Sunday, August 11, 2013

Garage Sale

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-48

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”  Martin Luther King, Jr

Those who choose not to fast during Lent or never to fast at all because they have convinced themselves it is an unnecessary "works thing" or a "Catholic thing" fail to understand the spiritual component of fasting - as one of untold and as-yet-unseen opportunity rather than as an unnecessary burden.  The practice of fasting is not merely a "test" to see if we could or would even try to go without, say, chocolate for a limited period of time.  Fasting should be approached as a "means" rather than a "test"; a "means" by which we evaluate our lives and determine for ourselves what stands between us and a more fulfilling and purposeful relationship with the Lord through the Church.

Fasting is a means by which we determine the extent and weight of the excess baggage that slows us down.  This is the inherent problem with the so-called "prosperity gospel" which teaches that material blessings are a sign of Divine Favor.  This is also problematic in equating "stuff" with "blessing", which is akin to the "prosperity gospel" because we fail to realize how encumbered we can become with too much "stuff", how beholden we may be to a world that cares little about us - except for the "stuff" we may possess. 

This is the question at the heart of what Jesus is talking about in Luke's Gospel.  "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit" can certainly be said to be reminiscent of the Exodus which came upon ancient Israel in Egypt; to "gird your loins" and be prepared to leave on a moment's notice.  This much is as true for the Church today as we await our Lord's return as we commemorate the Lord's Supper, but there is much more to this passage than a spiritual "threat" of the impending Judgment.  Much more.

It begins with verse 32 (Luke 12) when Jesus assures His Church (the flock) that "it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom"This passage should set the tone for what follows.  We should not be so bound by traditional understandings of the biblical "Day of the Lord" that have been summarized on bumper stickers which read, "Jesus is coming.  Be afraid; be very afraid".  NO!  This is not what our Lord is teaching His "flock".  Jesus is not threatening them!  We are awaiting a Divine Assurance, a Promise that will one day be fulfilled. 

Until that Day, however, there is much to be done.  But before we can know what is to be done (as opposed to doing what we feel like doing or what WE think should be done), we desperately need both fasting and serious, contemplative, time-consuming prayer.  We need to have a serious, spiritual "garage sale" so that when the time of the Master's return is upon us - not "if" - we will be unencumbered by the clutter in our lives and genuinely "dressed for action".

Part of the spiritual principle and a major component of fasting is in Jesus' commandment to "sell your possessions and give alms"; that is, not merely sharing our abundance with the poor but casting off and ridding ourselves of that which spiritually weighs us down.  Learn to do with less - or learn to do without altogether those things that can inhibit rather than enhance a relationship with the Lord through the Church.  And let's face it: if it takes "wealth" and "stuff" for us to appreciate the Lord's goodness, we are not living by faith - we are living by sight and by indulgence.

Selling what we have, however, is not a matter of testing ourselves to see if we can actually do without those things - although much is revealed to us when we determine our unwillingness to go without - which is also a point of fasting.  It is a determination that A) we really can do without these things just as so many others are forced by hardship to do without those same things, B) others may be suffering unjustly for lack of those things truly needed, and C) understanding we cannot be "dressed" and ready for the Master's return if we are so self-involved, so heavily encumbered, and so inwardly focused.  It goes far beyond the wealthy compared to the camel through the eye of a needle. 

There is an imbalance, an injustice; a lack of genuine righteousness.  It is not strictly about religious practices as some would suggest Isaiah is an excuse to disengage from worship; it is entirely about empty religious practices by which we refuse to fully engage in the relationship; we just go through the motions and expect the practice, whatever it may be, to be a sufficient offering. 

Worst of all, our Lord closes His heart to our "many prayers" because our hands are "full of blood" (Isaiah 1:15); that is, having turned a blind eye to the needs of others as Judah did and as the Church does in continuing to accumulate in our abundance and calling it "blessings" - the things we cannot possibly take with us, the things "moths can destroy", things "thieves can steal".  We are not actively seeking the "unfailing treasures in heaven" (Luke 12:33) because we are satisfied with and comforted by only those things we can see and feel and taste and touch.  Would we feel so richly blessed if we truly "needed" Asbury's food pantry for our sustenance? Would we still feel the presence of the Lord if our only home was the Southern Christian Mission's shelter?  These questions are impossible to answer when our lives are so cluttered, but they need to be answered.

Fasting, then, is the practice by which we evaluate and inventory our whole lives.  Fasting is a discovery of what is wasteful in our lives, a discovery of what we would actually try to cling to upon our Master's return.  At His anticipated and yet unexpected return, we might even find ourselves trying to justify our abundance and our refusal to "sell and give" to those who would only "drink it up or shoot it up or waste it anyway".  To say that we would be willing to drop everything when the Lord returns is being foolhardy and less than honest because, as Jesus clearly points out, what we treasure now is where our hearts will be then.

The Church has for centuries encouraged the practice of fasting as a "legal requirement", a "thing" we must do because Jesus did - or because Jesus teaches that certain demons can only be exorcised by "prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21).  It is time, however, to understand fasting in a new context, a new light - just as we should come to understand the Second Coming as more than a "threat" to those who have not played nice with others.  There are many chains and shackles that have hold of us, more than we would like to admit, more than we are even consciously aware of because we have become acclimated to these things as the true measure of our worth.  Borrowing a line from the movie, "John Q", it is not 'values' we hold dear; it is 'value'.  And that, my beloved, is a profound spiritual problem!

Throughout this passage in Luke's gospel there is that constant state of preparedness, of readiness, and yes, of expectation.  It is an intentional - rather than incidental - engagement in the relationship, taking nothing for granted, and evaluating everything we have and everything we do within the context of that Divine relationship (Deuteronomy 6:5).  Our "worth" to our Lord is NOT measured in dollars and cents.  HOWEVER, if our Lord's "value" to us is measured by what we are able to indulge for ourselves, there exists a real problem and a very powerful demon that can only be overcome by "fasting and prayer".

Jesus reminds us that we are given much not because we are "so blessed"; we are given much because much will be required of us - FOR Him, IN Him, THROUGH Him - for our neighbors.  Because "it is your Father's good pleasure to give you (not stuff, but) The Kingdom."  It is the "stuff" that, rather than blessing us, can truly hold us back.  So let us cast off the chains and shackles of "stuff", confront the demons within by "fasting and prayer", and strive TOGETHER for the "unfailing treasure in heaven".  It is, indeed, your Father's good pleasure.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

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