This Irish guy shows up in a pub one day and orders three pints of Guinness. He takes sips from each glass until they are empty and calls the bartender for three more. The bartender says, "Hey, pal, I don't mind bringing one at a time, then they'll be fresh and cold." "Nah . . . ahm preferrin' that ya bring 'em three at a time. You see, me and me two brothers would meet at a pub and drink and have good times. Now one is in Australia, the other in Canada, and I'm here. We agreed before we split up that we'd drink this way to each other's honor." "Well," says the bartender, "that's a nice sentimental thing to do. I'll bring the pints as you ask."
Well, time goes on and the Irishman's peculiar habit is known and accepted by all the pub regulars. Then one late-February day the Irishman comes in and orders only two pints. A hush falls over the pub. Naturally, everyone figures something's happened to one of the brothers. A bunch of the regulars corner the bartender and finally persuade him to find out what happened. With a heavy heart, the bartender brings the two pints and says, "Here's your two pints . . . and let me offer my sincerest condolences. Can you tell us what happened?" The Irishman looks extremely puzzled for a moment. Then he lights up and starts laughing. "No, no! 'Tis nothing like that. You see, I've given up drinking for Lent." [modified from Joe Parrish, ECULAUGH, 3-25-98]
For many Christians Lent is a season of fasting, and fasting means giving something up. However, although it seems that there is widespread emphasis these days on observing Lent as a religious season, there is not nearly so much emphasis on fasting or giving something up as there used to be. In times past laughter was discouraged during Lent. So were sexual relations. The eating of meat and of any fat were also prohibited or discouraged. The word "Carnival," used to denote the celebrations immediately preceding Lent in many Latin American countries, is Latin for "farewell to meat." "Mardi Gras," meaning "Fat Tuesday," was the last of several days when all the fat in the house was to be consumed. [cf. BLOOMINGTON HERALD-TIMES, "Lent not as rigorous as it used to be," 2-25-95].
Lent has long seemed to me to be a particularly useful time for reflecting seriously upon the meaning of Christian life and faith. But I have never been very comfortable with the idea that it is a season that calls for some special religious ritual, including fasting or giving something up for Lent. Perhaps I feel this way because I grew up in a church that gave Lent little attention, but I also grew up in a place where there were lots of Lutherans and Roman Catholics and others who talked about Lent. The way they talked about it gave me the impression it was just a ritual, and not a very important ritual at that--sort of like drinking two pints of Guinness instead of three.
One of the great and constant challenges facing religion is to maintain the connection between the ritual and symbolism of our observances of worship and the actual practice of our faith in daily life. Sometimes our ritual and observance are powerful expressions of meaning that open us up to the world and inspire a heightened commitment and devotion to care for that world. Other times our ritual and observance seem to function more as substitutes for active engagement with others and actual practices of justice and love.
Both of our texts this morning may be taken as very pointed and powerful reminders that religious ritual is no substitute for the practice of our faith. The ritual of religion is not a good or an end in itself. Worship may become false, ritual may become rote and routine. Our religious observances may actually serve to divert us from the needs of the human community and the purposes of God. The aim of religion, we need to be reminded, is not the proliferation of ritual but the flourishing of humankind. This is not an easy lesson to learn and always remember.
Our Old Testament text from Isaiah portrays God's people under judgment. The time would seem to be after the defeat of Judah, the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Babylonians. For many years thereafter, the people responded with days of mourning and fasting. These days were set aside that the people might reflect on the judgment that had befallen them. They were to be times of contrition, repentance, and prayer. The prophet looks at what has become of this practice, however, and sees only further reason for judgment. "Day after day they seek [God] and delight to know [God's] ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness . . ." They cry out to God in their impatience, "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" They think they have done their part. They have kept the religious rituals. But the prophet perceives that they are merely going through the motions. It is all hollow, empty, false: "Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. . . . Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?"
The prophet makes it plain as day: God has no use for fasting or any other religious ritual that ignores the plight of the human community. Fasting while someone else goes hungry is of no avail. Humbling oneself while another is bowed down with oppression does not honor God. Shouting for God's attention while hiding from those in need will not secure God's aid. The rituals of fasting are not what God desires: "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, and to break every yoke? 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?"
