Up until about 100 years ago, fasting and abstinence were a part of the Christian Spiritual Tradition. At several points in the history of our country, the President has called for days of fasting and abstinence, usually during some time of calamity like President Lincoln’s proclamation of March 30, 1863. Fasting and abstinence are still a part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions, although they are not as widely practiced as they used to be.
As many of you know, I was ordained in the Romanian Orthodox tradition. Part of that tradition was strict fast days on Wednesdays and Fridays through the year and the 40 days leading up to Christmas and Easter. No meat or dairy products were consumed during these days, which worked out to be more than half the year.
Fasting and abstinence are spiritual disciplines that come after years of practice and failing. I recall the usual speech I would give at the start of one of these significant fast periods. I would say to those in the congregation assembled before me, “if you emerge from the fast the same rotten person you were when you went in, it did not work.” Now part of this was tongue in cheek, but part of it was not.
The ancients believed if we could control what went into the body, we could control what came out. Oh, it is also a healthy lifestyle.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, Jesus uses the Jewish dietary laws as a backdrop for much larger teaching. Jesus says in verse 11, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
It’s not what goes in, but what comes out.
In the last few years, it has become customary to say whatever we want, and then, when called on, it either says, “that’s not what I meant” or if it was really bad, “I’m sorry.” This has been exacerbated by those hiding behind their computers and post and making comments on the various social media platforms. These “cowards,” and I call them cowards because they would not dare say what they type in person, have only added to the break down in the social fabric of our day.
People have always been passionate about the causes they believe in. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a fiery abolitionist speech in the United States Senate. This was during the time that slavery in the border states was being discussed. Sumner challenged some of his fellow Senators during his two-hour speech. Sumner ridiculed Senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler during his speech much to the displeasure of Representative Preston Brooks, the first cousin of Butler. Two days after the address, Butler entered the Senate Chamber while Sumner was sitting at his desk and started to hit Sumner with his cane until he was unconscious. Sumner survived the attack, but it illustrates to what extent people will go when they are passionate about their cause. As an aside, Brooks waited until the Senate Gallery was empty, so there would be no ladies present to witness the attack.
Words can enrage, words can hurt, words can show love, and words can bring comfort. It is not what goes into someone’s mouth the defiles them, but what comes out of it.
It seems these days we can say or “tweet” whatever we want, factual or not, and when called on it, we just say, “oh, I’m sorry” and just walk away. But what harm has those words we spoke, or typed, tweeted done? What do these words say about us as Christians, or those professing to be Christians? Words have power, a lot of power if they didn’t words like “Black lives matter” would not stir people, and many of them Christian to rage.
There was a time in my memory when issues could be debated on the issues without bringing the character of the person discussing into the debate. There have been some great debates over profoundly serious issues without calling people names, bringing up their past, and all the rest. Calling someone “crooked” or “sleepy” just because you disagree with them does not raise the level of debate it lowers it, and you.
IN one of the churches I led, there were serious questions about the future of that congregation and whether they should sell the property and merge with another church. The debate got heated and downright nasty. Yes, personalities became involved, and insults were thrown back and forth. But at the end of the day, when the debate was concluded, everyone shook hands, apologized, really apologized, not some halfhearted apology because they were called out on their behavior, and everyone departed as friends. This is the way it’s supposed to happen.
But what is really going on in this scripture passage is Jesus taking another swipe at the religious leaders of his day. In some churches, even today, people are more hung up on the rules, then they are on the people that these rules affect. In my example of the fasting regulations, people were more concerned about what they ate and when they ate it, and what someone else ate and when they ate it then they were about working on their spirituality through the process of fasting. They missed the entire point of fasting.
In far too man churches today we have way too many rules about who is and who is not a Christian. Churches have rules to exclude people because they are divorced, remarried, married to a person of the same gender, are the wrong color, do not have enough money, have too much money (that one I don’t understand especially since we are talking about starting a stewardship campaign soon) and all the rest. I know of churches that look down on people who do not dress right, come from the wrong part of town; somehow, humans have got it into their heads that we are the ones who decide who God loves and who God does not love.
Several years ago, a poll was conducted by a church group. A series of questions was asked to try to determine why so few people attend church these days. The survey uncovered that by and large more people knew what the church was against and not what the church stood for, and unfortunately, all churches get painted with the same brush. Churches are not empty because of secular reasons like sports on Sunday; churches are empty because churches have forgotten how to love and care for people.
The second part of this Scripture illustrates this point to some degree. A Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus basically tells her to go away because she is not Jewish. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,” Jesus responds. He tells her he cannot help her because she is from the wrong side of the tracks. He calls her a dog and says that his work is only for those who look and act a certain way.
Then the woman makes a bold move and calls Jesus out on his behavior and uses his own words, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Keep in mind the two cultural things going on here, she is a woman, and she is from the wrong side of town. She has asked something of Jesus, and she is calling him on his behavior.
Jesus is putting tradition and the rules before people, Jesus is hiding behind the rules rather than granting this woman’s request. Now, Jesus is doing this to illustrate a point, and I firmly believe that he intended to heal the woman’s daughter all along, but he is showing that we cannot put the rules, no matter how important before helping people.
I am often asked what brought me to the United Church of Christ? There are many reasons, but one of the chief reasons was communion, not the theology per se but the fact that in the United Church of Christ, everyone is welcome to the Table of the Lord’s Supper, and no one is excluded. We say, “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Come all you who labor and find rest.
God sent his only son not to create an institution of rules, regulations, and traditions. God sent Jesus to show us the way to love everyone, including our enemies, and to care for one another. At the center of the Gospel is love, everything Jesus said and did was out of love, we should follow that example as the church and as people who say we follow him.