February 17, 2010, Ash Wednesday
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Isaiah 58:1-12, Ps. 103, 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
[Open with Guinness joke.]
I know that it is a bit unorthodox to begin an Ash Wednesday sermon with a joke, but the joke has a very serious point in it. It is the idea of loopholes. Lenten loopholes. Being able to stick to the letter of the season but not having to engage the spirit of it, not having to really pay it too much mind except for remember to not say Alleluia, not having it really hinder us or alter our day to day life.
Lent so easily becomes a caricature. It becomes about a personal matter of will power—giving up chocolate or not swearing. Now, this is not bad. Often there are habits we have slipped into or patterns of behavior that we know aren’t really good for us or those around us. They hinder us. Sometimes the personal issue is truly profound such as confronting chronic lying, or making amends for a serious wrong, or addressing an addiction. Such things are sin in that they turn us away from God and the wholeness God longs for for us. Such things hurt and harm our relations with each other and in turning to a new path we very much are living into the meaning of repentance; that is, turning away from the forces of death and selfish ego and turning towards God and communion with one another.
Even deeper yet sin is a communal reality. It is a state we are in. We need only look at the world to see that. Even if we personally aren’t oppressing a worker, or tipping social systems to our advantage at the expense of others, or misusing our power we are caught up in webs of relationships marked by so much domination, exploitation and misuse of other people’s bodies and souls. It has always been so. If it wasn’t, Isaiah would not have needed to write the words he did. Perhaps though the ramifications are more sweeping in the age of technology and global reach that we live in.
This theological idea that sin is a state we are in rather than just conscious or unconscious acts of individual volition is extremely important. Often this is what we Anglicans and Episcopalians mean by being marked by original sin. We are born into a world that preexists us, but that shapes us from before we are born. Babies born from mothers who lived in New York City during 9/11 and who suffered from PTSD have been found to be more agitated, anxious, with higher than normal stress hormone levels. All in response to the environment around them while still in utero. Sin, therefore, is a condition and reality that we must confront within ourselves and our world honestly and continually, seeking clarity on those things that draw us into sinful relationships without our effort, desire and sometimes even awareness.
Lent and the readings we hear today call us back to the eternal call to justice understood as the right way of ordering relationships and the distribution of the means of life—food, shelter, work, safety—in the way asked by God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the life and teachings of Jesus. This is the prescription for breaking free, step by step, of the condition of sin. It is here that we find Good News. It is what God offers us with an open hand. There is certainly cross over between our individual sins and communal ones. And then there are areas that are primarily communal and in which we take part to a greater or lesser degree and ones that are very nearly internal and private. We are asked to look at the whole spectrum, but to always hold that our actions are tied up in and affect the whole; thus, the Biblical imperative to seek justice as described by the prophets such as Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos and others. This is not just for the good of others, but for the our very own deep well-being.
The words of Isaiah pull no punches. We cannot simply focus on our own mistakes or approach Lent as a season of fasting from something we like or find pleasurable. He calls us to open our eyes wide and look at everything afresh. He calls us to question the official line, the accepted status quo, the economic and social schemas that hold sway and are portrayed as the right thing most especially by those who are in control of them. The questions he asks, the challenges he raises to his people and nation he raises to us. Are we a nation that practices righteousness? Do we forsake God’s ordinances? Do we oppress our workers or those in other nations? And what are the justifications that we give for so doing? Are they valid? Are they honest? And whose voice is framing the response for us?
Since the image of feeding and hunger is so central in Isaiah I thought that it would be good to apply this to the world in which I leave, to put a specific to general ideas. What might be asked of us when hunger in the world is at its peak yet virtually ever country has a food surplus? What questions and new vision is being asked of a system of raising, buying and selling it bent on profits for a few that leaves so much of the world hungry in spite of the Green Revolution and years of aid, two things that ironically often contributed to the current problem both here and abroad. For instance, in the past two decades malnutrition and hunger have increased greatly in India (and other countries around the world), even with plenty of food on hand. 233 million people there do not have enough to eat and 46% of children under three do not get sufficient calories. India hides this by statistical sleights of hand that make the numbers look smaller by reducing what it officially considers the necessary daily caloric intake. The numbers look good, but the facts are going in the opposite direction and much is due to the increased use of land for exports crops for the West, reliance, often forced upon them, on seeds and pesticides from foreign companies such as Monsanto and Round Up, debt and lack of support for basic, domestic food crops. Small and mid-sized farmers here can not compete against subsidized agribusiness and hunger increases. Biodiversity shrinks. All of us, but the poor in particular have less and less healthy food available to them, especially in our urban areas. What does Isaiah’s prophetic voice of God’s vision to us mean today, here and now, in this place and time? What does it mean to share our bread with the hungry? To break the yoke of injustice? What is both the immediate and the wide-screen lens that we are asked to look through and respond to as people loving our neighbor as ourselves?
I don’t have easy answers. I have lots of ideas, but no quick fixes. But I do know that the first step is raising the probing questions and looking for the deep truths underneath in these areas that are the very shape of our culture and our relationships, these areas that are about the bodies and souls of myself and my brothers and sisters made in God’s image. I do know that we are meant to look at our relations with one another and see what they really mean in terms of flesh and blood men, women and children. I do know that we are to strive for the dignity of all, and that this affects both our small daily decisions and the way we engage the larger world. But we engage it starting from that vision of holy justice and righteousness drawn by Isaiah. We start by facing squarely the sin that infects the world and standing with Jesus to live into a different way of being with each other. It is about our faith being action of love for others not self-aggrandizing piety that is hollow and self-serving as Jesus so clearly says in the Gospel today.
So this Lent we are invited to look not only at ourselves and where our lives are affected in their interiority by where we have gone astray, but also how our lives intersect with the whole world, the web of creation that we are absolutely bound to and bound up in. We are asked to engage in sacrificial love for others that may lead us to hard places. But Jesus has gone already to the hardest place of all: the cross. In looking to his cross and the life that led to it we are given insight into how we are to live and to look at the world. Such living is what brings us close to God and God close to us. Such living is where we find eternal life and treasure beyond what the world of civilization can offer. It gives us hope, conviction, connection, love and courage. Truly gifts worth striving for; truly things worth living for.