O Holy Spirit, come Holy Spirit. Fill my mouth, fill our hearts with your word of faith. Amen
What are you doing for Lent?
This past week, around 80 people celebrated Shrove Tuesday by eating stacks of pancakes smothered in syrup. Because of all the pancakes and sausage and syrup, Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Traditionally, the pancake dinner is the meal immediately before Lent. Christians who were planning to give up eating rich foods like eggs, lard and sugar would make pancakes to use up all those ingredients before they started their 40 days of fasting in Lent.
So, what are you doing for Lent? Are you giving something up for Lent?
Even people outside the church who don’t belief in Jesus, his death and resurrection, even non-Christians have heard about Lent and are choosing to give up something for the next 6 weeks. It seems like fasting for Lent is almost like a second New Year’s resolution: If you missed your New Year’s resolution, or maybe you already broke it in January, you could restart it by choosing to fast for Lent!
Are you giving up something for Lent? Are you fasting maybe?
Perhaps you are giving up eggs, lard and sugar. No more pancakes until Easter? Or are you fasting from meat, alcohol or sugar? Christians have traditionally fasted from those foods during Lent. Or maybe you are giving up something that you’re addicted to, something you feel that you can’t live without: chocolate, coffee, maybe television. 20 years ago, I’m sure lots of people gave up cigarettes for Lent. Or if you’re a bit younger, you’ve decided to give up social media in Lent: Facebook and Instagram.
All these different things really boiled down to two main ways that non-Christians and Christians approach giving something up in Lent. And our Gospel reading from Luke, which is the familiar story of Jesus’s temptation, highlights these two ways.
Some people focus on following Jesus’s example of fasting, abstaining from food: “He ate nothing at all during those [forty] days.” And Jesus revealed his humanity, his empty human stomach. Just like us, “he was famished!” And we marvel at his self-control, his self-discipline to not eat for forty days. How could any human do that? In fasting, some people look to imitate and practice the same mental and physical endurance as Jesus, “As a great human teacher, since Jesus did it, I can do it, too, and I will learn to control my body the same way.”
Meanwhile, others focus on the temptations that Jesus faced and so they look to avoid things that could be considered a “temptation” in their life. They choose unhealthy foods, or bad habits to avoid, their guilty pleasures like eating chocolate, reading the celebrity news, watching the latest music reality show or cooking reality show. For them, maybe for you, Lent is a period to actively fight temptations, to cleanse and do a detox of the cruft and clutter of life.
But these two ways of approaching Lent are not the complete story of this season of preparation because they focus primarily on removing something from our lives. Indeed, some of us really do need to remove some of the bad habits and unhealthy foods from our lives, not just for 40 days in Lent, but forever. Also, fasting and hunger help us to realize our dependence on God, that “One does not live by bread alone” (Lk 4:4). And the fasting and temptations during Lent remind of Jesus’s humanity, that he faced hunger like us, that Jesus faced temptation like us.
However, when we focus only on fasting and temptations, we have only half the story, the “don’t story.” Then it’s no wonder that our Christian practices tend to reinforce a negative sense that Christianity is a religion of rules: things you aren’t allowed to do, using a book of ancient and irrelevant laws. Or it is about avoiding bad sins and unhealthy lifestyles in order to have productive and long lives.
Thankfully all of our readings today reveal a bit more of Lent, they reveal a fuller story of Lent. Lent isn’t just a season of emptiness, of empty stomachs. Rather, it is a season of recognizing our emptiness and seeking to be filled by God. Lent is not just a fast. Lent is a fast and a feast.
In Deuteronomy, we heard instructions given to the nation of Israel for their harvest. At first, it sounds like yet another commandment for Israel, a demand for tribute to give their first fruits as an offering to God. But when we examine it closely, the passage is not about God extracting a tax from his people. The instructions are actually a liturgy for worship, just like the order of service in our bulletin.
The first part of this liturgy is a declaration of remembrance. The person declares that they have come into the land that the LORD swore to give them (Deu 26:3). This first act of worship is to remember God’s gift. There was nothing for Israel to do but to receive, to receive God’s gift in faith. Then they recite a longer response that recalls the story of their ancestor Jacob, “a wandering Aramean,” who “went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,” as a hungry refugee with few possessions. They retell the story of their Exodus, how the Egyptians enslaved them, and how God heard their cries and brought them out of Egypt and into a land of milk and honey, a promised land of abundance.
Why does God command them to tell and retell their story? Why does God command Moses to write down their story? Why is the Bible more about stories than it is about rules and laws? Because our human brains are forgetful! We forget how things used to be, we forget who did what, and how we got to where we are.
