(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on November 2, 2014)
I don’t know how it happened exactly, but somehow I’ve gotten in the habit of digging into my past and blurting out the most embarrassing parts on Sunday mornings.
I’ve showed you pictures of me dressed as a cheerleader. I’ve shared some of my worst moments, like when I ignored a friend because she was reminding all my new “Christian” friends that we had once had fun on a youth group outing listening to Van Halen.
This looks like a nondescript spiral notebook. Maybe it looks a little old and dated, but that’s because it is. Within these pages is a journal entry I wrote as a freshman in high school. Notice that I said “entry”, as in singular. This is because in high school I didn’t keep a regular journal. It wasn’t a practice, wasn’t a thing I did. But, in a moment I am not at all proud of, I once sat down and wrote one particular journal entry as if journalling was a normal thing that I did. And I didn’t write this entry to work out my feelings, or be able to remember something important.
Nope. I wrote this one journal entry with the specific intention of then sharing it with my on again, off again girlfriend. You know, so she would think I was being so vulnerable. So she would see that I was thinking about her. This stellar piece of prose is more than 30 years old, but I have to confess that it isn’t funny to read even yet. I still get a queasy feeling in my stomach when I read how passive aggressive and just yuck that this whole thing was.
I took something–journalling–that is a good individual practice for self discovery.
And I turned it into something manipulative, something that I hoped would make my girlfriend think I was something that I wasn’t.
Today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount, from the first half of Matthew chapter 6, has a very similar message to what Elizabeth spoke about three weeks ago, and what Steve spoke about two weeks ago. In each of these sections, Jesus is taking an important aspect of our life with God, and challenging us to look for ways that we have warped it into something it shouldn’t be.
Jesus takes the practices of giving to the poor, and prayer, and fasting, and warns us against something that is very similar to what I did with the journal entry long ago. We can take something that’s designed to deepen us, stretch us, help put us in God’s presence…and instead we can shift that practice so that it is aimed at getting a reaction from other people.
As R.T. France wrote, this part of the Sermon on the Mount is there “to warn us against a wrong kind of ‘righteousness’, which is undertaken not to conform to the will of God and imitate [God’s] perfection, but to gain human approval.” (NICNT commentary on Matthew, p. 232)
This is the heart of the message to take from this section of the Sermon on the Mount. And, honestly, I think Elizabeth and Steve did a great job getting the message across. The central theme is the same: when you fast, don’t make it obvious to others that you are. If so, you’re missing the point by trying to get other people to be impressed by you, and that’s all the reward you will get. Fasting is not designed to impress other people. Fasting is to open us up, detach us from our normal physical need for food, and allow God to connect with us in a new way.
Something interesting I learned while studying: the three things that Jesus chooses to direct our attention to are found as practices in almost every major religion.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims have always had the regular practices of prayer, giving to the poor, and fasting as central practices of life with God. In fact, these are three of the five pillars of Islam. In Evangelical circles, fasting has become less of a central practice, but regular fasting is part of life in the Catholic and Orthodox tradition.
I think it’s fair to say that Jesus assumed and expected that his followers would continue to regularly practice these things. His teaching here is correcting for whom we practice these things, not whether we should or not. Now, in our world today, it seems important to say that for people who struggle with control issues around food, for people with eating disorders, there may be a need to stay away from the practice of fasting.
But for the rest of us, I think we would do well to remember that Jesus assumed we would continue the regular practices of prayer, giving money to those in need, and fasting.
In one of those coincidences that seems to happen quite often, the small groups in our church that are studying Nathan Foster’s new book have been in the chapter on fasting this week.
Steve Fawver told me that a lot of the discussion in these groups has been around why fasting isn’t a regular, normal thing in our circles. Let me ask you this morning…what do you think are some of the reasons fasting isn’t seen as a “normal” or “expected” thing for us? How do people view fasting? [ASK]
Fasting is uncomfortable. That’s part of the point. It’s choosing to go without a good thing (food) for a variety of reasons: to understand how we are too focused on it, to use hunger pains as a prompt to turn our attention to God, to gain understanding or show solidarity with the poor and hungry.
In the Old Testament, there’s often a corporate part of fasting as well. It was something that the community would do together, often as a sign of repentance, always as a way to call out for God to act in forgiveness or healing or for justice. It’s uncomfortable, but the uncomfortableness is not the goal. That’s why Jesus said don’t go out of your way to look horrible when you are fasting so that everyone will know.
