Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
The Vicar of Dibley, heroine of the marvellous BBC show of that name, often began her sermons by solemnly stating "I take as my text this morning..." before going on to name the Biblical chapter or verse upon which she had based her homily. It has always struck me as a rather grand opening, and today I finally have the chance to use it myself, because a particular section of our first reading jumped out at me right away. So (drum roll please) I take as my text this morning Isaiah 55:2, which reads: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food."
I don’t think the these words initially struck me for their spiritual depth, but for their dietary advice. Like others in the world, I too experienced the infamous COVID-19 - not the virus I am harbouring at the moment, but the 19 or so pounds I managed to gain over the course of the pandemic. Between an even more sedentary lifestyle and caving in to foodie temptation over the past year, I realized that even my stretchy pants had reached the limits of their forgiveness. So a while back I re-embarked on the low-carbohydrate keto diet that has served me well in the past.
(This is the point at which I should probably pause and have you sign waivers stating that you will consult your physician, not your deacon, when it comes to medical advice.)
But I like the keto way of living because I can, just like the scripture says, "eat what is good, and delight in rich food." I can eat cheese, and eggs, and butter and wine. And when I do that, I find very quickly that my cravings for chips and ice cream and pasta disappear. I no longer "labour for that which does not satisfy."
And that reminded me that our Lenten practices are, at their best, not about deprivation but about richness and revitalization. It’s not so much about the chocolate you’re giving up, but about making space for something far better to take its place.
Some of you may recall that a few years ago, I offered several sessions about Sabbath keeping as a Lenten program here at the church. We explored what Sabbath might mean in our lives today, given that many or most of us are prevented from embracing a weekly day of rest as thoroughly as our forebears, or as our more observant friends in the Jewish tradition.
Instead of getting together in a bare-bones meeting room for our sessions, we laid a festive table and talked about different ways we could commit to putting life’s busyness aside at specific times in order to engage our senses with music, good food, hospitality, nature and art. Given that we generally have no quarrel with the Ten Commandments, we wondered at our fierce resistance to honouring the commandment that instructs us to remember and keep holy the Sabbath.
I read several good books on the topic, and particularly appreciated one called Subversive Sabbath. In it, A.J. Swoboda wrote: "What was intended by God to be a celebration reflecting on [God’s] goodness and the goodness of creation has been, once again, replaced by the devil’s false forms of celebration…. We sell ourselves short by celebrating for celebration’s sake rather than for God’s sake. The authentic call to Sabbath is to enter into celebration as God intended it to be, not what we think it should be." He says: "I think the devil loves taking that which is of God and giving us cheap knock-offs…. The devil always twists the goodness of God."
So instead of eating a rich, nutritious meal, we grab processed or sugary or starchy temptations. We think we are treating ourselves, but in fact the food doesn’t satisfy - we are left uncomfortably stuffed or with niggling cravings pointing to a gap still left unfilled. The author also discusses our typical mode of vacationing. Punctuated on both ends by stressful air travel, we jet off to buzzing resorts where we try to address in one week a huge deficit of rest that has built up over the year. Instead of genuine Sabbath replenishment every week, we opt for the cheap knock-off of an all-inclusive with free drinks and forays to the gift shop.
Or perhaps we do take "a day off" each week, but it might be what priest and author Eugene Peterson colourfully calls a "bastard Sabbath" - we are technically at home, but our mind is at work. Even if we are retired, there are a thousand worldly and work-y distractions that can rob of us a true Sabbath rest.
So I wonder if Lent could be a time in which we ask ourselves where in our lives we are accepting cheap knock-offs and displacing the goodness of God? Where are we living a second-best (or third-, or fourth- or fifth-best) life? Where is it that we may even have lost track of what a first-best life, the one God calls us to, looks like? As Swoboda would say, where has our judgment been swayed by the devil’s cheap knock-offs; where might we be mistaking our forms of celebration for the celebrations God longs to give us?
In one way or another, all of today’s readings encourage us to turn away from the knock-offs and to put the genuine article in their place. The psalmist says that meditating on God in the night satisfies his soul as with a rich feast. In the second reading, Paul warns the Corinthians against falling into the self-indulgent ways sometimes demonstrated by Moses’ followers in the desert - he promises us that we may be tempted by false forms of celebration, but that God will help lead us from such challenges. And in the Gospel, we not only get some gardening advice involving fig trees and manure, we are assured that God is patient with us through the dry, unproductive times in our life and wants to give us rich soil in which to bear fruit.
We are so accustomed to our way of living that it isn’t always easy to differentiate between God’s celebrations and ours. When that’s the case, I find it helpful to turn to the Ignatian exercises.
Let me give you a bit of background about St. Ignatius. Born in Loyola, Spain, in 1491, he became a soldier at the age of 17 and was well known for his profligate lifestyle. One biographer described him as "a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed with his priest brother at carnival time."
His life took a turn, however, when his right leg was shattered in battle and he had to undergo a number of traumatic surgeries. Recovering at the family castle, he asked his sister-in-law to bring him his favourite reading material - tales of chivalry and romance. There weren’t any on hand, however, and so she brought him a stack of religious texts on the lives of Christ and the saints. (I can only imagine his eye roll when she handed them over!) But one in particular captured his imagination: De Vita Christi, written by a Germany theologian in 1374.
As he lay bed-bound, Ignatius began to realize something: when his daydreams were inspired by romantic tales about serving the royal court and capturing the heart of his fair lady, he would be left feeling desolate or dissatisfied in their wake. When his daydreams were inspired by the lives of the saints and of Christ, however, he was left feeling peaceful and joyous. When he was able to walk again, Ignatius embarked on a life of pilgrimage and service. Eventually he cofounded the Jesuit order, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises have helped others discern God’s hand in their lives ever since.
Put very simply, one of the exercises is this: at night, spend some time reviewing your day. Where did you feel God at work most keenly? Your answer is what Ignatius would describe as your "consolation." Alternately, where did God’s presence seem distant? That, he said, was the day’s "desolation."
When I began this exercise, it didn’t take me long to notice the difference between God’s celebrations and mine. Instead of unthinkingly assuming that the "highlight" of my day had been the get-together with friends after work, for example, I realized that it was in the quiet conversation I had had with an anxious co-worker that God felt closest to hand. Or, while I might have thought that successfully taming a big pile of work on my desk would have been the day’s highlight, in fact my "consolation" - the moment that really stayed with me - was the one telephone call I finally made to catch up with an isolated friend or relative.
Regularly checking in on your consolations with this Ignatian practice might bring into clearer focus if or where cheap knock-offs are displacing an opportunity for you to live more deeply and richly.
So amidst this season of Lent, let us remember that any austerities we have embarked on are not to rob us of joy, but to clear the path for joy. The bare branches in our altar displays will be replaced by the glorious blossoms of Easter. Our ears and our hearts will delight at the return of Alleluias to the liturgy. May Easter find us ready for the feast.