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Holy Week: Feasting, Fasting and Living in Tension

Blessings as we enter holy week! Many of you have journeyed with ELCA World Hunger through Lent as we have reflected on the Psalms and what meaning that vast collection of hymns, poems, laments and prayers might have for hunger ministry today. As the season comes to a close, thank you for being part of the 40 Days of Giving!

Lent is a common time for congregations to focus on hunger and social ministry. Indeed, almsgiving is one of the traditional “three pillars” of Lent (the other two being prayer and fasting) and is still found as one of the disciplines of Lent observed by Lutherans today. While many of us think of fasting as the core practice of Lent, the history of the church reminds us that fasting and giving are two sides of the same coin. The witness of Isaiah goes even further, describing authentic fasting as intimately tied to love and justice for the neighbor:

Is this not the fast 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. 58:6)

Scripture and tradition make a good case for focusing on hunger ministry during Lent. But this upcoming weekend may be an even more important time to reinvigorate our efforts. As pointed as Isaiah’s message about fasting may be, for Lutherans, it is the feast – and not just the fast – that calls to us.

Sharing the Feast

Say what you will about Martin Luther (no, seriously, say whatever you want – he deserves heaps of both praise and blame), but he certainly knew how to craft a pithy phrase or two. One of his most famous couplets comes from his 1520 “Treatise on Christian Liberty”:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

As paradoxical as it might seem, what Luther is getting at is that we don’t experience God as humanity’s captor, binding us to rules and obligations, but as our liberator. That’s not to say that there aren’t obligations and demands – the Law is still the Law and still God-given. But within the Gospel, God reveals Godself to be the one who frees us from bondage to sin, death and to the notion that we can save ourselves, hence “perfectly free.”

This is a dramatic shift in Christian ethics. Why do we do “good works”? Certainly, for Lutherans, we know that those works won’t save us. No amount of fasting or almsgiving will merit a reward (or even make us good people.) And it’s not merely because the Law, with its rules for righteous living, is so compelling (we can’t fully follow it anyway.) Instead, what motivates Lutheran ethics is the experience of being loved and set free from the burden of trying – and failing – to overcome our own sin. The foundation of loving a neighbor, of striving for justice and of working to end hunger is nothing more or less than gratitude.

To play a bit with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s popular phrase “cheap grace,” this isn’t “cheap thanks.” It’s not the kind of gratitude for all the great things we have or, worse, the gratefulness that “at least we aren’t like them.” It’s deeper than that. What moves us to choose for ourselves being “subject to all” is the realization that our entire lives, our eternal salvation, is an undeserved gift. We don’t have to worry about our own salvation, or feeling as if we aren’t enough, or fearing that the world around us will corrupt our souls or separate us from God. Instead, we can freely and boldly love and serve one another. Social ministry is not a legalistic requirement but a response to an invitation to be part of what God is doing in the world: “Come and see!”

Easter, then, isn’t the celebratory end to the sacrifice of fasting and almsgiving in Lent but the very foundation of a new life lived in gift and promise, the free gift to be bold in our love of one another and the assured promise that in so doing, we are bearing witness to God’s building of a just world where all are fed. The feast of Easter nourishes us for the work ahead.

Surveying the Cross

We can’t get there too quickly, though. All too often, our Holy Week moves from Good Friday to Easter Sunday without giving us time to hang in the liminal space of Holy Saturday. Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that the church needs to avoid this temptation of moving too quickly from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. We have to be in that Holy Saturday moment with the disciples, von Balthasar writes, even just for a bit. For those disciples, that first day after Friday, Jesus is dead. The one they’d given up their lives to follow is now laying in a tomb. A quote often attributed to Luther describes the moment: “God’s very self lay dead in a grave.” For the disciples, there is no Easter Sunday. The messiah is dead, and hope seems lost.

Living after the resurrection, it’s difficult to fully understand that kind of grief, but we must because in that grief is honesty. For all the joy and hope and feasting of Easter, we live in a world where the number of people facing hunger is growing, not declining, where income inequality continues to rise, and where justice and opportunity seem further and further away, especially for communities whose strides toward progress are often stymied by violence, marginalization and oppression.

It’s a grief not only for our world, though, but also for our own shortcomings. As the church, the death of Christ reminds us of our own complicity in human suffering. Sure, the church has done some wonderful things, but the cross confronts us with the ways we have fallen short, the ways we have contributed to rather than alleviated injustice, the communities harmed by the church’s good intentions, and the people pushed aside, sometimes violently, as we have pursued what we call “mission.”

