Note: as the Rev. Craig Lemming mentions at the beginning of this video, Jered was called away by a family emergency just before worship began, so Craig is reading the text of Jered’s sermon. This is why you’re seeing a video with Craig on a sermon post by Jered!

by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson

Long ago, in my mid-twenties, my wife and I spent a year on mission in the country of Taiwan. And, one of my overarching memories of that time was the feeling of perpetual hunger. We were young and clueless and we lived on a college campus far away from any grocery stores, and so it was that we like the students we served, ended up eating food from the nearby fast food establishments and the near ubiquitous 7Elevens. We subsisted off of junk food for much of our time. And one of my dear colleagues, a sweet woman named Naomi, made it a point one day to stop by my office with a nondescript plastic bag containing three deliciously steaming buns, full of savory vegetables and meat. As a mother of young adults, and a deeply compassionate soul, Naomi knew I was not eating well, she’d likely heard my ever grumbling stomach at our morning prayer meetings, and she had taken it on herself to take care of my wife and I with this act of hospitality. In her broken English she put the bag in my hands and said – “Jesus loves me, so I love you!” For the rest of the year, without fail, each week, Naomi showed up with lunch at my door at least once a week. I am still humbled by this act of connection and kindness, her own ability, despite the boundaries and barriers between us, to create belonging and community. Every year, when Lent rolls around, for some strange reason this story comes back to me – perhaps because Lent is about fasting and fasting makes us hungry.

I’m not very good at fasting. I suppose very few of us are. Why would we choose it as an act of spiritual devotion, of rigorous self denial, if it came easy? Like you, on those rare occasions that I have fasted, I often find myself perseverating on the thing I have given up: sweets, alcohol, even, one tragic lent, a new Episcopalian, I gave up caffeine! I know, it’s hard to imagine the rector without his ubiquitous coffee cup full of that sublime elixir that has the power to raise the dead to life. The spiritual greats of our faith tradition tell us that fasting is an opportunity to draw closer to God. In giving something up, especially something we enjoy or even love, for a short season, we create necessary space to focus new or renewed attention on our connection with God. I wish I could say this has worked for me. But, more often than not, when I am fasting, I seem to become more keenly aware of my appetites, my hunger, my grumbling stomach or my fuzzy decaffeinated brain. 

So, how is it that we cultivate space for God? Or, more importantly, how do we cultivate that desire to be with God, to find our way across the gulfs and divides that can exist, that we can even create, between us and the one who made us? In that portion of Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, which was read for us today, we hear his exhortation, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” 

Be reconciled to God. Draw near. Come together. 

That’s no easy feat. In fact, we preach and believe in our tradition that it is the very presence of God, in Jesus, in the world, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the power of God’s Holy Spirit, not our own, that enables such reconciliation to happen. We cannot make it happen of our own abilities or actions. No fasting, no good works, no practice or habit, can make us one with God. It is by grace, by the power of God working within us, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, that we are healed and reunited, that we are reconciled to God. But, we can desire it. Our hungers, desires, appetites, and wants are no mere animal instinct. We can through practice, cultivate a desire for God. 

I think we find that desire stoked and fueled in acts of reconciliation with one another. And not just reconciliation, but solidarity, community, communion, and friendship. When we cultivate a sense of belonging with one another, when we recognize that each person we meet is a beloved child of God, when we fight for justice, and strive to heal broken systems, healing what is broken within ourselves, it is here that our desire for God can grow and blossom, and that we can turn our hearts toward that reconciliation freely given in Christ. It is not hard for us to imagine hungering to belong, desiring to be united with our siblings in Christ, wanting to connect or be reconciled across the lines that divide. This yearning is, I believe, fundamental, and within it is the power to draw all of us back to the grace of God through which our belonging finds meaning and power.

The inimitable Zora Neale Hurston once wrote of this inbuilt desire for human connection and solidarity. She says:

“When God had made [the human], he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So, they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.”

If you pause for a moment, you might sense the beautiful truth in Hurston’s words, that there is within you, a spark, a shining, glorious light waiting to connect, waiting to shine forth, to show out a glorious truth about who we are. At a fundamental level, we were made for connection, for community, for belonging to each other. That is the glory of humanity, that despite our stumbling, often broken, imperfect humanity – despite the reality of our earthbound existence, ashes and dust, feet of clay, and all the rest, – we were made to burn as bright as the stars when we come together, when our spark meets that of another and another. 

And that hunger to connect, to bring about healing across the lines that divide, to bridge the distance created by our broken humanity, is a hunger we shouldn’t deprive or starve. We should feed that spark, pour practices and rituals, and habits and all the fuel we can find to cultivate connection and reconciliation. The prophet Isaiah tells us today, 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them?…

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

I don’t know what you have chosen for your Lenten practice this year – whether you will take on a habit or let go of something which you love. Whatever it is, may it be something that feeds your desire for belonging and creates capacity for connection, healing, and community. Never forget the simple truth – Jesus loves me, so I love you! This Lent, let us not be drawn into solitary acts of spirituality, isolated and alone, feeling our brokenness and hurt. Paul invites us to be reconciled to God. I am convinced that as we work for connection, community, and belonging with one another, our desire for God is expanded and our yearning for reconciliation with God is fed and grows. And, as we do justice, practice healing, as we build connections with God and each other in Christ, our sparks are combined, and out of the ash and dust, out of the clay and earth, our light can break forth like the dawn.

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