The disciplines of Lent are the shaping of your whole life to live in the grace and love of God for you and share it with the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When was the last time you fasted and disfigured yourself so everyone would know what you were doing?
Or when did you last make your offering in a public way, announcing to all what you were giving? Do you have a problem with praying out loud on street corners so people know you are faithful?
These are the things Jesus critiques today, and it makes us wonder if they even apply to us. Isaiah’s criticism is easier to grasp: his people are fasting and putting on ashes as a sign of repentance, but they aren’t changing their lives. And they’re disappointed God isn’t impressed with their rituals.
But fasting, giving, and praying are disciplines that believers have found deep grace and help in practicing, and in which they’ve experienced the Holy Spirit’s power to transform them. And, every Ash Wednesday, the liturgy invites us to the “disciplines of Lent,” “self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love.”
These disciplines may not always be things we hold in our hearts on a daily basis, whether in or out of Lent. But they can be a tremendous gift on our path of faith that the Holy Spirit can use to shape us as Christ, the calling we each received in our baptism. That’s Ash Wednesday’s invitation to you.
The discipline of fasting may be the most important one we could learn today.
Isaiah says fasting is far more than intentionally going without food for a time. The fast God seeks, Isaiah says, is nothing less than loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing and breaking the yokes that bind people in oppression, and freeing those people.
All these systemic problems in our culture and world that we’ve been awakened to see over the last number of years and most especially since the trauma this past year in Mount Olive’s city and neighborhood, all these, Isaiah says, must be broken apart and ended. That’s true fasting. And it’s a huge job. How can anything you or I do on Ash Wednesday, or ever, loose the bonds of injustice and break yokes of oppression?
Fortunately, in the next verse Isaiah makes it simpler. The fast God wants is for you to offer your bread to someone who’s hungry. Invite someone who has no house into your home. Provide clothing for someone who’s naked. Concrete, personal acts will show God where your heart is. And as each of us do such concrete, personal acts, the greater systems start to fall apart, too.
Most of us don’t have the spiritual habit of fasting to compare to Isaiah’s turn.
But even if many of us may not fast, a lot of us have gotten into the habit of giving up something for Lent. Use that as your entry into Isaiah, and exercise the discipline of self-examination and repentance here.
What if you quit thinking about giving up something for Lent and began to consider what you could give up for life that could draw you closer to your path as Christ?
No one is helped if I don’t eat chocolate for six weeks. But if I learn to let go of things that draw me from God, behaviors, privilege, assumptions, or even material things like food and possessions, many others could be blessed.
Because Isaiah says that true fasting, in addition to engaging personally with hunger and homelessness and poverty, is ultimately not hiding “from your own kin.” Fasting is seeing all people as your family – siblings, cousins, beloved – and your life as affecting all. When you let go of something you cling to, for the sake of someone else, you will be God’s blessing in ways you can’t imagine.
This might suggest a different way to practice the discipline of giving, too.
Mount Olive is a deeply giving congregation. Just in this past year we saw so many generously give food and time and energy over the months we had a food distribution in the parking lot, to help those who lost access to stores in the unrest. A number of times, word was sent out that we had a neighbor in need, and within a couple days supplies, furniture, household goods, all that was asked was given abundantly by you. This is good and a blessing, as is all that is given by Mount Olive’s people financially for God’s ministry here and around the world. This answers what Isaiah proclaims God is seeking.
But what if we imagined giving as also part of fasting? For example, what if fasting meant for you that you were willing to spend more money and more time to get what you need because it supported local businesses which paid local workers a just minimum wage, or because it avoided businesses that harmed their workers or the environment? If you “fasted” from convenience and cheap prices for the sake of the other? That both gives food and clothing and homes to those without and also starts breaking down the yokes of oppressive business practices and unjust economic realities.
What fasts might you be called to undertake, for the sake of God’s children, your siblings, in need?
The discipline of letting go, either for a time or permanently, can shape your life in profound ways. Your behaviors and attitudes, even prejudices and assumptions that seem written in, can be let go and changed. And such a discipline can be a blessing far beyond the confines of the Lenten season. It can continue past Easter, to the rest of your life. That’s the point of Lent, isn’t it? To learn patterns and disciplines of living our baptism that we can carry with us through the joy of Easter and into the life of God that flows in us always.
The mystery of these disciplines is they bring joy.
As daunting as the social problems are in our world, as much as we think we fail to faithfully deal with the systems of injustice and oppression, hunger and homelessness, being disciplined into becoming God’s blessing isn’t a burden. Isaiah says it’s a path filled with God’s light where you also become God’s light to others. Living these, you’re like a garden planted by a spring, and God’s Spirit pours into your life what you need to thrive and be filled, while blessing others through you.
And, Isaiah says, when we do these, we’ll even raise up ruined cities, repair breaches in our society, restore streets to live in. You and I are invited to renew our discipline today, that God’s Spirit might open that path of life for all God’s world.
And the great joy is, you get to be a part of God’s grace in bringing life and hope to this world, too.
In the name of Jesus. Amen