Slow Down

Rev. Marnie Rourke

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matthew 9:14-17)

Slow down, you move too fast! Earlier Jesus is criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now he is being challenged because his disciples were not fasting while the Pharisees were fasting, wanting the Messiah to come set them free right nowThe disciples weren’t fasting because their praying fingers were crossed, trusting that Jesus was the bridegroom who would soon save the world. Who knew their time for fasting would begin when the Last Supper was over? Or that it would feel like spiritual starvation standing beneath the Cross?

The crucifixion stops us dead in our tracks. Standing at the empty tomb makes us look back and wonder how everything happened so fast. When we stand at heaven’s gate looking back at our own journeys, we will see why it was that we didn’t have to move so fast. While we wait in faith, let us fast from busyness, slow down, and fast from worrying about tomorrow. Breathe. It is easier to eat less than it is to stop rushing through life. Fast, let go of the need to understand everything, and do it all. Make time to live in the moment, that the Holy Spirit may live in our hearts.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, take away our need to run too fast through life. Help us catch our breath, welcoming Christ’s peace. Remind us that Jesus has already won the race, and that we can always trust the future, because the future belongs to God. Amen. 

Essential Preparation

Rev. Karl Reko

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Of all the acts of worship we will engage in for Lent: Confession, Repentance, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Acts of Mercy, fasting is probably used less than the others. We may give up chocolate or some other treat, but few go without food for an extended period as happened in the Bible and in medieval Christianity.

Rather than for religious purposes, when we fast, entirely or in part, it’s more familiar for us to fast as a part of dieting or moderation. But the point for us Christians is that the body is as important as our inner selves in a time of sober spiritual preparation for the greatest event of all, the coming of the bridegroom in the Resurrection.

We fast or diet in order to bring our body into shape for better health.  The same is true for better spiritual health. And yet, distinguishing between bodily and spiritual health still doesn’t entirely make the point. For us Christians, both are preparations for worship and service by our entire selves. Our Creator made us unified beings and wants to welcome us into God’s presence as beloved children in our whole selves.

Jesus promises a reward from the Father for those who don’t cheapen pious acts in order to elicit admiration.  The reward is our coming into God’s presence in worship. Whatever enhances that preparation for worship and service is valuable.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, our coming bridegroom, be with us as we wait for your return in the Resurrection as the bridegroom. Help us to prepare our whole selves that we might use in this Lenten season whatever is helpful in preparation for the time when we welcome you, and the fasting will end. Amen

Fasting for What?

Rev. Troy Medlin

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4)

Hunger pangs. As someone who has never had to worry about where my next meal was going to come from or whether I could afford to go grocery shopping when my pantry is getting sparse, the hunger pangs I have experienced have been quite minimal. They have been fleeting. Still, all of us know hunger pangs. We all know what it is like to be hungry.

Fasting as a spiritual practice helps us get outside of ourselves, reminding us of our dependence on God. A reminder that we not only rely on food for our sustenance but on God who provides us our very life and each breath. Fasting frees us to turn our eyes up to God and to spend time focusing on God’s word, which feeds not only our bodies but our souls, too, strengthening us day by day. Fasting can be a refreshing reminder that we do not exist by our own efforts alone.

Fasting-induced hunger pangs for the children of God do not end there. They can also turn us in another direction: toward our neighbor. In baptism we become servants of all, especially the needy ones in our midst. If we fast, we do not fast for our own sake. Our fasting awakens us to the needs of others. We can allow those hunger pangs to draw our attention to those who lack daily bread. Our fasting can empower us to alleviate hunger here and around the world. As one prayer puts it, “May our fasting be hunger for justice.”

Prayer: Living bread, may the hunger pangs of our fasting awaken us to those around us, so that we might desire the food of justice until all have daily sustenance. Amen 

What Matters?

Rev. Dean Lueking

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? 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? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  (Isaiah 58:4-9)

Surgeons who perform intricate operations often go nonstop for hours without eating. We don’t think of them as fasting while they go about their crucial work. Of course not; they’re intent on saving lives. Food comes later. 

In these pandemic-burdened days one thinks as well of nurses, retirement home care staff, faithful family members and all who work overtime in caring for others. They’re not fasting. They’re doing what is called for. 

