Fasting from Pressure; Feasting on Prayer

[audio]Isaiah 55:1-9 Luke 13:1-9

Traditionally, the time of Lent has been understood as one of fasting, i.e. giving up certain things you might normally eat. And the Sundays of Lent have been kept as feast days, meaning that you could eat those special things you might avoid throughout the rest of Lent.

When I was in seminary, my roommate, an Episcopalian, introduced me to the idea of Lent and fasting/feasting on things unrelated to food (like TV). Our favorite show was the Simpsons, and it was broadcast on Thursdays. So we would tape (yes, VCR; yes, a while ago) the show and watch it on Sunday, the feast day. Perhaps the letter, but not the spirit of the law…

Our conversations this Lent focus on practices we might fast from (or let go of) and practices we might feast on (or take up) throughout Lent, regardless of whether it’s a Sunday or not.

The Luke lesson brings me to our topic today. In it, the crowds push in on Jesus, pestering him the ancient equivalent of the headlines: “Did you hear about what happened to the Galileans, the ones who were at the Temple, whom Pilate had killed? In the middle of worship?” Jesus adds to this man-made horror another story of natural disaster, when a Jerusalem tower fell and crushed eighteen people. The current thinking of the day was that, the worse the death, the bigger the sin. Jesus turns that kind of thinking back on the crowd, and begins what, I would argue, is the Christian response to violence. When Christians see violence in our world, whether it be of the man-made or natural variety, our first and most faithful response ought to be prayer.

Unfortunately, there are those in the church who still believe the same way these crowds did, that the badder the death the worser the sin. And those folk all seem to have TV cameras trained on them. But the Christian ethic developing from this moment in Luke is that Christians, responding to violence, ought first to be brought to prayer, and repenting prayer, the most introspective of all.

Today’s theme could very well be a question of how we respond to stress. It’s a fact a life, this stress stuff. The question isn’t how do we avoid it, but how do we respond to it. Do we buckle under its pressure, or do we give space for prayer? For each of us, the source of that stress is different. It could be school, work, friends, family, colleagues, society. And stress causes us to lose perspective. When Elizabeth and I were new parents, we entered a whole new world, where parents live through the success of their children. And in those early days all we had to go on was the percentiles of height and weight. He was 99th percentile in height! Hurrah! We win! (uh, no, he’s just taller than average) He was 50th percentile in weight! Rats! So average! (uh, yeah, but that’s kinda the point. He’s healthy)

When Jesus is pressed by the crowds, how is he going to respond to the stress? Is he going to give in the common wisdom, and simply echo it back? And, by the way, is common wisdom always right? “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Actually, it probably means always having to say you’re sorry, since you care about the other person’s feelings. But I digress…

Do we react in those moments, or do we reflect? Have you ever sent an email in a rush wishing there was an “unsend” button? What would it mean, in those moments of stress, to pause; to breathe; to pray? Can we stop long enough to allow some reflection?

I think there’s something of that in the Luke lesson, as Jesus goes on to speak of the fig tree and this parable of the gardener who, despite the fig tree’s lack of fruit, wants to give it another year of care and tending. The fig tree was often used to symbolize Judah or Israel. Unfortunately, Christians have misinterpreted this passage as Jesus’ judgment on Jews and Judaism, leading to the horrors of anti-Semitism throughout church history.

Instead, I think Jesus is suggesting something more basic and sublime: be patient. Jesus is responding, indeed, to those who are quick to dispose, saying, “Wait. Give it time.” Do we do that? In a culture of immediate gratification do we look for immediate success? If it doesn’t work right away, do we cast it aside as a failure? Could this be one of those moments where common wisdom battles it out with itself, telling us to “Go with our guts” as we are reminded that “Patience is a virtue”? Or could it just be possible that our gut might be right; but it would also be OK to check with our heart, our head, and, oh yeah – our God? But I digress again…

Try this simple practice. When stress hits – because it will, when the crowds press in – because they will, and when common wisdom doesn’t fit – because it won’t, then breathe in. Ask, “God, what do you think?” Listen. And if the clarity doesn’t come, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Because the answers aren’t always there right away. These practices take time.

And after all, the prayer that Jesus calls the crowds to is one of repentance: literally, a turning again to face. Imagine yourself standing, having turned your back on God. To repent would be to turn and face the divine. To rekindle this relationship takes time. So give it the nourishment it needs. Help it to grow. And it will bear fruit.