Living and Serving in Holy Week Tension

Living in Holy Saturday means living into that grief and honesty about ourselves and our world. Where Easter inspires joy in God’s promise, Holy Saturday fills us with a sacred longing for that same promise. In Easter, we celebrate it. In Holy Saturday, we yearn for it.

That movement between celebration and yearning, between joy and grief is the tension that grounds our work together as ELCA World Hunger and as a church accompanying neighbors in need. We are caught between the cross and the empty tomb, embodying the grief and longing of a long Holy Saturday before we see the promise fulfilled. And we should be. We celebrate as God works through communities near and far to create new opportunities for abundant life through neighbors joining together with determination and hope. And we lament for a world where the crosses of injustice, violence, marginalization, inequity, racism, heterosexism, sexism, ableism, ethnocentrism, exploitation and more continue to dot the landscape.

This is where the ministry of the church in a hungry world begins. Not in the self-sacrifice of Lent but in in grief and joy, in lament and hope, in yearning and thanksgiving, in the tension between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. It’s a costly faith that we find there, with no easy answers – but with the assurance that even then, God is still at work.

What might that mean for our day-to-day responses to hunger? What might it look like for hunger ministry to be grounded in both hope and lament? As we emerge into the season of Easter, I pray that that those questions can stay with us, that we can carry a bit of both Easter Sunday and Holy Saturday with us into the rest of the year.

Our journey through Lent doesn’t end at the cross or even the empty tomb but continues in the long walk with one another toward the future that is both promised and deeply, deeply needed.


Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is the interim director for education and networks for the Building Resilient Communities team.


Easter Sermon Starter: 5th Sunday of the Pandemic



These reflections are a part of ELCA World Hunger’s Sermon Starter series which is published via email every Monday. You can sign up for the weekly email here on the right side of the page, if on a computer, or near the bottom of the page, if viewing on a mobile device. Pastor Tim Brown is the writer of these reflections. Pr. Tim is a Gifts Officer and Mission Ambassador for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and a pastor and writer out of Raleigh, NC. You are invited to use the message below for personal devotion as well as prompts for sermon writing. 

April 12- Easter Sunday

Jeremiah 31:1-6

Should you decide not to preach on Matthew’s resurrection account, my suggestion would be to choose the Jeremiah offering (the alternative option) rather than the reading from Acts as the basis for the sermon. And the choice is purely contextual, if I’m honest with you, because fine Easter sermons can be crafted from either text.

But the Jeremiah reading has this wonderful cadence that dances a bit on this day of celebration, and the wonderful theme of “Again” used in the text can be played with to craft a sermon of resurrection hope that might be most impactful in this strange time of wilderness.

“Again, I will build you…” says the Lord. “Again, you shall take your tambourines…” says the Divine.  “Again, you shall plant…” says the Holy Gardener.

“Again” might just be the message your people need. For though it is Easter, it is also “The 5th Sunday of the Pandemic” for most of us, and perhaps the third or fourth Sunday of “shelter-in-place.”  These realities must be spoken of, too.

In fact, I dare say that every year, Easter speaks to these kinds of realities; we just fail to recognize that fact most years from the comfort of our new dresses and freshly pressed suits with floral print ties.

Your people will gather together, in person, again.  Your people will be able to embrace one another, again. Families separated by quarantine will be able to kiss one another, again.

It will happen again! There will be a time after this pandemic. If there’s one thing Easter makes abundantly clear, again and again, every year, it’s that there is always an “again.”

Neither life, nor pandemic, nor crucifixion nor death can stop that. On this Sunday above all others (but also, all the others!) this is the Gospel message.

A final lovely nugget hidden in this prophetic text is the heavy but heartening truth that the people of Israel didn’t just find grace after they were through the wilderness period, but rather, as Jeremiah says, they found “grace in the wilderness.”

There is grace in the wilderness. And I’m not talking about silver linings or optimism or “glass-half-full” sort of grace, but rather the kind of grace that knocks you off your feet and helps you survive another day sort of graces.

I’m talking about Easter-sized sort of graces.

Reminding people that though shopping is suspended, and socializing in person is suspended, and yes, Easter sunrise service is suspended in these days, grace is not suspended.  God’s grace is never suspended.

Grace is found again and again, even now, even in these days.  Which is worth celebrating and shouting “Alleluia” for this morning.

Again we will hold hands. Again we will join together. Again there is grace to be found, even today.

