Ash Wednesday, Year A, 2008

Today we begin, what seems far too soon, the season of Lent. We take off our Mardi Gras beads, put away the pot of chili from the Superbowl game, and turn off CNN after watching Super Tuesday coverage. We quiet ourselves, center ourselves, and open ourselves to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his own death.

To honor this, we traditionally choose some sort of sacrifice, a fast, to help us connect to Jesus’ experience.

This year, I was well on my way to considering whether to give up chocolate, or wine , or ice cream for Lent. After all, those are all things I really, really enjoy. I would be sad if I could not enjoy them for six weeks. I might even channel that sadness into moments of thinking about God, or a deeper prayer life. And giving up television would be cheating, since the Writer’s Strike took care of that, anyway.

In the midst of these deliberations, I began preparing this sermon. Oof. Our passage from Isaiah today certainly takes the wind out of our sails, doesn’t it?

Here we are, gathered to think about our own mortality and begin six weeks of repentant behavior, when Isaiah reminds us that the kind of fasting we begin today does not mean much to God.

Isaiah writes,

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.

Ouch.

I have no workers to oppress and I don’t intend to start any quarrels or to strike anyone with my “wicked fist”, but the kind of fast I traditionally do MIGHT just serve my own interests. After all, giving up decadent foods would make my cholesterol levels drop, my skin clear up, make my pants fit more loosely.

It is important to note that Isaiah does not say all fasting is bad. His fasting would go a little bit more like this:

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?

While we probably should not go spring prisoners from local jails, there are fasts we can take that fit into these standards.

We could take the money we would normally use at Starbucks, Best Buy or J. Crew and send it to a food bank or homeless shelter. We can sacrifice a couple of hours of paid leave to help out at Disciples Kitchen later this month. We can go through our clothes, or even buy new ones, and donate them to Shelter for Help in Emergency or another worthy organization.

We could even do something radical like start thinking about what we can do with the tax refunds that will becoming our way later this winter or spring. We may not have trouble paying our mortgage, but maybe we know somebody who does. Or maybe we’d like to tithe part of it to a group that provides transitional housing or housing assistance.

We can also sacrifice our time and money by becoming involved in political advocacy for those who cannot advocate for themselves. We can join the Episcopal Public Policy Network or the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. Instead of watching another endless hour of really terrible strike TV, we can write letters to our congressmen about the Millennium Development Goals to help eradicate global poverty.

There are many ways to experience the repentance that comes in Lent with out making the repentance all about us. Lent is not for endless naval-gazing, but for aligning ourselves with the One who came to earth to free us from all that oppresses us, even when that which oppresses us is ourselves. As people who have been freed and lifted up by God, we are then empowered to do the work God has been asking humanity to do since Leviticus was written—to treat one another fairly, to help the poor, to protect widows and orphans, to seek justice and to behave mercifully.

Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, to his own death, so that we might live within the grace and affection of God. In return, the least we can do is offer some of that grace and affection to our fellow men.

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