Sunday, 5 February 2017

Goat Couture or Haute Couture, does it matter?

Matthew 5.13-20, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Isaiah 58.1-12 The words in our Candlemas service last week reminded us that we have moved away from Christmas and now look towards Lent, today being the 4th Sunday before Lent and, of course, the first Sunday of February. I don’t know about you but I’m pleased to see the back of January, I find it the most difficult month of the year. Short on light and cold, often something to just get through. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, and everything hereafter has the caveat that the Church of England encourages responsible drinking, but I can’t relate to those who do ‘dry January’ when a glass of ‘bottled sunshine’ from the previous year helps lift the mood on a dark evening. Even worse, the same people who were drinking for England before Christmas are now so sanctimonious as they tell all how much weight they’ve lost and how they haven’t had an alcoholic drink for a whole month. Of course I dare not say to anyone that ‘God is tired of meaningless fasts and empty rituals.’ Forget dry January have a glass of wine and give some money to charity to help someone and you’ll probably feel much happier as a result of both. It wouldn’t really have been fair when the closest I came to a dry January was sticking with the dry white wine for an evening. I know that I’m being a bit unkind here but I have to admit that this type of behaviour came to mind as I read the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The people are fasting and denying themselves in a religious manner, and making sure everyone knows about it but they are getting pretty fed up because God doesn’t seem to be taking much notice, look at us with our itchy goat’s hair sack cloth and ashes piled on our heads. My interpretation of God’s response is ‘I don’t care whether you wear goat couture or haute couture; you’re totally missing the point of this fasting business’. Isaiah’s words of gentle sarcasm on God’s part are far more subtle. They indicate where the people are going wrong. He says ...’day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness’. AS IF. The sort of thing a teenage child says to a parent when they say ‘of course I’m still faster than you over a hundred metres’, without looking up from their mobile device they utter ‘yea as if’. It’s a tough thought to face but for most of us God must sometimes think why do you do all this praying and worshipping AS IF you’re serious about it and then slip back into your old ways? We really need to think more about why we do stuff and what it means to God. Isaiah tells the people observing strict religious practices that they need to widen their horizons until they start to see the world through God’s eyes rather than setting up systems of elaborate worship and hoping that God starts to see it through our eyes. Formal worship at its best can connect us with God, make us aware of his love and forgiveness, energise and equip us for each week. Formal worship at its worst can be a routine we fall into that makes us lazily assume that we are Christians without ever really stopping to challenge ourselves. The Prophet is pretty clear about where God’s priorities lie. The people have failed to notice or perhaps care about those suffering injustice, oppression, hunger, homelessness and poverty in their midst. Most of us can pick up and drop our fasting at will but God cares about those who don’t have that choice. What is the point of it? It can bring focus and self-discipline into our relationship with God but it’s not a task to be undertaken competitively or as a means of impressing others. Surely an element of true fasting means giving up a portion of what we have to share with those who do not? It’s worth keeping this in mind as Lent approaches. Giving something up may well be good for us but sharing the benefits of doing so could be good for many others. This could take the form of money, time, or practical help to those in need. If we share in God’s vision to include all we can’t help but act and speak when we see injustice. It’s so easy to get frustrated or feel down about some global matters but as Christians we need to be actively looking for the opportunities where we can make things better, to remain optimistic about the changes we can bring to other people’s lives by the way we live ours day in and day out.. God wants us to create systems of justice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the poor. Opportunities to help do these things are plentiful if we open our eyes and when we do, we are told, ‘your light shall rise in the darkness’. We are probably familiar with the concepts of salt and light from the Sermon on the Mount. Well-worn words can sometimes be hard to interpret afresh but it’s worth considering whether we relate to salt in the same way that those who heard Jesus say ‘you are the salt of the earth’ would have done at the time. I read this week that it’s likely that Palestinians from the 1st century placed flat plates of salt on the bottom of their earthen ovens to activate the fire, this had a catalytic-like effect on the fuel, causing it to burn. The most readily available fuel was animal dung. After some years, the salt plates in the earthen oven underwent a chemical reaction due to the heat. The result was that the salt no longer facilitated the fire, but stifled the burning of the dung. It is in this sense that salt used for this purpose lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate a fire. Would the people hearing Jesus actually thought we are the salt of the earthen-oven; but if salt has lost its saltiness, its ability to facilitate the burning of dung, it’s no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot. In this way Jesus language is finely tuned to the people’s culture, a culture familiar with conflict. In some respects it’s not that different from us now but without journalists and social media to endorse or put people down publicly spoken words in front of crowds performed a similar function. Insults and honours, their delivery and timing became an art form followed by many who loved the theatre of it all. People’s ears would have pricked up as Jesus spoke, after all who wouldn’t love to receive such a positive endorsement ‘you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’. Not words spoken to pious religious leaders but to common people who had become disciples. The message is that we don’t have to do something to become salt and light that is how God created us, that’s what Jesus wants to remind us. We each have great potential for good but it’s up to us whether we obscure or lose that. It follows that each one of us is called to live today in a way that recognises that Jesus came to show us that we have a future with him which we can start living straight away, that his light can shine through us like that which passes through our stained glass windows. We are left to consider where this is and isn’t true for us both corporately as a church and individually. We will fall short but when we do so we are reminded that God’s doesn’t want us to focus on sackcloth and ashes but delights in seeing us refocus on the things that matter, his love for us all reflected as real love for each other. Amen Kevin Bright 5th February 2017

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