Much More Radical than Politics
It is incredible to me that we have found our way, so quickly to Lent. It seems to me that just yesterday we were celebrating the Epiphany, and the day before that, Christmas.
I’m sure that we will blink, and Easter will be here. Perhaps that is the point - to show us how quickly time passes, how momentary this life is, as on Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our mortality in the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Lent is a season of remembering our morality, our station before the God that created us. It is a season of preparation for Easter, and it is a time for penitence. Lent is a season where we examine our lives and acknowledge our sinfulness before God.
For many, it is a season of self-denial, of fasting, even of self-deprecation. At its worst, I have even seen in some a season of self-hatred, where we focus so much on our sin, that we seem to forget about our salvation. As we put away our festival words during this time of year, is God calling us to also forget our redemption? Are we still Easter people during these forty days of preparation for Easter?
I would look to the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday for an answer, but I have always found this Gospel lesson perplexing and even awkward for the day. We gather into one room to hear a story where Jesus tells us to not wear our fasting and penitence on our sleeves for all to see, and then we proceed, as a group, to put our penitence on the most obviously visible place on our bodies, smearing ashes on our foreheads.
Are we doing exactly the thing that Jesus is teaching against? Have we made exactly the same error that led God through the prophets to say to Israel “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies?"
If we look to our reading from Isaiah, we can perhaps begin to see a larger context that Jesus’ words fit into. It’s easy to forget that Jesus is not a solitary figure but teaches in a tradition of the prophets. Much of his teaching is an illumination, or variation, or repetition of either the prophetic tradition of his Jewish faith, or the wisdom tradition of his people.
Our Isaiah reading today reminds us that for the Israelites, sin and salvation are not the individual, personal things we think of today. In the Hebrew Scriptures, both sin and redemption belong to the community, to the people of God.
The Covenant of the Law was made between Israel and their God. When they sin, God punishes them as a nation. When they cry out for deliverance, God saves them as a people. Even though Isaiah’s text was written thousands of years ago, it sounds all too familiar to those of us living in the United States today. The Lord says through Isaiah:
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?
This should hit close to home to those of us who live in “one nation, under God” where the gap between the rich and the poor is perhaps as dramatic as ever; in a nation where Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week, a nation where religious principles are used to support political agendas, where we “fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”
If you’re on social media then you know that the Christian faith promotes both a gun-toting, freedom focused loose set of laws on one side, as well as a peace loving, gun legislating bureaucracy, depending on your particular slant of Christianity.
We are divided more than ever before as a people, and we use our religion as a political beating stick. It would be easy to make the mistake of hearing the Ash Wednesday Isaiah text, with its talk of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, as an affirmation of our own country’s political “left”, of hearing in it a liberal political agenda and to promote political policies that support that agenda.
However, to do so would miss the point. Through Isaiah, God is calling the people of Israel to see that they are dependent on God alone, and when that utter and complete dependence becomes their only reality, they can see each other and their world in a radically different and new way, and seeing the world in a new way, can live in a radically different and new way.
God is not calling us to take positions on policies that affect our social life, either on our political right or our political left.
God is calling us to something deeper and even more challenging.
God is making us into a community transformed by his grace to likewise transform this broken world from a place where religion serves to divide us to a new reality where our religious practice serves to bind us together in loving action, as servants of God’s creation.
If we are sorrowful during this season of Lent, it is because, as a people transformed by the resurrection of Christ, our hearts break at the violence of this world, like the brokenness that would lead to the shooting of children in their elementary school. Our hearts break because of the injustice of this world, because of the tremendous gap between rich and poor. Our hearts break because of hate and intolerance of differences, and the continued system of racism and division. Our hearts break for the transgender and nonbinary children looking for love and acceptance for who they are, or for those in the entire lgbtq+ community who feel as though their very existence is under attack. Our hearts break for those who cry out “Lord, when is the acceptable time, when is my day of salvation?”
God is transforming us into a community, a holy people, set apart to reconcile this broken Creation to its Creator:
yes, to loose the bonds of justice, to let the oppressed and the slave go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to clothe the cold and naked, and to bring the homeless poor into where we are, into our very homes, to house and care for them as the greatest among us.
Through our fasting, we will become the bread of life that will feed the physical and spiritual hunger that is all around us. This call from God to a new way of living is far more radical, and far more demanding of our lives than any public policy.
This is the fast that God has chosen for us, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, the active agents of God’s healing Spirit in this world that he loves so desperately and unconditionally.
Ash Wednesday and the entire season of Lent, is not devoid of baptism, it is not empty of the new life that we have in Christ. This season is an expression, an extension of our baptismal call to die, completely, to ourselves, to empty ourselves fully, so that we can rise to new life and be filled with love, so that we may live for Christ.
We are all invited to enter into a Holy Lent, a period of intentional fasting and preparation of our hearts and lives so that we can give up the things that we cling to instead of God. We fast so that we set aside those things that keep us living for our old selves rather than living for Christ.
Through our spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, and penitence God will transform our hearts to more faithfully live our call to be ministers of forgiveness and reconciliation in this world. This Lent may we carry with us in our hearts the hope and truth of the Easter season, our promise of resurrection and life. I invite you this week to pray this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer for self-denial:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.