There has always been a tension on Ash Wednesday between the chosen biblical readings and the liturgical action of receiving ashes. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, which Ann shared earlier, we read that God isn’t all that impressed with fasts that include lying in sackcloth and ashes but do not include working to dismantle injustice. In the Gospel lesson I just read, Jesus lambasts the “hypocrites” who disfigure their faces while they are fasting in order that others might see and applaud them. The incongruity between these two lessons and the action we normally take next has always seemed strange to me – and I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve often fielded questions about it from parishioners.
Sermon for Sunday, February 9, 2014 || Epiphany 5A || Isaiah 58:1-9a
Before I became a rector, I rarely had the opportunity to preach two sermons in a row. At my last church, my rector and I alternated, and we only got two in a row if the other was on vacation. So I’ve never really had much of a chance to preach a sequel to a sermon. But today, that’s exactly what I plan to do. So, just in case you weren’t here last week, let’s recap.
Previously on The Sermon at St. Mark’s, we listened in to Simeon’s lullaby as he held the infant Christ and named him the “light to enlighten the nations.” I invited you to join me in a mission: to bear witness to the light of Christ and to be vessels of that same light. To see the light and to be the light. We finished the sermon with three words to help us remember this mission: Christof’s command to “cue the sun” from the film The Truman Show.
We also went through a few small examples of what being the light might look like: being friendly in the grocery line, standing up for a victim of bullying, welcoming someone to church. Of course, I didn’t mean to diminish what it means to be the light of Christ by offering such small examples; rather, by the accumulation of small actions, we discover the light shining brighter around us and forth from us.
And here’s where, if this sermon were a television show, the screen would go black for a moment and we’d be in new territory. Is everyone with me? Great.
We’ll get back to those three small examples from last week in a bit, but first here’s the opening action sequence of the new episode to get everyone hooked.
So – did you know you are made of glass? It’s true! Now, of course, I don’t mean that you’re made of glass in the idiomatic way; it’s not that you’re easily offended or that your baseball career was cut short because you have a “glass arm.” Nor do I mean made from actual glass that once was sand.
Those caveats aside, you and I are made of glass. God spun the molten glass onto that hollow rod and blew, shaped, and molded each us into being. If somehow you were to scour clean all the layers of accumulated grime – all our misplaced priorities, all our missed chances, all our grubbing and selfishness – then you would uncover God’s glass. Indeed, each of us is transparent beneath the grime of everything that separates us from God (which, by the way, is another way to say “sin”).
With God’s help, we can scour clean some of that grime to come closer to being the transparent people God always envisioned, people who are windows through which the light of God shines. First, we need to celebrate the beautiful truth that we are, in fact, God’s glass; that we are, in fact, the vessels of God’s light we mentioned last week; that we are, in fact, the light of the world, as Jesus claims in today’s Gospel reading.
Second, we acknowledge that our glass is covered in grime. It has lost much of its transparency. The light is shining, but the window is obstructed. We cause some of this grime through our actions and inactions. Some of the grime accumulates simply because we are mindlessly complicit in the big and little sins of the world. The rest happens due to apathy, lethargy, and complacency; we haven’t cleaned in a while, so the window gets dirty.
So first we celebrate that we are God’s glass and then we confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. Third, we participate with God in the act of scouring. This calls for attention, dedication, and practice – not to mention elbow grease. But I assure you there is no greater goal in this life than to be a window through which God’s glory shines. Truth, reconciliation, love, blessing – all the good things in this life and the next spring from this goal.
The prophet Isaiah knew this. He saw in today’s first reading an accumulation of grime due to a willful misinterpretation of the meaning of fasting. First he accuses his generation of going through the motions of fasting – the outward appearance that seems all well and good but is really covering up the light. His accusation comes in the form of several rhetorical questions, for which the silent answer is a resounding “NO!”
“Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?”
Notice that this certainly sounds like a textbook fast. I’m sure people in Isaiah’s day felt like they were on the right track with such outward signs. But Isaiah sees this as more grime accumulating, rather than more light shining. A fast, he says, should be a way to uncover the window beneath the grime. A fast, he says should look like this:
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…
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…
When we participate with God in this kind of life-affirming service, the grime wipes away and the window is revealed again. And, as Isaiah’s next words say:
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”
We are God’s glass. We are covered with grime. But we have every opportunity to partner with God to scour away the grime and shine as God always intended us to do. Recall those three small examples we talked about last week: the grocery line, gym class, and church. Three small examples of partnering with God to shine as light in this dark world.
Let’s look at them again and give them a little more weight. The first was: “In the line at the grocery store when you choose not to be annoyed that the person ahead of you is taking too long.” It’s really just a minor inconvenience after all. Most of the things that send us towards negativity and broken relationships start as minor inconveniences. But by choosing not to be annoyed, by choosing instead to shine with God’s light and let the oh-so-tempting anger pass, we can allow God to turn inconvenience into blessing.
The second has happened every year since the invention of P.E.: “In gym class when you stand up for the kid who’s being laughed at because he can’t climb the rope.” Is this not a child’s first attempt at standing against oppression and injustice? Is this not an elementary school version of Isaiah’s true fast?
And the third, appropriate for this morning: “At church when you see a new face in your pew and you exchange a kind word of welcome.” I can’t think of a better way to be a window of God’s light than to cultivate a welcoming spirit, both here in the safety of our church home and out in the wilds of the world.
Turning inconvenience into blessing. Standing against oppression and injustice. Cultivating a welcoming spirit. These are merely three ways that we partner with God in scouring away the accumulated grime that keeps us from shining. And in so doing we help God’s kingdom shine even brighter here on earth. We can accomplish each of these ways and so many, many more in the small actions of the day and in the big events of our lives if we apply our attention, dedication, and elbow grease to the practice of being God’s glass.
So celebrate that we are, each of us, windows that God has designed to shine God’s light through. Confess that we do not emit nearly as much light as we are designed to do. And participate with God in the act of scouring, in the daily call to return to transparency. “Then,” as the prophet Isaiah says, “your light shall break forth like the dawn.”