Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Isaiah 58:1-12

Ash Wednesday, as I'm sure many of you know, marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, forty days of fasting and repentance (not including Sundays) that lead up to Easter. As Jesus tested himself in the wilderness, so Christians test themselves in Lent.

About that word "repentance":  it's easy to get caught in the old sense, meaning something akin to, if not actually, "self-flagellation." Don't do it. Lent is not a time to hate oneself. Rather, it is a time to repent in the Hebrew sense: to turn, to modify, to change one's evil ways. And as Isaiah tells us, Lent is a time to make that turn on behalf of the community.
It is the community, after all, that has rebelled against God as our reading from Isaiah opens. "Day after day" they seek God in empty ritual, mouthing the right words while not changing their hardened hearts.  They are hypocrites without equal: they worship

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness,
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
    they ask of me [God] righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.

As if that weren't bad enough, they expect results from their religious observances:

Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?

God (through Isaiah) has a very succinct answer to these questions:

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.

If penitence is about making you feel good about yourself, it's not going to get you very far with God. There is no way to buy righteousness. Instead, God has some suggestions:

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?

You want to do something nice for me? God asks. You want to do a little fasting, a little repenting? Fine. Then change the rules of the game that keep some people on top and some people on the bottom.

That's not an abstract, "global" suggestion, either.  It's very specific to the individuals being addressed:

Is [my fast] 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?


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.

This is not giving up sweets for a few days.  The Israelites are called in this prophecy to nothing short of a radical reorganization of their society, so that justice and equity will become the highest virtues. Again, this is nothing abstract: Isaiah tells his listeners that this will involve your bread, your house, your food. Unless you are willing to risk your own material possessions, the prophet suggests, you have not entered into the kind of change that makes for true repentance.

Before we get into the application of the text, let's pause to notice a couple of things. First of all, it's scary enough to think about opening our front door to the homeless today, but remember, when these lines were first written, economic insecurity was an everyday part of life. To offer food to the hungry might very mean that you yourself would have to do without, and the same was true of offering clothing to the naked.  The people were being called to a significant material gamble here.

Second, these instructions contain an odd mix of idealism and common decency. Who should need to be told to take care of family? To not point a finger in blame at someone else, or to refrain from speaking evil against them? And yet we all need the reminder, don't we? Anyone who claims that they've never talked trash about somebody else is a liar. The same goes from pointing fingers at the Bush administration, Republicans in general, or one another. Whether or not they deserved to have a finger pointed at them is irrelevant; even if we can feel justified in our blame, we have allowed our society to continue in such a fashion that blame needs to be apportioned. The very fact that we can point the finger means that we are still caught in the yoke of injustice and sin. For were we able to create a perfect world, there would be no need to blame anyone for its shortcomings.

The ashes we take upon our foreheads we take for ourselves. No one else.

Last, notice that this text requires no creed, no assent to a list of intellectual propositions or "right belief" in order to participate in the proper fashion. That's because the ancient Israelites could assume such things: if you were a Jew, you believed in God, and that was that.  But for our purposes, no matter. The repentence of Ash Wednesday is to be found in the doing, not the thinking.

Which brings us to the application portion of our sermon. Reading the Daily Kos every day is fine; we learn a lot, share a lot, build up friendships and connections that are invaluable. But to paraphrase Paul, if I hit the refresh button and do not have love, then I am nothing.

The essence of love is service, and what we are called to by Isaiah is nothing more complex than concrete, material acts of loving service. Set aside the questions of political activism, positioning, message discipline, and all that rot. Jeff Gannon will still be around for hunting purposes tomorrow; Howard Dean will more than likely still become Chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Sunday.

But you and I came here because we wanted to make a difference, and tonight is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to doing just that. So, no partisanship, no asking for "righteous judgments" on behalf of our side. Just step forward, take some virtual ashes, drop a buck in the plate for a charity or three:

Anddon't forget to pray that all our repentence may be real, and that the results of our efforts may be a society transformed:
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.


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