Fasting in the sense of making points with God has been rightly denounced in our Lutheran tradition. But fasting in the Isaiah 58:4-8 sense (“loosing the bonds of injustice, sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless poor”) is exactly what is needed here and everywhere. 

Prayer: Blessed Lord, teach us to fast from the sin of self-indulgence so that we may feast upon your grace and not grow weary in well-doing.  Amen

A Loving Act

Rev. Frank C. Senn

But as for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting. I prayed with head bowed on my bosom. (Psalm 35:13)

The psalmist compares his support for others who are afflicted with sickness with the glee his adversaries have over his distress. What is noteworthy is that the psalmist is not fasting for himself but for others. He shares in their afflictions. A contemporary parallel might be friends of a cancer patient who shave their own heads as a sign of solidarity. Fasting for causes, such as world hunger, would be another contemporary parallel. In the ancient church Christians fasted along with those who were preparing for Holy Baptism, showing their support for the candidates. That, in fact, is the origin of this forty day “fasting time” we call Lent. For Christians fasting is not about self-improvement, but expressing devotion to God. We see the psalmist humbling himself before God. We see Jesus in the wilderness clarifying his mission through fasting (Matthew 4:1—11). We discover the meanings of fasting for ourselves when we observe Jesus’s injunction, “Whenever you fast, do not look dismal …” (Matthew 6:16).

Prayer: Lord God, help us by your Holy Spirit to use this time of fasting to show our love for you and our neighbors. Open us by your Holy Spirit to follow Jesus in his forty days of fasting in the wilderness that we may serve you more faithfully; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

A Purposeful Hunger

This week we explore the discipline of Fasting. Fasting is not a discipline Lutherans have often emphasized, although Luther did recognize its value, cautioning that “one should not fast with a view to meriting something by it as by a good work.” He also said, “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good.” Fasting gives us more time for prayer and might even give us the opportunity to donate the cost of the meal we are missing to those less fortunate

Rev. Bruce Modahl

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. (Ezra 8:21-23)

Ezra negotiated with good king Artaxerxes for the return to Jerusalem of another band of exiles. Ezra decided not to include a military escort in his request. Instead, Ezra took his bargaining straight to God. Ezra offered fasting and petitions in return for God’s protection.

Perhaps what Ezra offered up was not as transactional as it sounds. Jesus tells us to petition God in the prayer he taught us. In his Small Catechism Luther explains that when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking for everything we need to live including food, clothing, homes, good government, and good neighbors.

We often fast from something during Lent. Instead of one thing for the Lenten season, let us, health permitting, try fasting from all food for one day. Throughout the day, let us repeat, “Give us this day our daily bread.” The hunger pangs that develop during the day will quickly focus us on our need. The petition we repeat reminds us upon whom we depend to satisfy all our needs.

The hunger and the petition remind us that we too are exiles on a homeward journey. Jesus has gone before us to prepare a place for us. And along the way Jesus prepares a place for us in the Eucharistic community where we petition God and find food, rest, and strength to continue the journey.

Prayer: Our Father in heaven, give us today our daily bread. Protect us along our way. We give you thanks for making a place for us in your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

An “always” activity

Brian Becker

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-16)

Many connect the 40-days of Lent with giving something up. This entire last year feels like we’ve been giving things up, but not by choice. Connections with family and friends, lost jobs, lost connections with colleagues, birthdays, and holidays have greatly disrupted our lives. Many tragically lost lives. I’ve grieved over many of these losses; not the least is the loss of worship with the Grace community.

According to early New Testament verses we’re told that James, Jesus’ brother, actually doubted that Jesus was the Christ, but something obviously changed, as he now boldly gives us two pieces of advice.

First, regardless of our station in life (suffering, cheerful, sick), he directs us to pray. Second, we are to confess our sins to one another, and in our confession, by God’s might and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made righteous. James ends by assuring us that our prayers are powerful and effective.

So let us confess our sins, and pray with assurance that we are righteous in God’s sight. Be confident that by God’s gift of life and forgiveness our prayers will be heard and answered. There is hope and reason to believe that my grieving will be turned to joy this Easter.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, come to us in the places where we are, whether suffering, cheerful or sick. Sustain us. Encourage us. Embolden us to pray, as we wait expectantly for your resurrection. Savior of the Nations … come. Amen and Amen.

