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It is an old preachers joke.: On a snowy Sunday only one man shows up in a rural church. The pastor is elated when she sees who it is: the resident church hypocrite. The two exchange pleasantries and decide the pastor should proceed to the message, which the man will be glad to hear. What a captive audience, the pastor gives it her best, taking direct aim at the man’s very public sins. He was known for vulgar language, so the pastor started the sermon preaching about the dangers of profanity. Because the man was also known to be stingy beyond compare, the second point of her message spoke to the blessings of generosity. And so it went for 45 minutes as the preacher addressed the known hypocrisies of the man in the pew. The sermon and service finally over, the pastor went to the back door to greet the man as he left the building. She was full of hope that the message had hit the man in the heart and that he might repent of his evil ways in that tiny vestibule. The man shook the pastor’s hand and with deep sincerity said, “You really gave it to them this week pastor. I’m just sorry they weren’t here to listen.”
Those who preach know the experience. Preach about generosity and the widow who gives a mite will express sorrow she can’t get give more. Preach about fidelity, and the couple with a 60 year marriage will thank you for challenging them to love each other more. The people you hoped might listen have gone into a protective shell, guaranteeing your message will bounce harmlessly off them toward people in the next pew. And if we pastors are honest enough to admit, we don’t always hear the Word of God that would speak to us. We all assume the challenge of the gospel –the claim of the gospel on the way we live — is meant for someone else. We think we are doing well; it’s the other people who need to change. We are faithful; its’ the other people who need to repent.
So here we are at Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This is the time of year when we “give up” something until Easter. Some give up alcohol, others give up sweets. the very brave give up Facebook or video games. Often the act of giving up is described as a “fast.” Of course fasting originally applies to giving up all food for a period of time to heighten the attention on prayer (fasting by itself is not common in the Bible). Now we speak of removing something from our life for a temporary period of time as a fast — as in “I’m fasting from TV,” or I’m fasting from my iPad.” These are the modern observances of Lent.
In the Old testament passage for Ash Wednesday, the prophet Isaiah speaks of the fasting performed by the people in Jerusalem. They have fasted and seem to find little spiritual blessing in their many sacrifices: “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (v.3).
Isaiah responds with God’s assessment: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
In other words, all their worship has produced no change of heart. It has made no difference in their lives. Isaiah goes on to tell them how their actions need to match the profession of their faith. When justice, generosity, and kindness toward the poor become part of their lives, then it will be clear their beliefs about God are real and their practice of fasting effective.
How had they missed the inconsistency in their lives when it seems so obvious? They are a lot like the man in the joke: they thought the word of scripture was for someone else. Their protective shells were up, deflecting the Word at others. It seems they were a lot like us, always thinking it is someone else whose life is not consistent. We never notice our own lives lack justice, generosity, and kindness toward the poor. We bear the same grudges, continue the same quarrels, and show the same rigid spirit to those around us and wonder why others never change.
Why are we like this? Pride. It is the basic sin of pride that will not allow us to imagine or admit that we might – might – be wrong. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr:
There is a pride of power in which we assume our own self-sufficiency and self mastery and imagine ourselves secure against all possible changes. We refuse to admit the dependent character of our lives and believe ourselves to be the author of our own existence, the judge of our own values and the master of our own destinies.
Our pride just won’t allow us to imagine our need for repentance, change, or for God’s forgiveness. We see it in everyone around us, but not in ourselves.
If we are to fast this Lenten season, let us take a fast from our pride. Let’s put pride on the shelf for 40 days and allow God’s spirit to speak to our hearts. Not for the sake of feeling bad or guilty, but for the sake of realizing our dependence on God’s grace, so that we might turn and be healed. So that we might receive the gift of forgiveness that remains unused because we thought we had no need of it. Let us fast from pride in thinking we are already everything God wants us to be so that God’s spirit might work and move us toward all we can be.
I close with this prayer by Eric Milner-White (1884-1964):
Suffer me never to think that I have knowledge enough to need no teaching, wisdom enough to need no correction, talents enough to need no grace, goodness enough to need no progress, humility enough to need no repentance, devotion enough to need no quickening, strength sufficient without thy spirit; lest, standing still, I fall back for evermore. The Oxford Book of Prayer, P. 121
Meditation Text for the order of worship:
“Christianity…does not say that, in spite of appearances, we are all murderers or burglars or crooks or sexual perverts at heart; it does not say that we are totally depraved, in the sense that we are incapable of feeling or responding to any good impulses whatever. The truth is much deeper and more subtle than that. It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways—in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgment by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practice.
Malcolm Muggerridge, quoted by Philip Yancey, in Rumors of Another World, p. 123 f