Desert Fathers

I gave the Ash Wednesday sermon at my church today.

The readings for this sermon are below.

Listen to this sermonĀ here.

About four years ago, I started meeting with Steven Godfrey our former priest here at St. Martin’s, to talk about my calling to ministry in the church. In one of our first meetings he told me about the desert fathers. I have since studied the stories and sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. Their teachings have fundamentally changed my understanding of what it is to be a Christian.

When I read our gospel lesson and the reading from Isaiah for today – Ash Wednesday – I was immediately reminded of the practices of these Christian ascetics who lived in the desert so long ago.

In the third century after the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, many Christian men and women in northern Egypt decided to dedicate themselves wholly and completely to prayer. They traveled into a deserted region now known as the Nitrian desert in northern Egypt. They supported themselves with small vegetable gardens and the weaving of reed baskets which they sold in nearby market towns. They were the first Christian monks and nuns, and became known collectively as the desert fathers. From all over the Christian world, religious people traveled to this region of Egypt to ask them questions or to become monks themselves. Some of their stories and sayings were written down and are a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in Christian contemplation and mysticism. One of the many pilgrims who traveled to the desert was Saint John Cassian, who published his own book of the sayings of the desert fathers – “Conferences of the Desert Fathers” in 420 AD. After publishing this book, John Cassian devoted his life to the founding of a ‘desert father like’ monastic community in southern France near Marseilles. Cassian’s book “Conferences of the Desert Fathers” was also a major influence for Saint Benedict nearly 200 years later when he established his monastic rule, and to the present day the stories of the desert fathers are read by nuns and monks in their daily offices.

On this first day of our season of Lent, it is good to remember the desert fathers and mothers. As ascetics, they fasted all of the time, and they were very hard core, a fast for the desert mothers or fathers was not eating at all. Many of them as part of this religious practice only ate every other day. They practiced poverty, earning only enough to keep them alive, and giving anything extra they earned to the poor. The goal of the desert fathers and mothers was to be constantly in prayer and contemplation, not only in the time they set aside for prayer and study in their cells, but at all times, even while they were working to support themselves.

The desert fathers following the example of Jesus, practiced extreme humility in everything they did. There are many different ways that the desert fathers and mothers practiced this extreme humility.

To not to allow yourself to care if others either praise you or insult you.

The practice of hospitality, sharing everything they have with anyone visiting them. Sitting down and eating with their visitors, even if by so doing so they were breaking their own fasts, so that their visitors would not be ashamed to accept their hospitality.

One of their most difficult practices (for me to follow) is to not do anything which might cause your brothers and sisters to sin. Always returning good to another whether you have received either good or evil from them. Say, someone steals something from you. A desert father practicing extreme humility forgives the thief, instead of accusing the thief. Because if the thief were to be accused – he or she would probably deny the theft – and then the thief, just because of the accusation – will have committed two sins, stealing and lying.

Today, the practice of extreme humility I want to concentrate on is that of false reputation. When we glorify ourselves before our friends and neighbors. This follows directly from our gospel reading for today, as Jesus is reminding us that when we seek to pray, to worship, and in our charity work; we should not be doing it in a showy way as a performance, to gain favor among our fellow men and women. I think we have all witnessed religious leaders who in public pray with flowery phrases and are highly regarded for their charity and piety.
Jesus warns us against this showy behavior in public.
Jesus teaches us to pray, and perform our good works in secret.

There is a story about a desert father who would travel to town to attend church services on Sundays. He did not want people to have a false regard for him by seeing him go to church, so he would always sneak into and out of the church and sit behind a pillar on a side aisle during services so that no one would see him.

The desert mother Amma Sarah said this about her reputation, “If I prayed that all people should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, so I shall rather pray that my heart shall be pure towards all”

Here is another desert father story about reputation. There was a monk named Abba Moses who was widely known for his wisdom. The provincial governor wanted to talk with Abba Moses and sent two of his servants to bring Moses to him. Abba Moses heard they were coming and left his cell to avoid meeting with them. Moses ended up on the same road as the two servants, and they asked Moses for directions not knowing him as the man they had been sent to find. Moses told them that they were wasting their time, that Abba Moses was a false and unworthy monk. Moses was so convincing, the servants decided not to continue on their journey and headed back to the nearby town, where they learned that the anonymous monk in the desert they had met was in fact Abba Moses himself. The story ends with the governor greatly edified by the humility of Abba Moses returning to the capital without ever meeting with him.

What I love about these stories of men and women is that their humanity, both their virtues and their faults, have been preserved as well as their practices and beliefs.

A certain wandering brother came to a monastery. He saw the brethren working, and rebuked them, saying, “Why do you labor for food which perishes, for Mary has chosen the good part.” Referring to the story of Mary and Martha, where Mary just visits with Jesus while Martha does all the work around the house. So the abbot gave a book to this brother to read, and put him into an empty cell. At the ninth hour (which is about 3 in the afternoon) the brother looked out and gazed along the path to see if anyone was coming to call him to a meal. After a while he went to the abbot, and asked, “Did the brethren eat to-day?” The abbot told him that they had already eaten. Then said the brother, “Why did you not call me?” The abbot answered him, “You are a spiritual man. You have surely no need of such food as we eat. We, indeed, are but carnal; we must eat. We labor, but you have chosen the good part. You read all day, and have no wish to receive carnal food.” At this point this brother asked the abbot and the other brethren of the monastery to forgive him.

As we celebrate and observe Lent this year, remember that it is not important what people may think about you.
Our reputation should be the least of our concerns.

For Lent this year:
Find some practice,
perhaps some offering of your time and attention,
perhaps some self-sacrifice that no one else need know about.
Perform this offering to the Lord in secret, as though your left hand knows not what your right hand is doing.

In our lessons for today, the prophet Isaiah has some suggestions for us about what we might do for Lent this year, I am reading from the God’s Word version of Isaiah.

Is this the kind of fasting I have chosen?
Should people humble themselves for [only] a day?
Is fasting just bowing your head like a cattail
and making your bed from sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call fasting?
Is this an acceptable day to the LORD?
This is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
Loosen the chains of wickedness,
untie the straps of the yoke,
let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke.
Share your food with the hungry,
take the poor and homeless into your house,
and cover them with clothes when you see [them] naked.
Don’t refuse to help your relatives.
Then your light will break through like the dawn, and you will heal quickly.
Your righteousness will go ahead of you,
and the glory of the LORD will guard you from behind.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer.
You will cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am!”


Isaiah 58:1-12

Thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
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,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
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.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”