Ash Wednesday Sermon, Isaiah 58:1-12 Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Isaiah 58:1-12
Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

The Well-lived Life

How many Mardi Gras strings of beads is enough?  You stand there as each float goes by hoping to catch another.  Eventually you have a small collection.  Then you take them home.  Then what?  What’s the point?  In one moment it seemed important to try to get as many as you could; later, you have no idea why.
I do not want my life to be like that.  I don’t want to spend my days concerned about things that don’t matter.  I don’t want to look back and ask myself, “now, what was all that fuss an energy about?”
I do not want to waste life; nobody wants to waste their lives, but many people do.  I can think of few things more tragic than a wasted life.

Regrets

I have heard people say, looking back on a long life, that they have no regrets.  I suppose it must be possible to think that way, but I don’t.  I have lots of regrets.  I regret words I have said that hurt people.  I regret wasting time on things that were not even interesting or entertaining, let alone helpful.  I regret some of the ways I’ve spent money on things that seemed so important at the time, but later were such disappointments.  I regret broken relationships and misunderstandings.  There are lots of things I would do differently if I got a “do-over.”   But of course, we do not get “do-overs.”
We are mortal.  We have one life to live on this earthly plane, and when it’s over, it’s over down here.  It is possible to waste life; and many people do.
To live a well-lived life that is not wasted, we simply need to know what is important and what is not, and to choose to live for what is important, and not to spend our whole lives catching beads.
So, how do we know what is important?  Let us start at the top of the list.  Let us start with God.  What does God want from us?  What is important to the Almighty?

History of Religions

Throughout human history, since we left the caves, learned to speak language, and put some clothes on, humans have tried to answer this question.  The procedure that most humans take is to start with something they know and understand, and then to extrapolate from that to an answer to the unknown – that is, God.  So most people have started with people and have reasoned; God must want what we want, only more so.
God is really big, and powerful, and important; what do big, powerful people want?  To be honored by everyone else.  How do you honor someone?  By showing deference and by offering gifts – the more valuable, the more honoring they are.  So what must God want?  Deep deference and costly gifts.  Bowing, groveling, self-abasement, and sacrifice.
This is what many religions are all about – rituals of deference, acts of humility, and denial that show honor to God, and sacrifices of unblemished animals to offer as gifts.
Ancient Israel had formal rituals to show honor to God like holy days and fasting, and sacrifices as well.  It is correct to think of God as a the great King who is worthy of all of the honor you can give.

God: King and Creator

But God is more than just a King.  In fact, the Hebrew Bible’s amazing break-through is to assert that God is in fact Creator – the source of all life, of all of nature, and of every man, woman and child.  It is correct to think of him as King, but as Creator, it also correct to think of God as Father.
As Father, he still deserves honor and respect, but that is not the end of the line, nor even the main point.  As Father, he is also deeply interested in how the family is living as a family.  It matters to him how his sons and daughters get along.   He is especially concerned that the older or stronger members of the family use their advantages to help the weaker, younger ones.  They are all his children: he could never wish for the success of one at another’s expense.  He could never be happy if one of his children suffered at the hands of another.
This is the great insight that the prophet Isaiah had.  What is important to God?  Honoring God with fasting is appropriate: God is God, and is worthy of all the honor we can give.  But what is the use of a fast if at the same time, one side of the family is hurting another?  What good is it to humble yourself before God, and then oppress his children, or hurt them, or enslave them?

3 Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 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?  ( Isa. 58)


A life lived doing religious rituals like fasting could be a waste – like catching Mardi Gras beads.  What does God, our Maker want from us?  Isaiah asks us:


6   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? 7 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?

On Ash Wednesday, we pause in the middle of the day in the midst of our lives and ask ourselves: what is important?  There are no do-overs.  This life is the only one we have down here to do the right thing.  It is the fact of our mortality itself, the fact that we do not get any do-overs, that makes what we do with every day so important.

Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father”

God does deserve our devotion.  Jesus assumed that we would pray, he assumed that we would fast, he assumed that we would give alms as part of our devotion, and he taught us to look at God as our Father in heaven.  Not just our king who needs to be honored, but in addition to “hollowed be thy name” Jesus taught us to pray that his Kingdom would come on earth – where there are no do-overs.  The well-lived life is the one not wasted on trivia, but focused on the concerns closest to God’s heart.
As Father, God cares about his Creation – about each man, woman and child that he has made in his image.  It matters deeply to him how they treat each other.  God requires that the stronger take care of the weaker, that the older help protect and care for the younger.

Our Lenten Fast

Today begins the season of Lent.  It is right an proper that we each consider a fast in this time, to remind ourselves of how prone we are to self-indulgence, to satisfying our hunger, to meeting our own needs.
Let us use the fast that we choose to remember what is important to our Creator; our Father in Heaven.According the the State Department:
“More than one billion people — one sixth of the world’s population — suffer from chronic hunger.” (source)
I encourage you, as you leave, to pick up one of the Lenten table top prayer guides produced by Bread for the World, and to use this holy season as a time to ask yourself: will I live a well-lived life, or will I get to the end with regrets I could have avoided?  Use each meal time as a time to pray for God’s children who suffer, and to ask our Father in Heaven how we can best participate in his “chosen fast.”

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