Several years ago, when my grandfather was in his 70s, my aunts decided to interview him to write his biography, to record the story of his life. You see, my grandfather was born into a very poor family in China, but over his lifetime he had built a family business that employed hundreds of people. But as grandchildren, we didn’t know his story; all we saw were the factories, and the riches of a successful businessman. We needed him to tell his story, and to write down his story for future generations. We needed him to tell about how he was adopted by a rich uncle who allowed him to go to school, about how the business was actually my grandmother’s idea to sell garments that she had sewn. My grandfather is dead now, and the future generations might forget the details. But every August, around the time of my grandparents’ birthdays, their anniversary and their deaths, my family remembers the story and they celebrate. And my family, even though it’s Chinese, definitely feels related to the family of St. Mary and St. Martha, because whenever we have a celebration, it’s always a feast.
And that’s what Israel is commanded to do in their liturgy: retell their story of slavery in Egypt and how God delivered them into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” And the end of the liturgy is not a demand for tribute, but instructions to celebrate as a whole community, “together with the Levites and the aliens […] with all the bounty” (Deu 26:11) that God had given them.
And that’s what we Christians do during Lent. We retell our story of slavery to sin and death. We remember that we are dust and into dust we shall return. We remember our helplessness and hopelessness. We remember that we are utterly dependent on God’s gift of deliverance. And we celebrate, we feast.
The full story of Lent is about both fasting and feasting. So, if you haven’t chosen something for your Lenten Fast, consider choosing a Lenten Feast. Instead of removing a negative habit, consider adding a positive habit. Or if you have already removed something, if you are already fasting, consider also filling your mouth with something else that is not food!
Our reading from Romans, St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, describes the word of faith “on your lips and in your heart” (Rom 10:8). Paul wants the church in Rome to fill their mouths with the word of God. And he gives an example of the word of God to fill their mouths, the Gospel. Paul wants them to “confess with [their] lips that Jesus is Lord [and] you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). This is the logos of God, the Word of God made flesh, that is Jesus Christ. So, having the Word of God on your lips, in your mouth could literally be speaking and proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord.” For example, in the Jesus Prayer we pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” When we say that “Jesus is Lord” we also recognize and declare that we are not lord, that we are not in charge.
And there is also another way to be filled with words of faith: filling your mouth with Scripture and filling your mouth with prayer. As we fill our mouths with Scripture, we proclaim the story of Israel, and we declare our continuation in the Biblical story. During Alpha this past week, we discussed reading the entire Bible, because reading and retelling the stories of both the Old Testament and the New Testament remind us of our sinfulness and brokenness and our dependence on God. One way to fill your mouth with Scripture, to feast on the Word of God during Lent is to read the Bible systematically. I have pledged to read the entire New Testament over the 40 days of Lent, and maybe you would consider joining me.
Or fill your mouth with words of faith through prayer. Rev. Karen is leading the Lenten Prayer Program on Sundays after the service, starting today. Refresh your prayer life during our journey together through Lent. Learn to speak to God using words of God found in the Psalms. Or maybe during Lent, fill your mouth with a simple prayer like the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
So, what are you doing for Lent? If you have already chosen to give up something, to fast, and to empty yourself, don’t remain empty, don’t remain hungry. Don’t cast out one unclean spirit, only to have it return with seven more (Lk 11:24-26). Instead, of remaining empty, choose to be filled with the word of faith, filling your mouth with Scripture, and with prayer.
If fasting seems too difficult to persevere, too taxing on the body and mind, consider a liturgy of remembrance and feasting like we heard in Deuteronomy 26. Recite your faith story to a friend, remember your broken human nature from dust to dust, retell our slavery to sin and death and recall how God has delivered you. And then respond in celebration, respond with a feast!
As we move towards a time of reflection and penitence in preparation for the Eucharist, let us fast from our selfishness, let us fast from our self-sufficiency. And then, at the Lord’s Table, let us feast on Jesus Christ in our hearts by faith and thanksgiving.
In closing, let me share this Lenten litany adapted from William Arthur Ward:
Fast from judging others; Feast on the Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from emphasis of differences; Feast on the unity of life.
Fast from apparent darkness; Feast on the reality of Light.
Fast from thoughts of illness; Feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude.
Fast from pessimism; Feast on optimism.
Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation.
Fast from anger and bitterness; Feast on patience and forgiveness.
Fast from worry; Feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from words that pollute; Feast on God’s word that purifies.
Fast from self-concern; Feast on compassion for others.