Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In Chicago, there are panhandlers at every intersection. It used to be only the major ones, but these days it’s every single intersection. And that feeling, when you are rushing to your next destination, or it’s raining outside, or you just don’t want to be reminded that there are people out in the world that are in need of help while you live in relative luxury, or you gave your last loose cash to the person at the previous intersection, and you are just super tired of have the same old argument inside your head – does this person really need my help, or are they just seizing a good opportunity to play on people’s sympathies? … it gets to be a constant irritation. It is one of the prime things I do not miss in moving to Hastings.
And because of this constant irritation of person after person asking you for money, it becomes easier to just ignore their request, and ignore their presence. Try to look ahead, or be focused on the radio when they pass your drivers’ side window… pretend like you haven’t seen them.
I used to volunteer for a place called the Night Ministry, an organization that provides conversation and relationship with homeless folk. Each night, a bus goes out with volunteers and stops at 3 locations, offering coffee, sometimes food or socks or toiletries, but most importantly relationship with people who are not homeless – the volunteers. Dignified conversation that helps to make a homeless person, a survivor who manages life on the street, feel normal and worthy of human interaction. It helps them remember what it felt like as a participant in normal every day life, when their struggles on the street tend to render them an outside observer.
The Night Ministry’s focus is on conversation because when you ask someone who has experienced homelessness about the hardest part of their ordeal, they often say it wasn’t the cold nights, or having their belongings stolen or confiscated by police, or worrying about tomorrow or dealing with hunger… it was the feeling of being invisible to others that was the most difficult to endure. The lack of eye contact. Being passed on the street without any acknowledgement. Having people pretend they hadn’t just heard the question, “could you help me today?”
Silent treatment is sometimes the worst. I’m sure we all can remember a time when the silent treatment from a loved one stung. But to be ignored long-term, to not be seen at all – this is the ultimate method of dehumanization, of robbing someone of their human worth.
In this Isaiah text, the people are crying to God that their sacrifices seem invisible. “Why do we fast and you do not see?” They are complaining; they are feeling ignored. And, to a certain extent perhaps God is doing it to the people. But perhaps it is because they are doing it to each other.
God here is changing the definition of ‘fast’. No longer should it apply only to what you put in your mouth; in fact, the fast God requires is something that is TRANSFORMATIVE for the ENTIRE community. Every one of these fasts mentioned by God is about what it happening between individuals.
· loosen injustice, break the chains that keep people leashed to oppressive situations;
· share our bread, house the homeless, cover the naked;
· not to hide yourself from your own kin?
What about that last one – hiding from your own kin? Kind of odd, the idea that God is saying, “don’t spend too much time in your Mancave.” In those times, with large extended families, hiding from your kin well be everyone in your tribe – everyone in your community. In the Old Testament, “Hiding oneself from one’s own kin” means pretending that some people do not exist or that care will be given to the needy by someone else.
The prophet Isaiah is talking about a new kind of fast, and this fast transforms the community to result in good, or ‘right’ relationships across the community. Relationships that are not only polite, but compassionate… not only kind, but fair…
God is requiring us to SEE our neighbor, to recognize their existence, their worth, their struggle and their hardship. This sight, this understanding, will inspire ethical practices rooted in and flowing from the divine love of God. Isaiah seems to be saying, as the one seeking God responds to the needs of another, so God will respond to the one who seeks. When we live out a life of love in accordance with scripture, God will answer us when we call.
Its one thing to see that someone is in need… it’s another to understand why that person is in need. The kind of sight we need to truly loose the bonds of injustice is that kind that helps us walk in another person’s shoes.
One of my church inspirations back in Chicago, Kimball Avenue Church, does an interesting exercise every year during Lent. Lent is often considered a personal time to give up something we like, focus ourselves on God, and reflect on the idols that we have been told we cannot live without. This small church invites people to fast – but as a communal Lenten fast – one they call a “Lenten Compact” – that focuses them not only on their relationship to God, but also on their relationship to their neighbors with an eye towards those who are bound by the chains of injustice. Every year has a different theme.
The first year they choose to loosen the bonds of their attachment to the material world. They made a congregational agreement not to buy anything unnecessary – anything outside of food and needed toiletries – for 6 weeks. Every Sunday, they discussed where this felt challenging, what discipline it required, and how it impacted their relationship with God – and each other. They learned that when a member of the congregation needed something they couldn’t buy, another would loan it to them, therefore increasing their interdependence and sense of community.
One year, they completely gave up plastic in order to learn about caring for creation. The congregation augmented the effort with films and readings on the harmful impact of plastic on the planet, and discussed how integrated plastic is in every part of our lives. A few years ago, they charged into poverty and the challenges of supporting oneself on minimum wage – and refrained from buying any fast food – food from places that don’t pay a high enough wage for someone to live on. Last year they looked at the issue of homelessness and gentrification of their neighborhood – and what it was like to try to live in public housing that the city of Chicago keeps shuttering and tearing down.
By taking the Lenten “fast” out of the personal realm and into the community realm, Kimball Avenue Church has the opportunity to reflect on their struggle together, growing as a community as they recognize the challenges of our modern idols – convenience, cheap goods and material happiness. Through dialogue, they are able to support each other in the fast that God would choose for us – not to ‘hide’ from our kin’ - therefore deepening their devotion to their faith and God’s commandments. And the discipline of learning and discussing one topic for 6 weeks helps them to really “see” into people’s lives and struggles – to fully understand why some of their neighbors are in need. In their words, Kimball Avenue is “calling our church to a true fast—one that is not just the act of denying oneself of something because that is not enough—but a fast that moves us toward justice and reconciliation.”
What would we learn if we chose to try a Lenten Compact? Would we learn more about the people who come to the church for emergency assistance, or about the experience of children in foster care or families struggling with addiction? Would we learn more about each other and new places to go to for strength? Would we learn more about the fast that God would choose for us, and feel closer in our humble walk with God?
I believe a fast like this would, indeed, help us see our neighbors, ourselves, and a faithful life with God more clearly. As you journey through this Lenten season, I invite you to reflect on the things we see and what we keep hidden – from ourselves, from our kin, and from God. And consider what it might be like to bring them into discussion in a communal lent.
Amen and Amen.