Hunger – February 18, 2018

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-171 Peter 3:18-22Mark 1:9-15; Psalm 25:1-9

Let us pray.

Artist of souls,
you sculpted a people for yourself
out of the rocks of wilderness and fasting.
Help us as we take up your invitation to prayer and simplicity,
that the discipline of these forty days
may sharpen our hunger for the feast of your holy friendship,
and whet our thirst for the living water you offer
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

It was still dark outside on Wednesday morning when I proceeded down the streets of South Norwalk fully vested and dragging a large sign that proclaimed, “Ashes to Go.” This was the third year that I began Lent by imposing ashes on early morning commuters at the South Norwalk train station, and it was no easier this year to arise in the pre-dawn hours. I had forgotten how heavy the sign was and how long the walk from my apartment building would be, so, naturally, as I sought to ease the burden on one arm by transferring my supplies to the other, I managed to spill some of the ashes down the front of my clean, white surplice.  It was a fitting way to start a season of humbling myself and admitting my imperfections.

I made it to the train station without further glitches, and, while I was preparing to tell a hundred travelers that they were dust, I heard an anchor from News 12 Connecticut announce on the televisions screens above that it was Valentine’s Day. I smiled to myself about the juxtaposition of these two observances, one a holiday centered on love and candy, the other the commencement of a sober period of self-denial and repentance.

The newscaster’s comment, however, didn’t surprise me: like many of my ministerial colleagues, I had known about the confluence of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday for months, and I had watched with some amusement as my fellow clergy agonized over how to explain the tension. One New York Times article described rather deliciously the extensive hand-wringing some Roman Catholic bishops were doing about the rare concurrence. The positions of the bishops varied: Bishop Malone of Buffalo helpfully suggested that his flock celebrate Valentine’s Day on Mardi Gras, the night before; Cardinal Dolan of New York was stern, defiantly declaring that “Ash Wednesday has precedence…St. Valentine willingly bows to the Sacred Heart”; and, in a peculiar form of compromise, Cardinal Tobin of Newark proposed “tak[ing] your heartthrob to a small-plates place” where you could treat yourself for Valentine’s Day and still somehow fulfill your obligation to fast.

No, I was not scandalized by the fact that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were happening simultaneously. What really shocked me was not the newscaster’s perfunctory recognition of Valentine’s Day, but what the newscaster said next. “Today is not only Valentine’s Day,” he pointed out. “It is also National Ferris Wheel Day.” Only then did I realize that the Valentine’s Day scrooges had a point. Here I had dragged myself out of bed at 5 AM (something that I can assure you almost never happens), decked myself in several layers of vestments, covered those vestments in ash, and heaved a 40-pound sign down a cold, dark street—all to remind people that they were going to die, and the news was about chocolate and ferris wheels.

Rest assured, News12 eventually got around to discussing Ash Wednesday, and I am not here to berate those of who you missed church in order to spend hundreds of dollars on a prix fixe menu. I myself wished my partner a Happy Valentine’s Day as soon as I got back from the train station; that evening, after the final Ash Wednesday service was done, I ate not one, but two chocolate hearts. Yet I do think that our collective reluctance to fully acknowledge Ash Wednesday has something valuable to tell us about our culture’s inability to face the reality of suffering and death. Lent, the season that Ash Wednesday inaugurates, has historically involved not only the recognition of our mortality but also the practice of fasting—the practice of abstaining from food, at least partially and for certain periods of time. Fasting during Lent, though admittedly not an extreme form of suffering, nonetheless required faithful believers to intentionally, if temporarily, choose to suffer as a way of identifying with and becoming closer to the Savior who fasted in the wilderness and eventually suffered a gruesome death on the Cross. But few of us fast anymore, at least in the ways that Christians used to, and most of us are so uncomfortable with suffering that we could never imagine giving up anything voluntarily—unless, of course, it would result in a tangible benefit for ourselves.

