Summary: While we try to please God on our own terms, God wants us to live for Him. We call it a "fast" when we do without a self-serving behavior for a limited period of time, but what God calls a "fast" is a life dedicated to serving others.
Abou ben Adhem had a dream. He awakened with a start to find an angel in his room, writing in a golden book. He said to the angel, “What writest thou?” and the angel replied, “The names of those who love the Lord.” “And is mine one?” he inquired. “Nay, not so,” came the reply. Abou spoke low…but cheerily still and said, “I pray thee then… write me down as one who loves his fellow men.” The angel wrote and vanished, only to return the next night…with a great light…and showed the names of those whom love of God had blessed… and lo, Abou ben Adhem’s name… led all the rest.
Oh friends, when are we going to see that the love we have for God is reflected in the love we show to one another? When are we going to see that the cross we bear… is not a burden we endure (like a limp, or a nagging wife) while we live for ourselves… but rather, a choice we make… to live for others? When will we admit that our attempts to cover up our idolatry… by attending church is not fooling anyone … and certainly not God. Well, I don’t know- but I do know that we aren’t the first to try to hide our sins beneath a blanket of ritual and self-indulgent good works. Not hardly…for ever since their feet hit the ground outside the garden, men have tried to replace real commitment with superficial activities, and if it makes you feel better, it didn’t work for them either.
Consider the people of Isaiah’s time. Consider what God said to them… in the 58th chapter of the book that bears Isaiah’s name. My people, God says, seem to think that they are fooling me. They seek me out, as if they really want to know me, and they ask for my decisions, as if they actually intend to listen… but they’ve never listened. Nor have they ever really heard my voice. They wear crosses of ashes on their foreheads, and they do without a behavior that was self-indulgent in the first place… but their love for me is no deeper and not a bit broader than it ever was. On days when they fast- which is what they call it when they forgo their chocolate or caffeine- they continue to quarrel with one another. They limit themselves to a couple of drinks… to honor me (they say)… but they walked around a man in rags… on the way into the bar. They say that they’ve humbled themselves by bowing in prayer… but there’s hardly one among them who would wash another person’s feet. They withhold a tip from a waitress, put the money in an offering plate… and claim to be generous, wondering all along why I am not rewarding their humility. Is not this the fast I choose: to loosen the systemic chains that shut people in, down, away, or up; to untie the cords of the yoke that prevents them from running free, even if the yoke is of their own making; to share food with the hungry (and not just a can of soup now and then); to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, even if the wanderer is ill-dressed and ill-mannered? Is not the fast I choose to clothe the naked when you see them and to take care of those in your own family? Isn’t humility… living for me each day, and serving me in the least among you… every day? Oh, my people- and these are words that our God also says to us- if you feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, heal the sick, show love at home, practice righteousness in the marketplace, and trust in me for salvation… your light will break forth like the dawn, and the glory of the Lord will protect and guide you.
As Kierkegaard noted, while people have always pretended that they don’t quite understand what God wants from them…and have filled libraries with books and commentaries in support of their own viewpoints… understanding what God wants is not really the problem, is it? Isn’t the real problem our unwillingness to surrender? Isn’t that why we fashion and serve idols- small gods that approve our every deed and never… ever tell us that we are naked? Friends, we are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world! Wow! Can we fully grasp the grandeur of this call? Can we get our heads around the privilege and the responsibility of being salt and light… to the world? As a church, let us understand that God measures our love for Him… by the love we show to one another and to our neighbors. Those people, the Bible says, who say they love God while hating their neighbors… are liars…because action speaks louder than words. Jesus of Nazareth said many wonderful things… but if he hadn’t cried “Father, forgive them,” through lips that were moistened with his own blood and tears… his words would not have changed anything at all. Empty rituals and self-serving behaviors will never give life or light to the world. Only sacrificial acts of love can do that. Amen.