Benediction Online

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Fast that God Chooses

Isaiah 58:1-12

Often people tell me that they don’t want to come to church because they don’t hold with “organized religion.” When they say this they most often mean one of three things: church is one more thing they could feel guilty about not doing, so they opt out; they are uncomfortable with a hierarchy which seems to serve itself not the people; they feel that the church has and continues to oppress those who are not white, heterosexual males.

In the past thirty years theologians from minority groups have pointed out that theology has traditionally been done from the perspective of white males and then extended out as if its insights applied to everyone else. New theologians have arisen who are women, black, Hispanic, gay or any combination of oppressed groups. They are challenging many of the ideas that have been dominant for the past 500 to 1000 years.

Black theologians, for example, ask how our traditional understanding of Christ has allowed us to perpetuate slavery. Although we know that people-trafficking and servitude still go on it is difficult for us to imagine overt slavery in this country today, 157 years after it was abolished. It is also difficult for most of us to imagine living with apartheid. Yet for centuries people were convinced that both were somehow sanctioned by God. Black theologians have pointed to our understanding of the atonement – the way we are reconciled to God – as allowing us to separate our spiritual ideas from our ethical behavior.

If we believe that Jesus died in our place on the cross so that we are forgiven our sins then there is no obvious requirement that reconciliation with God involves anything we do. So we can go on oppressing other people and trashing the planet while happily knowing that our sins are forgiven and Jesus loves us.

Of course, if we actually read what Jesus taught then we have to change our behavior, but over the centuries people have justified not doing what Jesus said by arguing that he was talking about an ideal time in the future, not here and now.

However, the issue from the black theologians’ perspective is that when we say we are saved by Jesus’ death then we are taking atonement outside of human life and spiritualizing it, which allows us to divorce it from our behavior. Slave owners thought nothing of worshipping God on a Sunday morning, giving thanks for their redemption and then going home and mistreating their slaves.

This is an old, old problem. I think it’s what the prophet Isaiah was talking about in our first reading – separating our ideas of spirituality from our daily busy lives. Or individualizing salvation so my spirituality is just between me and God and has no practical bearing on the way I live in the world and the way society lives.

When Isaiah said

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
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.

I don’t think Isaiah was just speaking just to individuals about the need to change their behavior – he was speaking to the whole of Hebrew society. Not just to those who acted unjustly but also to those who condoned it.

Our calling is not to have a lovely holy spiritual life with Jesus but to work for the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus was doing. He was working to bring the kingdom of God on earth – to enable each person and every society to know God’s peace - and it led to his death but he did not abandon his task because of his great love.

In a few minutes I will invite you to the observance of a holy Lent. The traditional language strangely omits to mention the importance of ethical behavior. It is implicit in the idea that we will observe Lent by self-examination and repentance, but unless we really think about how we oppress others and how our society oppresses others - our repentance will be at the level of repenting for being irritable or for not paying attention during the sermon!

God certainly calls us to clean up our acts as individuals. But our responsibility as disciples of Jesus goes much further than that. We are called to find ways to end oppression, to share our bread with the poor – although the famine is officially over on Somalia and thousands have died – there are still thousands who are desperately hungry; to bring the homeless poor into our houses – we are still collecting money to help rebuild the cathedral in Haiti to provide a spiritual home, a school and an place of assistance for the poorest of the poor. We are called to build the kingdom of God – then says Isaiah “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

We cannot separate our reconciliation with God from our behavior. We cannot oppress others and believe that we are building the kingdom. As we wear our ashes today as a symbol of our mortality, let us remember that mortals have bodies and mortals have needs and that we are called, not to be God, but to offer our own lives as a gift in co-creation with the divine so that together we may release the captives and together we may find eternal life.


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