Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? (Isaiah 58:3)
I was fascinated to find today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 58 in Monday morning’s Times-Dispatch! Richmond lawyer and General Assembly delegate Donald McEachin is pictured, and says his life changed after his pastor preached on it and described the original setting. McEachin paraphrases him: “The people of Israel have an attitude because they say we’ve been fasting, we do all these things and things still aren’t right for us. And the Lord replies, ‘Well, that’s not the fast I want you to have. I want you to do justice, I want you to have mercy….’”
Somehow that hit Delegate McEachin between the eyes, and he decided he needed to do something concrete about it. So he went to talk with his pastor at St. Peter’s Baptist Church. The result was that he applied to and was accepted at the School of Theology at Virginia Union University. He hopes to complete his journey of faith and receive a Master of Divinity degree in May 2008. But it is not his goal to become a parish minister! Not at all. When he was interviewed recently in his office in the General Assembly Building, he said, “I’m not looking to have a pastorate at all. The purpose of this journey is to make me a better public official.”
And to that I say, Right on! Would that more public officials—especially those of faith—would take their faith that seriously and seek out what God would have them do to serve their constituencies with greater compassion and justice. It’s all too easy to “talk a good game,” and go through the motions, and “press the flesh” in political gatherings—and miss the very heart of what it means to serve. “Business as usual” is always the human temptation, always the easy way out–in every walk of life.
But what about you and me, as we hear Isaiah’s words? What about Lent this year? Will it be “Lent as usual?” (Believe me, I ask myself the same question.) Will our Lenten fast be simply giving up chocolate or liquor or luxuries? Or attending some extra services? Or sending an extra check to our favorite charity? Now, it’s not that any of those things is wrong in itself—any of them can feed the soul and clear some spiritual room for God to get at us. And I’ve done those kinds of things myself, many times over. But I want to suggest to all of us on this Ash Wednesday, in this affluent society of ours, and in this world of rampant poverty, and violent oppression and inexcusable famine and disease—I want to suggest that we take much more seriously to heart Isaiah’s words to his people.
The prophet says in the name of God, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free….Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” How easily we do hide ourselves from our own kin—and not just our blood kin but all our destitute brothers and sisters of the human family whom it’s much easier to ignore.
Delegate McEachin was so struck by Isaiah’s words, and by the insistent nudging of God in his own heart, that he did something really radical to make himself more sensitive to the plight of his constituents. What can you and I do—right now, this Lent—to undertake the kind of fast that will make a difference in the world around us? I’m not suggesting that we all go off to seminary—although the seminaries here in Richmond, and our own Episcopal seminary in Alexandria, all offer courses for people in every walk of life to help them fulfill God’s purposes for them. I want to suggest to you something much simpler.
Bestselling author Marcus Borg, who is going to be speaking right here at St. James’s next fall, urges in his book The Heart of Christianity that all of us need to develop what he calls “an imaginative sympathy for the poor.” He says, “For the most part, we don’t personally know the poor, whether the unemployed poor or the working poor….we may see poor people, even become curious about them and moved by them, but we don’t know their lives.” That’s certainly true of me. Now, the ideal would be to spend some serious time with truly poor people. I have friends who do exactly that. But short of that, here’s a concrete suggestion: In her bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich, who has spent serious time with the poor, raises our awareness of their plight in a very compelling way.
I’m reading it right now, and I want to invite any of you who are interested to join me in reading and discussing it this Lent. I’ve ordered several more copies hoping that some of you will see me or call me so we can arrange an agreeable time. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who lived and died for the poor—and for every one of us—said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I believe that! This Lent, let’s start putting our treasure in the things that really matter, to the glory of God and the healing of the world.