Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fasting for Lent

Matthew 4:2-  “He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”

From the earliest days of the church, followers of Jesus have undergone a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Easter.  Though the amount of time and the individual practices have varied throughout history, the time has always included two major elements-  meditating on baptism and confessing or doing penance for one’s sins.     In our modern context, many people embrace giving up some desirable item or practice throughout the Lenten season.  Though we don’t often use the term, the practice of giving something up is a form of fasting.

The spiritual founder of Methodism, John Wesley, fasted two days a week throughout much of his ministry.  According to historian Charles Yrigoyen Jr, “Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern...He found that fasting advanced holiness.”  

I think Wesley hits on the key to making the process of giving something up at lent more transformative. We shouldn’t give something up just for the sake of giving it up- we should seek transformation of ourselves and the world around us.  If you want to give up chocolate- great.  But do more than give up chocolate.  Spend a bit of the time you would use eating chocolate to thank God for the many gifts in your life that allow you to enjoy such a luxury.  Don’t just pocket your chocolate buying budget, take that money and donate it to something that will do some good-  like a hot meals program or the food bank.  This way, giving up chocolate causes you to enter into the practice of being more thankful and helps to transform the lives of the world in which you live.  That’s what it means to live into your baptism-  to strain everyday to allow the love of God to help you live as God intends.  It is only when that transformation occurs that we will truly be ready for the restored life promised in Jesus’ resurrection.

Learn more about John Wesley’s view of fasting in his sermon- "Upon the Lord's Sermon on the Mount."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Eclipsing the Light

