The Rev. Dianne O’Connell

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

March 8, 2009

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

It's Not the Act, but the Attitude

      Good morning.  When John invited me to preach today, he mentioned that it was The Gifts of Women Sunday according to the denominational calendar.  Thank you Nancy, Sara, and Linda for assisting with the service this morning, and thank you Maria, Diane, Mary Jane and Nancy again, for keeping our Sunday School program vibrate and alive. Thanks to everybody in the choir, both men and women, for sharing your gift of music.  Hey, and thanks to Joanne, Wendy, and Sara for serving as elders, and Donna, Patti, and Barbe’ for being our deacons.  We appreciate Gale and Chuck, too, but I guess we’ll have to do that on a different Sunday.  And, of course, we appreciate John and a whole bunch of other Men of Immanuel, and we absolutely love our growing crop of children.  It takes us all to make this little family keep on keeping on. And on this Gifts of the People Sunday, I personally want to recognize us all.

      That’s about all I want to say about that.

      It is Lent.  In fact, it is the second Sunday in Lent.  I have to admit that when I was growing up and attending a tiny Presbyterian Church in a big Roman Catholic town, I thought Lent was something only the Catholics observed.  I could tell it was Lent when  my classmates showed up at school with the little bit of ash on their foreheads, signifying that they had gotten up at least an hour before I did that morning and managed to get to church before coming to school.  I was always impressed by this, if a little confused.

      When I was in Fairbanks last weekend attending the Presbytery meeting, I stayed with a wonderful family with four beautiful children.  I could tell that they worshipped during the Catholic services on base the minute I walked into their home.  Why do you suppose?  Well, it could have been the religious pictures or the crucifix on the wall, but when they offered me a piece of pizza, I was convinced.  The pizza looked a little different.

      “It takes a little getting used to,” the mother explained.  “We are all giving up cheese for Lent.”

      The kids were excited about their pizza and very pleased to be eating it without cheese.  They were making this small sacrifice for the Lord, and I in no way want to diminish their piety or their spirituality.  In fact, I want to lift it up as an example of a family living its religion and passing it on to their children in a memorable and a “we’re all in this together” sort of way.

      When I came home, it was time to begin preparing a sermon for this week.  Because my own meditations guided me more than the lectionary, I chose the two readings this morning – one from Isaiah and the other from Matthew.  They are both Lenten readings, but not necessarily the ones assigned for today.

      I chose them because they spoke to such spiritual practices as fasting, giving alms to the poor, public prayer, ashes and sack cloth, and the like.

      Neither Isaiah nor Jesus said they were opposed to such spiritual practices, but rather they warn us to be aware of our motivations while we practice them.  Setting aside time for personal reflection on our faith and our ways of expressing our faith is probably a good assignment for Lent.  I’m going to reflect for a moment just on prayer and fasting.

      Chuck and I were talking about the Power of Prayer a couple weeks ago, each acknowledging a little personal doubt now and then.  Right on cue, the postman delivered the February 23 issue of Time magazine – the cover story being “How Faith Can Heal.” Now some of you remember that I was a hospital chaplain for several years, so I was aware of some of the studies done in hospital situations pertaining to the power of prayer and the power of personal spirituality, but I really hadn’t kept up on the research.  It was interesting to review the scientific evidence that faith may indeed bring us health.  People who attend religious services do have a lower risk of dying in any one year than people who don’t attend.  People who believe in a loving God fare better after a diagnosis of illness than people who believe in a punitive God.  No less a killer than AIDS will back off a least a bit when it’s hit with a double-barreled blast of belief, according to the research.

      It’s hard not to be impressed by such findings, but a skeptic will say there’s nothing remarkable about it – it’s all in the chemicals the brain produces.  Yeah, well? Those chemicals are another one of God’s gifts, as far as I’m concerned.

      I’m not going to review the whole article for you, but I can certainly recommend it.  But, you might say, we pray for different reasons besides restoration of health.  That’s true, too, and as it should be.  Gratitude for the health we have is another good purpose for prayer.   The question becomes not so much for what we pray, but for what reason and in what circumstances do we pray?

      I want to thank the Lord for my life and the gifts given to me, but have often found myself lacking in the traditional religious verbiage to not only give thanks but to also to impress my neighbor with my eloquence at the same time.  Perhaps silent meditation would spare my listener the trouble of evaluating my choice of words, and would reach the ear of God just the same.  Maybe I am a closet Quaker.

