Harrowing Of Hell
February 5, 2023

Fasting and Lent

Frank Lawler, Lay Preacher

Lent begins in a little over two weeks.  When one hears the word “Lent”, one often associates it with “fasting.” Perhaps you are thinking, as I have in the past, that you’ll give up alcohol, or chocolate, or your daily triple venti mocha with whipped cream for 40 days…and you’re done. But in today’s lesson from the book of Isaiah, we find that God has quite a different understanding of fasting.

“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.”

Whoa. That sounds really hard, and maybe like maybe there’s a typo in the Bible. I mean, all that can’t be considered fasting, can it?

I grabbed my Dad’s old copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and found that a fast is defined as a penitential discipline designed to strengthen the spiritual life. 

Could God be saying that feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is some sort of spiritual discipline that counts as a fast? And one that God actually prefers?

Yeah, I thought, but who uses an actual paper dictionary anymore? 

So I turned to Google.

I searched for “fasting” and came up with all kinds of great diets, the various reasons for fasting, the ways hunger can make you feel closer to God (or perhaps just grumpier), and my first few searches for “fast”, “fasting”, “Christian fast” gave me several hundred results before I got that “you’ve reached the end of the internet but I’ll keep looking if you really want me to” message that Google gives you, without a single mention of the poor and the homeless.

Finally, after searching for “God fast”, I finally found, about 130 results in, a page where someone pointed out that when it came to choosing how to fast, God wanted his people to seek justice for those who were oppressed and poor.

So, though God says that feeding the hungry and housing the homeless is his preferred method for us to fast, most of us, it seems, are not aware of it, or at least not talking about it.

We all know there are hungry and homeless right here in Seattle.

Over the past few months, Father Doyt and I have occasionally accompanied one of the street ministers at Operation Nightwatch on a nighttime walk around South Lake Union. 

Operation Nightwatch, if you are not familiar with it, is a homeless service agency whose mission is to reduce the impact of poverty and homelessness, in keeping with Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors. Epiphany’s longtime relationship with them started with the tireless work of our late parishioner Charlie Bush, whom many of us fondly remember.

The South Lake Union area of Seattle juxtaposes two very different populations, exposing the tremendous social gaps in our society.  LITERALLY next door to expensive condos housing Amazon or Google employees making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, there are people living in tents or makeshift shelters cobbled together with tarps and ropes, perhaps using an overturned grocery cart to provide a central frame. 

We have chatted with people who have led a hard life with nothing but bleak choices ahead of them.

Having to choose between sleeping outdoors in a wet, but in their mind safe, fire escape alcove or…

staying with a friend living in a decrepit low-income apartment building where it’s dry, but where they run the risk of being assaulted or having their few possessions stolen while they sleep.

We have met a woman standing barefoot on the street, in the rain.  Another, clutching an empty liquor bottle and mourning a friend who had been murdered by her boyfriend the month before.  Before moving on into the night, she carefully put her empty bottle in a garbage can, not wanting to litter in front of the surprisingly tidy makeshift home that two of her neighbors had proudly built out of wood and plastic sheeting.

So what, you might ask, has this nighttime ministry walk to do with fasting? Am I saying that, in light of today’s lesson from Isaiah, have we perhaps been fasting the wrong way all these years?  

The people in today’s lesson seem to think that fasting is about giving up something they enjoy in order to demonstrate how pious they are.  That may sound rather familiar to our ears today, showing that not much has changed in 2,700 years.

But when God tells them they are in rebellion and sinful, the surprised self-righteous ask “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Isaiah’s audience wonders why God doesn’t seem to appreciate that they are fasting, bowing down their heads, and lying in sackcloth and ashes. They ask for righteous judgements; they declare that they have not forsaken the judgement of the Lord. They have fasted according to the rules.

So why isn’t God “coming through” for them?

Perhaps because my wife and I just finished watching the Irish comedy series “Derry Girls,” as well as the new Martin McDonagh film “The Banshees of Inisherin,” but I imagine God’s reply to this question sounding something like this:

“So you call that a fast, do ya?”

God’s message, through Isaiah, is:

“Will you call this a fast?… Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…” while acting as if you are “a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.”

If we follow the traditional practice of fasting—not drinking alcohol or eating red meat—as a true penitential discipline, God might be all right with that.

Yet can we aspire further than that? Because God spells out exactly what he has in mind when it comes to fasting: share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them. He even urges us to treat them as our own kin. 

