Walking the Walk
Matthew 5:13-20 Isaiah 58:1-9a
February 6, 2011 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Both of this morning’s scriptures strive to remind us how to live, how to follow Jesus with some amount of integrity. You can hear the anger in God’s voice, through the prophet Isaiah. God is complaining, and rightly so, that the people might practice fasting, but they do it only on the surface. Despite the fact that it is supposed to be a spiritual practice, they get short-tempered with one another and use fasting as an excuse for their poor behavior. While fasting they make up all sorts of excuses for themselves, assuming that the fasting on it’s own is enough to put them in God’s favor. They come asking for God’s help and support, but they really have no idea what God has to offer. It is as if they went into a book store looking for some pizza and a salad. What do they really want from God when they go asking for help? Do they understand that it is not God’s job to make their life work out in the way they want it to? What do they really intend to gain from their fasting? Are they looking for spiritual support or are they looking for something very different? There are different aspects to our lives. We are physical beings, and so some parts of our lives revolve around this physical nature. We are also emotional beings, and so there are aspects of our lives that cater to our emotional needs. We have minds, and so certain parts of our lives involve thinking and education, wanting to know more about the subjects that interest us. But we are also spiritual beings, and the spiritual nature cannot be satisfied by food or books or anything that does not belong to its realm. Only the things of God can satisfy our spiritual longings. Only the Holy offers to us what our spiritual selves crave.
The people to whom Isaiah was speaking had things pretty well mixed up. They didn’t realize that what they were doing may have looked like the right thing, but because they were doing it without understanding it’s purpose, their fasting had no effect whatsoever on their spiritual longings. These people were multi-taskers before the time of computers. They might have fasted in order to satisfy the letter of the law or the requirement of their religious leaders, but they hardly concentrated on what they were doing. They were too caught up in everything else they were involved with. They followed the rules of fasting to the letter, but they totally missed the heart of why a person chooses to fast and how fasting has the capacity to touch and change a person. Fasting sounds like it was just one more thing for these folks to check off of their list so they could get on with the rest of their day. We get into this corner too, don’t we? It may not be fasting that is the spiritual practice of choice, maybe it is reading scripture or praying, but if we don’t give this practice the time and space it needs, then we are cheating ourselves. We are cheating God too, but God is probably used to it by now.. Many of us are well intentioned, but we fall short of our plans and promises too often.
When you pray, are you able to really set apart some time for the practice? Do you maybe have a special place that you go to - a special chair or an outdoors place that feels holy to you and helps to reinforce the fact that you are, in fact, taking time out away from your normal activities? Our brains need us to set the time apart clearly, or they get confused. They keep running on high speed, trying to accomplish way too many things, instead of focusing in on just the one, on just the fact that here and now is the time we have set aside to be with God. Setting aside time to be preset with God, in a holy time and space, can be challenging for us. We are so busy, so much on the go, that we feel guilty if we slow down even a small bit. But we need to do it for our souls to be nourished. Jesus’ sermon on the Mount that we read earlier speaks about being salt for the world; but if we have no flavor, we cannot do much good in seasoning the world. When I am in a situation in which I think differently than the other folks there, I have a very tough time speaking up. Some kind of inertia hits me and bogs me down, so that I get stuck in my fear and in a belief in my own inadequacies. What is important to remember in a situation like this, though, is that my saltiness, the seasoning I bring to the kitchen is necessary for a good meal. In other words, if all angles are to be explored and considered, then I have to speak up, even when I am nervous, even if I think no one will listen.
Jesus also speaks about his followers being the light on the hill for those who are stumbling around in the dark; but he says that if we try to hide our light, then we can’t do anyone much good. What would your light reveal if you were willing to shine? I think we are each like a very focused light beam on one of those high-powered lazers. We may not illuminate the whole scene, but we shine our light on a particular area that needs to be brought into the spotlight for one reason or another. If we decide to sit back and keep our light hidden, then something will go missing, and we may never know what it might be.
Isaiah speaks of the kind of fasting that God is really hoping for from us, and it is a different kind of fast than we might be thinking of. The fast God asks of us is to choose to be engaged in the world in a way that is healing, in a way that expresses God’s love. Isaiah says that God wants people who will stand up against injustice, who will not only refuse to participate in oppressing others, but will actually fight against oppression in society as well. God wants us to share our food with those who are hungry. I think that here he is talking about physical food, but also the kind of food that feeds the soul. Both are needed in order for a person to be whole. Sharing the non-physical type of food can be sharing a bit of kindness or encouragement with someone who may not expect it; speaking to the cashier at the market or asking the bank teller how her day is going. We are asked to give the homeless a place to stay, and to offer clothes to those who have none. These can both be taken literally, of course, but they can also be taken to mean offering someone a home in your heart by being kind and welcoming, being a true friend especially to someone who is difficult to love. It can mean clothing a bereft person with compassion and understanding, so that they do not have to face the world with nothing at all protecting them from the elements that threaten to undo them.
What God wants from us is that we fast from indifference; that we take a break from being focused solely on ourselves and our own needs and wants. The fast that God asks of us is a proactive choice to be involved in the world. Today we celebrate communion. Bread and grape juice are not much of a meal, and yet they are, for us, everything we need to be nourished and nourished well. In an odd way, this meal is a fast too. It is a fast from the ways of the world, from the rich foods that we might eat at other times and in other places. The fasting from those other foods, allows us to concentrate more intently on what is here, and on what is now before us. This bread and this cup are offered to us, and to receive them, we have to empty our hands of everything else. We come with nothing, knowing that even so, God loves us; and this simple meal is God’s gift of love, meant to nourish us back to our fullness and completeness in Christ. May it be so. Amen.