Lent 5 – April 2, 2017
Isaiah 58: 1-12

How is your Lenten practice going? Are you doing the forty days of kindness, or the forty days of gratitude? Are you fasting from something? I know that you have heard me say so many times, that I don’t want you to observe Lent by giving up chocolate. This is because I had this friend in Seminary named Sue who always gave up chocolate beginning on Ash Wednesday for the Lenten Season. Sue was tall, thin and beautiful, and it didn’t seem as though her body was harmed much by the consumption of chocolate. But she loved to eat chocolate and she thought to properly be attentive to the season, the chocolate had to go. Following weeks of deprivation, she observed each Easter by making this killer chocolate dessert. I think it was called “Better than sex.” I took one look at it and knew that it was a migraine in a pan. It was one of those chocolate desserts that was so rich that it would make you sick. I never really understood giving something up for six weeks and then consuming enough of it in one day to make you sick. I could not see what difference giving up chocolate made in one’s relationship with God.
Fasting was a normal practice in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Bible is full of examples of people fasting on occasions such as the Day of Atonement. People fasted during the times of war, or the threat of war. They fasted when their loved ones were sick. They fasted when loved ones died. They fasted when they were seeking God’s forgiveness. The fasted in the midst of impending danger and they fasted to commemorate events. Ultimately, they fasted to seek God’s favor.
That might be a bit strange to us. Most of us only fast before some dreadful medical test, and impending surgery, or because we are a bit freaked out about putting on some extra pounds. I know of a couple of you who fast and pray because you are seeking God’s guidance in some matter, but for the most part, fasting is not part of our cultural or religious observance as Western Christians.
We are not, however, immune to bargaining with God. Perhaps we can all think of times that we were afraid or overwhelmed and we prayed to God in desperation. We’ve prayed when staring down at an exam for which we have not studied. “Please God, if you just give me the answers, I promise to go to church every Sunday morning for a month!” We’ve bargained with God at the bedside of a loved one: “Lord, let him live just long enough to see our son married and I will do anything for you!”
That is the kind of fasting the Israelites were doing in this passage: the bargaining with God kind of fasting. Our lesson today, taken from the 58th chapter of Isaiah is a story about exiles who are completely discouraged. These Jews were returning home from Babylon charged with the task of rebuilding not only the Temple but also their broken lives. This people group had been enslaved in Egypt and then taken captive by the Assyrians, then they were exiled in Babylonia, subjugated by the Medes and the Persians. They were enslaved, brutalized and tortured by the Greeks, Romans and Europeans. As they were returning home, the people were feeling hopelessness- hopelessness and lethargic, disillusioned with the kind of deep despair that prevented common aims and ideals. They fasted as an act of worship believing that God would hear them and fix things.
We Americans certainly understand despair and disillusionment today. Since the inauguration, some of us have been deeply discouraged. We are sick to death of this war on terror; we are fearful for our environment disintegrating before our eyes, and our broken promises to other nations. We are sick about our immigrant friends who are being deported. We are disgusted that members of our own community can’t afford the most basic housing. We worry about the lack of access to family planning care for the poor and about basic human rights being taken away. We despair the constant violent use of firearms.
In our despair, we pray. We worship. We talk with each other, and then we go back to pulling the covers over our heads. How can this keep happening? What is the answer to our despair? We are told to go shopping. We are supposed to get a new IPhone or a bigger TV. A new shiny object to numb our discontent. Our economy is based on purchasing consumer goods. Our job as a good, patriotic and responsible citizen is to buy stuff. Our purchase of goods and utilization of services will pump up our economy and all will be well. America will be great again. It doesn’t matter if we can’t afford it, or are in debt, as long as we make timely payments, we contributing to the good of the nation.
I know that in the face of all this crazy that we too feel like exiles. Perhaps Isaiah’s question to us would be: “why do you consume, but are never full?” “Why do you fast, but do not see?” Isaiah’s challenge to the returning exiles was to continue to struggle for justice. Struggle for justice. We face the same challenge today. Isaiah suggests that true justice doesn’t spring from doing the culturally observed worship practice (Like fasting from chocolate for Lent), true justice springs from action! We must take action produce justice. But, this is not all. Anybody concerned with justice must respond to the problem of evil. I think of evil as the monstrous bureaucratic mess that you can’t quite get your hands around, because the answer is always at another window, or at the end of another line for which you never seem to have a number. Evil is no one taking responsibility for themselves. Evil is in the amendment to build a wall that gets tacked on to federal budget. Evil often looks like something that might be nice and helpful, but really only helps a privileged few while leaving others destitute or enslaved.
Confronting this oppression, releasing wicked restraints takes fortitude and it takes courage. Breaking every yoke, and setting free the mistreated also requires the courage to love – love that is daring and difficult and dangerous. The kind of love that requires that we confront ourselves and that we risk confronting one another. The kind of love that requires digging deep within ourselves to speak the TRUTH and bear witness to the truth, even when it isn’t popular.
This brings me to what I view as one of the most difficult aspects of our present moment- and this has been a distinctive benchmark of the decline of so many civilizations – that is the erosion of the systems of caring and nurturing. Anytime that you have a significant decline in the systems of caring and nurturing, it is difficult to produce courageous people. It is difficult to produce trustworthy people. It is difficult to produce virtuous and loving people. It is hard to cultivate character and integrity when people don’t have access to bonds of affection and affirmation. No one can do justice work alone.
If we can open our hearts and provide for those who are hungry, those who are suffering, if we can provide nourishment and love and care, then we will shine in the darkness. If we take care of those in needs, if we break down systems of injustice, we will know God’s constant and loving provision.
I believe that Isaiah is calling us in this Lenten season not to take up the fast of the consumer culture, but instead to take up the fast of producing nourishment, to courageously stare evil down and offer one another the food of gentleness and kindness. We are to offer one another the food of hope and justice. God has work for us to do.
When we produce this kind of nourishment we become, as the prophet promises the light in the midst of darkness, we are the water in parched places, we are the repairer of the breach. We are the hope of restoration, the mender of things broken, a restorer of livable streets.