Thursday 27 February 2020

Lent is a joyful holiday

An address given at St Caimin's Church, Mountshannon on Ash Wednesday, 26th February 2020.

You’ll be delighted to know that I’m not going to preach a long sermon! But I do want to say a few words about Lent.

The Church invites us, as we heard in the introduction to this service, ‘to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word’.

But to many in the wider society we inhabit, Lenten fasting and self-denial seem plain daft, perverse even.
Oh what a bore!’, I hear them say, ‘Why all this guilt-inducing, self-flagellating, call to gloomy repentance? Go away, and let us get on with our busy lives.’
There is no shortage of people to mock those of us who take Lent seriously.

My answer to them is this: Lent is not a burden – it’s not meant to be a burden, but a gift. Lent is a holiday, a holiday from the everyday - and Lent is an opportunity:
  • An opportunity to liberate myself for a bit from one of those little habits of luxury that can so easily become addictive bad habits. It is a chance to prove to myself that I am more than the sum of my desires. And after the fast, thank God, I shall relish what I denied myself even more.
  • Lent is an opportunity to spend more time with God, to feed my spiritual side, my soul. God is the great lover of souls, but often I feel too busy to respond to his love. There are so many ways to spend time with God that it is difficult to choose, from prayer, or reading scripture, or some other worthwhile book I wouldn’t otherwise find time to pick up, to joining with others in a Lenten course, if that is available.
  • Lent is an opportunity to live more simply for a while and enjoy the present moment. Heaven knows, most of us could do with a break from the pressures to be busier and busier to acquire and consume more and more. Lent is also the time of lengthening days and burgeoning spring – let us enjoy what God has given us - for free.
  • Lent is an opportunity to be as generous as I can be from the surplus of good things God has given me. There is nothing so pleasurable and good for the soul than to help someone in need or donate to a good cause.

But whatever we choose to do or not to do, we must not be gloomy about it! As Jesus tells us, ‘when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

May we all have a joyful, holiday Lent!

Sunday 9 February 2020

Salt & Light

 ‘You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world’.
So says Jesus to his disciples in the first part of today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (5:13-20). It comes after the Beatitudes at the start of the long discourse we call the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. He is surely also speaking to us as his followers today. We too are the salt of the earth and the light of the world! At least we are when we do our best to be what God wants us to be, and when we fail, we are offered forgiveness.

Salt gives savour to our food, and preserves it from going bad. If it loses its taste, if it becomes contaminated, it is useless and must be thrown out. Just like salt, says Jesus, if we are to be good for anything in God’s creation, we must be the good people God has created us to be.

Without light we can’t see what we are doing, nor where we are going, and a lamp which is hidden away is useless. Jesus tells us we must ‘let (our) light shine before others, so that they may see (our) good works and give glory to (our) Father in heaven’.

But what must we do, how must we behave, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?

In the second part of the reading, Jesus abruptly changes the subject to talk about Hebrew scripture.
He says, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil (the law and the prophets)’, fixing himself firmly within the ancient traditions of the Jewish people into which he was born. The ‘law and the prophets’ are the major part of the Hebrew scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.

‘Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished’, he says. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’ – who for all their faults did their best to be righteous, to obey every last letter of the law – ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.

Does this mean that Jesus teaches us as his disciples that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must follow precisely every last letter of the Jewish law? Must we follow not just the Ten Commandments but also the smallest rules about purity, such as not eating shellfish or mixing fibres in our clothes? If this were true, we should seriously consider converting to Judaism!

To see what Jesus really means, we need to read the rest of Matthew Chapter 5.
Sometimes I get frustrated that the good compilers of the lectionary miss out the context of what is set to be read. In this case the passage about the law and the prophets does not follow on from the passage about salt and light, but should be read as an introduction to the verses that follow it.

In these following verses Jesus talks about his interpretation of the law, giving several examples that do not abolish or replace but extend the conventional interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees. You can read what he has to say in Matthew Chapter 5 when you get home, but here are a couple of examples:
·         ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”.’ – that’s one of the 10 commandments – ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement’. Jesus extends the commandment against murder to falling out with another person. ‘If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you … be reconciled to your brother or sister’.
·         ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”.’ - another of the 10 commandments - ‘But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’. And we should understand that the same applies to a woman looking with lust at a man.

Notice what Jesus is doing here – he is going beyond the precise wording of the commandments to reveal the spirit of God’s law.

He also teaches us that there are circumstances when it is right to break one commandment in order to keep a more important one. Elsewhere (Matthew 32:37-39) Jesus summarises the law and the prophets, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’. Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath because it is more important to love your neighbour than to observe the prohibition of work on the Sabbath.

Jesus’s approach to God’s law is nuanced – he is more concerned with what is right and just than in following rules like a robot.

The prophet Isaiah’s approach was the same, as Jesus would have known very well. In today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 58:1-9a), the prophet chastises the leaders of Israel for mindlessly following the laws about fasting while oppressing the people. God wants a different kind of fasting, he says:
‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
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?’

Following Jesus’s example, our task is surely to look beyond the words written in the Bible to discern the spirit of God’s law and to be guided by that.
This is a harder task than following the letter of God’s word, as we read it in the Bible, which heaven knows the scribes and Pharisees found difficult enough. It will require humility, open minds, and real engagement both with scripture and with other Christians, some of whom see things differently and cling to ancient tradition much as the scribes and Pharisees did.

But this is what we must do, this is how we must behave, if we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, as Jesus tells us we are.

The Holy Spirit will help us. St Paul in today’s 2nd reading (1 Corinthians 2:1-12) says to the Corinthians, ‘we have received … the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God’. In this way, growing in maturity as Christians, we will be able to ‘speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory’.

And in St John’s Gospel Jesus himself promises that ‘The Spirit of truth will guide (us) into all truth’ (John 16:13).

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:
Faithful God,
You have appointed us, your witnesses,
to be a light that shines in the world:
let us not hide the bright hope you have given us,
but tell everyone of your love,
revealed in Jesus Christ the Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen