February 13, 2013

The Fast That I Choose (Ash Wednesday)

Passage: Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Service Type:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?


“Though we profess to hate it, lying is common, useful and pretty much universal,” writes Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times. “It is one of the most durable threads in our social fabric and an important bulwark of our self-esteem. We start lying by the age of four and we do it at least several times a day, researchers have found. And we get better with practice. In short, whatever you think about Lance Armstrong’s admission that he took performance-enhancing drugs to fuel his illustrious cycling career, the lies he told may be no more persistent or outsized than yours, according to psychologists and others who study deception. They were just more public. And the stakes were bigger.”

Does the fact that lying is so common render deception palatable?  Does the fact that I have told lies lessen the reprehensibility of others in the lies they tell?  Does the commonality of deception mean we just shouldn’t be so exercised about it?  Our culture may tolerate lying except, it seems, when it comes to those who make a religious profession. Hypocrisy may abound among many but  “Hypocrite!” is  the charge levelled fastest at someone who makes a religious profession and whose practice then appears not to measure up to the profession.

In both Isaiah’s pronouncement on true and false fasting/worship and Jesus’ instruction from the sermon on the mount on acts of piety this problem is addressed;  the issue of our practices not matching our profession.  Our world may indeed be inconsistent in levelling the charge of hypocrisy (even hypocritical), reserving it especially for those who make profession of faith.  Still the hypocrisy of others hardly renders hypocrisy among the faithful less problematic.  In these texts of scripture our Lord is addressing his people and how we are to live for his sake.

1.  The English word hypocrite is derived from the Greek hupokrites. In Greek hupokrites is an actor, playing any role at all, in a Greek play. In the ancient Greek theatre each actor played four or five different parts in the course of one play. The actor wore a mask. When it was time to assume a different role, he stepped behind a screen and changed his mask. In addition, each false face the actor assumed had a device in it that magnified the actor’s voice. A hypocrite, in modern parlance, is someone who wears a false face, all the while talking in a loud voice. A hypocrite is considered a play-actor, a religious play-actor, who loudly advertises his phoniness. It’s no wonder we cringe when he hear the word used of anyone else and crumble when it’s used of us.

Does hypocrisy have to be deliberate?  Is it right to use the label when someone isn’t even aware of glaring discrepancy between profession and practice?

There are people who engage in conscious, contrived hypocrisy.  A calculated two-facedness that parades itself, cynically exploiting others, callously furthering self-interest—this is simply reprehensible.  One name that comes to mind from the world of American fiction is the name of Elmer Gantry. Gantry is a travelling preacher who professes allegiance to the gospel but who behaves deliberately in a manner that contradicts the gospel, regards people as suckers, and furthers his promiscuous agenda. Any such person who does this in real life properly arouses our disgust.

Yet there’s also a discrepancy between profession and practice where the discrepancy isn’t intentional, isn’t cynically exploitative, and isn’t knowingly self-serving. Think of Peter in the court yard as his master is being tried and he is identified as being one of Jesus followers; he didn’t set out to deceive.  Fear has as a way of distorting thinking and bending people into a shape no one would recognize.  Ignorance can be another source of discrepancy.  A person raised in is a prejudicial household absorb unconsciously these prejudices.  All of us have blind spots and until they are pointed out we are blind to them.  Further all of us have a vulnerable spot that temptation finds so readily.  Each of us has an Achilles heel. Temptation doesn’t “hook” us all in exactly the same place, but temptation hooks us unusually easily in some place. We aren’t all spiritually vulnerable in the same place; but we’re all spiritually vulnerable some place.

The Los Angeles times article (above) that pointed out that lying was “fairly universal” is not a surprise to the believer.  We aren’t going to deny the darkness that lurks within us. We admit that sometimes our residual perversity surfaces and our practices do not match our profession.

2.  When I hear God’s pronouncements through Isaiah of the fast that he chooses I know that I am called to live a life where profession is matched by practise.  “Is not this the fast that I choose: 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?”  The fast that is the starting point for the prophet is the Day of Atonement.  The fast God is calling to mind is the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:9-10) when “the trumpet is sounded” and “liberty is proclaimed throughout the land.” The God of Israel had liberated them; thus a faith in him required the same of them in their practices.

We must be clear that this text is not to be understood as saying that worship is unimportant.  Jesus does not say that fasting is to be set aside, but when you fast, implying that we are engaged in the spiritual habits of faith. The text is not to be read as saying—“instead of sitting around fasting get up a do something.”  Rather it is a call to recognize who we worship and align our lives with him.  This implies that the believer takes her discipleship seriously.  We are to view soberly the discrepancies between profession and practice; avoid excusing ourselves with lame extenuations: “Nobody’s perfect”; “I’m doing the best I can”.

