what are you thinking?

ash-wednesday a sermon, based on Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

“Is this the fast that I choose?”[1] The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people, declaring God’s word, really, God’s question.

For nearly seventy years, the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Now, with the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Persian army, the people, their liberation finally come, their hated exile over, return home. But their suffering in poverty and powerlessness continues. Their land, in ruins. Basic necessities, lacking. Neighboring nations, poised to strike.

israelites-return-to-their-homeland-1670-domenico-gargiulo-1609-1675The people, literally hungering and thirsting for God’s favor, fast – abstaining from food and drink, donning coarse sackcloth, smearing their faces with dust and ash; ancient, ritual signs of sorrow meant to get God’s attention.

But no relief comes. Because, Isaiah says, their fast, an external display of humility, is a mask for hypocritical, unchanged, selfish hearts. Even in poverty, some, less poor than others, seek to maintain whatever privilege they possess, which the poorer among them would wrest from their hands.

“Is this,” God, through the mouth of Isaiah, asks, truly, demands, “the fast that I choose?” Do you really believe that outward, ritual display without deeds of mercy, without common acts of common assistance to address common need satisfies My hunger for righteousness? Do you really believe that superficial religiosity, artificial piety reflects My kingdom, My community of love and justice? What are you thinking?

God’s people have sinned, “missing the mark”,[2] failing to fulfill God’s calling. However, this prophetic chastisement isn’t a negative job evaluation or a poor performance review. For the issue is not about doing, but being. Not about duty, but identity. The people have misunderstood not what they are to do, but who they are. They don’t have a mission to do God’s love and justice. Rather the God of love and justice has a people in whom that mission takes flesh, thus lives and labors.

So, Isaiah declares that an acceptable fast is deeds of mercy, which, when done, do not, will not, cannot gain the reward of God’s blessing, but rather are the signs that the people already are blessed by God, verily, are God’s blessing for others. Deeds of mercy do not, will not, cannot win salvation, but rather reflect that salvation already has come, verily, that the spirit of salvation, healing, wholeness “lives and moves and has its being”[3] among the people.

Thus, it does no violence to the text, indeed, it is to unearth its truth to change the word “then” to “when.”

Is not this the fast I choose?

To loose the bonds of injustice,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

To break every yoke?

To share bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless poor into the house

To cover the naked

To hide not from our sisters and brothers in need.

Again, not “then,” not if we do these things, this will be the result, but rather “when” we do these things it is a sign that already:

Our light breaks forth like the dawn,

Our healing arises speedily

God answers even before we call…

This is a biblical way of saying that we already have embraced, embodied the love and justice of God’s very nature.

So, this Lent, let us not do deeds of self-sacrifice, even self-denial. Rather let us be acts of mercy, particularly for those who are “other” than we.

Thus when God saith, “Is not this the fast that I choose?” verily, “Are not you the fast that I choose?” we will be able to answer, “Yes!”


Illustration: Israelites return to their homeland (1670), Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675)


[1] Isaiah 58.5a (emphasis mine). The Hebrew scripture appointed for the day is Isaiah 58.1-12.

[2] The word sin is derived from the Greek, ‘amartia, literally meaning “to miss the mark.” The image may be conceived as that of an archer whose arrows (symbolic of one’s life’s intentions, indeed, aims) land all places except the center of the target (of life, Who is God).

[3] Words from A Collect for Guidance, The Book of Common Prayer, page 100 (based on Acts 17.28)


a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 1, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17 Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On the incomprehensibility of the Divine:[1] O God, I do not understand You. The grace of Your Love, granting unto me a salvation that I do not, that I cannot merit, verily, that I think, that I believe impossible for me, and the mercy of Your Love withholding from me the righteous judgment that I, in my sin, deserve, is beyond my comprehension. You are beyond my comprehension. As Your prophet Isaiah declares, Your ways are higher than my ways and Your thoughts than my thoughts,[2] so my greatest imagining, my grandest thought of You, like a sightless, errant arrow falls far short, ne’er a threat to draw near to Your goodness and glory. Nevertheless, though You remain beyond the sight and reach of my reason, You, in Your love, ever stand within the light and grasp of my faith; a faith, which by Your Spirit you grant me, to trust in You. In that faith, in that trust, I give You thanks, always and in all ways. Amen.


[1] Over many years, I have pondered the words of The Creed of Saint Athanasius, which reads in part: “…the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance…The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible…there are not three incomprehensibles…but…one incomprehensible…” Each time, though drawing no nearer to understanding, all I can say is “Amen.”

[2] See Isaiah 55.8-9

remember – an Ash Wednesday reflection

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

So God spoke to the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden as an aide-mémoire of human mortality. Even more, as a declaration of the loss of innocence, and with it life’s purpose of intimate, harmonious co-existence with God.

Early this morning, winter’s overcast skies suddenly parted and a ray of light poured through the window. For an instant, I was mesmerized by particles of dust; a moment before invisible, now exposed, floating in the air.

Dust. So insignificant. Lying around loosely, stirring up easily, drifting about aimlessly, landing again lightly, and, inevitably, with every shift in the air, repeating the cycle.

Dust. That’s me.

Even with responsibilities to shoulder and tasks at hand, I, at times, lie around rather loosely, uncertain of my life’s purpose. I come to a day’s end. The next morning the sun will rise (or so I hope!) and the diurnal journey of being here and there, doing this and that will begin again. Sometimes I wonder. What’s the point? What greater world of good will I do beyond the maintenance of my life?

And I, an emotional person with deep feelings, passions, like dust can be stirred up. When life’s circumstances or world events go awry (or other than I desire), I can fly around aimlessly until I calm down and land again; almost inevitably repeating the cycle the next time something or someone disturbs me.

Dust. Yep, that’s me.

Ash WednesdayOn this Ash Wednesday, many folk will have their foreheads anointed with ashes accompanied by the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I will submit to this ancient ritual as a personal memorial, acknowledging that I am dust, mortal, destined one day to die. I also will accept the anointing of ashes as a sign of my awareness that our existential dustiness is a common mark of all humanity. Hence, I am one with every human being, irrespective of differences of sex and race, culture and class, origin and ethnicity, theology and ideology. I am part of all and all, part of me.

This reality reminds me of my life’s purpose: to live with justice and compassion, fairness and benevolence for all.

This will be my focus, my labor this Lent: to behold and to hold steadfast this truth. For such renewal I surely, sorely need, for I, like loosely lying, easily stirring, aimlessly drifting dust, spend so much time living otherwise.