      As I reflect on this, however, I also remember the prayers of some great saints whose words have inspired me – and I offer up thanks for their willingness to publicly share their private prayers.  One such offering is that of St. Francis of Assisi, whose words I have used in the Affirmation of Faith slot in our worship service today.  An Affirmation of Faith is supposed to start with something like “I believe thus and such.”  Well, I do believe that God can truly answer Saint Francis’ prayer and transform me and you into the kind of people we were created to be – and that belief takes a lot of faith.

      In the same spirit of honoring those more gifted at prayer than I, the benediction this morning comes from the revered Irishman, Saint Anonymous.  The words of Anonymous should send us out into the world with the warmth of the Son on our face and the protection of God all around us.

      The prayers of Saint Francis and Anonymous not withstanding, for me during this time of Lent, the most meaningful prayer is one of Silence, listening for the Word of God.  It is all the more meaningful when I go into my room, shut the door, and pray secretly, so that my Lord may hear me. Silence is good, but so is the Jesus Prayer: 

      “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There are many variations of the Jesus Prayer including, "Lord, have mercy," or as one pastor put it, just plain "Jesus, help!"

      So again, do not put away prayer. During this Lenten season pray with all your heart, in quiet solitude, and leave a little time for silence, so that God can talk, too.

      Now I’d like to say a few words about fasting. Abstaining from certain foods or activities during Lent also falls into this category.  Fasting is a spiritual practice which was totally unknown to me as a child – and one that I have to admit I have still not learned to practice.  What I have learned since is that fasting is practiced by most of the world’s religions as a way of drawing closer to God.  Many Christian sects and denominations, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Hindus, and indigenous religions around the world, all have a revered place for fasting in their spiritual practices.

      Yet the Reformed Tradition took great exception to fasting – criticizing it as a purely external observance with no other spiritual benefit.  In the 1500s, for instance, the Swiss reformer Zwingli, in a very public show of personal piety, went about eating sausages during Lent just to show his scorn for abstaining from meat. 

      A quick review of Scripture, of course, reveals that neither Jesus nor Isaiah said that fasting in and of itself was bad. It’s not the Act, it’s the Attitude.  Scriptures say, WHEN you fast, NOT if you fast.  It is presumed that you will fast.

      I was intrigued this week re-reading the Book of Daniel, Chapter 1 verses 8-16.  It seems as though Daniel and his men have been ordered to eat the King’s fine, rich, and no doubt fattening food.  Daniel objects and a government official basically says, “I don’t mind if you don’t eat the food, it’s just that I don’t want the king to be angry with me when you lose weight and look sickly the next time you show up in court.”

      Daniel challenges him to an experiment.  Sure enough after a ten-day test run, Daniel and his friends look and feel much better than the rest of the young men of the court – and all Daniel's control group had eaten were vegetables.  So scripture substantiates the position that fasting can been both physically and spiritually healthy, if done with the right Attitude.

      So what should our Attitude be?

      Our most common sin can be the smug self-satisfaction that we are not as other people.  But, perhaps, we should take a look at those “other people” with a more open and compassionate Attitude. During Lent, let’s engage in an honest, searching, examination of our faith, of our religious practices, of our sincerity, and of our soul satisfying experiences.  In the process, we might discover and acknowledge some sins of omission and sins of commission which we previously have not recognized.  I know I have this week.

      One of our sins might be the habitual failure to lead a full, vibrant, productive religious life – a life which might include prayer, fasting, caring for those around us, even penance. But again, it’s not the Act, it’s the Attitude.

      All of this seems to add up to one thing: Don't do religion for the sake of people watching you. Don't even watch yourself. Concentrate your heart on God alone.

      The external acts – be it public prayer, ashes, fasting --can help us focus on the inside, which is where Lenten renewal truly happens. It is an interior journey that counts.

      And remember Jesus’ words: whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites – but fast like those Catholic kids in Fairbanks – joyfully and in community with those we love.

      Our beloved, but dour, John Calvin stepped out of character for a moment when he expressed what he thought the chief end and purpose of life was:  "To enjoy God forever!" That is not only good theology; it's also a practical suggestion for the renewal of the soul.

      People have often pondered the question, "Is there any power in prayer?" “Is there any purpose in fasting?”  There is a more pertinent question: "Is there any pleasure in a prayer? Any pleasure in fasting?”  If drawing closer to God is truly the source of all things beautiful and good, then the spiritual practices associated with our religious traditions can be among the supreme pleasures of life.

      May this Lenten season be a deeply meaningful, yet joyous, journey for us all.   Amen.

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