Ash Wednesday Sermon (2013)

Ash Wednesday
Texts: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21;
2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Isaiah 58:1-12


Someone recently asked me about fasting as a practice of the Christian faith. Should today’s Christian fast? Where does one find meaning in the faith practice of fasting?

If we go by today’s Gospel Reading, it might sound like we should quit fasting as a practice altogether. Jesus has challenging words about the way some folks in his day practiced fasting. But we do know that Jesus himself fasted. In fact, we’ll hear the most dramatic story about it in just four days. Our Gospel Reading on the First Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan, at the end of fasting for forty days and forty nights. So we definitely know that Jesus himself found meaning in fasting. But what’s the difference? Why does he seem to condemn fasting in certain circumstances and yet practice it himself in other circumstances?

We might classify the difference in terms of individual sin, most often along the lines of pride or humility. Jesus seems to be describing folks who fast as a showy act of pride, puffing themselves up in the process, and trying to make themselves look better than others. It is fasting as a looking good strategy, we might say. And proper fasting is done with humility before God — your Father who is in secret, says Jesus. Jesus himself certainly did that when fasting in the wilderness.

But I’m not sure we’ve really gotten to the depth of what fasting should mean for us yet. Why do we fast at all? OK, it’s better to do it with humility instead with showy pride. But why do it in the first place? Is it simply a religious rule to follow? Our First Reading from Isaiah seems to be seeking the deeper answers of why, and the answer back from God is that the fast God wants is to “loose the bonds of injustice,” a fast of ‘offering your food to the hungry’ and ‘satisfying the needs of the afflicted.’

I think we can deepen our understanding of fasting, then, by once again seeing the bigger picture of God’s salvation in the Bible. God is not just about saving individuals — helping us be more humble, for example, and less prideful. God is also about saving our sin-infected human institutions — our religion, chief among them. In other words, when it comes to a religious practice like fasting, God isn’t saving the way in which individuals fast; God in Jesus is saving this whole religion business so that the practices that are part of religion, like fasting, are also saved.

The handout for today gives an overview of how God is saving religion. It’s titled “The Evolution of Religion” because God seems to work very, very slowly. We might consider what Jesus did to change religion to be more dramatic and revolutionary, but we have still been very, very slow to follow in his radical steps — evolutionary in our pace of changing.

But let’s take a quick look at the illustration before returning to our theme of fasting. The six contrasting diagrams give us two main categories of religion. The left-hand column represent the first 100,000 years or so of how human religion evolved centered on blood sacrifice. The word “sacrifice” might even confuse us a bit because Jesus has already redeemed the old sacrifice on altars and turned it into something quite different, namely, merciful self-sacrifice and self-giving. When we talk about sacrificing something for Lent, we should already be talking in terms of how Jesus redeemed it, how he changed it into something else. In the third row of figures, for example, it pictures the change from literal blood sacrifice to the sharing of bread and wine around a table.

And the second row of figures shows how God in Jesus began working this change. When our human ancestors killed people or animals on altars, they were seeking to repeat the peace that came from actually and literally scapegoating someone. Jesus came and let himself be the one scapegoated so that God could raise him out of the tomb to not only forgive us as individuals but to actually begin to redeem the way we try to win peace by scapegoating.

So let’s go to the top row of figures and return to our topic of fasting. When religion is structured as old-time sacrifice, it becomes about following the rules so that the majority can look good at the expense of the minority. It even tends to justify the majority to the neglect of the marginalized. Fasting in the old-time religion is part of the looking good strategy and has little or nothing to do with helping the hungry or needy. The righteous majority can simply stand over against the marginalized with their fingers pointing in accusation: we follow the rules, they don’t.

But something amazing happened when Jesus came to redeem 100,000 years of doing religion. In the path of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jesus took the place of the marginalized, the accused, transforming religion forever. And so the religious practices are also transformed, like fasting. Fasting becomes meaningful as a way of doing what Jesus did and does, taking the place of the marginalized, standing in solidarity with the poor. It fulfills what God says to the prophet Isaiah about a fasting that looses the bonds of injustice, by offering your food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. It’s why in Matthew’s Gospel, the Jesus who begins his teaching with the Sermon on the Mount that we here today, finishes his teaching with the Parable of the Sheep and Goats: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirst, and you gave me to drink. You welcomed as the stranger, clothed me when naked, took care of me when sick, and visited me in prison. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25:31-40)

It’s why after the meal transformed out of a sacrifice, which we share again tonight, we will leave this place with the words, “Go in peace. Remember the poor.” In short, meaningful fasting is something our youth have come to lead us in every November with the 30-hour Famine. They fast not as a looking good strategy but in their growing hunger to meaningfully be in solidarity with the hungry of this world and be moved to do something about it. So please turn you handouts over now, and I would like to invite you to prayerfully consider a commitment to fasting this Lent, a fasting that goes without something as a way to mindful of the billions on this planet who go without many of life’s necessities. And a fasting that replaces the going without with something constructive to do about it.

[Extemporize explanation of the “Commitment to Fast” from handout.]

Finally, you might wisely ask, “What about after Lent? Shouldn’t we continue fasting that leads to loosing the bonds of injustice? If we just do this during Lent, doesn’t it run the danger of being a looking good strategy, the old-time sacrifice way of doing religion?” Good questions! Hopefully, they can be among the questions we answer as we take on a visioning process this year at PoP and seek to set goals that focus our mission. How do we embrace the religion that Jesus is redeeming for us so that we continue to live lives of loosing the bonds of injustice, of offering our food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 13, 2013

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