Again and again and again — and no quarantine, no shelter-in-place, no tomb will ever cause that not to be true.

Matthew 28:1-10

On this Easter, many churches around the world are empty, just like that tomb was empty in ancient Palestine on that “first day of the week.”

In this pandemic, the most honest sign of love that the Christian world can give to the greater world, and to one another (and by extension, to the God seen in the risen Christ), is an empty church building. I’m serious.

There may be a few places in the world where the pandemic has not yet reached levels where churches are empty; places that may be far from you geographically but, through the faith that connects us, not so far at all. If there are, they will gather together in body for the rest of us as we all gather together in spirit on this Sunday.

Perhaps this is a good Sunday, the Feast of the Resurrection as it is formally called, to remember that our church gatherings are both local and universal, every time we gather. Our communion liturgy connects us both with one another, but it also connects us across continents and cultures, and with the distant past and with the future, as we join the “saints of every time and place.” That “every” there really does mean every, Beloved.

This is what our theology tells us.

Notice how Matthew’s resurrection account opens a very poignant and timely door for us today, a door upon which the sermon can hinge. The angels, when greeting the women, tell them the resurrection news and instruct them to go tell the disciples to meet Jesus back in Galilee.

And then, the text says, they go “with fear and great joy.”

We often, I think, assume that great joy and fear are mutually exclusive, but this text reminds us that they need not be. We can be both fearful and joyful, which is probably where a lot of your parishioners are at in these days, right?

Yes, we may be quarantined, and there is some fear around the future, but on this Easter Sunday we are also filled with great joy because we remember the promise that the love of God cannot be stopped by anything, not even death.

Yes, we may have to shelter-in-place, and there is some fear about what that is doing to the economy, but on this Easter Sunday we are also filled with great joy because we remember the promise that God resurrects bodies, and they are paramount, and we are saving people’s lives in these days, just as all of us will one day dance bodily with the risen Christ.

Yes, we may be separated from one another, and there is some fear and anxiety about when we can be back together, but there is also great joy on this Easter Sunday because we remember that every Sunday leading up to this, we’ve been practicing in our souls and hearts for the day when we truly, truly need the Easter story, and by God, it’s today.

On this Easter Sunday, do not take the easy way out and present a rosy picture; Easter isn’t meant for rosy days.

Easter is meant, necessary even, for days of fear and tombs and women gathering in the darkness unsure of what they’ll find.

Easter is meant for today, by God.  Alleluia!

Children’s Message

Online Children’s Messages can’t reliably lean on congregational participation, especially if the kids aren’t old enough to type in a chat box or if you’re incapable of hearing them.  I’m going to continue assuming that you’re recording this for them to experience online.

Have a huge Alleluia banner, or even a sheet of paper with an individual letter spelling out the word Alleluia, on it.

Welcome, everyone!

(name) here, and I’m so glad you’re here on this Easter Sunday! <pretend to look into the camera> Wow!  Look at all those Easter dresses and fancy clothes you all have on.

Well, oh, and someone is still in their pajamas! Which is great! God loves us no matter what we’re wearing.

And, in fact, God loves us no matter where we are! And just because we can’t be together today doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate Easter, right?

Now, there’s one word we haven’t been saying all of Easter. It starts with an A and…wait, I have something to show you. <pull out the Alleluia banner, or at least the first letter of the word, if they’re on individual sheets of paper> Here it is!

Alleluia!  It’s kind of like yelling “Yeah!” to God.

So, what I want you to do is shout it with me. Everyone. On the count of three.  Ready? 1-2-3 <hold up the banner> Alleluia!

You know what? If we all shouted that at the same time, we’re more connected than ever!

Can you do me a favor? Ask a parent or guardian to video you giving your biggest Alleluia. You can say it loud, sing it or even take a picture with you holding an Alleluia banner that you made. Can you do that? Have them send it to me.

Because on Easter we celebrate that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and that even though we might be separate from one another this Sunday, we won’t stay that way forever, and that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.

So, send the church those videos or those pictures, and let me see those resurrection smiles! Oh, and don’t worry. You can wear your Easter best or your PJs…God doesn’t care.  Jesus is risen, which means we can celebrate no matter where we are or how we are!

Post the videos, with permission, to your social media sites.


March 24-April 6, 2010–Easter Morning

There is no Faith Lens this week, however, you might ponder this artistic reflection on the holiest of mysteries intersecting the mundane.

"Easter Morning," James B Janknegt