Wednesday, March 8, 2017

EAT well this lent

Lent is a time when we follow a 40 day or 50 day fast or diet restriction depending on the denomination we belong to. For some, lent is a time of renunciation, for others it is reflection and for some it is a reminder. Not everyone fasts and not everyone has a diet control or goes vegetarian, but everyone observes lent. It is a mind to offer ourselves as help to someone, to lend something we have to someone or just trying to relate with who we are and what we are doing. Whatever it is, we are all part of lent. 

Prior to the council of Nicea in the fourth century, it is not sure how lent was observed and whether there was such a lent as we follow now. Some even go on to say that lent was a forty hour fast! But with the inception of an official state backed Christianity, lent became part of the spiritual life of Christians. First as a preparation for baptism and then as a reminder of Christ Jesus’ 40 day fast. The fashion of the lent has also undergone change with time. People fasted completely, they gave up all forms of meat and meat products and sometimes fish too and now people in the West give up chocolate, sugar, carbonated drinks and do a carbon fast during lent. One cannot make a direct connection between a carbon fast during lent and Indian culture. But it is something which is becoming more popular now.

The Catholic Church and the CSI church and before that other churches as well have started giving calls for a green lent or carbon fasting. This is new and different . Nevertheless this is now catching on as one way of undergoing lent. The colour green also reminds us of nature and our connection with the soil. The spring time associated with lent is a season of green when the fallen leaves sprout again. But are we and the people in the church on the same boat when it comes to lent and a green lent with carbon fasting? Einstein was once travelling by train. The ticket collector came and asked him for his ticket and then said “I know you will have it with you.” Einstein nodded his head. The ticket collector came again and Einstein was checking his pockets. The ticket collector said “You are Einstein. You will definitely have the ticket with you. I know for sure.” Einstein nodded his head again. Then the ticket collector went to the next bogie and returned and faced Einstein again. This time Einstein was on his knees and was checking something under his seat. The ticket collector said “You are Einstein. I am sure you will have the ticket with you.” Einstein replied. “I know I am Einstein and that I bought a ticket. But I am trying to find the ticket so that I know where to get down!” Lent in church sometimes becomes like this. We are the ticket collectors and the congregation is in the role of Einstein.

But what should lent or a green lent be for us? We are trying to figure out where we are going and for that understanding a green lent or a carbon fast is helpful. A carbon fast for us is giving up cars and motor bikes and using public transport and cycling and walking to work and other places. This gives us a sense of triumphalism and happiness and we put ourselves on a pedestal saying lent has made us holy. But has it?

What should we do about it and how should we fast/lent and even undertake a green lent? We must look at the 40 day fast of Jesus and figure that out. What if I told you that Jesus tells us to EAT WELL during lent? You will stare at me and say “Why didn’t you say this earlier. We are already ten days into the lent. And you are saying this now?” What I mean by EAT WELL is
E- End
A- All
T- Tyranny
W- Willingly
E- Elect      to
L- Live a life of
L- Love

Let us look at the passage for our meditation. In St. Matthew 4:1-10 Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights. This is when the devil comes to tempt him. It is like that in our lives too. Whenever we do good things we immediately feel more tempted.  The tempter has 3 questions for Jesus. All the questions are with ifs, similar to what happened to Jesus on the cross when those who plotted against him said “If you are the son of God, come down from the cross.” Jesus has to prove something and the person asking him to prove it positions himself as the one who has all the answers. I would like to talk about three things which will help us to EAT WELL.

1. Lent as eating late and eating after everyone else eats.
If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread said the devil to Jesus. Jesus replies “One does not live by bread alone. But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  A green lent is a time when we can look for alternatives so that everyone in this earth can eat food equally. It is not to hoard food and make money out of it and become the king of food but to make food count. The most important of Jesus’ miracles was thus the feeding of the multitude. According to latest FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimates in ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2015” report, 194.6 million people are undernourished in India. By this measure India is home to a quarter of the undernourished population in the world. Also 51% of women between 15 to 59 years of age are anaemic and 44% of children under 5 are underweight. On the other hand, it is estimated that nearly 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables, and 20 percent of the food grains that are produced are lost due to inefficient supply chain management and do not reach the consumer markets.

Lent for us  wrongly becomes a time to prove something. It is like going to a gym and comparing muscles. Who has more? You or me? The one with more, wins the show of muscles. It is sad that we have come to become a culture which compares one with the other. Whose lent is better?, whose fasting is better? We are trying to make the stones into bread so that we can win over Jesus. But we must rather concentrate on the hungry and the malnourished in our country and region. The devil taunts Jesus to make the stones into bread. But Jesus refuses to do so. We are also fasting and lenting so that we get something. Our fasts and lents should lead to food for all. A green fast in this sense is sharing an abundance and shortage of food or more so creating an abundance in an otherwise selfish world.

Perhaps we have to look at our churches and seminaries too. We have the infrastructure and the human resource. But we don’t seem to have the will to help the hungry. By forgoing a few things we can make money and resources for others. Jesus did not hallucinate after 40 days of fasting, rather he became stronger and gave a pointed answer to the devil. In churches we are comfortable with giving food to an orphanage but will never invite the orphanage to church!!

A Baptist moved into a neighborhood largely populated by Catholic families. While on the whole, they got along well, one habit he had was to fire up the grill on Fridays and cook steaks. After several weeks of enduring this torture, the Catholic men got together and decided the only way to end this problem was to convert the offending neighbor. So, they did. At the following Easter Vigil, he was accepted into the Church. The Catholics breathed a sigh of relief as he was baptized "You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist, but now you are a Catholic." Fast forward to the following Lent. The message apparently didn't get through, because the new convert fired up his grill and cooked steaks on Friday anyway! The indignant Catholic men rushed over to see what was happening, and they found him pouring water over the meat and chanting, "You were born a buffalo, you were raised a buffalo, but now, you are a fish!" Our fasting should not be to prove something and to make people do what we are doing but to give food to the poor. We are all out to make our church members adhere to one form of fasting but it is not the fasting Jesus did because fasting rather than making him weak, made him stronger.

