May only God’s word be spoken and may only God’s word be heard. Amen!
I have always marveled at the irony of the scripture selections for Ash Wednesday. On this day when we begin our Lenten journey; when many mainline protestant and Roman Catholic Christians get serious about practicing their faith on a daily basis; on this day when we are marked with ashes on our foreheads for all the world to see; we have this Gospel reading: "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.” And that is just the beginning. Jesus goes on to draw contrast between how some give alms, pray, and fast and how we should give alms, pray, and fast.
Jesus seems to be arguing that piety, the things we do to practice our faith, should be done in private. Indeed many in this day and age believe that our faith should be practiced in private. That living our faith is something we do in the privacy of our own homes and maybe a church, but it should be separated from our public life, kept away from our jobs and communities, where we shop, and what we buy. This attitude seems to be in line with what Jesus is teaching.
But yet, the church, the institution tasked with teaching and proclaiming good news, the institution that is supposed to teach us what to do to follow Jesus, invites us this day into a very public journey. We are invited to examine our selves, to critically take note of all the ways we are different from Christ today. Then we are to set about shedding those differences through our Lenten disciplines to come out at Easter more like Christ then we were on Ash Wednesday.
These Lenten disciplines get lived out in public. Whether we are giving up chocolate, alcohol, meat, or bagels; whether we are reading our Bibles every day, spending a half hour in prayer every morning, or pledging to not cuss while commuting, all these actions are done in public. They affect how we interact with people. Furthermore, if you have noticed around town, Omaha works differently during lent. Several of the Roman Catholic churches have fish every Friday night. The school systems still avoid Wednesday night for scheduling events because of Lenten and confirmation programs at churches. Even Taco Bell, I saw the other day, is advertising its Lenten menu. Lent is public. Yet Jesus seems to say that we shouldn’t practice our faith in public.
At least that what he seems to say at first glance, is we look closer to the reading we’ll notice that Jesus is speaking more about the spirit of our practice versus the venue. He warns against practicing faith in public so that one could better establish one’s self with others. He says don’t practice your faith in public in order to draw attention to yourself. Don’t do it to win friends and influence people; rather practice to build stores in heaven for where our treasure is, be it money or prestige, is where our heart will be.
A friend mine here in town, Chris Heuertz, is the executive director of the international mission organization Word Made Flesh based right here in Omaha. He recently published a book about the spiritual lessons he’s learned serving all over the world. Recently, I heard him speak about his book, and he talked specifically about fasting. He said when he was younger he fasted because that is what you did to show you were a serious Christian. Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee I don’t this and I don’t do that method of fasting. That is building stores on earth not in heaven. Chris what he has learned about fasting from both the scriptures and from living in some of the worst slums, ghettos, and barrios on the planet, is that you fast to make space in your life for others. To fast from eating does no good spiritually, if you do not help some else eat. To fast from shopping, does nothing to help you grow in Christ, if you do not clothe someone else. To fast from speeding does nothing for you unless you help safe guard other people on the road. To say, I will watch a half hour less tv every day and spend that time studying my bible doesn’t help unless you take the lessons learned from the word of God to create a more just world for all to live in.
That is why in our reading from Isaiah today we hear these words,
"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.
My Brothers and Sisters, I invite you to this holy journey of lent, not so that we can make ourselves better Christians, as if by our own power we could do such a thing. No, I invite you to this holy journey of lent so that with the help of God we can make a better world. “Won’t you come along and ride on that fantastic journey?” Amen!