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Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Holding It All Together

In our vulnerability, we meet God in Christ who weeps, isn't above our grief, but carries it through the cross, redeeming us. Like a Mother Hen, God gathers us beneath her wings with steadfast love.
Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life // Fasting from Holding It All Together

Sermon Delivered at The Local Church
March 17, 2024 • Lent 5
Scripture: Luke 13:31–35; 19:41–44

Is anybody else a fan of Saturday Night Live? Since I have to wake up early on Sunday mornings, it's hard to stay up on Saturdays to watch it live. So, for years, I have instead caught up with it on Sunday afternoons when I get home and crash from the long morning at church. It's one of my Sunday rituals. One of my bucket list items is to get there to see SNL live in person, so if anybody has a hook-up, you let me know.

And, at least for me, there are so many classic sketches: Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek sparring with Sean Connery; Christopher Walken asking for more cowbell; The Lonely Island and Michael Bolton singing their ode to Captain Jack Sparrow. You're probably thinking of some, too: John Mulaney's Diner Lobster from a few years ago—instant classic; Kenan Thompson any time he plays Steve Harvey; the absurdity of Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins. I could go on…

But my absolute favorite moments are the ones where the characters crack. For example, when they're in the middle of a sketch, and they're trying so hard to keep a straight face, trying not to laugh, their faces contorting, their thoughts going to sad places — anything they can do not to break. I am sure that being in front of a live audience doesn't help. I can't help but think about Lindsay Lohan's Debbie Downer sketch from when she hosted. And just a few months ago, Pedro Pascal, the Mandalorian, couldn't keep it together. It brought me so much joy.

My sense is that we, as the audience, love these moments because they remind us that they're human, too. Try as they might to hold it in, to hold it together, a sort of authenticity is revealed in their breaking character. These are professional comedians, entertainers, and athletes who we "regular people" hold in high regard, and yet, when they crack, it sort of brings them back down to earth in a way, you know?

And I begin here this morning, because I want us to think about this idea of cracking. Of letting ourselves break a little bit. More soon.

We're in the final stretch of the season of Lent now, week five of six. As we've shared each week, Lent is the forty-day season that leads to the heartbreak and hope of Holy Week and Easter. It is a season of preparation, of spring cleaning, of making ourselves ready for the joy, hope, and promise of new life that resurrection brings.

For Lent, we've been working through a series on fasting called Fast: Practices for a Slow Lent and a Spacious Life. And at its core, this is a series on fasting. Just as Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, so are we invited to fast in this season as we continue on the way of Jesus. But the fasts we've explored for the past few weeks aren't traditional. They're not physical fasts. But they're necessary fasts that open us to embrace the life God has for us — the life that really is life — such that we'll be ready to receive the gift of resurrection in just two short weeks.

Together, we've fasted from consumption, multitasking, scarcity anxiety, and, last week, planning and deadlines. You all loved that one.

And here's this week's fast: Fasting from Holding It All Together.

This morning, Erin offered two passages of scripture — variations on a theme. The first one she read is from Jesus's journey to Jerusalem. For the last few weeks, we've shared stories from Jesus's journey as described in Luke. And if you remember, Jesus is traveling with a large crowd. Along the way, different people ask him questions or come to him with issues, as was the case two weeks ago. Last week, some came to him with tragic news. It's what happens when you've got a crowd with you. You're going to be interrupted a lot.

This week, it's the Pharisees — religious leaders and experts in Jewish law. They've come to Jesus with a warning about how Herod wants to kill him. We'll hear more from Herod over the next few weeks, but what you need to know is that Herod is Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. This is not the Herod who ordered the massacre of the baby boys under two after Jesus's birth. That was his father, Herod the Great. But the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. It was Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist beheaded. And it's Herod Antipas who, according to these Pharisees, wants the same fate for Jesus. Many scholars believe that, while the Pharisees often get a bad rap in the gospels, they have good intentions here — trying to spare Jesus's life.

