Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, Rev. Paul Moore
I recently heard a Christian teacher say that the majority of Christians today are really functional agnostics; he did not mean in the traditional sense of a belief that God is disconnected from human affairs, and that therefore humanity must get along with the light it has from the various wisdom sources. What he meant was more sinister, really.
We don’t think about God not really being engaged in human day-to-day living, that’s too big of an idea. What he meant was that we keep the influence of our faith out of our day-to-day living. When we are called upon to make decisions we do not orient those decisions by the dictates of our faith, but rather on cultural assumptions about the way things work. This person went on to say that we typically draw life lessons more readily from sports than from the Gospels, to the extent that Sunday Morning sports events draw a greater following than Sunday Morning worship. And we do not hear the voice of the churches protesting in any way what schools and sports clubs are doing to our primary worship time.
He attributes it to a breakdown in Christian formation; I see his point, but I see it as a lack of conversion. The mainline American Church still thinks that the Christian faith is one of those pillars of a good society. The faith exists to make sure we live well; it is one of the several pillars that support, explain and justify our way of life.
If that is the case then we've totally lost sight of Jesus Christ. Jesus was really strange for His day. On the one hand He wholeheartedly embraced the liberal Hellenistic influence on Judaism repudiated by the rich ruling (and traditionalist) class of Sadducees, and on the other he expounded a rigorist, over-the-top interpretation of the ancient teachings on morality. He was, in short, a radical, iconoclastic rabble-rouser! And He had nothing to say whatsoever about the American way of life.
Today's Gospel lesson is one of those rigorist interpretations of the ancient teaching. Isaiah taught us tonight that the fasts to which you call the people are not what God wants. God wants a fast of doing justice and loving mercy and living humbly. Jesus amplifies and expands this. He says, and I paraphrase, "Do your good works in such a way that God will reward you rather than the people." Another way of saying the same thing is, “The works of mercy and justice that God requires will not necessarily be the kind that this world's economy rewards, but your Father in Heaven will.”
Any time that works of justice and mercy are met with the approval of this world's economy there is room for suspicion. That suspicion lies precisely in the consequent inability to distinguish between the good of the Kingdom and one's self-directed ends. Let me illustrate: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently made a donation of $10M to the Liquidia Pharmaceutical Corporation for development of a malaria vaccine. On the surface this seems a very well-intentioned work of justice and mercy. Anyone who has had malaria will vouch for the need for a vaccine, and anyone who has taken the regular Quinine-based treatment will back it up—you wonder if the cure will kill you faster than the disease. But vaccines in developing countries are often out of reach of the people in the rural areas who most need it, they often come under the control of local government officials who use the leverage to garner favors unrelated to health issues, and you can be sure that for-profit corporations like Liquidia are not going to do this on the kind of scale needed to make a serious difference in malaria around the world. It’s a little like the fox in the hen-house. They make money off the cures as well! In the final analysis the only guaranteed good is the PR the pharmaceutical company and the donor receive.
Jesus had no interest in building a pillar of society. He had every interest in redeeming creation by bringing people into right relationship with God, with humanity and with creation, and especially at the expense of any sense of the absolute reign of the local economy. His is not one voice among many, but the ONE voice to which a real Christian first listens.
What acts, then, comprise God's chosen fast for you this Lent? Go ahead and give up your chocolate or beer, take up an exercise program or call your mother more often. These are good things, but unless cast in the right light they unwittingly miss the point. The point of Lent is not just to make you a better person but to make the world a better place, and "a better place" is defined in terms of the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where the values God stands for rule in hearts and minds and decisions about expenses and votes, and actions that benefit others for the sake of the creation they are.
The late Dr. Edmund Friedman, rabbi, Ph. D in psychology and noted family therapist, worked with dysfunctional family systems. He would take the healthiest person of the family and work with that person, thereby de-facto putting the whole family in therapy. St. Irenaeus said in the 3rd century that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Lent is therapy for incomplete living. By putting us in therapy to make us fully alive God de-facto puts the whole world in therapy.
So, this Lent we have two programs running side by side. One is called The Love Dare, and it's for couples. The other is called "Fireproof Your Life" and it’s designed for singles. Details are available in the Church office, the programs kick off the evening of March 23rd at 6:00 p.m. and run every Wednesday for 40 days. Sign up, show up, and do the work, and may God grant you a truly blessed Lent.