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Sermon (03/13/22)

Sermon, March 6, 2022

Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC

The season of Lent is upon us.

I mentioned to a non-churched friend yesterday about Ash Wednesday, our fasting challenge and our upcoming fish fries, and he said, ‘wait. is your church catholic’? It’s true that in protestant congregations, there’s a lot less focus on Lent than in Catholic traditions - but this tradition has been kept in the greater church for nearly 1700 years.

Lent is intended as a period of reflection and repentance that might lead to a change of heart or atonement. It is traditionally a time when we work on restoring our relationship with God, rearranging our priorities, refreshing our love for others, and restructuring our relationship to God’s creation. The Lenten journey should help us determine where we might be out of balance with our values. It might help us identify where we are taking things for granted, like our good fortune or our power of self-determination, where we forget to live with the gratitude and the humility of knowing that we could be in someone else’s situation, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. It may help us identify where we are unintentionally complicit in suffering or systems of oppression, or directly tempted to sin by ignoring the plight of others. Traditionally the Lenten disciplines of self-examination, fasting or self-denial, meditation, prayer, and study of scripture are used to help us return to that stronger connection to God and to our inner core of divinity. These Lenten disciplines are not about self-improvement so much as a call to radical discipleship. By opening our hearts a little wider, this call to discipleship could lead to transformation — and not only of ourselves, but our world as well.

But to understand where the world needs transformation, first we have to be able to see it. When I lived in Chicago, I interned and volunteered for a social agency called the Night Ministry. This organization took a bus out each night to stop at 3 locations to provide coffee and conversation with homeless or housing-insecure folks - but offered relationship rather than services. That is because people who have experienced homelessness will often tell you the hardest part of their ordeal wasn’t the cold nights, or having their belongings stolen, or dealing with hunger… the feeling of being invisible to others was the most difficult to endure. The lack of eye contact. Being passed on the street without acknowledgement. Having people pretend they hadn’t just heard you ask, “could you help me today?” Most of the interaction you have when you are down on your luck comes in the form of welfare appointments and requests for assistance - a sort of transactional encounter that reinforces the feeling of being less-than. But to be ignored long-term, to not be seen at all – this is the ultimate method of dehumanization, of robbing someone of their human worth. The Night MInistry recognized that dignified conversation helped a survivor who manages life on the street feel normal and worthy of human interaction. It helped them feel seen, and helped volunteers like me widen our hearts.

In our reading this morning, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to a community that has returned from exile, but continues to conduct itself in the way that brought exile to them in the first place. Some in the community had more money, food and resources than others. Those who had more did not provide for the needs of those who had less. The economic disparity led some to indebtedness, which in those times meant they would sell themselves or their family members into slavery for survival. Yet the community practices the traditional rituals within the Hebrew tradition to create a connection with God; they fast, and wear sackcloth and ashes. Yet, they felt that that God ignored their sacrifices. “Why do we fast and you do not see?” They are feeling ignored and invisible. Isaiah responds that perhaps that is because they are doing it to each other - ignoring and turning a blind eye to the struggles around them.

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God calls out these efforts at repentance folly when they are separated from seeking justice and compassion within the community. Isaiah preaches that it’s impossible to strengthen a relationship with the divine while ignoring the suffering of those that the divine cares for. God here is changing the definition of ‘fast’. No longer should it apply only to what you put in your mouth; in fact, the fast God requires is something that is transformative; it should be something that will bring justice and compassion to the entire community, something that will loosen the chains of oppression. Isaiah’s alternative suggestions each offer directives for what is happening between individuals, like sharing bread, housing the homeless, and covering the naked.

The prophet Isaiah is talking about a new kind of fast, and this fast transforms the community to result in good, or ‘right’ relationships across the community. Relationships that are not only polite, but compassionate… not only kind, but fair…not only obliged, but generous as if one were close family.

Through Isaiah’s words, God is asking us to really see our neighbor, to recognize their existence, their worth, their struggle and their hardship. Isaiah seems to be saying, as the one seeking God responds to the needs of another, so God will respond to the one who seeks. It's one thing to see that someone is in need… it’s another to understand why that person is in need. The kind of sight we need to truly loose the bonds of injustice is that kind that helps us walk in another person’s shoes. Learning about their lives will foster a better understanding of why there but for the grace of God go us. It will create a wider compassion, stretching our hearts to inspire action that is rooted in and flowing from the divine love of God.

