Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
February 22, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the Christian tradition Lent is a time of fasting. Thatís why we have that tradition of giving up something for Lent. Fasting is an ancient and universal spiritual tradition. It is practiced to take a personís mind off of worldly things and put it onto spiritual things, the things of God. Lent with its tradition of fasting and deprivation is supposed to be a time of introspection, a time of personal soul searching, a time of confession and thus a time of drawing closer to God. The emphasis in Lent tends to be very personal, focusing our attention on the state of our spirits and the health of our souls.
People in ancient Israel fasted. We see that practice in our reading today from Isaiah. There the people fast. They expect their fast to please God, and they expect God to shower them with blessings in return; but it wasnít happening. The prophet reports the people saying ďWhy do we fast but you do not see?Ē They thought God wanted them to fast, and they didnít get it why, as near as they could tell, their fasting wasnít pleasing God, wasnít bringing them the blessings they expected. They thought God wanted their fasting, their refraining from food and their humbling themselves before God. They did that, but it didnít seem to be working for them.
So the prophet tells them what the problem is. It turns out that these peopleís problem was that they misunderstood what it was that God really wanted from them. See, they were doing their fasting. They were humbling themselves. They were lying in sackcloth and ashes, that classic biblical symbol of confession and contrition. But Isaiah says: Thatís not what God wants from you! Hereís your problem. You fast, but you arenít transformed. You fast, but you donít change your lives. He gives them examples. He says you fast, then you go out and oppress your workers. You fast, and then you fight. You do a great job of going through the motions of fasting, but you donít get what fasting is really about. You donít get what God really wants from you.
Hereís what God really wants from you, God says, in words Isaiah attributes to God:
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? Isaiah 58:6-7 (NRSV)
Iím not sure what that last line about not hiding yourself from your own kin is aboutómaybe itís about taking care of your family first, but the rest of Godís message here is pretty clear. God doesnít want your fasting. God doesnít want your acts of contrition and penance. Or at least, God doesnít want those things when they do not work toward transformation in your life. Isaiahís diagnosis of the peopleís problem is that their spiritual practices of fasting, of penance and contrition, do not lead them to live more as God wants them to live. It does not prepare them to serve Godís people. Isaiahís examples have mostly to do with serving Godís people. He says: You give up some food, then you make sure your employees donít earn enough to feed their families. You cry mea culpa, or whatever the ancient Hebrew was that means I am guilty. Then you confiscate the property of the peasants who have borrowed money from you and take the last little bit the local widow has to live on. You give up a meal you can easily afford to miss, then you do nothing to make sure that no one has to worry about where their next meal is coming from. You rub some ashes on yourselves, then you go back to your comfortable, secure, warm homes and care nothing for the people you pass on the way who have no home. That, Isaiah says, is why the peopleís fasting is not bringing them any benefit. It is not transforming them into more faithful followers of God.
So here we are, about to cry mea culpa and put some ashes on our foreheads. Does what I just said mean that we shouldnít do that? Does what Isaiah says mean that we are wrong to confess, wrong to mark our contrition and our awareness of our own fallibility and our own mortality with the imposition of ashes? No, I donít think thatís what our Isaiah passage means. I do think that it means that none of what we do here will be pleasing to God if it does not transform us into more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Nothing we do here will be pleasing to God unless we become people of justice, justice for the poor and oppressed, justice that is everyone having enough and no one being oppressed by another. Justice that is the creation of social, economic, and political systems that work for the benefit of the neediest among us, that listen to those we now do not hear, that protects not the assets of the wealthy but the wellbeing of the poor. Nothing we do here will be pleasing to God if we then go on ďstriking with the fist,Ē to use Isaiahís term, if we do not become people of peace.
Obviously we canít walk out of the church this evening, wave a magic wand, and magically bring such systems into being. We canít magically create the Kingdom of God on earth. But we can consider how we live. We can consider what it means for us to live as followers of Jesus Christ and not just believers in Jesus Christ in this time and place. We can consider how we contribute to systems of oppression and exploitation, to systems that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, for we all do that. We can consider what more we can do to feed the hungry and house the homeless, for no matter how much we do now we can all do more. We can use our spiritual Lenten practice to bring us nearer to God; and we can understand that as we draw near to God, God is going to want to turn us right back around and send us back out into the world as transformed disciples of Christ. To do justice as we are able, whatever our station in life. To be people of peace. If our Lenten practice, here this evening and throughout the next forty days, will transform us into more faithful followers of Jesus Christ, then our spiritual work will achieve its true goal, and our fast will be one that truly is pleasing to God.
So let us fast. Let us pray. Let us confess. Let us put on the ashes of repentance. But let us understand that those things are not ends in themselves. Let us understand that they are not ends but means, means of spiritual transformation, means of spiritual growth, means of coming closer to God, means of becoming more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.