A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:5-8; Matthew 6:16-18 NRSV
The season of Lent—traditionally, from way back—has for some been a time of fasting. And, Lent—traditionally, from way back—has also been for some a time of confession. Well, on this first Sunday in Lent I will begin with my own personal confession. The practice of fasting never has really appealed to me. For one thing, I really like to eat. And if I have to miss a meal for some reason, I tend to get grumpy. But for another thing, I personally have never been convinced of the practical, spiritual benefits of fasting.
But on a more serious note, I know a lot of people do find religious benefits in fasting, and I do not want to belittle other people’s dedication to fasting in the least. To each his or her own, I say. There are a number of reasons that many people engage in fasting. Many who fast regularly claim a heightened spiritual awareness. They claim to be more spiritually awake or sensitive. One of the Christian bases for fasting, you know, is the story of Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness just before beginning his ministry.
Some fast as a way to be in solidarity with all the hungry people of the world, in order to try to identify with how those who are hungry feel day in and day out. There is a program that many church youth groups participate in that is a planned 30-hour group fast. It seeks to teach kids about world hunger, as well as raise money to help address it.
Then some people go on long, public fasts as a form of protest; in order to draw attention to some social injustice and demand change. There are some United Church of Christ congregations that are participating in a movement called “Fast for Families Across America,” with the goal of bringing about immigration reform and making changes so that families are not separated because of certain immigration laws.
So physical fasting, the traditional mode of fasting—depriving oneself of food and drink other than water—holds many benefits for many of the world’s faithful. It is separating oneself from things of this world. It is a time when many people deprive themselves of some worldly good or pleasure, such as meat, desserts or sweets of any kind or a particular sweet such as chocolate, or caffeine, alcohol, watching television, and so on.
But then there is a fasting of a different order. Instead of doing without something, it is seeking to do something about something. I guess I tend to agree with whomever wrote the passage I read to you from Isaiah. This Hebrew prophet, seeking to speak on God’s behalf, called for fasting of a different order. This particular prophet saw little benefit in fasting that entailed depriving oneself of food, trying to make oneself look humble, and donning sackcloth and ashes, the traditional attire that symbolized mourning or fasting. And Jesus seems to have felt much the same way. “When you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites,” Jesus said. “They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16 CEB).
Rather, the prophet Isaiah said, this is the fast that I choose: “to loose the bonds of injustice . . . to let the oppressed go free . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor in your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:6-7 NRSV). This mode of fasting as Isaiah the prophet described it is immersing oneself in the world by sharing something, or doing something constructive. So there is the traditional mode of fasting, separating oneself from the world on the one hand, and Isaiah’s alternative mode of fasting, immersing oneself in the world on the other hand.
But the question becomes, What does this “immersing oneself in the world” mean, practically speaking? How might we loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share bread with the hungry, minister to the homeless poor, and share clothes with the naked?
It is a hard question to ask ourselves and then try to answer, How might I have contributed to injustice toward some segment of society? And how might I loose the bonds of injustice? Now, we realize that the injustices of the world are beyond calculation. And trying to catalog all the injustices of the world would soon overwhelm us. We can never hope to solve or loose all the injustices of the world. But we can start on a small scale during this Lenten seasib just by changing our attitudes. For instance, there may have been a time when some of us were guilty of helping perpetuate prejudice or stereotyping of a certain segment of society by telling an inappropriate joke, or making an inappropriate comment, or passing along an inappropriate e-mail that belittled, made fun of, or demonized another because of their race, nationality, religion, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation. We can make a Lenten pledge that we will not do or say any such thing that belittles or would be hurtful to another, and by so doing not perpetuate injustice.
Who are the oppressed in our world for whom I might do something to ease their suffering a wee bit? Again, the list of the world’s oppressed is mindboggling. To cite a few examples would only scratch the surface. But there is one small way that each of us might make a huge difference in helping change the future for one or more oppressed familes. It is called “micro credit” or “micro finance.” There are a number of organizations that serve as clearinghouses as such to extend credit to families in developing countries. For instance, a small loan of $300, $100, or even $50 is enough to help some families get the supplies or equipment they need to start a family business to support themselves by starting a basket weaving business, or a roadside taco stand, a sewing business, or some other craft or occupation. That is something that most of us could do—send $100 or $50 to be used in micro finance. And the good thing is our gifts are not a one-time gift. As the small loans are repaid, the money is recycled over and over to other families. So a one-time gift is the gift that keeps on giving. It is sort of like that old adage about giving a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Well, micro finance is making it possible for family after family to fish for themselves for a lifetime. By contributing, we can help ease oppression for some.
There are many ways we can share our bread with the hungry. One easy way is by bringing non-perishable food items to help stock one of Oak Ridge’s food pantries. Most of the food that we collect here at the United Church is taken to the Grace Lutheran Church food pantry, because they are already doing an excellent job of stocking and staffing a food pantry that serves several families each week. The food we collect in November and December is kept and distributed in the large food boxes that we distribute at Christmas time. So during Lent, we can be diligent to go the extra mile to share food with the hungry.
When it comes to reaching out to the homeless poor, we are not suggesting that we open up our homes and just bring the homeless in off the streets to settle into our guest rooms. In the time that Isaiah wrote, he didn’t have the options available that we do today. And members of our church who work day in and day out with the homeless population of our county know that many of the homeless have severe issues that most of us are not equipped to deal with. Luckily, there are organizations in Oak Ridge like Ridgeview, TORCH and other places that are equipped to deal with the issues that many homeless persons have. So we can support the homeless by supporting programs at Ridgeview and TORCH. And to some extent, we are already doing that. Our UNITY youth put together two dozen personal comfort kits for homeless Ridgeview clients last fall. And our Women’s Circles have put together clothes baskets—house warming baskets they called them—full of household items for previously homeless persons who are moving into housing. Such are some of the things we can do to minister to the homeless poor as a means of outreach during Lent.
And there are many ways to share clothes with the “naked.” Lent would be an excellent time to go through our closets and dresser drawers to get rid of good items of clothing that we no longer wear, but would mean a lot to people who have little to wear. Goodwill or the Salvation Army Thrift Store might be happy to get them. And Prestige Cleaners in Manhattan Place will take good suits and clean them for free and pass them along to an organization that provides them to people who need clothes to interview for a job.
Well, with all of these suggestions, you get the idea. If giving up something for Lent—if fasting from food, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, or something else proves to be beneficial—then by all means let us do it. But in addition to giving up something for Lent, we can also follow Isaiah’s suggestion and do something for Lent that will benefit someone else. In other words, during this Lenten season, may we consider Isaiah’s call to fasting of a different order. I hope to, and I hope you will join me. Amen.