February 10, 2008
The Rev. Robert C. Granfeldt
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Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming,
it is near -- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
So began our Old Testament Lesson, from the Prophet Joel, that many of you will recognize
from our Ash Wednesday Service….
Most of us, I guess, could be called “creatures of habit!” Once we get into a groove, we
tend to stay there unless and until something happens to roust us out of the “rut” the
groove has become.
I plead guilty on lots of counts – but particularly, today, to an Ash Wednesday rut that I
suspect I have long shared with a lot of Episcopal Clergy.
Many years ago – and for many centuries, you see, the 1928 Book of Common prayer opened
the Ash Wednesday lessons with a reading from the prophet Joel, Chapter 2, vss 3-17.
When revision came, and a new lectionary, that lesson was expanded to include vss 1 & 2,
but it was, essentially, the same lesson – except, now, beginning with that stirring cry I just
read to you: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm….” The fact that the new lectionary
included a second option for the lesson didn’t really register – with me, at least. Joel was
familiar, comfortable, and stirring so let’s just go with it! (Though in my defense I will point
out that when we began using printed lesson inserts – particularly the large-print versions
that we use – that second option wasn’t very visible: it began, after all, on the second page!)
I will also confess that when I designed the Ash Wednesday Booklet we’ve been using in
recent years I took the easy way and just stuck with good old Joel, and didn’t waste paper
and print by including the other option. And so the rut deepened!
But a strange thing happened, this year. Our monthly service at Riddle Village was
scheduled for last Thursday – the day after Ash Wednesday – and while it certainly wouldn’t
be appropriate to do an Ash Wednesday service on that day, I decided to “start off Lent” for
them with the Ash Wednesday lessons, at least, at our Eucharist. So as usual, I handed over
the lessons inserts to my Riddle Village Lay Readers. And when the first Lesson began, I was
– for a moment, at least – confused! No, “Blow the trumpet,” no “Sound the alarm,” did I
hear, but, “Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
Shout out…!” The Reader had chosen to read the second option!
But after that moment of confusion, I listened. And I listened. Oh, I’ve read Isaiah…, Lord
knows how many times. But in those unexpected circumstances, it was as if I’d never heard
the words before. They roared in my mind, and my mind tumbled under their force, and
among other things – amongst all the thoughts that whirled in my brain – I knew that I had to
share it all with you, beginning by substituting last Wednesday’s alternate lesson for today’s
first reading! A new beginning for Lent!
The Book of the prophet Isaiah – written over a period of more than 2 centuries by at least
three different prophets – is, quite simply, not only one of the key books of the Bible, but
one of the greatest writings in all of religious literature; and here the prophet is at his best!
He writes to God’s people of one of the perpetual traps in all religions: that of thinking
religious observance is enough to satisfy the gods! That all one needs do is follow all the
rules, and never “do wrong” (whatever the rules say that means); to attend the temple or
the synagogue, the mosque or the Church, regularly; always to wear the proper clothing:
grow long hair and a beard or, perhaps, shave one’s beard and one’s head; to take off one’s
shoes for worship, or perhaps to wear a hat or scarf at all times; to stand or to kneel at the
proper time; to refrain from eating either this food or that food; to never touch alcohol, or,
on the other hand, to use alcohol in the very act of worship; and, having failed in any of
these things, to atone by fasting, or maybe by walking for miles on one’s knees, or maybe by
smearing one’s self with ashes, or maybe by tearing one’s clothes and sitting on an ash
But it’s not enough – none of it! “Such fasting as you do, today, will not make your voice
heard on high,” God tells God’s people! “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble
yourself? Is it to bow down your head…, to lie in sackcloth and ashes?”, God asks!
No, these things are not enough! These things are not what God wants of us – certainly not
all God wants from us! These things are about “religion!”
Religion is fine, religion is wonderful. But it’s not what God wants from us – certainly not all
God wants from us!
“Is this not the fast I choose,” God says, “to let the oppressed go free, and to break every
yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your
house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
…remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, … (and)
offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,”
These are the things God calls his people to do!
