Photo a Day Lent – Day 39: Restore

“Restore”

3 23 Day 39 Restore

This is the Weingart Center. It is a center for homeless services in Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. I was blessed to visit there in 2005 as a friend introduced me to many of the urban ministries of the Los Angeles area. It was a joy to see how through health care, education, and support so many people’s lives were being restored from brokenness to hope.

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. 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?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“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; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23

“Simply Loving,” B-Side

Many weeks I feel like the sermons I write need to have a sort of “b-side” to them: a response to what was written, sort of the footnotes of more information that’s in conversation with the original sermon. So here goes:

After looking at the three scriptures in conversation with each other, this story immediately came to mind:

“One time on Hollywood Boulevard I saw a young girl with a baby. It was a crisp winter morning & her hair shone dark purple in the sun. She was panhandling outside the Holiday Inn & the door clerk came out & told her to be on her way & I wondered if anyone would recognize the Christ child if they happened to meet. I remember thinking it’s not like there are any published pictures & purple seemed like a good color for a Madonna so I gave her a dollar just in case.” – “Purple Madonna,” StoryPeople by Brian Andreas

This article provided many of the details of story and also came to it’s own conclusions about the necessity of giving:

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, “Should We Give a Homeless Man Shoes?”

No Act of Love is Ever WastedAlso, this sermon brought up for me the phrase “no act of love is ever wasted.” “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.” If I were to have gone that route with the sermon, there is much to be discussed of how some people with cognitive disabilities are often seen unworthy of the basic necessities of love and relationship simply because of an inability to respond. A perspective that is confronted by this book.

“Simply Loving; ” Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; December 9, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Loving”
Isaiah 53:2-5, Matthew 5:43-48, and 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
December 9, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide1There’s a story that was in the news a week or so ago about a New York policeman who offered boots to a man who was elderly, barefoot, and homeless. The policeman, officer Larry DePrimos, bought the shoes with his own money and helped to place the socks and shoes on this man’s feet. A tourist captured it in a photograph and posted it online. The picture went viral and was seen by more than 400,000 people. When questioned about it, the policeman said that he knew he had to help and so he did.

The initial response was overwhelmingly positive. People saying that this action restored their faith in the NYPD and their faith in humanity. People asking, “why don’t I do that?”

Then, a few days later, the story changed. The man, Jeffrey Hillman, was seen out on the streets without shoes once again. He said he hid them because they were “worth a lot of money.” Suddenly investigations were launched about this man and it was discovered that he was “not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. The New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft and more.”[1] Some say that his erratic behavior is indicative of mental illness, but he has received no treatment.

This story has become more than a simple good deed. In many people’s eyes, this act of generosity has become sullied by the complexity of the story of the man who received it. This is not a simple story.

The question remains, “is helping someone still worth it?”

In our passage in Matthew today we heard, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.“ Hear that Jesus is not saying, “give to those who need it,” or “check someone’s credit history and criminal record before you help them.” Jesus is calling us to love, calling us to respond. He preaches a message of love independent of reaction, of faithfulness independent of result.

Slide3Arnold Cohen, President of the Partnership for the Homeless in New York City says, “We should be asking why there are so many people on the streets. And why a rich city… is so ill equipped to deal with the complexity of homelessness — because it is very complex.”[2]

It is tempting to think that Jesus’ message doesn’t apply to us because we live in such a complex world. But to do so would be to disregard the reality of the first century world. Slide4This was the time of the Roman Empire. There was oppression, persecution, and financial disparity. Many were illiterate and disenfranchised. All except those at the very top were vulnerable socially and economically. It was indeed a time of complexity, when good deeds could be confused and charity could be seen as gullibility. This was not a simple world.

Slide5Both the photographer and the officer described the homeless man’s reaction as lighting up like it was Christmas morning. They delighted in this man’s delight. The moment was deemed worthy of capturing, worthy of doing. But when the story changes, is the feeling still the same? Is the action still reasonable? I believe in my heart of hearts, that “no act of love is ever wasted,”[3] that God’s love is shown through our love. Since God loves with an unconditional love, we are called to love in the same way.

Slide6We affirm in scripture and in our creeds as a Church that Jesus Christ, God’s own self, came to this earth and in the most extreme act of love, lived a sinless life, yet died for our sins. We were not and are not worthy of such a gift. There is nothing we can even do to fully earn such an enormous love. But that’s the beauty of grace, it’s a free gift of love, of forgiveness, of redemption.

Our Old Testament passage today speaks of how loving us so fiercely, altered and ended Jesus’ human life here on earth:

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”[4]

How can we even begin to respond to such a gift? We can love. Simply love.

1 John 3:16-18 says, “We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This is not a love that comes naturally. It takes work to love when that love is not returned. It hurts to turn our cheek. Giving our coat to someone may leave us cold. Giving shoes to a man who remains barefoot is a hard thing to watch. But still, we are called to love.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians urges, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” This is the calling to which we are called. When we enact Jesus’ kind of unconditional love we are allowing God’s presence to become manifest in our midst. We are welcoming God as Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Slide9We are standing at the Advent of God’s presence in the world once again: A birth of One, fully God and fully human, inaugurated at Christmastime. We are also standing at the Advent of the possibility of God’s Kingdom lived out here on earth: God’s love through our love, God’s care through our care. God promised never to leave us or forsake us. God forever desires to be in relationship with us. God is always, God-with-us, Emmanuel. May we remember that promise this Advent season and every day. Amen.


[3] “No Act of Love is Ever Wasted,” is also the name of an excellent book by Richard L. Morgan on “The Spirituality of Caring for Persons with Dementia.”

[4] Isaiah 53:2-5