Home Sermons “Hangry”


Date: June 11, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

June 9, 2024 (Proper 5)


Matthew 6:16-18; Acts 13:1-3

I have to confess that, out of all the spiritual disciplines we’re going to be looking at this summer, the one before us today is my least favorite.

I come from a family where, any time we go on a trip, the first topic of discussion is where we’ll eat—if we’re staying at a beach house or somewhere like that, we talk about who’s going to cook each night and what.  When we all took our big trip to the Oregon coast in 1987, some of my uncle’s friends in Portland asked us specifically to bring us some steaks from Kansas; one night while we were staying at the beach, Bob’s friends all came out and we grilled those steaks.

We are the kind of family that sits at breakfast thinking about what we’ll have for dinner.  In the past when I’ve had church folks travel to places I’ve also been, the first question I asked them when they got back was where they went to eat.

My dad ran a restaurant when I was growing up.  My grandpa had a grocery store that sold the best fried chicken in town.  My great grandma Hulsey ran a restaurant.  My great grandpa Marshall had a butcher shop.  I have a cousin who is a chef.

Fasting is really not something that makes any sense to me.  It doesn’t make sense because I cannot go without food without becoming pretty unpleasant to be around.  If you were to look up the word hangry in the dictionary, you would find my picture beside it.

I’m not the only one, either.  You remember a few years back when there were commercials on with the tagline, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry”?  One of the most memorable has a bunch of guys playing football, but one of the players wasn’t a guy, but Betty White?  And she (or a stunt double, more likely) got run down by two or three big guys from the other team.  Then, after she picks herself up out of the mud, somebody hands her a Snickers bar, and she turns back into a normal grown man.

“You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.”  And yet fasting is a spiritual discipline?  Why?

I read years ago how somebody had proposed the notion that a lot of arguments between couples happen when one or both of them has low blood sugar—not low to the extent that a person with diabetes or hypoglycemia might experience, but not operating on all cylinders because they’re hungry.  And it totally makes sense to me, because I am not at all pleasant when I’m hungry.

But the Bible seems to indicate that fasting was commonplace among the earliest Christians.  In our first reading for today Jesus says, “When” (not if) “you fast…”  The Gospels tell us he undertook a long fast before he began his public ministry.  And in the reading from Acts, we learn that the church in Antioch fasted as part of their preparation to ordain Paul and Barnabas and send them out on their mission to bring the gospel to the Gentiles.

Unfortunately, since the Bible seems to indicate fasting was a given in the early church, the writers of the Gospels and Acts (there’s nothing in the epistles or Revelation about fasting, as far as I know) don’t offer any instruction about how or why it should be done, beyond what Jesus says about not putting on a show.  They apparently just assumed everybody knew.  And some church traditions practiced fasting at various times throughout history, although I’m not sure how many, if any, do these days.

Even the Catholic church, which used to require a Friday fast during Lent and simplified, or even meatless, meals the other days of the week during that season, doesn’t necessarily require fasting now.  Fridays they might not eat meat, but they do eat fish—and we all get to enjoy the fish fries many of them host on the Fridays of Lent.  I do think a short—like an hour or two—fast before receiving Communion may still be expected in the Catholic church, but even I could pull that off without becoming too hangry.

Our culture just doesn’t see much value in depriving ourselves of anything.  We want what we want, and don’t really feel like there’s a reason we can’t have it.  Fasting runs seriously counter to that.

That’s even true in churches.  You may have heard the joke wherein kids were in some kind of program where they were each asked to bring a symbol of their faith to show everyone.  So one kid came up and said, “I’m Catholic, and this is a crucifix.”

Another one said, “I’m Jewish, and this is a kippah; we wear them when we pray.”

And then one said, “I’m Protestant, and this is a casserole dish.”

Think about it:  how many churches don’t serve coffee and donuts before or after worship, or offer a snack at meetings, or hold dinners on a regular basis?  Inside or outside the church, people of faith or of no faith, very few opportunities to gather with friends or relatives happen without some kind of food.  Yet fasting is a spiritual discipline?  I just don’t get it.

Even those of us who are reasonably well-versed in spiritual disciplines, who wouldn’t think of saying “no” to praying or studying or gathering for worship, don’t much care about fasting.  The times when I’ve tried it have left me not feeling very well.  As I said, I’m really not a nice person when I’m hungry.  And on top of that, some medications that people take need to be taken with food or they’ll make us sick.