I must confess that when I hear the prophets words like “to loose the bonds of injustice”, “to let the oppressed go free”, “to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house”; I confess I bristle.  Perhaps it is the years of hearing the pronouncements of those who claim to be doing justice work where the word justice seems to be used as a moniker for claiming a supposed moral high ground; eco-justice, food justice, climate justice, global justice to name a few.  The actions called for all end up the same—justice, so defined, demands that I should turn over the fruit of my labours to some bureaucratic agency who can best manage justice.  I suppose I am cynical because no matter how much is spent in these endeavours justice is never reached only an ever increasing claim over people.  I am suspicious of what appears to me to be a poverty/justice industry whose livelihood is generated by the existence of poverty or other named injustices that they are “fighting”.

At the same time I do not want my suspicions to turn into callousness.  I want to hear what God would be saying to me; I want to take seriously the call of God to follow him in this regard and be a person who participates in loosing the bonds of injustice; undoing the thongs of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free.   If ultimately I believe the gospel, that it is sin that binds humanity, it calls for my participation in the proclamation that in Christ we are freed from sin; this is the starting point for any faithful response.

I can understand, for example, those who are calling for the forgiveness of third world debt as a means of loosing the bonds of injustice.  In many places the interest rate has been so compounded there is no possibility of the country repaying the loan—a debt that was first embraced at the encouragement of those loaning the money.  I can see that some system for national bankruptcy may be helpful in undoing the thongs of the yoke.  Coupled with that is the domestic political will to stop incurring the bonds of financial injustice through spending more that we have and expecting future generations to pay our expenditures.

I am called to be discerning in this task of giving energies to those endeavours that break unjust yokes.  Slavery, for example, is alive and well in our world and one of its forms is in the trafficking of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation, the greater proportion of these being women.  Defend Dignity is an organization that is seeking to end prostitution in Canada.  An article on their website described the dehumanization of prostitution and I was not surprised that this text of scripture from Isaiah 58 (v.6) was referenced as a guiding principle for their work.  It seems to me that I ought to set aside my greater suspicions and seek to support work that frees people from unjust bonds.  It requires effort of mind and will for practice to match profession.

4.  Isaiah’s prophetic word also contains a promise.  We aren’t sent out on our own; we aren’t left merely to our own resources to loose bonds and break the yokes.  Hear God’s promise as we offer the kind of fast he seeks: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. ... The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  Jesus paints a similar picture when he said “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

God, who sees in secret, will never fail to bestow reward.  Whatever kindness we do, whatever unjust bond we seek to break, whatever integrity we refuse to surrender in the face of opposition, whatever truth we uphold in the face of self-interested “fudging” God will honour inasmuch as God treasures all of this in a world that is indifferent to kindness, contemptuous concerning integrity, and hostile to truth. The smallest cup of water given to relieve someone else God sees. Yet he does more than observe it. What God sees God adopts; God owns; and in his own way and in his own time he will bless the selfless giver of that cup in a manner we can’t apprehend at this moment.

Most believers’ lives unfold anonymously. Their faithfulness and goodness will never be heard of.  But the God who sees in secret sees. And what he sees he owns. In the life to come he will bless the person who thought she was behaving so very ordinarily that her ordinariness didn’t attract the recognition it didn’t deserve.

The other aspect of the reward our Lord promises pertains to this life. One form such blessing takes is a richer experience of God himself. To uphold truth is to be rewarded at least with stronger conviction of the truth and clearer perception of the truth. To have resisted the temptation to dissemble is to find oneself with stiffer spine and reduced vulnerability to the lure of dishonesty. To have remained faithful in any commitment is to find oneself that much more intimate with our Lord whose faithfulness to us has never flickered.

4.  One more point on the truth we know of ourselves; our practice does not always match our profession.  We must remember that this truth about ourselves is the penultimate truth; it’s one stage removed from the final truth. The ultimate truth about Christ’s people is that our identity is rooted not in ourselves but in Jesus Christ. Ultimately we are those whom he names his younger brothers and sisters. As we are bound to him in faith he holds us so closely to himself that when the Father sees the Son with whom the Father is ever pleased, the Father sees you and me included in the Son.

John Calvin maintained that rightly to see Christ, properly to see Christ is always to see ourselves included in him.  Whenever Luther was attacked by others or found himself attacking himself – in other words, whenever Luther was feeling worst about himself – he recalled his favourite scripture verse. “Your life; your real life, is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) Who you and I are, in the midst of all the inconsistencies about us that some people take malicious delight in pointing out; who you and I are ultimately – our identity, in other words – is rooted in Christ. Since it’s rooted in the Son of God it’s known to God alone. Yet because it’s known to God alone it’s secure there, guaranteed there, inviolable there, preserved there eternally.

We must go to sleep at night with the word from the apostle James ringing in our ears: “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” We are judged, most certainly, for the hypocrisy we see in ourselves and the hypocrisy we’ve yet to see in ourselves. God’s judgement is indeed true. Yet it’s penultimate; his mercy is ultimate. The final word we hear God pronounce upon us is a word of mercy.

Then this is the final word we should pronounce over others.  It’s even the final word we should pronounce over ourselves.  “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”