Fasting from Freedom
This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
I believe one of the most profound challenges facing Christianity, facing our society in America right now, is a misunderstanding of the fundamental ideals that should guide us. I see this particularly in the ideal and virtue of freedom.
Of course, in one sense our country was founded on the ideal of freedom, of liberty for every human being… and yet, at our founding, what that actually meant was the freedom of every white, land-owning, man in the country. There has also been this persistent idea, particularly on display during the pandemic, that freedom means I get to do whatever I want, without regard to the impact it will have upon my neighbor.
So, since you’re hearing this either on Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday in Lent, I thought this would be a good week to allow Lent to break some of the misconceptions people have about what freedom means for a Christian.
One of the Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, comes from Isaiah 58. In that reading, the people are trying to rebuild their nation following the destruction of the Babylonian exile. They are fasting and worshipping God but are perplexed because their worship, their piety, does not seem to be producing any response from God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they cry out to God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” It feels almost as though God doesn’t care, like God isn’t even listening when they pray.
The prophetic word in Isaiah, though, makes it clear that the problem is not with their ritual actions. The problem is with the way they live their lives outside of worship. They do not practice righteousness, only focused on themselves on the days they fast. They come out of their times of fasting and repentance but persist to oppress their workers and engage in quarrelsome behavior. And so, the prophet declares that the fast God wants is not to lie yourself down in humility but instead “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”
True freedom is not doing whatever you want. True freedom for the Christian is living in line with God’s call in your life, focused not on getting what you want but on how you can lift the burdens and break the yokes that hold others down.
When the eminent twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth sought to describe human freedom, he said that human freedom is God’s gift that enables us to obey God. The great theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, said it differently. You can only be free, Augustine believed, when God has healed all of creation and all of you, when you are no longer able to sin. He drew a distinction between liberum arbitrium (free choice) and libertas (freedom). If we keep the end of God’s desire for us and the world in mind, we will eventually, though God’s grace, reach a point when we can only ever choose to do what is right and good. Think of it as the perfection of an athlete who is not worried about getting to hit the ball however she wants, but an athlete who is incapable of hitting the ball poorly. That is freedom, according to Augustine.
If you are a Christian who practices Lent, or perhaps has been thinking about taking it up, today is a good day to ask what kind of Lent you want to practice. After all, the danger of Lenten rituals, just like any other religious ritual, is that you can enter into this season concerned only for your own relationship with God. This creates a ritual that is not only inauthentic to the call of God in your life, but also creates a sort of blindness where your ritual has made your neighbor invisible to you.
Engaging or participating in economic oppression, quarreling with others for the sole purpose of proving you’re right, speaking evil things about your sibling who is created in the image of God, all of these are individual pursuits. But the fast that God chooses is one that helps to bring about the new humanity inaugurated in Jesus Christ, one where you aren’t interested in freedom of choice or your own spiritual fulfillment but are instead deeply concerned with how you can love God and your neighbor more faithfully.
Just ask yourself this simple question: how is what you are doing for Lent, what you are taking on or what you are giving up—how is what you are doing going to help you love God and your neighbor with more faithfulness?
God is not interested with convenient offerings, offerings that fall short of the moral challenges posed by violence, poverty, and injustice. That is what the people were willing to offer in the time of Isaiah. No, God is interested in the sort of sacrifice and discipline you can offer, a sacrifice and discipline that will heal the world.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.