The Fast I Chose for Ash Wednesday

web site - ash wednesday banner

The LORD says, “Shout as loud as you can! Tell my people Israel about their sins! 2 They worship me every day, claiming that they are eager to know my ways and obey my laws. They say they want me to give them just laws and that they take pleasure in worshiping me.” Isaiah 58:1-2

By Bruce Stanley, President / CEO of Methodist Home for Children

I thought long and hard about the perfect card to give my wife, Melissa, this Valentine’s Day. We celebrated our first Valentine’s in 1972, and this year I knew just what I wanted the card to say:

My Dear Wife,
Valentine’s is the special day each year when you get to say openly what everyone already knows: You are so lucky to be married to me. How awesome for you that your husband is the best looking, smartest, funniest, most athletic, most considerate, and most humble of any man anywhere. One day is hardly enough for you to give me all the compliments and praise I deserve. How wonderful to be you since you get to be married to me.


The perfect card.

Oddly, I went from store to store but couldn’t find one that was even close to this. Maybe I waited too late and all the perfect cards were gone? Maybe I should have shopped online?

That card wouldn’t have just been clueless it would have been crazy. The exact opposite is true: I don’t deserve a minute with someone as wonderful as Melissa, much less a lifetime.


The Old Testament lectionary for this Ash Wednesday reveals that Israel is also clueless, crazy, and confused. How did they then – and how do we now – think and do the opposite of what God wants and desires?

In the scripture, Isaiah tells us the people of Israel were complaining to God. Today, their complaint would sound something like this: “Check it out, God. We are in church again. Why it’s Wednesday night and we were just here Sunday. Others are living large – it’s Valentine’s Day. They have seven o’clock reservations, not at church, but at Coquette. The desert will be flambé, not the smudge on their forehead. We are awesome, God, and you don’t even seem to notice. Lots of us down here driving Buicks, not BMWs. We have carports instead of garages. Why are we bothering when you seem to be indifferent?”

God’s word in response is one we need to hear again and again.

My guess is the heart of God grieves as he speaks through his prophet and says, “Your sacrifice and prayer, your fasting and self-denial, I have noticed and what I have seen is that it is self-serving. Even on days of worship, you discriminate against your servants, you express anger, and you shake your fist against others. I have seen your attempts at piety become self-congratulations.”

I wish this was an ancient text for an old people. Rather this is the living word and we still can’t quite get it right. Part of what we confess this day is that even in our attempts to be holy, we become self-serving.

God says it is not worship as you have designed it or fasting as you have contrived it that I desire. God says, “What is acceptable to me – what I find awesome — is that you break bread with the poor, open your hearts and your doors to the marginalized, show hospitality to the sojourner, and seek justice.” Because of this, God says, blessings will come.

This is a hard word to hear and, my first thought is that it is, frankly, a hard word to preach to Ash Wednesday people. But this is exactly the word for exactly this crowd. God wants us to get the church, and fellowship, and community right. God has chosen a way to worship and a way to live. We must hear what God has to say and obey.


There is a colony of homeless who live in the woods near the train tracks on Atlantic Avenue, close to Millbrook United Methodist. The congregation through the years has been a place for them to seek help and community. One of the most visible was a man who rarely missed worship. He preferred traditional worship and his favorite moments were baptisms.

When the family would be invited forward, without fail, he would stand, clasp his hands, and begin praying aloud. When the baptism was complete, he would cross himself and walk toward the family. There he would take whatever change he had in his pocket and leave it on the altar, saying it was for the baby.

For honesty’s sake, the first few times this happened I held my breath. I wondered if he was going to act out, interrupt, or perhaps cry. The first time I saw him coming toward the family I was terrified he was going to try and hold the baby.

A group of folks who didn’t like his presence and didn’t like his behavior came to see me, complaining, and saying it was “for the good of the families.” They said the families had a right to a baptismal service without a drunk, homeless man praying inappropriately and approaching the altar with his change. Their point: It is their moment and he spoils it.

I listened, frustrating them when I did not agree. Yes, he was awkward and smelled bad. No, we do not make the sign of cross as he does.

But baptism is not a family’s moment, it is God’s moment. During the sacrament, when we recite, “We rejoice to welcome you to this congregation,” didn’t that invitation also extend to the homeless man? Someone else said the man had been begging after a worship service, when he had just made a show of putting money on the altar. I said I didn’t doubt that, but at least he knew the experience of emptying his pockets before God.


How do we still get this so wrong? Our solemn assemblies, our fasting and prayer, our giving and our witness, are all in response to God.

We have no claim of righteousness before God. We cannot come insisting “God notice me, even on Ash Wednesday I am here!” We should come instead begging, “Please Lord, help me to be faithful. Help me to want no credit. Forgive me for getting this so wrong. Help me to decrease so you may increase. Show me, Lord, the fast that you choose.”