This past Sunday at Collins Street, the second Sunday of Lent, we explored the next of our Lenten paradoxes. There were some requests for the text. I usually shy away from putting things like this on the blog. Sermons are not everyone’s cup of tea, and might even send some readers running for the hills. Still, you can always click away to something more interesting!
Paradox #2: Through fasting we feast … through feasting we fast
(Luke 5.27-35 & Luke 9.10-17)
Here we are on the second Sunday of Lent. In the season of Lent we commit 40 days (46 including Sundays) to follow the story of Jesus from his testing in the wilderness to his execution in Jerusalem. It’s an arduous journey as we watch Jesus move progressively closer to his death.
The most commonly asked question of this season is ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Traditionally it’s a season of austerity and self-denial. We want to identify with Jesus, to share his vulnerability and sacrifice, to take up our crosses and follow him. And so we give things up in a symbolic way–coffee perhaps, chocolate, wine, Facebook or food. Lent is the season for sackcloth and ashes. It’s a time to give up. It’s a time to fast.
But here’s the thing. This coming Thursday night, right slap bang in the middle of Lent, we are launching an art exhibition that’s all about food. To coincide with the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, that annual celebration of gluttonous sensuality (!), we’re set to display artworks here in the church that celebrate the pleasures of the feast. No sackcloth in sight. Is it just a case of bad timing, or is it a more serious disregard for the spirit of the Lenten season? Wouldn’t we be better to strip the gallery walls, defrost the fridges, close the cafes and sit quietly in the corner with our stale bread and water? It’s a fair question.
It’s the question Jesus was asked in today’s first reading from Luke’s gospel. Fresh from his own 40-day fast in the desert, Jesus moves almost immediately to the feast. In fact once Jesus leaves the desert behind, he spends most of his time at the table, eating and drinking all the way to Jerusalem and often in the most dubious company. The Pharisees are horrified. ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ they keep asking him. ‘Why are your followers feasting when they should be fasting?’ Their exasperation with Jesus’ eating habits grows as the chapters progress. In anger they brand Jesus a glutton and a drunkard. So offensive is his table behaviour they begin scheming for ways to get rid of him. My sense is these Pharisees would be none too pleased with our little art exhibition.
It’s an odd thing, this seamless movement of Jesus from fasting to feasting. For the Pharisees, there can be no such movement: ‘Choose this day whom you will serve … will you fast your way to righteousness or will you feast you way to damnation?’ For the Pharisees, feasting and fasting are polar opposites. But for Jesus feasting and fasting are two sides to the one coin. And there is our paradox: for Jesus, it is through fasting that we feast and through feasting that we fast.
Both fasting and feasting have a noble history among God’s people. At their best, both have sacrifice at their core. Fasting is a practice of personal sacrifice, part of an intense commitment to prayer, confession and devotion. In fasting we sacrifice the body’s most pressing physical needs to signal our surrender to God’s call. This is certainly the case for Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness. Through fasting Jesus is saying, right at the beginning of his ministry, ‘I am in need of grace; I am completely and utterly dependent upon God.’ Feasting, on the other hand, is an act of communal sacrifice. Through the feast we sacrifice our personal interests to the covenant obligations of relationship with God and with each other. We say in unison at the feast, ‘We are in need of grace; we are completely and utterly dependent upon God and each other.’ Theologian Norman Wirzba argues that both practices of fasting and feasting are at their best when they embody a ‘sacrificial sensibility.’ Jesus can move so easily from fasting to feasting because both are expressions of the same self-giving and sacrifice, both lead us to the same place of surrender and devotion.
But not so for the Pharisees. You get the distinct impression that these deeply religious blokes have a very complex relationship with food. Indeed for them both fasting and feasting have become so compromised they can no longer discern a relationship between them. Fasting has become a way of demonstrating their piety for others to see, an act of self-promotion for the religiously insecure. In the process fasting gets loaded with so many rules, codes, footnotes and sub-clauses. Like today’s supermarket shoppers who stand for hours in the isles reading the fine print on every tin and packet, any residual joy in the practice goes down the toilet. Rather than an act of surrender, fasting is an act of anxiety. So too with feasting; what was meant to be an act of community celebration and mutual self-giving becomes one of exclusion and self-protection. The dinner table for the Pharisee has become a closely guarded place to keep the religiously impure at a distance. It’s why they are so deeply offended by Jesus’ willingness to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes. Because for them feasting is now the primary means of separation and self-preservation.
As a young apprentice cook with a stint in a large hotel, I spent much of my brief tenure preparing feasts of various kinds; large, extravagant feasts for large, extravagant people. In the hotel’s Grand Ballroom our task was to impress. Glorious, illuminated ice sculptures rising dramatically from centre stage with the most opulent displays of seafood, crushed ice and cascading champagne flowing down to the buffet below. Beautiful chauffuard meats, rich desserts, intricate chocolate lace work, decadent creams and displays of the most gorgeous seasonal fruits you can imagine. For the most part these feasts were arranged and paid for by those who wanted to impress, arriving at the venue in their stretch limousines and decked out in Chanel. There’s no doubt, feasting has a long history as an act of indulgence and ego. History is littered with those who have used the feast to claim glory, to exercise power, and to enforce elegantly veneered but brutal systems of social exclusion. When the feast is reduced to such a self-serving act of conspicuous consumption, it is nothing more than gluttony. The truth is, both feasting and fasting can lead us to heaven or pave the way to destruction. Disconnect either from the fundamental value of sacrifice and it becomes nothing more than empty show.
The second gospel reading is the very familiar story that we often call the feeding of the 5,000. Frankly, this does a serious injustice to the women and children present, likely many more thousands than the men. On the hillsides outside Bethsaida, Jesus spends the day with a great mass of people, healing the sick and teaching about the kingdom of God, both obviously spiritual activities, very Lenten really. But then, as the sun begins to set, tummies start to growl, the crowds become restless and hungry. Assuming that their spiritual work is done, the disciples are keen to announce the benediction. ‘Send them away now Jesus,’ the disciples say. But Jesus wont. There is no division for Jesus between physical need and spiritual need, no boundary between spiritual disciplines and material ones, no demarcation between the church service and lunch. Fasting and feasting are one and the same. ‘You give them something to eat!’ he says.
What follows is an extraordinary demonstration of Kingdom values, of a table that is open to all with an abundance to share and still there are leftovers. There’s no fasting here, yet as this motley crowd picnics together on the abundance of God’s provision, they are gathered up in something deeply spiritual and deeply sacrificial. No conspicuous consumption, just conspicuous grace. No self-protection or self-promotion, just this extraordinary experience of community and communal dependence upon God.
Today we have welcomed into our community a group of people committed to the feast, a group of people living here in Central House who will welcome people to the Credo table each and every day. In so doing they provide a tangible embodiment of grace to those for whom grace is rare. In order to feast with us here at Collins Street, they have had to let other possibilities and opportunities go. This feasting is a sacrificial act, not only on their part but on the part of those who come each day: surrendering and embracing; giving up and enfolding; fasting and feasting.
There is something awkward about feasting in the midst of Lent, but it’s an awkwardness I am more than happy to live with. As we take our place in Melbourne’s celebration of food and wine we do so with a distinctive voice, a sacrificial sensibility, a unique perspective on the role of food and the table in our lives. We do so holding the paradox that Jesus embodied in his journey to the cross: through fasting we feast, and through feasting we fast.