Beyond the Fast - Ash Wednesday

Beyond the Fast
Ash Wednesday 2015
Second Presbyterian Church

Watch the sermon online here.

Isaiah 58:1-14

"Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“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. 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. 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.

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

"Remember that you are dust; and to dust you shall return." - Ash Wednesday
Our annual journey through the Christian calendar has brought us here in this sanctuary surrounded by these people, our neighbors and colleagues; strangers and friends - fellow pilgrims on this journey of faith. Together, we have journeyed through the hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent, the incarnation of Christmastide, and the bright light of Epiphany.

Here we are tonight. There is something different, something unique about this night in the church calendar; this Ash Wednesday. Tonight marks the beginning of a forty day journey. Forty days that are reminiscent of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism in the Jordan. These forty days, our forty days, are to be days of reflection, repentance, penance, fasting, and preparation for Holy Week and the glory of Easter morning.

Tonight those forty days begin.

We have gathered from many places, many backgrounds, and many faith experiences in this place on this night for many different reasons. Some of us have likely come tonight longing for something that we cannot quite name; some have come in the darkness of this cold wintery night because there is something missing; perhaps some of us are here out of a feeling of necessity - this is just the thing to do and the place to be; maybe some are here because in one way or another we were compelled to be here by a parent, a loved one, or that strange voice that seems to beckon us to follow into some of the most unlikely places.

And here we are on this odd night. This thing that we have gathered here to do is an incredibly curious thing. Regardless of the reasons we have come, we will receive ashes mixed with oil, we will hear the words "Remember you are dust; and to dust you shall return;" and we will eat the bread and drink the wine partaking in the death of Jesus the Christ. And we hope to be encouraged.

But on this Ash Wednesday the stinging words of the prophet Isaiah ring in our ears. On first reading, these words do not sound like words of promise. They are harsh. They are pointed. They are challenging. Yet, if we listen closely enough we will find hidden in them a message that could shape our journey throughout these forty days and the manner in which we live out our life of faith every day.

In our text, we hear the words of the Lord through the voice of the prophet speaking to the people of Israel at the end of the exile. We are told in other texts from other sources from the same era that it was during this time that Israel's worship had become nothing more than a hollow exercise (Zechariah 7). We hear this sentiment echoed at the beginning of our passage. It wasn't that the people weren't doing the right things, it was what lay behind their pious activity that was the problem. The questions they asked betrayed the motivation of their pious acts. “Why do we fast," they ask "but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Their questions betray their understanding that their acts of faith were somehow all about them. That somehow they were trying to turn God into some kind of convenient tool for them to use to get what they most wanted. That their religious acts would make God notice them. That somehow their worship would force God to grant them salvation. They were not fasting incorrectly, they were asking the wrong questions. In response to their piety, the prophet spoke these difficult words, "Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day...Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high."

In hearing these words, I must confess that I cringe because in the questions I hear my own voice. I hear my own insecurities, my own mixed motivations, my own sin, laid bare. "Why do you not hear me, O God? Why should I humble myself, but you do not notice?" And I shake my fist at the heavens as if this faith venture that we are all on together was somehow only about me. And my selfish motives are revealed for what they really are. One commentator wrote that these questions are the questions of "anxious idolatry eager to make God 'useful,' worshipping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one's own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today (in both liberal and conservative garb). All desire the power to save themselves. All" (Curry 4).

If we are honest, don't we all long to have a hand in our own salvation? 
Is this not what makes grace such a difficult concept to grasp?

Often, we like the unnamed people of Isaiah's text are afraid that somehow we are not doing this right. We are afraid that somehow if we do it wrong God will not notice our piety as if there was anything that we could do to make God not notice our lives. Our activities. our religious assemblies, often betray that perhaps we do not really believe that God is present after all.

Our text does not leave us there. No, the prophet calls the people to a different way of thinking, to a different way of seeing, to a different set of questions to be asked. The prophet calls the people to repent; to turn away from their old ways and turn toward the fast God desires. Isaiah pens these words from the heart of the divine, "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?"

This is a call to a different way of faith. This is a call to turn away from self-indulgent religiosity. The people of Israel were called to move beyond their shallow fasts. They were called to remember their own humanity and to remember the others in their midst. They were called to live into their connection to the whole of God's creation. It was not their religiosity that had gotten them noticed by God in the first place. No, God had set them apart long ago so that all nations might be blessed through them.

Theologian and First Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann writes, "The neighborly actions urged here require a decision against self-indulgence, thus a mode of fasting…Well-being comes only in a community of neighbors. The alternative here implicitly warned against is selfishness, greed, indifference, and exploitation that are anti-community. These latter practices are never the bases for a viable life in the world, and can never be" (Brueggemann, 189-190).

We hear the call of Isaiah to turn toward this self-forgetfulness echoed in the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus said, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." This is the fast that God chooses: a setting aside of selfish ambition and self-indulgent piety…a willingness to respond to the call to see our own humanity reflected in the lives of those in our midst.

In a moment we will all be invited to come to the front to receive the mark of the cross in ash on our forehead or on the back of our hand, and we will hear these words spoken to us, "Remember that you are dust; and to dust you shall return." In hearing these words, may we be reminded of our own humanity. May we be reminded that we are people of dust. In receiving these ashes, may we be reminded this night through the strength and saving grace of the One who became a dusty human that we are truly and fully human, and that we are seen. May we remember that it is God who breathed the breath of life into our dusty form much like God breathed into the first pile dust we call Adam. 
In receiving these ashes, may we be reminded that because we are seen we have been freed to see the other for the dusty vessel of the divine breath that they are.

In seeing the mark of the cross on the foreheads of those who have gathered here with us, may we be reminded of their own dusty, fragile existence. In seeing us all marked, may we remember to see and reach out to the Christ we see in everyone we meet.

The fast that God chooses is to turn and rid ourselves of our self-indulgences, of our tireless desire to be noticed by the divine, so that we can work for God's justice in the world.

Only in being fully human can we acknowledge the dusty existence of those around us who are also striving to be acknowledged, to be seen, for who they are. And together we have a mandate to move beyond the fast so that the light of God may shine through us because we have allowed ourselves to be transformed into our true selves - fully human, blessed by God to be a blessing to others.

This Lent may we have the courage to move beyond the fast and turn toward one another. Amen.


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