Romans 12:9-21; Galatians 3:26-29; Matthew 6:5-18
If you’ve been looking at the news lately, you’ve seen that our world is full of sorrow and suffering and violence. We look around the planet and see war in Gaza and rockets in Israel, we see festering problems in eastern Ukraine, violence against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, and ongoing killings and kidnappings in northern Nigeria. Even when we are a world away, these problems weigh heavy on our hearts—as they should.
Last week, I was serving as a volunteer in the soup kitchen—under Carolyn’s capable hands, I should say—and one of our neighbors on Capitol Hill was also serving. I thanked her for giving her time and she explained why she was there that day. “There is just so much violence and suffering in the world,” she said, “I feel like I need to do something.”
At the 2014 Annual Conference in Columbus, delegates from churches across the country (including our delegate) voted to commit the denomination to a week of prayer and fasting. The prayer and the fasting are to lift up our sisters and brothers in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, or EYN, according to its Hausa acronym.
Over 200 young Nigerian women were kidnapped this spring and, afterward, Brethren across the country were speaking out in protest and praying for their release. The kidnappings and violence were all over the world news. During that time, the denominational headquarters in Elgin received a phone call from the New York Times, wanting to know more about the connections between Chibok and the Church of the Brethren in the US. The reporter seemed very baffled as to why exactly this American church would care about violence or kidnappings in a remote area of West Africa, a place that is fairly neglected by its own government. Our natural inclination, as humans, is to care about our own biological family or our own ethnicity, or people in our neighborhood or town, state or country. To the reporter, it was fairly odd that the Church of the Brethren in the US would be distraught over the suffering of people who do not necessarily share language, ethnicity, or citizenship.
Perhaps you have been disturbed and distraught over the suffering of EYN. Or, perhaps not. Nate and I mention Nigeria a lot as we teach and lead prayers. Yet it might be easy to think about Nigeria as a pet issue of the Hoslers.
“Nate and Jenn, they have actual friends in Nigeria. They worked there, they know people. This is hard for them and that’s why they care so much about EYN.”
Of course, we do have friends in Nigeria, people whom we love, whose names we know. We have face-to-face connections, people that we lived with, ate with, and worked alongside. To the world, it would make sense for us to pray but maybe not an entire denomination.
Yet Standing Committee, our Moderator, and Annual Conference delegates agreed that we should all be praying and fasting—not just those of us who’ve lived and served in Nigeria. So why exactly should we all care about EYN? Why should we give up something of ourselves, put ourselves in an uncomfortable position for people we don’t know? By nature of being followers of Jesus, we are called to join in prayer and fasting for Nigeria. Since both we and they are part of the body of Christ, we are called to join with them in their suffering.
One Body, Made Up of Many Parts
Occasionally, I come up to the pulpit lurching and limping. Nate and I run and we tend to run pretty far. After races, my muscles are tight and it takes several days to recover. It is interesting just how much a sore muscle or an ache can affect the whole body. A blister on a heel can throw the whole body into contortions. A bad headache can result in a body crumpled on a bed, none of it able to proceed as normal. A body is one whole—and yet it is made up of many parts which depend on each other.
The Apostle Paul used the body as an illustration for the church, to describe how we are united as followers of Jesus. He wrote to the early Christians gathered in the city of Corinth, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor 12: 12-14, 26-27, NIV).
In Christ, we are united with sisters and brothers from all ethnic backgrounds, genders, orientations, languages, and nationalities. In Christ, our spheres of “family” move beyond our biological family and extend across the world. As we read this morning in Galatians, there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female. There is also no American, Canadian, or Nigerian, no black nor white: we are all one in Christ Jesus. When we hear that Christians somewhere are in pain or hurting, our actual sisters and brothers are the ones in pain.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should neglect people who aren’t Christian—the Bible teaches that all humans are created in the image of God and worthy of dignity, care, peace, justice, and respect. Yet, the death and resurrection of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit unite Jesus followers in a way that brings a special relationship. Scriptures teaches that we have an obligation to care for our fellow Christians. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Fasting in Solidarity and for Transformation
In our Romans 12 passage today, we see that in the body of Christ, we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (v. 15). EYN is currently weeping and mourning and they’ve asked specifically for one thing: for us to be with them in prayer and fasting. Our sisters and brothers have asked us to pray and fast for an end to violence, for strength not to choose retaliation, and for peace and the healing of their nation. Therefore, we, as children of God, as part of the one body of Christ, are called to fast and pray. We value our sisters and brothers in Nigeria by fulfilling this request
So what, exactly, does it look like to fast and pray?
