On Ash Wednesday (March 6th), many of us will preach about the importance of Lenten disciplines in order to observe a “holy Lent.”
The RCL Gospel reading is Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, in which Jesus instructs his listeners on how they are to practice their piety when they give alms, when they pray, and when they fast.
There’s no question in Jesus’ mind about whether to practice piety, only how.
Of the lenten disciplines, fasting has become ubiquitous. People frequently give up chocolate or caffeine or other indulgences. At times, fasting at lent can seem rote or compulsory or just a convenient way to drop a few pounds.
But Jesus has bigger plans for our lives than watching the scale drop.
Life abundant is available when we’re able to receive it.
Below, I offer ideas for a 6-week lenten sermon series for your use. But before you dive into its structure and content, let’s take a moment to consider why we fast.
Fasting As A Tool for Detachment
It intrigued the disciples that the Master who lived so simply would not condemn his wealthy followers.
“It is rare but not impossible for someone to be rich and holy,” he said one day.
“When money has the effect on his heart that the shadow of that bamboo has on the courtyard.”
The disciples turned to watch the bamboo’s shadow sweep the courtyard without stirring a single particle of dust.
De Mello, Anthony. One Minute Wisdom (p. 83). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The purpose of fasting is to help us detach from—or “protest”—our hearts’ misguided desire to follow false gods.
While we’re in the process of detaching from the false god, we need to substitute our habitual false “worship” with new practices that return our hearts to the one true God.
We give false gods “the silent treatment,” withholding the treasures it wants, and replace them with the treasure it needs.
Our false gods won’t withdraw quietly.
Withhold chocolate and chocolate will sound all the sweeter.
Withhold Facebook and the curiosity will become almost unbearable.
Withhold judgement and the perception of people’s misdeeds will increase exponentially.
Get through the withdrawal, however, and peace descends.
We’ll discover we’re no longer dependent on chocolate to assuage our bad mood. Instead we learn that growing closer to God through prayer, deep breathing, and journaling are far more effective on our affect.
When we quit comparing our hum-drum daily existence to our Facebook friends’ seemingly fabulous, exciting lives, we stay in the present moment, avoid comparing ourselves to others, and discover genuine gratitude for what we have. Our hearts will no longer yearn for others’ lives when we see how blessed we are to have God already in our own lives.
When we substitute judging people for wondering how they might need to be healed by God’s grace, how they might be hurting, and trusting that they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got to work with, the anger and frustration and self-righteousness in our hearts is transformed by wishing God’s blessings to rain down upon all, the righteous and the unrighteous alike—including our own.
The result of this substitution is a “take it or leave it” detachment:
we appreciate without dependence
we can be rich or poor and see the shadow move across the courtyard with the same impact on our joy, well-being, and relationship with God
we can eat chocolate or not
we can rejoice in our friends’ fabulous vacation pics on Facebook and be equally as content with our own “stay-cation”
we can can have compassion on and hope for our fellow misguided humans, and pray they will be as kind in their assessments of us.
A Lenten Preaching Series on the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting
The key to detaching our hearts from false gods is to substitute a Spirit-filled fasting practice until our hearts reattach to God. As preachers, we can lead our congregations through this process of detachment and reattachment to God.
Lent is the perfect length of time for this reorientation because it often takes about six weeks to detach from a former way of life and reorient to a new one.
Just as our hearts clue into the joy that no earthly treasure can give, it’s time to celebrate our newly resurrected life with Jesus at Easter who brings us all back from the dead!
Here’s a suggestion, then, for an RCL Lenten series on fasting: to store treasures in heaven and to prepare our hearts for Easter .
Ash Wednesday Sermon (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21): Why fast?
Introduction to the Series: Why practice fasting?
Practices of piety are means, not ends. True practices transform us for a unitive relationship with God; not to prove our worth. Use the explanation above to help people understand the purpose of fasting.
Lent 1 Sermon (Luke 4:1-13): Jesus’ Three Temptations
Fasting Theme: Fast from what?
What do we need to “protest” or mourn in our hearts? We need to mourn taking in food and other substances that do not nourish; hoarding esteem, attention, and wealth that build a false sense of safety; and power to make people do our bidding.
Spiritual Substitute: Discern and follow practices that nourish. Eat only healthy food. Only buy what you need and give away what you don’t. Pray in humility on your knees, or prostrate on the floor. And give thanks at all times; give thanks for the life you have right now.
Lent 2 Sermon (Luke 13:31-35): Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks
Fasting Theme: Let God figure out the end game.
Jesus longed to gather the Hebrews as a mother collects, fusses over, and loves her brood! Like all the rest of us, some of the Hebrews got it, and others didn’t. But that didn’t stop Jesus from taking whatever the next step in his mission, or speak the next word. The outcome was God’s business. Jesus’s business was to be faithful.
Spiritual Substitute: Give up on thinking you know what’s going to happen and complacency that anything you do won’t make a difference. Let God figure that part out and be obedient to the here and now: speak kindly, promote justice, be merciful, help the poor and outcast.