If we’re used to our morning coffee and we give it up, we can expect to have a headache—not to mention a foggy brain—for at least a day or two.  If we don’t eat we get a similar headache.  So why would we fast?  It’s going to make us miserable, and Jesus says we have to put on a happy face so nobody but God knows we’re doing it.  Isn’t that also putting on a show, pretending to be something we’re not, when you think about it?

But fasting is a spiritual discipline.  What’s the point?

I have known pastors who have undertaken fasts prior to being ordained.  They say it helps them remember that they are dependent on God for everything, even their daily sustenance.  It’s an important thing for a pastor to stay aware of:  we find ourselves in lots of situations where we absolutely have no idea what to do, and we have to let God handle them.

There are some folks who fast periodically as a way to identify with people who are poor, who don’t necessarily always have enough to eat.  Some people say that the hunger pangs (and the headache) are reminders to focus on God.

I just don’t know.

Richard Foster’s book on the spiritual disciplines isn’t much help with fasting, I don’t think.  It’s one of the books I am consulting as I’m preaching on the disciplines, but the chapter on fasting felt way too ambitious.  Most of the chapter is about a long fast—not just a day, or a week, but a month or more.  He talks about the different things that happen to our bodies and minds as we fast.  But he insists it’s a good thing to do, even though we lose huge amounts of weight doing it, and we grow weak, and so forth.

Richard Foster’s son Nathan has also written about his experience with fasting.  He determined that he needed to attempt a five-day fast—and his natural-born stubbornness, he wrote, served him well.  Until he got to the fourth day.

The first day, he said, he was hungry and had a headache, but he just got through it.  The second day was similar, and with the growling stomach and aching head came a restlessness that he couldn’t shake.  The third day he felt almost euphoric—he felt like he could do anything, felt close to God, reached a spiritual high. 

And then it all came crashing down on the fourth day.  Long-buried bad memories and emotions flooded his mind.  Issues he thought he had dealt with in therapy came roaring back.  By the end of the day he was a mess, and he cried himself to sleep that night.

He didn’t make it five days.  After breaking his fast at a greasy spoon on the fifth morning, he thought, “It was time to try an easier discipline.”

So why fast?  Should we fast?

Nathan Foster said a friend told him a spiritual fast from food was impossible in this time and place, where dieting is an obsession for many.  And maybe it is.  But we don’t have to skip days and days’ worth of meals to fast in ways that help us draw closer to God, or bring us to awareness that there are people in this world for whom not having enough to eat is a daily reality.

The insert in your bulletin offers some suggestions. 

Skip one meal, if you can do so safely.  Donate the cost of that meal to an agency that helps people who don’t have enough to eat.

Maybe give up eating meat for one day, or even a few days.  That one feels really easy when we go to the grocery store and see the price tags on meat.  Let your mind rest on the many people who don’t eat meat in this world, some for religious reasons, and some because they simply cannot afford it.  Ask God to show you how you can make life easier for someone who struggles with food insecurity.

And fasting doesn’t always have to be about food.  How many of us spend way more time than we probably should online, on social media, playing video games, watching streaming content, to the detriment of our families, our work, or even our communities?  What if we unplugged for a day, or more?

The camp I counseled at when I lived in Iowa had all the kids and adults turn in their electronic devices for the first 24 hours of camp.  Then after that, they were only allowed during our afternoon free time.  Of course the kids complained, and the adults wondered what would happen if there was an emergency back home and they couldn’t be reached.

But after that first 24 hours were over, some of the kids didn’t want their phones back.  They had rediscovered the things people at church camp have always done, like playing games, swimming, or just sitting and talking with people they only saw once a year at camp, and they didn’t necessarily want to let their phones get in the way of that.

Okay, so fasting is a spiritual discipline, even if we don’t actually stop eating for any period of time.  But like any of the disciplines that aren’t just givens for the Christian life, like prayer and corporate worship, fasting isn’t necessarily for everyone. 

If your health doesn’t allow you to skip meals, then that’s not a fast for you.  But perhaps you have come to recognize that you get a lot of enjoyment out of gossiping about others, which can be very destructive.  So you fast from that, maybe?

The important thing isn’t whether or not we fast, or whether we skip meals or fast in another way.  The important thing is that we listen for God’s call—and that’s what the disciplines we’ve already explored, meditation and prayer, are for—and follow it.