Isaiah 58:1-12 can be found here...
On this very odd Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Valentine’s Day, let us start with Love.
Someone once told me that the Bible is God’s love letter to us. And there are times when I can absolutely get behind that idea and there are times when, well, it’s complicated.
Tonight’s passage from the prophet Isaiah traverses all this territory. Love letter and complication. It begins, like a proper Lenten passage should, with talk of fasting.
Lent is our season of preparation for the Christian High Holy Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. The practices recommended to us, from the earliest days of the church, are self-examination and penitence, prayer and fasting, works of love, and reading and meditating on the Word of God. Fasting is an ancient practice. One website I consulted stated that
The history of fasting can't have a beginning point because there's no reason to think that early [humans] did not fast in the normal course of his existence; every other animal, even today, will fast during times of stress or illness, and sometimes even at the slightest uneasiness. It is a natural tendency for the organism, whether human or animal, to seek rest, balance, and to conserve energy at critical times.[i]
In terms of a religious discipline, though, fasting is not taken up by instinct, but deliberately. We fast for a purpose. We give up meat or alcohol or chocolate… or anger or TV or the internet. And this is really, really important: we are not fasting so that God will love us. God already loves us, and God is not an insecure lover who needs us to show our affection in order to feel better about the Divine Self. There is nothing we can do, frankly, to stop God’s loving us. We fast so that we can open up a space in which to notice God’s love. We get through an hour without our usual modes of distraction or filling the empty spaces in ourselves, and let ourselves notice our need. Once we have noticed our need, we may discover that we are able to invite God to fill it, instead of our other coping mechanisms.
But look again at Isaiah. God our lover is not at all satisfied with our fasting… if we fool ourselves that fasting exempts us from our responsibilities towards all God’s children.
I receive daily devotions in my emails from a number of sources; today’s from Luther Seminary in St. Paul read as follows:
According to author Ta Nehisi Coates, the four million slaves once living in the United States were worth three billion dollars to the US economy. With the institution of slavery so pervasive and lucrative it became easy for churchgoers to justify their ownership of other human beings. Imagine fasting for God in the morning, and beating a slave in the afternoon. This was the life of many US Christians in the 1800's. There were some people of faith, however, who knew that God was calling them to “loose the bonds of injustice.” There were people like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass who heard God's call to “let the oppressed go free.”[ii]
There is nothing wrong with fasting, as described above. It is important that we open a space to allow us to notice God’s loving presence in our lives. It is equally important to open a space to recognize that, just as God loves us, God loves others. God loves others who are like us and unlike us. God loves others whose skin color, or accents, or vocabularies, or education level, or wealth, or immigration status, are completely different from our own. God loves us, and God loves them. There is nothing they can do, frankly, to stop God’s loving them.
And that is why this is the fast God wants us to make:
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke;
to share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our house;
when we see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide ourselves from our own kin.
~ Isaiah 58:6-7
This is God’s love letter to us, and it is also God’s love letter to those whose bonds are being loosed, and whose empty stomachs are being filled. And I promise you, and God our lover promises you: the joy that we’ll share as we’re standing there will exceed any we’ll ever known.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say,
Here I am. ~ Isaiah 58:8-9
When we show God’s light and love, God’s light and love are shown to us. When we offer healing, we receive healing. When we answer the call of the oppressed, our calls are answered.
This sounds like the popular concept of karma, I guess. But it is really the economy of God’s household. God loves you. And God loves me. And God loves everyone else. And that is why God commends us to one another’s care. In God’s plan, we go about sharing that love, and we receive love. We go about loosening those bonds, and our bonds fall away. We go about lifting those yokes, and we find that God’s yoke is truly easy, and God’s burden is indeed light.
The bible is God’s love letter to us. It’s true. And it’s God’s love letter to every other child of God on this planet. This is the season when we deepen our participation in that love, to the glory of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] “History of Fasting,” All About Fasting, http://www.allaboutfasting.com/history-of-fasting.html.
[ii] David Scherer, “God Pause for Wednesday 2-14-2018.”