Sermon - 9th February 2014
Scripture - Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Who amongst you has fasted? Why did you do so? Religious reasons? Before an operation? As part of a diet?
I grew up a Roman Catholic and, in those days, we were asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and for an hour before receiving Holy Communion. I never really enjoyed fasting – I'm not sure you're supposed to really. However, last year I started the 5:2 diet – it's the one where you “fast” for two days a week and eat normally on the other days. It works, I've lost 3 stone so far. But the fasting days aren't quite fasting as normally understood as you're allowed 600 calories. That isn't much but, believe me, you get good at eeking it out! One of the things I've noticed with fasting is that it gets easier. The first day was awful. If I've had a break from the diet the first day back on it is also awful. It's not the hunger – that passes quite quickly as you distract yourself, it's the feeling of light headedness and a headache. It goes after the first day but it's very annoying.
Fasting is now in the consciousness of people in the West due to this 5:2 diet but it has been a large part of people's spirituality for millennia. We know that Muslims fast during daylight during the month of Ramadan, Catholics are being asked now to abstain from meat on Fridays – like they used to and I suppose that's a form of fasting. Jews have to fast on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Most Protestants don't really see fasting as a spiritual discipline but Pentecostal Christians do and it's not uncommon for a Pentecostal Christian to fast and pray for something.
Fasting and Isaiah
It is interesting, considering our first reading, that fasting was only required of the Jewish people on the Day of Atonement. We get the sense from Isaiah's words that it was a widespread and common practice; it's possible that the people of Isaiah's age were fasting as it was a common practice in the religious traditions that surrounded them. In the world at the time, fasting was meant to influence a god to act on your behalf – you fasted as a way of getting a god to do what you wanted. A fast might be held to ease a drought, stop a military invasion, exorcise a demon or to lessen the severity of a crisis. It was something that happened to appease a god or gods, it doesn't seem to have been understood as a discipline which did something to the person who fasted. And this is what is at the root of Isaiah's critique. The people have fasted but it hasn't changed them. They have done this religious thing, or this thing for religious reasons, but they haven't reminded themselves of the roots of their religion.
We can't get too complacent – lots of people go to church without it actually changing them! Increasingly in our consumerist age people shop around for a church to suit them – I am not saying this is wrong, after all I serve as the pastor of a congregation with a particular niche market! But I am often interested in the criteria people have for finding a church which “suits” them. There are churches where prayers are written out, there are others where they are not even thought out! Most churches sing, in some the singing is formal and led by a robed choir, in others it's a dozen or so choruses. In some churches people genuflect, in others they raise their hands, in others still movement of any sort isn't really encouraged! In some churches great effort is made to be relevant, in others traditions from hundreds, or thousands, of years ago, are valued. But I wonder what people look for when they evaluate a church; clearly worship style is important but worship, like fasting, needs to change and challenge us. If it doesn't then I wonder what the point is.
Isaiah was frustrated at how the people of his age used religious ritual but weren't changed by either the religion or ritual. They fasted, they went hungry, but didn't use that experience of hunger to bring them closer to the hungry. The point of fasting in Ramadan for Muslims is to remind themselves of the poor and hungry in the world and to give money to alleviate poverty. The Ramadan fast is meant to change those who take part in it.
Isaiah is frustrated as the people have managed to fast and to fast frequently but they haven't let it change them. They have elevated worship to a fine art but have divorced it from justice. As such it was utterly worthless. There is a gulf between the way the people of Isaiah's day worshipped and the way they lived and, as such they were hypocrites.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, I helped out at a Christian camp. It was a remnant of the type of 1950s camp revival meetings and a bit before Spring Harvest started. A team of us went the week before the camp to put up the big top other tents used for meetings, and sort out the things that needed to be sorted out. The team all stayed in tents. There was a family staying in the tent next to the one I stayed in and they, clearly, didn't realise that sound travels through canvass. They would have the most bitter, nasty, viscous fights in the mornings and then, emerge from their tent, Bibles in hand to go off to the morning service. Now of course families argue, tents can be stressful and maybe their faith kept them together but I was struck by the image of the happy family marching into a service compared with the nastiness when they felt they weren't being watched. This family looked good but it wasn't hard to see what was really going on.