It is possible that we find it difficult to deal with suffering and death because we live in an age obsessed with pleasure and success. Why would we want to admit the inevitability of death or deny ourselves even the slightest little thing if the purpose of life is to enjoy as much as we can for as long as we can? But it is also possible that we find it difficult to deal with suffering and death because our cups are already overflowing with so much of both. Deliberate fasting sounds less innocuous when you remember how many people starve themselves in order to satisfy ridiculous societal expectations and how many other people are forced to starve because they lack access to proper nutrition. Just four days ago, hours after I returned from the train station, the struggle between Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday became trivial when 17 people lost their lives in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The news was no longer about chocolate and ferris wheels. There seemed to be less of a need to remind ourselves of our own mortality once the distant possibility of death had become all too plausible and real. God promised so many years ago that there would never again be a flood to destroy the whole earth, and yet the floods keep on coming.

Perhaps this Lent we do not need to manufacture any suffering for ourselves. There is plenty of suffering, after all, to go around. Instead, we could decide to pay more attention to the suffering that is already happening. Ultimately, fasting is less about refraining from food than about wrestling with the small, inescapable form of suffering that serves as the undercurrent of our everyday lives—the hunger that must eventually be satisfied in order for us to keep on living. What if, this Lent, we focused on our hunger—not just for food, but also for love, for acceptance, for peace? What if we examined our yearnings and desires, the ways in which we struggle and search for something different, something more?

On Tuesdays this Lent, we will be hosting a series based on Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger. The book is a frank and powerful account of the suffering Gay has lived through as well as the hungers she feels, and it will help us reflect on the many things that our bodies hunger for and that bodies hunger for the world over. The topics covered in the book and in the series are difficult ones—they include body size, eating disorders, race, sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence—but they are also so timely and so significant. If you’re thinking about attending, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book today in the Undercroft. I hope you will join us if you can.

Maybe, though, your Lenten exploration of suffering needs to look a little different. Maybe you need to listen to the pain caused by gun violence and participate in the work that seeks to end it. Maybe you need to sit with the low-income guests at Laundry Love and hear how the rising cost of housing is affecting their lives. Maybe you need to attend to a friend who is going through something serious and crying out for your help.

Whatever you do, make no mistake: the God who fasted in the wilderness, the God suffered on the Cross, the God who visited the spirits in prison is present wherever there is suffering in the universe. Indeed, God implores us to be affected by the pain we see. Satan might be at his most dangerous when he tempts us to run away from suffering rather than to turn towards it and stare it down. 

A week and a half ago, a woman visited the Chittim-Howell House and asked to see a priest. The woman is not a resident in Norwalk; she lives in one of the wealthier communities that surround us. She told me a story about a friend of hers who lives in that same community and went to her pastor for help when she no longer had a place to live. The pastor was dismissive and uninterested. He told the woman to call 211 and, even though 211 let the woman know that she could not be admitted to a shelter for several more days, the pastor told the woman that there was nothing else he could do to help and sent her away. The person who came to see me found this astounding. “Doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our neighbor?” she said. “How could this man not open up his home? Isn’t there a couch in the church? How could he let her sleep on the street? What would you do? I really want to know.”

I didn’t have a great answer to these questions. I could see how the pastor might have felt his hands were tied: institutions like churches have finite resources, and they have to worry about things like setting precedents and exposing themselves to potential liabilities. I saw the problems as long-standing, structural ones; I noted that every night there are people sleeping on Norwalk’s streets. But I could also understand the woman’s frustration. Wasn’t the Gospel obligation pretty simple: care for the least of these? Over the course of our discussion, I oscillated back-and-forth, agreeing with the woman at some points and taking the pastor’s side at others. I’m still grappling with the dilemma she raised now, many days later.

When she got up to leave, the woman turned to me and apologized, saying, “I’m sorry I ruined your day.” I shook my head and reassured her: “No, you didn’t ruin my day.” But that wasn’t completely true. What I should have said was “Yes, you ruined my day—and thank you for doing it.”

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