The fast that God chooses has nothing to do with diet, it is a matter of justice. It is not a matter of giving something up, it is a matter of giving others proper regard. It is not a matter of individual self-discipline, it is a matter of restoring community, granting freedom, and providing the conditions for all to survive and flourish. Do this, says the prophet, and when you call, "the LORD will answer." "The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places . . ."
This is not to say that there are no individual, personal disciplines in the religious life. Life places so many competing demands upon us that we can hardly do without those practices that help us to define ourselves, to find our moral and spiritual centers, to focus our lives in the presence of God. We need prayer, we need worship, we need spiritual sanctuary, we need rituals to embody and nurture the meanings and truths that we wish to cherish about ourselves and our life together. But we need these in order to be more complete and faithful human beings in our dealings with one another. We need religious practices in order to flourish, and to enable others to flourish. The fast that God chooses is the fast that enables and equips us to become more serviceable human beings in our daily encounters with others in our world.
According to Mark, people wondered why Jesus' disciples did not fast in the customary way. The disciples of John the Baptist fasted, and the disciples of the Pharisees fasted. Why did Jesus' disciples not fast? Apparently, Jesus did not regard his ministry as an occasion for fasting. If anything, it was a time for celebration. In our text he compares himself to the bridegroom at a wedding, and his disciples to the guests. Jesus' ministry and presence make for a special occasion. His disciples are not simply to adhere to the established or expected religious practices of the day. Something new and different is happening to them with him in their midst.
Beyond this, Mark reports the incident of Jesus' disciples plucking heads of grain in the field on the sabbath. Some Pharisees notice, and claim that this is against the religious law. Jesus responds, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." The law, the ritual, the religious practice, does not exist for its own sake. Nor does it have priority over human need. If his disciples are hungry, they should not have to remain hungry in deference to the observance of the sabbath. The sabbath was made for humankind, and serves no godly purpose if it denies the opportunity to meet a human need. The sabbath that God chooses is the sabbath that enables human beings to secure a fuller measure of the sustenance of life.
I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion that God wants humankind to flourish. And to flourish is to belong to a human community shaped by standards of justice, where all are granted the freedom to participate as equals and extended the resources to meet their needs.
After a particularly long and dull sermon, the late British novelist Barbara Pym wrote in her diary that she wished she had the courage to give up church for Lent [David L. Bartlett, "Worshiping Little Gods," THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, February 20, 1991, 195]. Let me suggest, rather, that giving up going to church would be the easy thing to do, especially in this season of Lent. If we are going to come to church during this season of reflection and repentance, we had better screw up our courage. We had better be prepared for the fast that God chooses. It is a world of abundance, yet many go hungry and most are poor. It is a world of potency, yet few have the freedom to realize their full potential. It is a world of technological prowess, yet more are its slaves than masters. It is a perennial calling of the Church to pursue justice on behalf of those who are most disadvantaged, most burdened, most oppressed. It is a perennial calling of the Church to work and pray for the re-ordering toward greater equality of our social and political and economic life. It is a perennial calling of the Church to engage in practices that liberate and empower, and ministries that meet human need.
The fast that God chooses is a world transformed, a world that does not serve the interests of some against the good of the rest, a world designed for the flourishing of all humankind. The fast that God chooses can hardly be accomplished in these pews on Sunday morning. It happens throughout our week, at our places of work, in our city halls and courts of justice, in our legislatures and our board rooms, in our neighborhoods and our homes. But first it has to happen with us.
It has to sink in with us that our own lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions. It has to become clear and convincing to us that the measure of our worth does not lie in our capacity to exploit and consume this world's goods, or to dominate over others in the exercise of this world's powers. It must become an article of faith for us that we are not diminished by granting to others equal stature and freedom and opportunity for participation in the human communities that we share. The fast that God chooses requires us to give up our efforts to secure our own existence at the expense of others.
If you want to give up something for Lent, give up whatever it is you are thinking, and whatever it is you are doing, that stands in the way of the flourishing of your neighbor. AMEN.