Last week, our book study on Catherine Keller was discussing the chapter in her book where she talks most about compassion. She spends a lot of words - perhaps too many if you asked the people in the discussion - to examine the concept of compassion. Compassion means to ‘suffer with’, but Keller focuses on the love evident in the second half of the word, and debating between the intrapersonal love known as eros and the altruistic benevolent love known as agape. She argues that compassion embraces both kinds of love; eros and agape, because one has to love on a personal level to understand another’s struggle. She writes, “Agape for God or in humanity is not higher than eros. But it is wider.” She says compassion is “whatever it is that keeps widening your heart”. That sounded really appropriate to me for what we have suggested for this season of Lent - a program with a focus on widening our hearts.

One of my church inspirations back in Chicago took Isaiah’s words to heart, for a new kind of fast. They deliberated on what kind of fast would help promote justice and transformation in the world, and pioneered something they call the Lenten Compact. Rather than fasting on an individual level, they saw the value of fasting as a collective, as their whole congregation. They saw the power of committing to an experience within a group and processing that experience as a group, to focus not only on their relationship to God, but also on their relationship to their neighbors. As they say it, the Lenten compact ‘calls “our church to a true fast—one that is not just the act of denying oneself of something because that is not enough—but a fast that moves us toward justice and reconciliation.” Every year has a different theme, as chosen by their justice committee. They read, watch, listen, and try to feel the experience of their theme as best they can - and they discuss it during and after church each week in lent. The first year they choose to loosen the bonds of their attachment to the material world. They made a congregational agreement not to buy anything unnecessary – anything outside of food and needed toiletries – for 6 weeks. Every Sunday, they discussed where this felt challenging, what discipline it required, and how it impacted their relationship with God – and each other. They learned that when a member of the congregation needed something they couldn’t buy, another would loan it to them, therefore increasing their interdependence and sense of community.

One year, they completely gave up plastic in order to learn about caring for creation. The congregation augmented the effort with films and readings on the harmful impact of plastic on the planet, and discussed how integrated plastic is in every part of our lives. A few years ago, they charged into poverty and the challenges of supporting oneself on minimum wage – and refrained from buying any fast food – food from places that don’t pay a high enough wage for someone to live on. Another year they looked at the issue of homelessness and gentrification of their neighborhood – and what it was like to try to live in public housing that the city of Chicago keeps shuttering and tearing down.

By taking the Lenten “fast” out of the personal realm and into the communal realm, Kimball Avenue Church saw the potential to grow in their relationships to each other as they grow in understanding of the struggles other people face in their world. Through their Sunday dialogues, they were able to support each other in a fast that more resembles what Isaiah says God would choose for us – not to ‘hide’ from our kin’ - but deepen devotion to our faith and God’s commandments. And the discipline of learning and discussing one topic for 6 weeks helps them to really “see” into people’s lives and struggles – to fully understand why some of their neighbors are in need.

Shamelessly, and with their permission, I’ve been copying their genius idea of Lenten Compact since I’ve been in ministry. And so, with the help of 10 others here at KCUCC, we’ve created a Lenten Justice program for our congregation to experience collectively, focusing on the lived experience of immigrants and refugees. Our timing is critical. The current events in our world - the former President’s policies, the evacuation of Afganistan, and the new war in Ukraine, and let’s not forget the looming climate crisis - all reinforce the gravity of the situation of immigrants and refugees, and the importance for us to understand how and where we can help welcome the foreigner. Every Sunday in Lent we will have a special event - guest speakers or panel discussions - to help us dig into the cause and effect of human migration, the human experience of it, the systems that help and hurt, the opportunities we have to help, and most importantly, what scripture has to say about it. We have suggested that the congregation read a book called The Displaced for discussion on April 3rd, and at least one of the episodes of Immigration Nation available on Netflix as fodder for our discussions. And, in order to make this a bit more personal, we suggest that you try to feel, just a little, what it must feel like to be forced into an immigration situation. Imagine you were in a situation where you had only one day’s notice to flee your home - as our Afghani or Ukranian neighbors have had to recently. Try packing a bag or suitcase of clothing that you can carry, and try to live out of that bag for the next 6 weeks. Refrain from buying anything that would add to the load of belongings you would have to bring with you. Use that experience to reflect on the book, devotionals, and the Netflix series to imagine if you were in their position. Bring your insights to our discussions.

I believe a collective fast like this will, indeed, help us see our neighbors, ourselves, and a faithful life with God more clearly. This is an exercise that will widen our hearts and expand our compassion; a transformative exercise that makes changing the world all that more possible. Len tis about drawing us closer to that amazing love God has for all of God’s children, and how our lives might be transformed if we embraced that love for all of God’s children as fervently. What kind of future might be possible if we all embraced such a collective fast? As you journey through this Lenten season, I invite you to reflect on the things we see and what we keep hidden – from ourselves, from our kin, and from God. And consider what it might be like to bring them into discussion in a communal lent.

Amen and Amen.

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