Lent 3 Sermon (Exodus 3:1-15): Moses at the burning bush
Fasting Theme: We laugh in the face of overwhelming odds! Or Fast from cynicism, helplessness, and “woe is me” thinking!
Think “it” can’t be done? Think evil cannot be overcome? Justice cannot be created? People cannot be treated with dignity? Laws cannot be rewritten for greater fairness and inclusion? History is made by “the little guys!” Moses, Samuel, Sarah, Naomi, Mary, the Samaritan Woman, Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela! And, oh, yeah, Jesus—a carpenter without any social caché, who flipped the religious hierarchy on its head and solved our pesky problem of, um, death.
Spiritual Substitute: Get to Work. Hear the whisper of despair and victimization again? Do some research on your favorite real-life hero and do one thing like he or she did. Then one more. Then one more. Rosa Parks, for instance? Don’t keep silent. Write a letter to your representative every day. Have lunch with the person at work others talk about behind their back. Take a vacation day and research the “haves” and “have-not’s” in our country. Get outraged.
Lent 4 Sermon (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32): The Prodigal Son
Fasting Theme: I don’t have to earn my salvation.
When the wayward son realizes he’s really blown it—his money, his reputation, and the relationship he most values—he makes a plan to get that relationship with his dad back: he’ll be the perfect son. He’ll apologize, abase himself and work hard by living like a day-laborer, and not cause any more trouble. However, the only part of his plan he’s able to put in motion is to start walking home. Long before he can turn up the driveway, Dad spoils everything by coming to him and flinging his arms around him. So much for our plans to make good in God’s eyes!
Spiritual Substitute: Memorize the story of the prodigal son. Feeling anxious about getting back on God’s good side? Recognize it for the lie it is; it’s the story you’re telling yourself because it’s so much easier to do than be. Doing has agency, power, control. Being is vulnerable and seems passive, but paradoxically, it’s exceptionally powerful in its capacity to receive. Read, memorize, act out, write a play, journal, draw the story of the Prodigal Son, and relax into God’s loving embrace.
Lent 5 Sermon (John 12:1-8): A woman pours costly nard lavishly on Jesus’s feet
Fasting Theme: Scarcity is a lie.
All marketing tries to do one thing: persuade you that you can’t live a fulfilled life without their product. You won’t be happy, you won’t have friends, you won’t find love, unless you buy their product. We’re bombarded constantly with not having enough, not being enough, never having enough time. Enter the woman who lavishes nard on Jesus’s feet. Her action, in spite of Judas’s consternation, effectively says, “Poppycock!” We have an over-abundance of everything we need: God’s love!
Spiritual Substitute: Gratitude! Give your time, energy, money, belongings, heart, mind, and soul lavishly to God who gave us everything to begin with! Do tearful, joyful, nonsensical, over-the-top, “What the heck is she doing?” acts of kindness, compassion, and mercy, especially on those who don’t deserve it! Don’t hold back any more your praise where it is due (even when the opposite political party does something right!), your sincere thank you phone calls (yes, phone calls, not emails, texts, or even snail-mail cards) to those who made a difference in your life, (even your second grade teacher, and if she’s dead, then track down her kids and tell them what a difference their mom made to you), or just stand in your front yard, fling your arms up to the sky, twirl around, and yell, “Thank you, God!” and don’t care who’s watching!
Palm Sunday Sermon (Philippians 2:5-11): Empty yourself
Fasting Theme: Keep fasting.
Yes, we need to celebrate lavishly on Easter Sunday, and every Sunday is considered a “Little Easter.” That said, fasting to protest the false gods in our hearts is a way of life. Eat what you need. Buy only what you need with the highest quality you can afford to make it last. Live lightly on this planet.
Spiritual Substitute: Thanksgiving and gratitude are also a way of life. When we know we have enough, that we are enough, that we are loved and forgiven enough, we’re not just storing treasure in heaven. We’re living there already.
Spirit & Schedule Follow-up Opportunity
Tuesday, February 12th, 2:30-4:30 CST
If you participated in our January Spirit & Schedule Challenge, you won’t want to miss our Seasonal Sermon Prep Session, available to members of the Collective+.
We’ll take the long view of our preaching schedules—taking time to consider the next few months and planning out sermon prep time, preaching series or ideas, and liturgical themes.
Also included in your membership is our Preacher’s Planner, integrating the lectionary, BsP’s sermon process, and your own schedule into one practical planning tool.
The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear
How to Preach Challenging Messages So They’re Heard
Thursday, February 28th & Thursday, March 7th from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. CST
There are times the Gospel does not offer easy answers. To better understand how God moves through difficult texts and circumstances, please join us for a two-session seminar based on my forthcoming book by the same title, “The Gospel People Don't Want to Hear: How to Preach Challenging Messages So They’re Heard.”*
the backstories behind challenging messages (that is, what makes challenging messages challenging)
how to build trust with listeners so they’re willing to listen to challenging messages
and how to craft sermons that can be heard.
By the end of the second session, you’ll have stronger skills and more tools to preach the sermon messages your listeners need to hear but may not want to—in a way that allows them to welcome the Good News.
*Working Preacher Books, anticipated 2019