“Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”
I speak with you in the Name of God who forgives all Sins.
I am always struck by the irony of the readings for Ash Wednesday. On the day that the church calls us to a time of heightened piety, a time of heightened spiritual practice, the church has chosen scriptures that remind us of both Jesus' and Isaiah's warnings against piety. I should say their warnings against false piety, because neither Jesus nor Isaiah are saying that we should not practice the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and giving alms. Rather, they are calling us to right piety, practices of faith that are righteous. Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann describes righteousness as the characteristic of God to bring about life, not God bring about God's own life; rather God bring about life for others. Therefore, for our lenten practice to be righteous it cannot be selfish and or merely self-serving. It must bring about life for others.
Another way to look at this is from the viewpoint of sin. Sin is simply us being disconnected from God. This separation is made manifest in our disconnection from our neighbors, our fellow human beings. We eat while others go hungry. We are free while others are held captive to oppressive poverty and injustice. We visit each other when we are sick while others grow increasingly lonely and isolated. Ash Wednesday and the journey of Lent is an opportunity to be reconciled to God, to be reconnected with the power that created and loves all there is. This reconnection, this return to our source, is made manifest in our reconnection with our neighbors. St. Claire once said that Jesus gave us just two commands: Love God, love neighbor. When we do one we learn to do the other.
In a moment I am going to invite you the observance of a Holy Lent. I urge you not only to practice the three pillars of lent—prayer, fasting, and charity—but to craft your observance so that life is given to others. If you fast from food, then feed someone else. If you fast from watching TV, then play with your kids or help them with their homework. If you fast from road rage on the highway, encourage others to drive safely as well. If you take on exercise as a discipline, invite others to join you at the gym. If you decide to study a book of the bible this Lent, gather some friends for coffee and discuss it.
The prophet Isaiah poetically describes what our fast should be:
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.
May our fast always be so. May our worship always be so. May our lives always be so. Amen!