Ash Wednesday, Year C
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
February 17, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
What are you giving up for Lent?
Some are giving up chocolate, others give up soda, others give up snacking altogether.
One friend of mine used Facebook to announce to the world that for Lent she was giving up Facebook.
In college one year I gave up all music except for Gregorian chant,
setting aside my collection of 80's and early 90's electronic and techno pop hits.
But surely its not all about giving up stuff …
I know of some people who are taking on new disciplines,
including exercise, or better sleep schedules, or healthier eating.
These are all good and wonderful things, for sure.
If we were to abide by these commitments,
we'd find ourselves healthier and stronger,
both physically and emotionally.
But when did the Lenten fast become a tool for self-help?
These things sound more like New Years resolutions than they do acts of penitence or spiritual fasts.
I'm often one to advocate for the inherent spirituality and holiness of daily life,
to speak out on behalf of the faith that moves through and motivates us
even as we engage in the tasks of everyday life.
I think that we too often have erected a mighty fortress of religion and spirituality,
a wall dividing our everyday from our Sunday,
and I find this to be a terribly unhelpful and unevangelical thing to do.
In other ways we have descended too far in the other direction,
imbuing with spiritual significance a fast from Fritos or a seasonal abstention from M&Ms,
a self-help spirituality that says if it makes us happy and healthy
it must be spiritual and good.
Again, not that there is anything wrong with healthy choices and personal happiness …
these are wonderful things,
things that many of us would do well to take more seriously.
But giving up chocolate or chips (or chocolate chips!) is not a spiritual discipline or a penitential act,
as much as we who do it might call on God for help in our time of withdrawal.
So what is the fast to which our Lord calls us?
Let's turn to today's first reading, from the prophet Isaiah for guidance.
After years of exile in Babylonia, the people Israel are back in their promised land.
Yet, things aren't as good as they would have hoped.
They are ritually fasting and humbling themselves,
yet God doesn't seem to be listening.
In verse three of today's reading we hear the people complain:
"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"
But the voice of God responds immediately through the prophet,
first critiquing their fast before prescribing the kind of fast he calls his people to observe.
Isaiah accuses the people of serving their own interest on the fast day,
while oppressing all their workers,
of observing a fake humility of bowing the head
and lying in sackcloth and ashes.
This kind of fast – one of surface level sacrifices, of temporary humility –
is not the kind of fast that our Lord desires.
Which gets me to thinking …
If God was pretty unimpressed with sackcloth and ashes,
how should we expect him to be satisfied with M&Ms and exercise?
The fast that our Lord desires is not about us –
our health, be it physical or spiritual –
but about how we live with our neighbors, particularly our neighbors in need.
"Is not this the fast that I choose," God says in vs. 6:
"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?"
Once we hear that our Lord chooses for us a fast of justice and freedom,
one in which we share bread with the hungry and bring the homeless under our roofs,
clothe the naked and take responsibility for our neighbors –
yes, Cain, we are our brother's keeper –
we are unable to look at our fasting from junk foods as anything but a self-indulgence.
In our Gospel text today,
Jesus commends almsgiving, prayer and fasting,
acts of spiritual discipline that draw us closer to God and to his work in the world.
Jesus warns that these acts of piety can be misused for purposes of self-promotion,
but he commends them nonetheless,
recognizing that what we do has the power to change who we are.
That is the meaning of his final words,
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Where you put your treasure – be it time, money or energy – there your heart will follow.
We too often read this passage as condemnatory,
a holy finger-wagging at those whose hearts are in earthly treasure.
But if we look closely at the passage, we see that the heart follows the treasure –
where your treasure is there your heart will be also –
and thus that this teaching, placed after the guidance on almsgiving, prayer and fasting,
are words of encouragement for any who would dare
to "treasure" almsgiving, prayer and fasting.
Indeed, these words are words of instruction for any who need a change of heart.
Put your treasure – your time, energy, and money – into almsgiving,
put your treasure into prayer,
put your treasure into fasting,
and your heart will follow …
That is, Jesus promises that if you commit to giving alms,
to deep and daily periods of prayer, to fasting –
either in the form of abstaining from food and/or through radical acts of love for neighbor –
your heart will be changed,
and your life will be transformed.
We too often think that good works flow from the commitment of faith.
But what we see in this passage is something quite different –
that good works, that acts of spiritual discipline, can and will shape us,
conform us to the life of Christ.
And isn't that part of the Lenten experience, to be conformed to Christ,
to the one who conformed himself to us so that we might have life, and have it abundantly?
We ain't going to do it by giving up M&Ms and chips, that is for sure.
So why not give it a try?
Why not commit to sacrificial practices of generosity,
to deep periods of prayer,
and to the kind of fasting that abstains from the indulgences of the world
and turns us in love to our neighbor?
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
By taking on flesh, our Lord placed his treasure with us,
and his heart is and will be with us, always and forever.
In this Lenten season, let us put our treasure in Christ through acts of almsgiving, prayer and fasting,
for Christ promises us that where our treasure is, our hearts are sure to follow.
Thanks to Mark Allen Powell and his book Giving to God: The Bible's Good News about Living a Generous Life for the insight into "Where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also." Though his writing inspired part of this sermon, don't blame him if you don't like this sermon …
Though I always swore that I would be intentional about connecting liturgy and hymns to my preaching, I haven't always done it. Quite unintentionally, then, I noticed that the post-communion prayer today echoed some of the themes lifted up in this sermon:
Merciful God, accompany our journey through these forty days.
Renew us in the gift of baptism,
that we may provide for those who are poor,
pray for those in need,
fast from self-indulgence,
and above all that we may find our treasure in the life of your Son,
Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Prayer is from Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders Desk Edition, Ash Wednesday liturgy.