Fasting in Community (Ash Wednesday 2019)
Joel 2: 12-17
Fasting in Community
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is the word that the church uses for the season. And the word does not come from what comes out of the dryer at the end of the cycle; although my own laundry is making lint as I prepare this sermon to begin the season of Lent. But rather the word comes from the Latin word for “slowly.” Lent is the time that calls us to slow down. It is the time to remember that we are about to enter into the Holy Week; the busiest week of the year, the week we remember that Jesus came into Jerusalem, did a whole bunch of stuff, made some people angry, was arrested, and tortured, and killed, buried, and resurrected. It is a season so named because we must slow down. We have to prepare for that. Slow down.
Yet I’ve seen the last few years a push to begin what I like to call “drive-by ashings.” This is where the church will set you up, where all you have to do is either walk in the door and just get your ashes real quick and then you go home, or maybe you don’t even have to walk in the door but just drive in the parking lot and wait for Pastor to come out to you and give you your ashes. Or here, it might be me setting up in the back hallway, and you just drive up under the the awning, and I will put ashes on your forehead and then you drive away. Maybe you can tell by my tone of words, but personally I disagree with that idea. And I disagree because I think it misses the point. The ashes are not the point. Wearing the ashes around is not the point. The point is to gather together, and to declare together, the intention to fast so that we can prepare for the coming of Jesus into Jerusalem. Ash Wednesday is a communal event. Lent is a communal event. And I think we need to keep it that way.
Church has become very individualistic in the United States. Many Christians the United States go “church shopping,” looking for a church that will feed them; and when they find a church that feeds them, they’ll stay…until the first bad sermon, or the first disagreement with another member where they don’t get their way, or until the pastor changes. And then they will shop for another one. We have lost the idea in much of the United States, to paraphrase a great President, of asking “what can I do for the church” instead of asking “what can the church do for me?” Not all of us, but many around us, say now “what can the church do for me; I do not need to do anything for the church.” The idea of doing church together is almost gone in this post-denominational world. To quote the theologian Geoff McElroy: “Which brings us to Lent and Ash Wednesday. Too often Lenten observance becomes an individual thing: what am I going to give up for Lent? How is my heart before God this Lenten season? But to restrict Lent to individual piety is to miss the words from the prophet Joel, that true repentance is something done together.”
This really is a new phenomenon. This is recent; this individualistic idea, the idea that Christianity is something for an individual. It is really new; as in “some of you were still alive when it was born” new. What if we didn’t buy that? What if we decided to do church together? What if we decided to fast together? You don’t have to fast the same thing. One could give up chocolate, one give up Diet Coke, one give up rock ‘n’ roll music, one could add a prayer (it’s giving up time). But what we would have said is “we’re all going to do something, and we’re going to do it together. We’re all in this together.”
This idea of a communal fast is actually extremely Biblical. There are more examples of a communal fast in the Bible than individual. I think of the book of Esther where she agrees to go to the king uninvited at great personal risk. And to prepare for that, she asked that the entire community would fast for two days to give her strength to go forward. And when she goes to the king, she goes in strength knowing she has an entire community behind her because they fasted.
I think of 2 Kings, when king Josiah becomes king at a very young age. And he’s right and caring, and Godly. And so he cleanses the temple that has not been looked at for a long time. As they were cleaning and rebuilding, they find the book of the law (many believed to be the book of Deuteronomy), and they read it. And he discovers that not only are they not doing what they were supposed to be doing, they’re doing what was expressly forbidden. So he declares that the whole community fast, and they do.
Or just look at the Joel passage that was read earlier. Joel says that God is going to pronounce judgment upon us. Let us all fast, and hope that God will see our fast, will see our repentance, and will bring mercy instead of judgment. In the narrative of the book of Joel, that is exactly what happens.
Engaging in a fast with the community brings a lot of benefits, even if you are not all fasting the exact same thing. You have support. Anytime someone engages upon a difficult venture, they try and find a group of supporters. You have accountability. Sometimes that looks like support, or support looks like holding accountable. But when you do it together, you have supporters, you have people who hold you accountable.
And the community benefits. It brings the community together when we fast together because we are sharing each other‘s successes. And when one succeeds, the whole community gets a benefit. And when one falls, there’s going to be someone there to pick them back up and going again. It’s really powerful when we fast together because we’re stronger when we do. Lent is fundamentally an individual thing, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. We do this individual thing in community.
And so to show this, I’m going to ask you to write what you’re going to give up out on the card in your bulletin. And then we’re going to come up here and you are going to tape it to the cross as a way of offering that thing to God all together. Now I’m going to take the cards off, but I’m going to keep the cross in the room all Lent to remind each of us that we are on this path together. If you want privacy for what you’re giving up, my best encouragement to you is to pray to God silently what you were going to give up, and then write on the card the words “God, you know” or “what I prayed,” and take that to the cross. God will know and none of us will, and that’s fine. We know you’re you’re giving something up. I would encourage you to let at least one of those around you know what you’re doing so you can be held accountable however. Know that we are all praying for each other. Know that we are all fasting, and we will do that this month. We will succeed together. And we will be stronger when Good Friday rolls around. And we’ll be ready to celebrate the rising of God on Easter. Amen.