Fasting and Salt

Sermon at St James Colwall and All Saints, Coddington, 4th before Lent 2017

Isaiah 58, 1-9a; Matthew 5: 13-20

To hear the sermon as you read: 

Fasting. Fasting has a part in almost all religions, and outside religion, every now and then someone in the media proclaims the benefits of fasting simply as a way of promoting well-being. Fasting seems in fact to have its place in the human psyche. It’s hardly surprising then that it’s frequently mentioned in the Bible. People fasted to mourn those who’d died; fasted to express their repentance; fasted to underline the seriousness of their worship and their intercessions; fasted to show their dependence upon God, and also fasted because the obligations and rules of the Jewish religion required it.

Often, as in this morning’s reading from Isaiah, fasting is mentioned in order to berate people for not doing it properly, and practising it with wrong motives. “Look,” says the Lord through Isaiah, “you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you only fast to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” And then, as so often, the Lord goes on to say, “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thong of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Again and again the Bible seems to be saying that the most important aspect of our religion – more important than observing religious rules – is the way we treat others, especially those in great need. And including: not to hide yourself from your own kin.

That’s significant, isn’t it? It’s possible, it happens, that some, who do great things for others, neglect their own families. In this regard, they hide themselves away from their own kin.

The Bible, we must remember, both Old and New Testaments, tends to express ideas in extremes, in terms of black and white opposites.  So, when the Lord says, “This is the fast I choose,” it doesn’t mean that he abhors fasting as we normally think of it, that is, giving up something in order to express our devotion to him, or our duty to him.

No, what Isaiah and therefore the Lord is in effect saying is: it is right to come to church and to worship; it is right to read the Bible; it is right to pray; it is right to fast; but if we do not also do what we can to correct injustice, to free the oppressed, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, then we haven’t really got it right, and to a degree the value, the integrity, of our religious observance is diminished.

Then of course the question is: are we doing enough for the desperately needy and distressed? Are we as individuals, as families, as a church, as a community just tinkering at this? Are we seeking opportunities to help, or are we just waiting until they happen to come our way? And when they do, are we responding in a way that reflects the seriousness of the situation? Is what we do costing us?

To me the question, “Are you doing enough?” is always a disturbing and challenging one. A few verses after this morning’s Gospel Jesus himself poses the question, “What do ye more than others?”

This moves us on to today’s Gospel. It is partly what we do for others that can help us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. “You are the salt of the earth,” said Jesus.

For some time now and bit by bit Jill has been cutting down on the salt she uses in cooking. She hopes I won’t notice, but of course I do, and every now and then I say, “We really must have some more salt on – this mash, these beans or whatever. In the good old days, before the pundits warned us of the danger of too much salt, I used to use it liberally: so I do miss it. And of course getting older, with taste buds dulled by age and probably also by red wine, I need any assistance possible to make sure that taste is not just a memory.

Jesus of course didn’t know that salt was bad for you. Some would say that because he was Son of God he must have known. But I can’t go along with that. His humanity meant that his scientific knowledge was no greater than that of any knowledgeable man of his day. No, there was nothing wrong with salt, unless, he said in our Gospel, it’s lost its taste. Can salt do that?

Anyway, there’s a telling reference to salt in the Book of Job. When poor Job is being tested by God and criticised by his friends, and he’s trying to justify his complaining, he says:

God’s onslaughts wear me away. Does the wild ass bray when he has grass or the ox low when he has fodder? Can a man eat tasteless food unseasoned with salt? Food that should nourish me sticks in my throat, and my bowels rumble with an echoing sound.

Poor Job. Salt, says Jesus in effect, is to food what faith is to life. It brings out the full flavour. Believing in God, believing that his goodness and inspiration and strengthening are active in the world, believing that it is his world and that it is good, makes life all the more flavoursome. A prayer I say every morning is, “Another day of wonder you give, Lord, in which to live, to love, to do well and to be glad.”

Thank goodness, thank God, Jesus was not at all like those Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries who made Christianity a joyless and insipid thing. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus enjoyed life, enjoyed being with friends, sharing meals with them and so on. “Be of good cheer,” he said. There are of course situations where cheerfulness would be entirely inappropriate, but by and large: Be of good cheer. And he said, “You are the salt of the earth.” We are called to be an example to the people of the world, an example of faith in Jesus adding flavour to life, of it giving life purpose. Remember that old maxim: faith is not taught; it’s caught. Let’s hope people can catch it from us.

And in the same vein we are to be the light of the world. “Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” That of course doesn’t mean being boastful. Jesus warned against that: “They have their reward already,” he said. No, it means let your way of life be such that it can be an inspiration to others, that it can cause them to be uplifted, lightened.

Tomorrow, 6th February, will be the 65th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne of this country. For the 10th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, which was on 17th November 1568, a special service of thanksgiving was written, and it’s printed, The Accession Service it’s called, at the back of our prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, “For use,” it says, “in all Churches and Chapels within this Realm, every year, upon the Anniversary of the day of the Accession of the Reigning Sovereign.”

I’m sure we all have a tremendous admiration for Elizabeth our Queen –  65 years of dedicated service devoted to our country. One of the things that has particularly impressed me over the past few years has been the content of her Christmas Day broadcasts. They have been Christian testimonies, sermons. Just six weeks ago on Christmas Day she said, “Millions of people find in Jesus the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them.” She herself has been, and she remains, a light for our world.

So I want to end by reading, and indeed praying, one of the prayers from the Accession Service:

Almighty God, who rulest over all the kingdoms of the world, and dost order them according to thy good pleasure: We yield thee unfeigned thanks, for that thou wast pleased, as on this day, to set they Servant, our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, upon the Throne of this Realm. Let thy wisdom be her guide, and let thine arm strengthen her; let truth and justice, holiness and righteousness, peace and charity, abound in her days: direct all her counsels and endeavours to thy glory, and the welfare of her subjects; give us grace to obey her cheerfully for conscience sake, and let her always possess the hearts of her people; let her reign be long and prosperous, and crown her with everlasting life in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.