He uses a great play on words. The Greek phrase that gets translated “disfigure their faces” is very literally, “make their faces invisible”. So “disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” is literally “make themselves invisible in order to become visible, to be seen.” Being or looking uncomfortable isn’t the goal, but rather the goal is our own transformation as people through encountering God in this normal practice.
Jesus gives a clear thing to do.
“Put oil on your head and wash your face.” Take some time to present yourself well to the world. Show people your best side, so that you won’t be tempted to want approval from others about your fasting practice, but rather will see what God has in it for you.
I like that Jesus gives a clear instruction. But I’ve noticed that over time, we humans have a great ability to take any action and slowly shift it, change it, to the point where the same action no longer means the same thing. One of the clearest examples of this for me is something that Dick Sartwell shared long ago.
Dick was talking about the early Quaker practice of plain speech. When Quakers first began in England, English had a distinction that has since disappeared. “You” was always plural, like as in “all y’all”. “You” was never one person; for one person “thee” was used. But there was an interesting exception. People would refer to royalty, to someone higher up the social ladder, as “you”. That’s where we get the phrase, “the royal we”. One royal person was so important, they got to be called the plural “you”.
Quakers didn’t like this hierarchical distinction. So they “thee’d” everybody. Everybody was just one person, and they should all be the same. Early Friends got thrown in prison for “thee’ing” royalty. Their use of this language was a statement of equality-we are all the same. (What’s interesting to me is that Quakers lost the overall battle for the English language. Instead of the Quaker practice, the plural “you” is what came to describe both singular and plural, like we have today. I guess people wanted to be “you’d” up to royalty, rather than “thee’d” down to equality…)
So that’s the history of why Quakers originally used “thee” language. What’s interesting is that long after everyone else had given up the use of “thee”, some Quaker groups kept it up. And I remember Dick sharing about the time he knew he had finally arrived in a particular community in Ohio, he knew he had finally been accepted when that group of traditional, plain speaking Quakers finally “thee’d” Dick.
Do you see how it totally switched? The same word, “thee”, which once was designed to remind everyone that they were equal…that same word “thee” was now being used to give Dick a special status, an “in” crowd designation. He was now more special, more included than before because of being addressed as “thee”.
I wonder if some of this shift is going on with fasting in particular.
I wonder if Jesus challenging the misuse of fasting has actually resulted in people thinking fasting itself is what Jesus was trying to get us to avoid.
And then I start wondering things different than that, things broader than fasting.
In our church world in America, I think the clear thing Jesus told us to do in regard to fasting has been twisted so that it no longer means the same thing he intended. “Put oil on your head and wash your face.” Make your appearance seem normal, cover up the pain of fasting so that you won’t be doing the fasting for recognition by other people.
Clean yourself up. Look ok. Cover up the hurt.
I think we’ve made a practice of this approach that is the exact opposite of what Jesus intended here. We have become masters in today’s church culture of hiding our struggles and our wounds, of “putting oil on our heads and washing our faces” and cleaning up vulnerability. It is so hard for us to be real. It is so hard for us to risk shame by showing our blemishes, our struggles, our sins, our failures, our fears.
In one sense, when we put on this “good-person mask”, this “my-life-is-together mask” on display, we are literally doing what Jesus said. We are doing things that don’t let our struggle be visible.
But we are doing it for exactly the opposite reason that Jesus spoke about.
Jesus asked us to stop presenting an appearance which makes other people think we are “spiritual people”. That’s why we were told to look good in front of others, so that we wouldn’t be trying to impress them with the “spirituality” of our fasting.
But when we present the appearance of “I’m fine, I’m great, everything is ok”…it’s often because we are hiding our shame…and trying to show our spirituality so people will accept us.
Just like “thee”, our masks can become the same action, with the completely opposite meaning.
So I guess what it boils down to is this: I’m trying to wipe out two possible mis-interpretations of Jesus’ teaching today.
One is, getting rid of fasting was not Jesus’ point. Fasting can be an important, regular practice that deepens our understanding of God, that corrects and re-orients our perspective, that can make a statement for justice and solidarity.
And the second is, in OUR church culture of today, we have to be really cautious with Jesus’ words about making our appearance look good. Jesus never intended for us to portray ourselves in a light so that others would be impressed with our spirituality…in fact, he intended the exact opposite.
May we be real and vulnerable people who do regular spiritual practices for God’s sake, not so others will be impressed.