But that's when Jesus sends a message back. Here's what he says:

He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:32–33)

When Jesus calls Herod a fox, he's not only calling him clever and destructive, as foxes are known to be, but also setting up a later juxtaposition that we'll get to in a bit. You'll see it shortly. But here, there's also some foreshadowing of what's to come. Jesus is essentially saying, "I have work yet to do. I have a mission to accomplish." In other words, Jesus knows how it all ends. We do, too. He knows the journey to Jerusalem culminates in his death. And he knows that Jerusalem — the center of the Jewish faith and culture and religious life, the temple's location — is also the place where so many who've come before him, prophets and others sent — have found their end. It's been a place of rejection. A place of missed opportunities to experience the goodness of God. A place of resistance to redemption.

And, spoiler alert, Jesus knows the same will be true again. And so he laments for them. This is next:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathered her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34)

You can hear the longing. You can hear the angst in these words. How often have I longed to gather you, protect you, and shield you like a mother hen — don't miss that juxtaposition — yet…

Camber read from chapter 19, too. We'll hear this portion again next Sunday on Palm Sunday. Here, Jesus is now in his final approach to Jerusalem. The palms have been laid. The Hosannas have been sung. And the city comes into view for Jesus. This city he has prayed for. This city where he knows his earthly ministry finds its final days. And when he considers all of this — all that he's holding — the longing for those he loves to taste salvation, the heartache of those who will turn, the fear, perhaps, of all that is to come, the lump in his throat grows larger. The tears well up. And then they fall. Here's verse 41.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it… (Luke 19:41)

Jesus… weeps. The Messiah, the Son of God, the Anointed One… weeps. He breaks.

There's something jarring about seeing somebody cry, isn't there? I think about my own parents, my partner, those I'm closest to… it doesn't take too many fingers to count how many times I've seen them cry. I wonder if that's true for you, too.

And now, I know this isn't true for everyone. Some of us may be self-avowed criers. Maybe all you have to do is turn on an episode of This is Us or watch the first few minutes of Up, and it's all over. Here come the waterworks. For me, it was the Parks and Rec finale.

But for others of us, life has taught us to develop a tough outer shell. We've been conditioned to stoicism. We're often rewarded for our ability to pull ourselves together, put on that brave face, and power through. To do otherwise would be perceived as a weakness because vulnerability can be taken advantage of. Strength is power. There's a case to be made, I think, that toxic masculinity is to blame. Not only that, but sometimes, we fear that if we're vulnerable, if we say how we're feeling or what we need, or if we wear our hearts on our sleeves, we might be abandoned. We might be left behind.

And so, quite often, what we do instead is bottle it up. We suppress our feelings. We build higher walls in the name of strength. Christine Valters Painter calls it the "seductiveness of strength." We try to hold all the things inside. All the schedules we have to balance. All the relationships we have to manage. All the Instagram posts that poke at our insecurities. All the worries and fears that keep us up at night. All the harm that ferments without an opportunity for reconciliation. And that's to say nothing of the meetings to attend, the doctor's appointments to schedule around, soccer practice, food on the table, the forms to be signed, bills to pay, calls to your family members that you've been putting off, assignments to turn in, and the oil change that needed to happen months ago — all while trying to keep those intrusive inner thoughts at bay, or the unwelcome grief — or perhaps because of it. Lord, have mercy. It's so much.

We hold it all together, and it's just so much. But fortify those defenses. Pretend everything's okay. Keep it together—power through. Keep going, right?

But there's a tradition in the church's history — around the third and fourth centuries — of followers of Jesus retreating to the desert for a life of asceticism or monasticism, seeking a deeper, richer presence with God through prayer, fasting, and solitude. These Christians became known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and their writings are rich in wisdom and spiritual depth. Out of that tradition came the idea that tears were considered to be a gift. "The gift of tears," it's sometimes called.

