Grace Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2013, Ash Wednesday
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The Fast God Chooses
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
It’s one of those phrases that is so familiar, we assume by default it must be in the Bible, but it’s not; it’s from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dating at least back to 1662. It is part of the burial service, reminding those in attendance that all of us are subject to the same finality as the deceased. Not surprisingly, a phrase about ashes pops into the mind of many when the subject of Ash Wednesday comes up.
Ash Wednesday is not an inappropriate time to consider our own mortality. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent, the culmination of which finds us at a crucifixion site outside Jerusalem, where even our Savior tasted of the pain and indignity of human death. It is not inappropriate for us to keep in mind our own finiteness, the knowledge that our days are numbered, and that we don’t know exactly what that number is going to be. In a few moments you will be invited to take up a Lenten discipline and to come forward and receive a mark on your forehead or hand, a cross of ashes, and you will hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is not at all inappropriate to remember and reflect upon our finiteness on this day. The challenge is: what will we do with that knowledge? How will that reflection affect us?
There are good ways to be affected, and there are bad ways. There are positive ways to carry forward that realization, and there are negative, even damaging ways.
Matthew cautions us against some of those negative ways. In these verses Jesus warns his followers against the kind of piety and fasting that damages. Matthew records Jesus’s warnings in the context of three different kinds of pieties; giving alms, praying, and fasting. In each case Jesus weighs in against the kind of giving, praying, or fasting that exists mainly to be noticed by others. As crazy as it sounds, an influential person might well have had a trumpeter at hand to “announce” his gift before the public. (Today we just hire publicists or spin doctors for the same effect.) Likewise, it wouldn’t have been unusual to see such a person out on the street praying in a particularly ostentatious manner. (We have “prayer breakfasts” for that now, I guess.) And a person on a fast might well go about with a face pulled down into a frown, all the better to provoke others to ask “oh, dear, what’s wrong?”
Note that Jesus is not warning against giving alms or praying or fasting; in fact Jesus presumes his followers will give alms and pray and fast – “whenever you give alms,” “whenever you pray,” “whenever you fast.” But the heart of the matter is why his followers pray or give or fast; is it to receive the praise of others? To check off a couple of boxes on the Official Good Person Scorecard? Or is it to give honor to God?
Isaiah adds a slightly different dimension to the question of practicing pieties like prayer and fasting. For Isaiah, it’s not just a matter of the public nature of the piety; it’s also about whether the whole life matches up to that public piety. For example:
If you sit down to your meal, but those who labored to make that meal possible are living in poverty or abuse despite their labor, is that the fast God chooses?
If you pray and sing and make all sorts of joyful noise in worship, but turn a blind eye when others of whatever faith cannot worship in peace without being harassed or even killed, is that the fast God chooses?
Short answer: no.
To the degree that we do not pursue justice in all its forms, to the degree that we tolerate or even profit from oppression or exploitation, to the degree that we assume hunger or homelessness or poverty or lack of educational opportunity or any of the conditions that plague women and men and children around us, our fast is pointless or worthless. It is no service to God whatsoever.
This is how our mortal days, our knowledge of our finitude and limited time, is to move us; to refuse to live with the way things are, to refuse to live in ease because of the oppression and exploitation of others, to loose the bonds of injustice, to set free the oppressed, to share our bread with those in need of bread and on down the list that Isaiah gives us, that is the fast God chooses. This is our rightful service. This is what goes hand in hand with the purification the psalmist sings in Psalm 51, and with the right-minded piety Jesus teaches in Matthew 6. The piety that comes from our deepest longing, the piety that cares only to be seen before God, the piety that changes the world: this is the fast God chooses.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “The Glory of These Forty Days” (87); Psalm 51 (196); “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81)