Fasting and Prayer
Fasting is likely unfamiliar to most of us. While most of us probably haven’t fasted much and some maybe not at all, over a billion people on this earth recently finished a month of fasting. Ramadan is the month of fasting practiced by Muslims around the world. In 2014, it lasted from the end of June to the end of July. Ramadan fasts involve complete abstinence from food and water during daylight hours, from sun up to sundown. Ramadan is a time of focus, a time of prayer and inward transformation, a time of purifying one’s self and letting go of harmful habits, and a time for renewing one’s commitment to God.
Fasting is a common part of life for our sisters and brothers in Orthodox (or Eastern) Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Yet the Church of the Brethren, along with other Anabaptists and churches in the Protestant tradition, does not practice fasting on a regular basis. In part, Anabaptists and Protestants formed out of a reaction against the over-emphasis on religious rituals the Middle Ages. The early Brethren did not stress fasting because they took seriously the scripture passages that emphasized inward transformation over outward rituals.
It is easy to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as the old adage goes. Fasting isn’t inherently bad: what matters is why and how we fast.
Fasting is going without something. Josh Brockway, the Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren, explains: “In its most simple form, fasting is the act of going some time without food. …there are many types of fasts, all of which can be done in any length of time. Some drink only juice for a few days, some may not eat during the daylight hours, and still others might fast from a particular thing like chocolate during lent” (Brockway, 2012). Fasting can also involve activities other than eating. In fasting, we give up something for a time so that, by abstaining, we can have more time in the presence of God.
The purpose of fasting is not to be seen, not to earn works of righteousness, or to get any rewards or applause—as Jesus teaches in today’s gospel passage in Matthew 6. The purpose is to spend time cultivating our inner hearts and to be in prayer. We fast to grow closer to God, or as part of discernment, or to pray for a specific cause or purpose, such as the violence in Nigeria.
The resolution on prayer fasting for EYN words it this way: “In fasting we let go of a little in order to accompany those who are losing so much, and stand before God with them” (Church of the Brethren, 2014). Fasting is an act of solidarity with our sisters and brothers. Fasting allows us to be with them in their suffering, just a little. It is one way to act, to do something about the violence in Nigeria.
It is hard sometimes to associate pray-ing with do-ing. What are we accomplishing through prayer? It isn’t like picking up trash or giving someone food—you can’t see the tangible results immediately before you.
Why do we pray and what does it do? The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently reflected on this question. He wrote, “you probably have asked yourself from time to time: ‘If God knows what we are going to ask, why bother to pray?’ [Well, an early church leader named] Origen has as good an answer as anyone as given: God knows, of course, what we are going to say and do, but God has decided that he will work out his purposes through what we decide to say and do. So if it is God’s will to bring something about, some act of healing or reconciliation, some change for the better in the world, he has chosen that your prayer is going to be part of a set of causes that makes it happen. So you’d better get on with it, as you and your prayer are part of God’s overall purpose for the situation in which he is going to work” (Williams, 2014, pp. 20-21).
God works in the world through his church. Some of that work involves teaching people how to resolve conflicts constructively, some involves humanitarian relief or giving financially to meet physical needs or building relationships with people of other faiths. Some involves prayer. As followers of Jesus, we trust that God is with us and working through us each day, and also that He is with us and working through us as we fast and pray in solidarity with EYN.
As you go through this week, consider what you can give up for the week of fasting. What can you sacrifice? A meal a day, Facebook, news, television, or something else? In fasting, we can spend the hour we would normally eat, watch the news, doddle on Facebook, or read, to pray for safety, protection, and transformation in Nigeria. Next Sunday, we will meet together on the first day of the fast, as we commit to join in solidarity and fellowship with EYN, to be with them in their suffering. AMEN.
Brockway, J. (2012). What is fasting? Retrieved from http://blog.brethren.org/2012/what-is-fasting/
Church of the Brethren Annual Conference. (2014). A resolute fast and fervent prayer: A resolution responding to violence in Nigeria. Retrieved from http://www.brethren.org/ac/documents/2014/ac-2014-nb4-nigeria-resolution.pdf
Williams, R. (2014, August 6). In the place of Jesus: Insights from Origen on prayer. Christian Century, 20-21.