The worshippers in Isaiah's time believed that fasting made them look good but Isaiah points out that fasting was meant to be a means of sharing with others, of going without so that more could be shared. Maybe Isaiah's observation of the people in his age isn't so out of tune with our own contexts now. Maybe we, like those Jews of old, like our religious rituals, our patterns of worship, our attempts at being holy but, like them, we forget what is at the heart of our faith – God's loving kindness and justice. God will respond to us when we leave behind insincere worship and really do as God asks – to share our food with the poor. It's not just that the hungry need God's people but that God's people need the hungry to reshape and change us.
We change tack a little as we turn to our Gospel reading. The opening words about salt and light are striking. We have a different relationship with salt to the people in Jesus' time. Then they needed salt to preserve food from being corrupted – this was an age before refrigeration and meat would be salted to draw out the blood and liquid so that it couldn't go rotten. It would be soaked before being eaten to rehydrate it.
Salt is used as a preservative now but more for the convenience of supermarkets who want their foodstuffs to have as long a shelf life as profitable. Ready-meals are loaded with salt – for the same reason as in Jesus' day – to stop the food going off. Our relationship with salt is different, however, as we have so much of it in our diet that doctors are worried that it's bad for us – it increases blood pressure and so can lead to strokes and heart attacks. We worry about the amount of salt in our diet, we may have switched to that lo-salt product in an attempt to be healthier. We need salt but we don't need the amount of it that is loaded in processed food. The people in Jesus' age needed salt in order to live – to keep the food from going rotten and to replace the salt they lost from their bodies in the heat.
His words, therefore, about being salt are really about being a preservative in society. Christians are to stop society going rotten in much the same way that salt stopped meat from going off. The issue is then, how. How are we to act as salt for society? How are we to stop our society from going rotten? I was listening to some of the First Wednesday/Asylum Seekers talk on Wednesday about their experiences of the police in their own countries. The common theme was that the police coudn't be trusted due to corruption. They weren't paid much so, in order to make a decent living, they take money from people and then do as they are paid to do. They were saying this to a chief superintendent from the GMP who was horrified as it is in stark contrast to how policing here works. In Africa, being salt for society might involve seeking to reform the police, working for human rights laws, getting the police better pay, oversight and training.
Christians here have always had to find our own ways to be salt for society. Elizabeth Fry who worked for prison reform, William Wilberforce who worked to end the slave trade, churches who ran schools long before the state did, those who founded what is now called the probation service were active members of the Church of England. In our own age there are many Christian organisations which seek to make society better – we're probably most familiar with Church Action on Poverty as the director is a member of the URC. Many of the Aid agencies are church based. But being salt for society is about more than supporting agencies that do this work, it's about how we live our lives too. Many of us try to buy Fairly Traded goods for just this reason – to try and use our money to change the world a little bit. But being salt for society can be about little things too. It can be about how we treat the people we see each day. I always feel a bit sorry for people who sit on tills in supermarkets – it's not the most exciting of jobs and we can make their day brighter by passing the time of day with them, being polite and friendly. It's about how we deal with people that annoy us – and I have some learning to do in this area with people cold call! It's about how we deal with people who are on the edges of our society. It's about how we deal with the newcomer to church – do we make them welcome and include them or expect them to fit in immediately with how we do things around here? It's about the little things as well as the big things. We preserve our society in little ways – the way we treat others, how we use our time and talents – as well as the bigger ways – the causes we support, how we use our money, how we try to change our world for the better.
The danger for us, as disciples of the Lord, is that we may lose our saltiness – we may lose our capacity to upset the status quo. One of the dangers the Church has had to face since the era of Constantine is that it became part of the establishment. It's hard for a church that is at the centre of things to criticise the state. One of the ways the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe controlled the church during the post war years was to pay the stipends of bishops and priests. Those who pay the piper call the tune. If we're too close to the centre, to power, we find it difficult to challenge the status quo – though we may kid ourselves that we're being salt for society, that we're making a difference.
We have always, as the Church, as a congregation, as individual Christians to keep ourselves salty, to remain effective by valuing those who are dispossessed, caring for those who suffer, seeking to do justice, by showing mercy, having integrity, being peacemakers and standing up for what we believe. If we don't do this we will become like salt that has lost it's taste.