Isaiah 58:1-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 6, 2019 – Ash Wednesday

The essence of faithfulness is loving God and loving others. The challenge in loving is not so much overcoming hatred in us but selfishness in us. Why, selfishness is so deeply engrained in us that we can pervert the practice of our religion into another form of selfishness.

One of the most haunting and horrifying stories I’ve ever heard was told by a Christian raised in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

Erwin Lutzer and his family considered themselves devout Christians. They and their fellow believers at church had heard about Hitler’s efforts to exterminate the Jews. But they didn’t want to face the facts or accept the resulting responsibility. They’d look at each other, shrug and say, “What can we do?”

A railroad track ran behind their small church. Each Sunday morning the parishioners would hear the train whistles in the distance and then the screeches of the wheels rolling down the tracks. When trains entered the church’s residential neighborhood, the engines would be geared down and the trains would move slowly.

The parishioners could not help but hear the cries from the train cars. They heard tortured Jews, packed like cattle in the cars, calling out for mercy.

Week after week, the whistles would blow and the parishioners grew to dread the approach of those soul-wrenching wails from suffering human beings on route to their slaughter. Their howls stole the parishioners’ peace of mind.

So, in response, the parishioners started to sing hymns whenever they heard the whistles blow. As the steel wheels sang louder on the rails, they’d sing still louder. By the time the train was passing the church, they were belting out those hymns at the top of their lungs, not to praise God, but to drown out the voices.

We are capable of using what should draw us closer to God, worship and the pleas of the needy, to keep God at a distance. We can debase our spiritual life into a distraction from the demands of discipleship. We can be religious and rebellious at the same time!

That’s the accusation God brings against His people here in Isaiah 58. Though they give God much of their time – “day by day they seek me,” God says – though they study God’s word with enthusiasm – they “delight to know my ways,” God says – and though they carry out the required rituals – they continually make sacrifices, fast, pray and bow down before me, God says – in fact they are, God says, serving their own interests and betraying His. They are closing their ears to the cries of the lost, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless poor, and their own kin. They are refusing to love – that is, to offer food to the hungry, lift the yoke of the oppressed, satisfy the needs of the afflicted, and defend the dignity of the misjudged and the marginalized.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent, a season of repentance. Learning to repent is like learning to believe. Just as we come to believe and yet can always elevate our believing, so too we come to repent and yet can always elevate our repenting. In both cases, we climb a spiral staircase of holiness; ascending higher and higher, in anything but a vicious circle, by circling further and further above the same ground.

The crucial reorientation in repentance, one that we are never completely finished with, is that of moving out of our selfishness into a life of active, loving concern for others. Lent is then less a matter of giving up things than of giving ourselves over to God’s purposes of justice, compassion and witness.

Thus, Lent is a particularly appropriate time to go out of our way to bless whom we can. We’d do well this season to capitalize on all the little opportunities that crop up to do someone some good. We might put a smile on the face of a sourpuss, visit a lonely shut-in or write a thank-you note to someone taken for granted.

We’d also do well to act from a perspective as wide as God’s big-hearted concern in love.

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man stops to help someone beaten by robbers. The parable encourages us to take care of the needy. Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice, suggests we consider a “sequel” to the parable. Suppose the Samaritan the next day travels the same road and comes across another person bleeding on the side of the road. The day after that, it happens once more; and then the day after that it happens yet again. In fact, every time he makes the trip from Jerusalem to Jericho, he happens upon someone robbed and beaten – whereupon, he starts looking around and noticing hundreds in the same situation. What can he do?

When we see one person in need, we help. When we see many in need, we still give whatever one-on-one help we can; but, out of loving concern for everyone, we also address the underlying conditions that keep causing lots of folks to fall into that situation in the first place.

To continue to move out of ourselves is to continue to move into God’s broad viewpoint and come to care about those who are not right in front of our eyes.

For example, many of us wear clothes that are manufactured in sweatshops whose workers are poorly paid and sometimes abused. What can we do?

Sometimes the most we can do to fight such injustice is to boycott such a company; but some of us can do even better by buying stock in the company, or working for it, in order to gain a platform by which to advocate for more righteous policies and procedures.

Let me tell a true story about a man who was positioned to do more than most of us can, but who still illustrates for all of us what it means, in repentance, to move out of selfishness into God’s broader concerns of love.

This man is a Christian and a professional buyer. He worked for an upscale clothing company whose jeans are made in a factory in Madagascar. He found out that, though the company was selling its jeans in trendy stores for several hundred dollars apiece, it was paying the factory at a rate of only $1 per pair. As a result, the factory could only pay its workers the most meager wages and with no benefits. The Christian buyer did some research and determined that, if the company purchased the jeans at $4 apiece, it could maintain a still very healthy, albeit smaller, profit margin and free up money to be passed on to the workers in the form of higher wages and benefits such as health care, improved sanitation and subsidized housing. The Christian buyer then worked his way up the corporate hierarchy making the case for making that change. His proposal was eventually adopted; and today the company is both prospering and doing the right thing.

Justice was achieved, and love was shown, because a Christian had repented, moved out of himself and come to care about strangers who were strangers to him but not strangers to God.  Let us, in whatever way God enables us, follow this path of compassion and kindness. Let us pray!

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