The holy season of Lent began yesterday with an invitation from the church to acts of spiritual disciplines. But why we do those acts — what is our motivation behind them — is really important. Our reading yesterday from the prophet Isaiah really homes in on what God expects. I must admit, it was a good reminder for me of what Lent can offer us if we focus not on our own spiritual journey for our own sake, but for the sake of others.
Ash Wednesday 2013— Is. 58:1-12
Isaiah receives these words from the Lord about God’s chosen people: “Day after day, they seek me, and delight to know my ways…they delight to draw near to God.” And yet, these people ask the Lord, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” “Look,” the Lord says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and you oppress your workers.” In other words, you make this all about you. But the Lord continues on to describe the fast he requires, to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to see the naked and cover them, to share a meal with the hungry, to “be available to your own family.” That’s what God desires more than anything else.
Biblical scholar Thomas Currie puts it this way, “[W]hat makes God’s ‘fast’ remarkable is not its social or political or economic sensibilities but its reckless self-forgetfulness. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?” is the question of an 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.”
At the beginning of this holy season of Lent we must ask ourselves whose interests we are serving by our intended religious piety over the next 40 days. We may have already decided that we will give up meat, or chocolate, or perhaps read a Lenten devotion once a day or be more faithful in church attendance, which are all fine endeavors, but are we merely hoping to save ourselves through these actions? Do we expect to get into God’s good graces through some trivial self-denial? If God’s desired fast is about “reckless self-forgetfulness,” then how do we transfer our focus from ourselves to others? How do we see what God intends for us through fasting? God declares that such a fast is about others, the hungry, the homeless, the poor and naked, and even our own families. Our self-denial isn’t about the significance of our own spiritual journeys; it should be concerned with the other, with those who are not us.
This is a question, ultimately, about community. God desires for us to experience the freedom in life to see others not as stepping-stones, or things to be used for our own good, but as children of God. When we reduce others to labels, to names based on their economic situation or nationality or political ideologies or the color of their skin, we dishonor them, and we also dishonor ourselves. By concentrating on ourselves, even our own longing for God, we miss the opportunity to draw closer to others who bear God’s image.
Philosopher Martin Buber expresses this quite well by comparing what he calls an I-It relationship with an I-You relationship. When I interact with someone, if I see only their house, or the way they can help me achieve my goals, or as an obstruction to the rest of my day, I see that person as an It. I’m not present with them. I get angry, or jealous, or dismissive towards them. My heart is hard. The opposite way, of course, is to enter into a relationship at that moment, to see them as an equal, to be concerned about them as human beings, as someone God loves. The person is no longer an It to me but a You. When I do this, I am set free from my own self-focused desires to a place where life can be fully experienced.
That is what God describes at the end of our lesson from Isaiah. If we fast as God desires, “then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.” “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.” If we enter into deep, life-giving relationships, our yearnings will be filled—not in selfish or self-serving ways—but through the very thing God “delights” in, “the life shared together.”
I invite you during this sacred season of Lent to fast in ways that draw you closer to “the other” in your life. Deepen your connections with your spouse or children by sharing meals together, or making time for conversations, or taking walks together. Maybe you could, as was recommended by a children’s book, sort through your old games and puzzles, take them to an assisted care facility and spend an hour playing a game with an elderly person who is craving connectedness with another person. Perhaps you could sign up for a turn at the Food Pantry, or Project Just Because in Hopkinton. Or you could possibly make a coffee date with someone here at St. Mark’s whom you’ve never gotten a chance to know. Is there a co-worker that could use a friend? Schools and libraries are often are looking for tutors. The possibilities are truly endless.
If we fast these next 40 days from looking inward and begin looking outward, then we will truly be prepared for Holy Week. Ash Wednesday is leading us to Christ’s Passion, as Thomas Currie puts it. The cross is “the place where God’s fast pours itself out for the sake of the whole world. There God’s fast becomes our food, and we are set free to sit at table with others whom we have not chosen and would never choose, to eat and even delight in this fearful mercy.” May it be so. Amen.