An Ash Wednesday Homily

I’m preaching Ash Wednesday services (we’re doing two, but I’m writing one homily), one at noon and the other at 7:00 PM.  The noon service is part of a midweek Lenten worship series the congregation has been doing for years.  Each year has a theme.  This year I selected eco-justice.  The translation I selected was from the Tanakh.

Ash Wednesday
February 22, 2012
Pittsfield, MA

Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12

You know, scripture can get in the way. Especially when we think we’re good, scripture trips us up.

This reading from Isaiah is one of them. I intentionally chose this translation because it’s rendered very sharply – in almost mocking terms. The prophet, speaking for God, reminds us that fasting is not the point. The prophet says, “unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry …” We’re to shelter the poor and clothe the naked. When we offer compassion to the hungry, then the light will shine through the darkness.

The fast, which was an aspect of atonement, would mean nothing if nothing changes. Isaiah is saying that it’s worthless if it is for show. If showing piety doesn’t take our world another step closer to the reign of God, then what good is it?

Fasting in Isaiah’s time meant going without food. Now we’re not going to go without food for all of Lent. Still, Lent is a good time to fast in particular ways. One of the practices of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters is meatless Fridays throughout Lent. For those who like meat, I’m one of them, it’s a challenge.

I do the bulk of the cooking in my house. And there was a time in my life back in the 1970s when I had a more plant-based diet, so cooking as a vegetarian, even vegan, is not all that difficult for me. But that type of cooking takes a little extra planning – it’s actually pretty easy to put a chicken in the oven along with some russet potatoes and then while that’s cooking throw some vegetables together. It’s a harder to prepare a dinner when you have to soak the beans for several hours and be attentive to complementing amino acids in order to ensure a complete protein.

But there are health benefits for eating less meat. First, diets high in fruits and vegetables may lower the risk for cancer. Reducing the saturated fats found in meats and replacing them with polyunsaturated fats found in seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils can reduce the risk of heart disease by 19%. A recent study also noted that a long term reduction in meat consumption can prevent long term weight gain.

But the fast Isaiah talks about is not for us, but for justice. Lower meat consumption has an environmental impact as well. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that the meat industry accounts for about 20% of the man made greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll use less water if we move away from eating meat. Consider that raising a pound of beef takes anywhere from 1800 to 2500 gallons of water, whereas a pound of tofu takes about 220 gallons. Raising meat uses more fossil fuel than plants, too.

On its surface we still don’t quite see how eating less meat translates to justice. Consider climate change due to greenhouse gases, though. Because of rising sea levels due to climate change, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu will probably cease to exist within the next 50 years. Another island nation, Kiribati, will probably cease to exist as well. Where will the people go? Or a different angle. If we continue to use so much water to raise our food, what happens to the aquifers that supply it? The southeastern United States is showing water stress because of recent droughts. Furthermore, the rising sea levels could increase saltwater intrusion into the aquifers. What will the people of Tuvalu and Kiribati do or go? What about people in the Southeastern United States whose water could become unfit for human consumption?

Or consider the competition for fossil fuels. The demand for fossil fuels will increase, particularly as countries like China, India, and Brazil become industrial giants. The price of oil will increase. As the person who has charge of the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations’ bank account, I know that rising oil prices will limit the number of families we can help. So, maybe we can do a little bit by reducing our consumption of meat.
Admittedly, a one day a week meatless fast is a small factor in reducing global warming or conserving water. There are activities where we can make bigger impacts. But, there’s a principal at work here, too. By eschewing meat once a week, whether it is on Friday or following the new trend, Meatless Mondays, we might become more mindful of our connections with the people in Kiribati or Tuvalu or the people who need fuel assistance from the faith community right here in town. Who knows? Maybe we’ll take bigger steps as our awareness increases.

And the fast should not be only limited to Lent. Rather, by fasting in Lent we should continue it after Lent and incorporate it into our lives. Which is what this Lenten period is all about. How do we change our lives in order to be better disciples of Christ? How does the way we live effect the people in our community, whether here in Pittsfield or on the island of Kiribati or Tuvalu?

As we embark on our Lenten journey, let’s remember that we’re not alone in this world and that our well-being depends in some way upon the well-being of people around the world. Let’s be strong in our Lenten discipline and courageous in our Lenten practice.

About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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