Scriptures for Sunday, February 19th


So here is the scene.  Peter and James and John follow Jesus on yet one more retreat into the mountains to pray.  They have done this multiple times-  as much as Jesus seems to love people, he also seems to need a lot of time in prayer and meditation.  As they reach the summit, the disciples begin looking for someplace comfortable to rest.  They know that Jesus tends to pray intensely so they better get settled.
But then, something spectacular happens.  The air seems to get- heavy.  Suddenly the crickets stop chirping, the birds grow silent, all grows still.  And then there is this brilliant light that seems to fill the sky.  It doesn’t seem to be coming from above  Peter looks for Jesus, and he sees that the light is actually coming from Jesus.  But wait, its not just Jesus, there seems to be three figures there.
Is that, could it be, its Moses!  The founder of the faith!  The man who saw God face to face...who brought the law...the one who saved us from Egypt...the one who led us to the promised land.  How on earth can he be here?
But wait, is that...Elijah?  The greatest prophet of all time?  The one for whom we set a place each passover?  Wasn’t this supposed to mean something-  oh, right!  When Elijah returns, this is to mean that the Messiah has come.  It’s Elijah!  Our wait is over...the time has finally come.
James thinks to himself-  we are here.  The greatest moment in the history of the world has come- and we are hear to witness it.  This is amazing!  I wonder what they are talking about.  I’m going to strive to hear.  Nothing could disturb this moment.
Jesus.  Hey Jesus!!!  Yo, over here.  Its Peter.  Wow, this is great.  Amazing.  Should we set up a couple tents for you or something?  Wow.  What can we do?!?
As I picture this scene, the thing that pops to mind was a recent story out of New York.  The New York Phil was playing Mahler’s ninth symphony.  One of the remarkable things about this piece is that it ends so quietly.  There is incredible tension in the air.  You can literally hear a pin drop.  It is an extremely intimate experience.  And in the midst of this brilliant tension- a cell phone went off.  The spell was broken.  The moment lost.
This is what I picture when I read the story.  A brilliant light.  Moses.  Elijah.  Jesus.  And Peter couldn’t shut up for just a few minutes and take it in?  Lest you think Peter had something important to say, scripture even says that he was terrified and didn’t know what to say.  But his response wasn’t to sit in silence.  It was to speak up, to draw attention, to suddenly make it about him.
Luckily, our God is generous and won’t allow a momentary interruption like that to completely derail the moment.  Jesus is indeed transformed...God still speaks-  But note what he says-  This is my son...listen to HIM.
We are a culture that really struggles to listen.  And I say this as one who is extremely guilty.  I often find my mind wandering in the midst of a conversation.  I am often thinking about what to say next, what I have to do next, what I think about what the person is saying.  Rarely am I able to completely and utterly focus on the other.  
And yet, perhaps the most important skill for a Christian is their ability to listen, to pay attention, to be sensitive to what God is doing around them.  Jesus was being transformed on top of that mountain, but Peter was so busy trying to say something, to do something, that he ran the risk of completely missing what was going on.  
I think that’s sometimes a natural reaction when something unexpected happens.  You can’t quite process it, so you try something, anything, to try to ground yourself again.  But it can be that very process of seeking out solid ground that can cause you to miss what is really important.
I have been reading lately about a recent time in our church history when I think we did just that.  In the 1950s and 60s in America, something remarkable was happening.  For years, whites and blacks lived almost entirely apart.  And especially in the south, whites received privileged status, blacks got the crumbs that were left over.  
But then something began to change.  African Americans, led in large part by clergy, decided that they would no longer accept second class status.  Invoking the doctrine that they too were created by God and imbued by the divine spirit, they demanded to be treated as equals.
In When the Church Bell Rang Racist, David Collins details that the largely white Methodist church in Alabama fought desegregation bitterly.  They advocated against change, harassed pastors who dared to sympathize with blacks, and organized ushers to be posted outside churches to keep out blacks.
As the world changed, and indeed, as God ushered in a new era of justice and equality, the white church did everything they could to distract from God’s movement and to call attention to itself.  It ground its heals into the earth and said I will not move.  
Even as the rest of the church adjusted to this newly transformed life, Alabama and a few other conferences would not budge.  In an episcopal address in 1964, the bishops declared
“The official pronouncements of The Methodist Church on the race question are clear.  That any minister or layman in The Methodist Church should have any question as to where we stand on this issue, is inconceivable...We are dedicated to the proposition that all men are of eternal worth in the eyes of God.  Prejudice against any person because of color or social status is a sin...We believe that this General Conference should insist upon the removal from its structure of any mark of racial segregation and we should do it without wasting time...It will cost some white Methodists the pain of rooting out deep-seated and long-held convictions concerning racial relations.  But God Almighty is moving toward a world of interracial brotherhood so speedily and so irresistibly, that to hesitate is to fight against God and be crushed.”
God was changing the world and it was time to get out of God’s way.  I understand to a degree what whites in Alabama might have been feeling.  Their entire world had been turned upside down.  They had likely lost their grounding.  But it is their response to the change that was inexcusable.  Perhaps they would have been best served to spend more time on their knees in prayer.  Perhaps if instead of doing something, anything, they could have sensed the momentous change God was making in their presence.  Even if they ultimately wouldn’t have been able to figure out what to do, simply doing nothing would have been far better then the something they tried.
My friends, we live in a world where God seems to be stirring things up again.  Society is changing quickly all around us.  And truth be told, a lot of the time, we haven’t a clue what to do.  The Methodist church as a whole wrestles with this.  They know our numbers as a denomination are declining.  So they have launched this whole Call to Action program that is designed to restore our vitality.  I’m sympathetic to the report.  I think it has many good suggestions.  But I will be honest, I get anxious every time I see it presented.
I think it is because of that focus on action.  Because truth be told, like many other clergy, like many laity, I’m still somewhat clueless how to respond to this changing world, this changing community.  I know we can’t simply dig our heals in and hope it changes back, but I also fight the urge to do something, anything, to try and adapt.  I fight the urge because I still struggle to sense what our specific purpose is here.
My friends, we are seeing some rapid shifts just in this church.  While attendance has not changed dramatically, we know we have struggle to attract new members and struggled to help our current members to grow in faith, attendance and discipleship.  In  the last 2 months we’ve seen a great reduction in giving which threatens to put a real strain on our ability to engage in all the ministry we had hoped for.  We are not yet in crisis, but I have to admit to being anxious.
Something is changing...and I don’t yet know what it is, and how to respond.  But I want us to try to do something-  unlike Peter, lets try to be silent for a bit and take it in.  To try and sense what God is doing and to not just speak quickly and loudly and distract from the transformative work God is doing in our midst.  Thus, at least through the Lenten season, I’m going to be asking those who chose to remain after worship for a bit, after we great one another and thank our guests for coming, to return to the sanctuary for a time of pray.  Of seeking.  Of asking God what we are called to do.  Let us seek to hear God’s spirit move in our open our eyes to the light around us.  Let us learn to listen.