Not to be stifled. Not to be held back, our faces contorting and noses twitching to keep them in. Instead, when the tears flow, it reveals a softening of the heart. It's that crack in the tough outer shell. The break that reveals our humanity. A portal to the holy. It's the path to surrender. A recognition that everything's not okay, and that's okay. That we can't do it all. That we can't hold it all. It's an invitation to feel our broken hearts — because a heart that is broken is a heart that is open.

The tears we shed, whether because of heartache for the world, the long shadow of grief, a sense of overwhelm, or whatever else, are a form of prayer. The tears are a recognition that we're alive and an honest confession that we could use some help.

And when we think about the scripture passages today, we could say more about why Herod wants Jesus dead. We could talk about Jerusalem's lack of faith. We could describe how their own hardened hearts have led to their isolation, hemmed in by the enemies. (Or maybe we are talking about that…)

But what I don't want us to miss this morning is that we follow a God who weeps. Some might say it's weak. It's not. It's real strength. We follow a God who lets his heart break. And we don't just see it in these stories that Erin read. We see it when Jesus cries outside of the tomb of his friend Lazarus in John's gospel. We see it when, from the cross, he laments loudly, echoing Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We follow a God who weeps. So, to follow the way of Jesus, we must allow ourselves this same grace — the grace to be vulnerable. To not be okay. To feel what we need to feel.

After all, to quote Leonard Cohen, it's those cracks that let the light in.

The light looks like words to me from a pastor friend a few years ago. It was in the early days of the pandemic, and we were on the phone. I didn't cry, but I was clearly overwhelmed, and he was such a gracious listener. But I put it all out there for him, and at the end of our call, he said, "Brent, can I pray for you?" And I don't remember much about the prayer, but I do remember that repeatedly, he just kept lifting up my longings and anxieties one after another and then saying, "You do it, God. You do it." One by one, he was taking my needs, my burdens, and my heartaches off of my shoulders and placing them where they belonged — at the feet of Jesus. "You do it, God." It has become a go-to prayer for me. A recognition that I can't do it all on my own. That I don't have to hold it all together. "You do it, God."

The acclaimed writer Anne Lamott tells a similar story in her beautiful book Help, Thanks, Wow. She says that for the last twenty-five years, she's always had what she calls her "God Box." Any box will do, she says — and she's used them all: a pill box, a glove compartment, decorative boxes given to her by her friends. Here's what she does with them:

“On a note, I write down the name of the person about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. You might have a brief moment of prayer, and it might come out sounding like this: ‘Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.’ Then I agree to keep my sticky mitts off the spaceship until I hear back.”

I love that. What needs to go in your God box?

Maybe it's a relationship that needs healing.
Maybe it's a secret you've been carrying.
Perhaps it's stuff in your family.
Perhaps you're afraid of the future.
Maybe it's a feeling of hopelessness, or perhaps you're wondering what you're doing with your life.
Maybe you're at your breaking point.
Maybe you're just sick and tired of being sick and tired.

You don't have to hold it all by yourself. Drop it in the box.

When we fast from holding it all together, when we crack and embrace our humanity with vulnerability, we create space in our lives for God to get in and get to work. The light of Christ fills those cracks—sometimes in the form of friends with well-timed texts, sometimes in an act of mercy that restores your faith in humanity, sometimes in a peace that surpasses all understanding.

"Christ: The Mother Hen" by Kelly Latimore

When we fast from holding it all together, when we crack and embrace our humanity with vulnerability, we encounter the God in Christ who weeps when we weep. We encounter the God in Christ who isn't above our grief but is in it with us and carries it to and through the cross, redeeming it, redeeming us. We encounter the God in Christ who, like a Mother Hen, gathers us beneath her wings, whose steadfast love endures forever. A God in Christ who, as St. Patrick's prayer reminds us, is with us, before us, behind us, in us, beneath us, above us...

So you do it, God. Amen.