Everything

Rev. Robert Shaner

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:4-7)

“For health and strength, and daily bread, we praise your name, O Lord.” AND, for what else should we pray? St. Paul writes, “in EVERYTHING.” In our liturgy we pray for the world, the church, and our neighbors—first responders, schools and students, un/under-employed, nations and governments, equality and justice, refugees and our sisters/brothers who are homeless, for penal reform, the arts and sciences, “end of life” concerns….Yes, as St. Paul admonishes the Philippians, “IN EVERYTHING by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God.” Even in pandemics, in death, in the 17th century when the plague left his community with over 50,000 funerals in one year, including the death of his family, Martin Rinkart composed a hymn: “Now thank we all our God with, hearts, and hands, and voices.” In the midst of tremendous loss and grief came the note of thanksgiving.

Fast forward to three years ago:  While within ten minutes of being discharged from the hospital, 97-year-old Victor Brandt (retired pastor, former Grace Visitation Pastor and former bishop of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, a predecessor of the ELCA) was informed of his beloved wife Irene’s death. From his bed and from memory he prayed all three stanzas of Rinkart’s hymn. Then released from the hospital and within the hour, taken to be with her in her room, he continued his thanksgiving, summing up their 67 years of marriage with three powerful statements from his heart:

        “Irene, you are beautiful. Thank you for our partnership in ministry. I love you!“

Scripture, hymnists, and beloved saints teach and inspire us to pray and offer our supplications for EVERYTHING, in all seasons of life with THANKS.

Prayer: For health and strength, and daily bread, for our loved ones, our neighbors, the lonely and estranged, those suffering and mistreated, for refugees and homeless persons, orphans, widows and widowers, for the cross of Christ, for victory in life and in death, we praise your name, O Lord.  Into your hands we commend our spirits.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Praying what matters

Dr. Stephen Ray
President, Chicago Theological Seminary

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8:26-27

In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman reflects upon the times of Jesus and Paul, focusing on what it meant that they were Jews in a time of Roman occupation of Israel. He noted how each came to their end at the hand of the same authority, yet with starkly different regard for the value of their lives. Paul came to his death after a trial in Rome and not as just another Jew on the side of the road. Thurman recalls this to remind us that while there is an equality to death, the inequalities of life persist. In our own survival or loss we can forget the inequity of all and too easily those who have borne its weight.

This Lenten season we come having journeyed through a valley of suffering and death. Many of us have lost friends, family . . . neighbors to Covid-19. At this moment, we could easily thank God for our survival and that of those whom we love. It is in this ease that we need the Spirit to shape our hearts and our prayers with compassion for those who because of zip code, lack of access to health care, or care-less civil authority have perished; and compassion for the web of shattered lives they leave behind. Let whatever gratitude we have be guided by the Spirit, so that our prayers give honor to these lives as we give thanks to God for lives that may yet shape a new world.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, we offer thanks for the lives of the many gone too soon. We beseech you, that the Spirit would touch our hearts so that our lives will show a gratitude that demonstrates that these lives mattered. Amen.

The Little and the Big

Christine Ebert Nelson

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11: 9-13)

Prayer. 

A hard thing, prayer. 

In this season of reflection and contemplation that is Lent, I have been tasked to comment on prayer. Luke 11 is about prayer. First, Jesus teaches us his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. It hits all the bases, and each time we recite it we connect to God and each other pray-er in a deep way that is both current and timeless. 

Then, Jesus writes about persistence in prayer. 

Next, we come to the passage for today. Fish, snakes, eggs, and scorpions. Once again, Jesus brings a human explanation to a very big concept. After all, talking to the Divine is big deal.  Especially during Lent, when we address our own frailty, our status as both saint and sinner. We may feel shy, inadequate, unworthy to approach God with our meager praises and concerns that we perceive are small in God’s eyes. Yet Jesus teaches us again not of the littleness of ourselves, but the greatness of God’s self.  We see the basket of snakes and scorpions and not the huge walk-in coolers of fish and eggs. 

So, for today, think big. As we reflect on our small selves this Lenten season, reflect also on God’s great love. And ask for the big things. 

Prayer: Dear God, as we travel our Lenten journeys, we thank you for the reminder that you wish all good things for us.  Help us to pray with confidence and grow in faith through this season and all the seasons to come. Amen.