Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Someone let the cat out of the bag! Our prayers on behalf of establishment and empire, our giving up sweets just for Lent, our offerings with strings attached, does not cut it, and hasn't really, for at least a generation. Church people, when they act like that, are perceived as hypocritical, and no one wants to be a part of that!
Some one let the cat out of the bag, and they didn't have to read it in scripture to know. But if they did, they'd have found it in the gospels, in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Jesus let the cat out of the bag 2,000 years ago! Do your alms-giving, your praying, and your fasting in secret and God who sees in secret will reward you. How can you make these disciplines of Lent a part of who you are and how you live out your faith? These aren't bad things to do, if they're a part of a more wholistic life-style of faith.
But even before Jesus, the prophets had already let the cat out of the bag, 2,500 years ago. The crisis of Israel's Exile to Babylon, due to a whole people's disobedience, was the precipitating event, which proved to be a continuing problem upon their return. Having been set free from captivity and allowed to return home, still they had not repented, that is, turned in a new direction, but came back fractious and fighting amongst themselves, and assumed their privilege and their piousness would carry the day. Too much of rebuilding the Temple was the temptation every age faces when it thinks there is some good ol' days to return to, instead or finding restoration in the ways God leads us today, continually reforming our mission as God's people.
And so specifically tonight, we hear the prophet Isaiah, letting the cat out of the bag: The fasting acceptable to God is not a one time, one day of the week add-on to our life, but is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one's privilege, as professor of Christian History, Amy Oden says. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity, day in and day out.
Perhaps it might not be totally inappropriate to say, that the Holy Spirit has been letting the cat out of the bag for a very long time, in every age, whenever God needs to speak to us.
And so, Isaiah also makes the restoration of Israel conditional, which in itself may rub our modern ears the wrong way. This generation, that has rejected moralisms and hypocrocy, is wary now, even of God's words. But imagine if Isaiah had quoted God saying, “Don't worry there's nothing you can do toward your healing and wholeness, or your relationship with me. It will either happen or it won't. Cei la vie!” Then there would be no hope and no moral compass at all.
But, the conditional if/then language of Isaiah, can and does create a life-giving relationship:
“If you remove...
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
[and] if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
… and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. God expects a partnership with a restored and reformed people. We are participants in God's life, an assembly of action in the realm of God's desires for us. The conditional if/then language is the heart of our hope, and the blueprint for our new life. If we repent, then God will restore us like a watered garden! Repenting includes turning from our old understanding – that just being near holy things, like church, bible, or good people, makes us holy – and means turning in a new direction:
“Is not this the fast that I choose [for you says God]:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?”
Being in relationship with God means having a clear, meaningful, and defined mission amongst God's people and creation. God wants a partnership with us, not to curtail our freedom, but to enhance life, justice and peace among all. If we will be God's people, then we have abundant life. And more and more, the cat is let out of the bag! Not just for us, but in this life-giving relationship, even God listens and can change God's mind, as the realm of God increases in, with and under us.
The cat's been let out of the bag for a long time. But the question is, are we ready for the 40 day journey to the great Three Days of Jesus' death and resurrection? Are we ready for the discipline of Lent – repentance, fasting, and works of love, for the sake of God's world? And are we ready to take it up as a practice that becomes who we are, all the time? – Are we ready for the realm of God that dawns in the new life of Easter?