In about three and half weeks we will gather in the Historic Chapel for Ash Wednesday services. In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the priest invites us into the “observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” I don’t know about you, but this invitation always makes me a little nervous. The truth is, I am terrible at fasting. I have often blamed the issue on low blood-sugar. But really, I just hate the way not eating makes me feel. I get cranky, I cannot focus on work, and I just want to crawl into bed. And what makes fasting worse is that we get scriptural passages that warn us about grimacing while fasting – that we should go so far as to put oil on our faces so that we look shiny and happy during our fasting.
Knowing my utter sense of failure at my inability to engage in the most holy of spiritual practices, I confess that I was secretly pleased to read our text from Isaiah today. The people of Israel have become quite good at fasting and pious worship. We are told that day after day the Israelites come to God in worship, delighting to know more about God, and fasting like righteous followers of God. They even bow down and lie in sackcloth and ashes. They are the epitome of penitential Lenten worshippers. Except for one small, teeny, tiny problem. Despite their devotional fasting and their fervent prayers, God is angry with the Israelites. You see, while the Israelites are piously engaging in reverent, penitential worship, their hired hands are working under their oppressive orders. While they have been perfecting reverential bows, there are hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished peoples just outside their doors. Oblivious, the Israelites complain to God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God’s response is a brutal question: Why are you here?
In polite Episcopal circles, we do not often ask that question: Why are you here? We might ask a visitor a much softer version of that question, “What brings you to Hickory Neck?” But we almost never ask a regular or long-time church member, “Why are you here?” I think part of why we do not ask someone else that question is because we are afraid someone will ask us that question. We are afraid to be asked that question because the question feels like a trick. If I say I am here because I want peace or comfort, does that make me a passive, self-serving Christian? If I say I am here because I enjoy the community, does that mean my church is more like a country club than a church? If I admit that I do not know why I am in church this morning other than a strange longing somewhere deep inside me, does that mean that my worship is superficial or doomed for ambiguity?
The scary part about our anxiety around that question, “Why are you here today,” is that God has a very clear response before we or the Israelites can even answer the question. God says that if we do not come to worship to be changed, we are doing something wrong. As one scholar argues, Isaiah’s words today tell us that, “Worship without justice has no value in the eyes of God.”[i] For Isaiah, a gap has formed between the faithful’s seeking God and God’s ways and their actual way of life. What Isaiah wants the people to know is that fasting, prayer, and worship are all well and good, but without some connection to the other 167 hours of their week, their worship, their fasting, their relationship with God is hollow. Now, God is not telling us that worship is inherently bad or self-serving. As another scholar points out, “worship is the most important thing we do together. It is the place that forms us into the people of God. It is the place where we inhale God’s love and grace, so that,” and here comes the important part, “so that we can be sent forth to exhale God’s love and grace in a broken world in need of redemption.”[ii]
One of the things that attracted me to Hickory Neck was the wide variety in styles of worship. On any given Sunday, I can pray the Prayer of Humble Access in the midst of a quiet Rite I liturgy; I can belt out a praise song that is so familiar I don’t need to look at the words; I can chant the Eucharistic Prayer while the Choral Scholars respond with beautiful, precise, haunting harmonies; or I can sing a version of the Lord’s Prayer that my seven-year old daughter has learned by memory. I love the variety of expressions of worship here, and love our unique gift that is rare in most parishes. But variety can be dangerous. Variety means bringing together people who don’t necessarily revel in the differences. There will be people who only come to our early service because they find music to be a distraction. There will be people who only come to the late service because anything other than traditional Anglican music interferes with their worship. And there will be people who only like the middle service because they can let their hair down and be themselves. Slowly, what is meant to be the gift of variety becomes a competition for the best – the most holy, most reverent, most relatable, most “of God.” But what all that comparison leads to is not deeper relationship with God. That comparison leads us to focus on the worship as an end unto itself, instead of as a means “right relationship.”[iii]
In order to get to the point of fasting or worship, God tells the Israelites to redefine fasting. Instead of abstaining from food or drink, the fast God desires, “is outreach to those in need, which involves not only feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for one’s own, but also addressing the attitudes and structures responsible for injustices.”[iv] In the Episcopal Church, we have codified this redefinition of fasting in our dismissal. We take all of our prayers, all of learning, all of our confessions, and all of our feasting and we say, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” In other words, we give ourselves the beauty of worship, and then remind ourselves of the point of that worship – right relationship with God and our neighbor. I have often thought the church needs the words of the dismissal painted above the Narthex door, so that as each of us departs this space, we can jump up and slap the words – much life a sports team entering the arena who slaps a slogan or the team name. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Now some of you may be thinking about this radical redefinition of fasting and this question of why we are here in worship, and be wondering, “Can’t I just give up some food and call it a day?!? Can’t I just sit in worship and not worry about why I am here?!?” You may know well that righting relationships with God and neighbor is a lot harder than a day’s worth of sacrificing food or just showing up on Sunday. But before you get too anxious, listen again to Isaiah’s words about what happens when we enter the kind of fast God prefers, “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. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” God’s work is never too difficult – exhaling God’s love and grace in a broken world in need of redemption is as easy as breathing in the love and grace we inhale every Sunday. The promise of God’s blessing is waiting – we just need to breathe. Amen.
[i] Carol J. Dempsey, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 314.
[ii] Andrew Foster Connors, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 316.
[iii] Dempsey, 316.
[iv] Dempsey, 316.