2. Lent as getting done the possible rather than going behind the impossible.
The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down so that the angels will come and save him. Jesus replies that you should not put the Lord your God to test. Our lent has become a point of showing our spiritual strength and what we have gained through it whereas Jesus always saw his fast as a preparation to lose something.

The devil knew of the powers of Jesus but Jesus was not there to show off his powers. He had nothing to prove but to feed the hungry and fight those who were keeping the poor hungry. His fight against the state was because of the injustice unleased by the state and religious authorities on the poor. It is only in watching how Jesus lived that we get a sense of what living by the word of God meant for him. His teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount) and his actions disclose his own understanding of that word, what it was calling him to be and do. The kingdom mission constituted a way of healing, of solidarity with the poor, of challenging the oppressive and unjust structures of social control operating in his day, of opposing social and religious conventions that generated exclusion of the weak and the outcast. In the end, this way would lead to the cross, that means of state execution for those deemed a threat to the status quo of political and economic power.

So the test in the wilderness invites Jesus, ever so reasonably, to actualize his power in the service of comfortable self -preservation, and to accept that invitation would inevitably lead him away from the cross. If Jesus, alone in the desert, employed his power to ensure his own personal well-being and personal comfort, if he made use of his privilege and status for the sake of meeting his own needs and wants above all else, then the way to the cross would have been short-circuited.

But we have already seen in Matthew’s account what political power under allegiance to the evil one looks like: Herod the Great orders the slaughter of children as a way of protecting his power from possible threat. And the brutality of the Roman empire, with its use of military violence, mass enslavement, economic exploitation, rampant corruption, etc. was well known. Control of the empire and enjoyment of its wealth would inevitably require the ruthless use of violence, deceit and abusive power. Jesus forgoes this when he negates the question of the devil.

According to an OXFAM report, 1 % of the richest in India own 58% of the wealth. There are 84 billionaires in India with a combined wealth of 284 billion dollars. In India, women form 60 per cent of the lowest paid wage labour, but only 15 per cent of the highest wage-earners. It means that in India women are not only poorly represented in the top bracket of wage-earners, but also experience wide gender pay gap at the bottom.

For Jesus a fast or a lent means questioning this widening disparity so a fast rather than weakening us must strengthen us to the core. The real measure of our wealth is how much we are worth when we lose everything. A lent and a green lent teaches us to lose so that we can see what we are worth. This is what Jesus did. He gave up everything by his fast. Jesus’ work starts after his fast. But for us, we are tired and famished after the fast. This is where a green fast helps. It is not going behind the impossible but very much the possible. We are fixated on what kind of food we can eat and can’t eat. That becomes a problem for us. So most of the time church members see each other in a restaurant, they look at each others plate and not face! Jesus fought injustice up till the cross but he was practical about it. The devil wanted him to bring his Godly powers to test. We should also observe lent to be practical like Jesus and help others. We should not follow the devil and his quest for immortality.

3. Lent is joining God’s kingdom and saying no to other kingdoms.
A green lent is a reminder that we can pull it back. There are several people in church who want to live a life which is worthy of their calling. But they have too many EMI’s to pay. The priest wants to live a life true to his or her calling but there are too many leaders to obey. The churches want to live a life which is true to their calling but there are too many offering bowls to take care of. The tempter is at work through our lent and a green lent is an opportunity to say no like Jesus. We are saying no to bigger vehicles, trying to save fuel by driving differently and walking and cycling to show that we can live a different life for the benefit of others. We are also eating less and moderately so that others get to eat. Jesus says no to the devil and his offer of endless splendor. Instead Jesus declares his faith and says “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” The fast strengthens him to say no to all other norms and to focus on God.

We are tempted by endless things these days. In our church, young priests have their eyes set on a two wheeler, followed by a four wheeler, followed by a house and then jewellery and other things. We preach poverty but live in luxury. This is because we have ignored God and God’s kingdom and are holding on to other kingdoms. A priest who is rich is also seen as blessed by God. My mother always tells me “That priest built a house, this priest bought a car, the other priest got so much dowry. Didn’t you teach most of them?  Here we have a priest. He talks about the poor and feeding the poor. What will you live from?” I reply “I don’t know. I guess God has it figured out because honestly I haven’t.”

A green lent is an opportunity to say “I can manage because God is with me.” I can manage because God’s love is with me. End All Tyranny and Willingly Elect to Live a life of Love means that we must put a stop to all injustice in the world. But for that we must stop doing injustice ourselves. The Lenten season is not just a time to preach to others but to preach and reform ourselves.  Jesus sees everything and then says no. There are a lot of people in India working for free for the sake of those who do not have. We can try in our own creative ways to be available for others. All of us cannot be on the streets. But we can look at how we can help. The scope of a green lent is to not just reduce our carbon foot print but to see how we in small ways can be who Jesus was. It is not to be holier than others but to reach out to others and work for God’s kingdom. So, eat well. End all Tyranny and Willingly Elect to Live a life of Love. Lent is eating late and eating after everyone else eats, lent is doing the possible rather than going behind the impossible and lent is joining God’s kingdom and saying no to other kingdoms.

(Preached tonight for the evening Lenten meditation in the UTC chapel, Bengaluru.)

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