A Lenten Sermon based on Isaiah 58:1-12.
The Almighty One in the book of the Prophet Isaiah asks: “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?” These are hard words on a day when we gather together to have ashes placed on our foreheads in an act of our own humility. We gather midweek at church to begin a holy Lent, with maybe some hope of getting a little extra credit, and already God is begging the question, “Why are you here?”
The Lord continues: “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?” What God says to us, the ones assembled on this holy day, is that we shouldn’t worry about extra credit or appearing to be holier than the ones not here with us. That if we truly want to understand the desires of God, we should fast from those things in us that cast down the lowly and harm the poor. We should look more closely at our own lives and the sin that makes us turn a blind eye to the ones in need. We should question those in power who create systems of injustice that perpetuate the status of the poor and the ones living in poverty.
And in one fell swoop the Word of the Lord shifts Ash Wednesday from being about us to being about others. Humility isn’t really humility if we do things we hope will show others how humble we are. “Beware of practicing your piety before other in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
According to measures put together by the USDA some 767,000 people in Massachusetts faced what is known as “food insecurity” during 2013, including more than 87,000 right here in Worcester County. “Food insecurity refers to a lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. Food insecure households are not necessarily food insecure all the time. Food insecurity may reflect a household’s need to make trade-offs between important basic needs, such as housing or medical bills, and purchasing nutritionally adequate foods.” Nationwide there are more than 48 million people living in food insecure households, with 15.3 million of those being children.
We have a collection of prayers that we use at meal times in our house that we purchased from Forward Movement. The prayers can be propped up so they can be said by all. One of my favorites is this: “Lord, feed the hungry. And for those of us who have plenty, may we hunger for you. Amen.” I love its brevity and clarity to be sure, but I’m also taken by its clarion call to do something more. I know that I am the Lord’s hands and feet, and that the answer to my prayer—the feeding of the hungry—can happen through me if I truly hunger for God. It can happen if I recognize the plenty I already have. If I choose the right kind of fast.
Four years ago some of us read together Chris Seay’s book A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor. It’s a daily devotion for Lent that reflects on how for many of us our lives are shaped by food, what we’re in the mood for, whether we need to cut back on carbs, or how we turn to food for comfort. Most of the poor in our world do not have this luxury. Chris invites us to make food choices reflecting the poor during the 40 days of Lent. Perhaps eating food similar to the family of a child we sponsor through a relief organization, or making do on the amount families get through SNAP and other programs. He encourages his readers both fast and, one day a week, to feast with joy in order to recognize the abundance of God’s kingdom, and allowing for the rhythm of Lent with Sundays always marked as a feast day as we remember Jesus’ resurrection.
With all this in mind, I’ve personally decided to forgo lunch and any snacks from breakfast until dinner during Lent, and intentionally making those meals generally simpler—oatmeal and fruit in the morning, and soups and bread in the evening. I’m doing this to remember the food insecure among us—the parents who choose not to eat so they can give more of the little food they have to their children—and to live into that prayer that I may hunger for God. This sort of thing is not easy for me—many of you know I love to cook and eat food in general—and I’m not telling you this to make myself look good or somehow holier because I don’t think that at all really. I just want to hunger for God; to take on the fast that God desires. To share bread and shelter and clothes with those who might need it. To give away the money I won’t be spending on lunches to an organization feeding the ones truly in need. To not only pray for change to happen but to become more involved and work toward that change myself, all the while relying on God for sustenance.
And my prayer for you is that whatever you may be feeling called to give up or take on this Lent, that you do it for no other reason than wanting to draw closer to God. That your devotion or fasting or alms-giving would show your desire to hunger after God and to walk more closely with Jesus in the days ahead. When we do these things, Isaiah tells us, “Then the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in the parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.” May it be so for each of us these 40 days. May we have all our needs satisfied by the Almighty. Amen.