784 with the help of friends. While attending St. George’s Church in 1786, the white congregation voted to put all the blacks in the balcony, Absalom Jones and the black congregation left to form their own parish. After discussions with William White, the Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania, Absalom Jones would lead the congregation into the Episcopal Church and Absalom Jones would become the first black priest in the Episcopal Church in 1802. Absalom Jones was known for his earnest preaching but was beloved by that community because of his constant visiting and mild manner to all parishioners.
May we journey forth remembering those faithful who have gone before us, and through fasting and sacrifice, learn to find our true need and to be able to hear and respond to the needs of our neighbors.
‘tis a fast to dole thy sheaf of wheat, and meat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife, from old debate and hate;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent; To starve thy sin,
Not bin; and that’s to keep thy Lent. Amen.