And if any of that sounds familiar, it may just be because we hear a slightly different version
of the same admonition so often – as we will on the last Sunday of this Liturgical Year, in
proper 29, when we’ll once again hear Jesus telling the Parable of the Last Judgment, with
the Great Judge saying: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom
prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I
was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I
was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and
you visited me.” For, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my
family, you did it to me.”
And all this was running through my mind as I listened to the words of Isaiah – as was the
realization that the message of Isaiah and the message of Jesus are the same – because
they’re both God’s message to God’s people! And it all hit me as it’s never hit me, before.
And at the same time, as well, a completely new realization came to me. (If it’s true that we’re
all creatures of habit, maybe it’s also true that old dogs can learn new tricks – or, at least,
come to knew understandings.)
Because as I listened and thought of these things, a completely different set of thoughts
came, as well, and suddenly I was remembering something I wrote to you all just a few
months ago in the Chimes. It was at the time of our pledge campaign, and writing to you
about tithing, I wrote that there is some disagreement about that subject, these days.
The standard of giving, for the children of God, since biblical times, has been the tithe – that
is, ten percent of what one has: a measure that has traditionally been interpreted as
meaning one should give ten percent of one’s earnings to the Church.
In recent times, many have questioned that. Their reasoning is that while in days gone by it
was the Church that was traditionally responsible for such things as the care of the poor –
feeding and clothing those in need, healing the sick, seeing to the needs of the elderly,
tending to the needs of all those who cannot care for themselves: clothing, housing,
visiting, nourishing in body, mind and spirit. Our modern word “charity,” in fact, comes from
one of the Latin words for “love”, caritas, as it was translated into Elizabethan English,
meaning, by implication, that the command to “love one another,” meant to “have charity”
toward one another! Except that it’s a command given in words that do not mean the same
thing, today, as when it was given!
For most of history, Kings were responsible, primarily, for keeping the peace domestically
and for waging war when necessary, while the Church did the rest! In modern times, though,
we have given over much of the ways in which we are charged to love God’s people as
commanded by the prophets and Jesus Christ, himself, to government, and we pay taxes to
cover their cost. That has led many to question whether we ought still to “tithe” to the
Church – since so much of the historic work of the Church is already being paid for by our
taxes – and there is great, longstanding disagreement on the issue.
I actually tend to come down on the “modern” side: that is, while I believe the Church
certainly needs our support just to survive, and that it still does many of the kinds of things
government doesn’t do for any number of reasons, good and bad – nevertheless we do
charge the government with much or our old responsibility, and we do pay for it with our
taxes! As we have evolved, today, we care for our own, as well as we can, parish by parish,
we worship and praise God, and we preach and teach the Gospel, while charging our nation
as a whole, through our government, to take care of the rest. Fair enough!
But we are charged by the prophets and by Christ – charged by God! – to care for the poor,
the elderly, the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the lonely, and to proclaim peace to
those who are near and to those who are far off. Giving the primary, direct responsibility for
those things over to our government may be more efficient in the modern world than asking
the Church to do it – but that does not relieve us of our responsibility!
And if we hand over the job to our representatives, and hand over our tax money to pay for
it, we cannot hand over our responsibility! Our responsibility requires us to see that the job
And I realized, suddenly – as I listened on Thursday morning and heard the words of Isaiah
being proclaimed, that, whatever our political persuasion, whatever our party, whatever
economic theory we might ascribe to, whatever party might be in power, whatever sex or
color or religion our public servants might be – it is our responsibility (in the way that we
vote, in the way that we speak, in whatever ways we choose to make our voices heard and
to make our elected officials respond), it is our responsibility to see that the bonds of
injustice are loosed, that every yoke is broken, and that the oppressed go free; our
responsibility to see that the homeless are taken in, and the naked covered; our
responsibility to see that the hungry are fed, the needs of the afflicted satisfied, the sick
and injured healed, the prisoners visited and cared for; our responsibility to see that justice
rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream; our responsibility
as Christian citizens of this nation!
And it’s our responsibility as Christian voters to accomplish all that! And if we’re going to
give over to government the job of doing these things, then it’s our responsibility as the
People of God to see that they get done!
It’s not about politics. It’s not about economics! It’s not about social theory or strategy! It’s
about the Prophets! It’s about the Gospel! It’s about the eternal Word of God!
And it’s about Jesus Christ!
In His Name. Amen.