Now I think we can all agree God wants us to be kind to others. But treating the poor as our own kin? Isn’t that excessive? Why would God want us to do something so extreme? We can certainly see how it would benefit the poor. But I think God wants us to know that it benefits us as well.

Now how exactly would this be the case?

The late Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen [NOW-en] described our calling as Christians to minister to the poor, the oppressed, the lowly as “Downward mobility.”  Somewhere deep in our hearts, he said, we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. We realize that the downward road is not the road to hell, but the road to heaven. Keeping this in mind can help us accept the fact that in the kingdom of God the poor are the messengers of the good news.

In last week’s lesson, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we heard that God chooses “the weak in the world”, “the foolish in the world” and “the low and despised in the world” to shame the strong and the wise so that the truly empty nature of such worldly status is revealed.  This is done, Paul says, “so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” So that individual members of humankind can understand the true riches of the kingdom of God.

If one puts their trust in their own strength or their own wealth or their own influence, one will inevitably be disappointed.

One guy Father Doyt and I met on a Nightwatch walk, under the Denny overpass which crosses I-5, had come to Seattle looking for his mother, who, like him, had been homeless.

After he found her and made sure she was in permanent housing, what did he do? 

He made it his mission to help others on the street find things they need and find people they were looking for. Years later, he is still homeless, and this is still what he feels called to do.  This guy has almost nothing, yet he spends his time giving what little he has in the way of time and possessions to others.

Is he effective? I don’t know. Was I touched by his efforts? Definitely. I would even say I was a bit “shamed” by his efforts, to quote Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

Pastor Paul, the Nightwatch staff member whom Doyt and I have accompanied on his evening rounds, calls Operation Nightwatch a Mission of Presence. He is there to listen, to learn their names and offer assistance when the homeless finally trust him enough to accept it, to commiserate with them, and to pray.

One evening we met a young man surrounded by trash who had settled on a church doorstep. He appeared strung out on drugs, and ill-prepared for a chilly night on the streets. Pastor Paul talked to him. The young man chatted, then out of the blue asked, “Do you know where there’s an AA meeting?”

Pastor Paul did know, and he promised to come by the next day to accompany the young man. Did they go? I don’t know. How effective is Pastor Paul’s mission? All I know is that it’s a lot more effective than doing nothing.

And would God call that a fast, would He?

I think he might.

You see, God’s choice of fast in Isaiah, 2700 years ago, continues right through to the present day. Care for those who are dear to God.  The poor. The meek. The oppressed. That is the fast God chooses.

We are free to choose the spiritual discipline, if any, we undertake for Lent, starting in a couple of weeks. And I heartily encourage ourselves to do so.

But have we thought about God’s take on what we are planning? When Lent is over, how will we look back on the choice we made?

Let us all consider once more the fast that GOD chooses.  When we determine our Lenten discipline, whatever that may be, could our discipline be intentionally downwardly-mobile and not just a brief pause in society’s ongoing quest for upward mobility? 

Can we strive to be closer to those who are the weak, the foolish, and the low and despised in the world, whom Saint Paul tells us God chose in last week’s lesson.

I invite all of us to link our discipline with our brothers and sisters on the street. Instead of simply giving up that triple venti mocha with whipped cream, we can additionally give its equivalent value to Teen Feed or Operation Nightwatch or Sound Foundations or the YWCA or even directly to someone standing on the street outside that coffee shop, holding an “Anything helps” sign.  Instead of praying a more general meditation on suffering in the world, we can pray a specific daily prayer for the poor and the homeless right in front of us here in Seattle.

And maybe instead of walking right on by that woman shivering on a doorstep without making eye contact with her, we can stop, smile, and say hello.

When Isaiah says, “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted…you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”, can we consider that those streets might be right here in Seattle?

Before I leave the pulpit, I have a little public service announcement.

God offers us all a radical new way of thinking about fasting. And we on the Service and Outreach Committee are also offering you all an invitation.

This evening is our annual Have a Heart fundraiser.  For years, Have a Heart has been the primary way for our Service and Outreach team to raise money for our work with our partners at home and abroad.  It starts with Evensong at 5:30pm. After that, we will share a short video highlighting the work Epiphany is doing to help our homeless brothers and sisters in Seattle. Then we’ll hear from our special guest Frank DiGirolamo, the new executive director of Operation Nightwatch. This will be followed by a reception in the Great Hall.

I invite you all to come and join us in celebrating and supporting the work being done with our Service and Outreach partners.