Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Sermon for the Ash Wednesday Eucharist at Coventry Cathedral, 1st March 2017

Welcome, dear feast of Lent

That's what my long-time hero, the poet George Herbert wrote...but when I was a child I hated Lent with every fibre of my being. I hated the solemn feeling of Ash Wednesday. I hated the dark purple that surrounded me in church, the shrouded statues, the absence of flowers. I hated the thought that maybe, just maybe, I ought to be giving up sweets.

Dear feast? I really didn't think so.

Lent was all about dust and ashes and going without.

Not a feast at all

But then I grew up and began to learn the value of a new start, something that is pretty meaningless to children, for whom each moment of life is new.  I learned that having the slate wiped clean is really something to celebrate. 
That as we begin to turn over a new leaf, we really can rejoice.

Listen to Isaiah again: 6Is 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?7Is 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?
That sounds pretty wonderful, doesn't it? An invitation to the kind of life my best self aspires to. Ideas for things we can actually do right here and now, which will make a difference in our city and in a world where people seem increasingly intent on building their lives on self-interest, on exclusion, suspicion, and fear.
Tangible evidence of hospitality offered, and reconciliation achieved with those who are different.

We can, you and I, choose to show our best sides, reach out towards the selves God has always called us to be…and when we do so, then we will shine like the dawn.

Lenten joy there, then.

But what of that liturgy of ashing that lies ahead of us…that forced reminder of things too often left unspoken?                                                                                                                                                              Where’s the joy in that?                                                                                                                                     Isn't it just stark and bleak, an unwelcome memento mori casting shadows on a spring  day?                                                                                                                                                                                    When we receive the ash on our foreheads, we do so with two thoughts.
One is, indeed, of our mortality...the dark side of the day
You are dust and to dust you shall return
That speaks of endings…of the reality that we are so eager to hide from…of the truth that one day we will simply not be here.
Thoughts we would maybe prefer to suppress.

But the other.....the other is our hope, the route home for us, the way of life and light that means that none of us need ever fear the end.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

The cross of ash, traced where the cross of baptismal oil first marked us as claimed for Christ…as we were commissioned to a life of discipline and discipleship…a cross shaped life for which self-denial and self-giving is the daily template.

We live a continuum from that one moment at the start of our journeys, to the other at its end…and as we travel we are asked, each and every one of us, to be faithful to the Christ who is faithful to us on each step of the way.

The Christ who does not condemn us, no matter what the evidence of our guilt.

Who speaks to us, as he did to the woman taken in adultery

“Nor do I condemn you”

Christ who knows the truth of who we are, accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us that way.

“Go and sin no more”

Be changed by this encounter with grace, by this touch of love from the God who meets us, like a Father, when we've barely begun to make our journey home.

Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ

As I have often observed, life as a cathedral canon is in some ways very different from that of a parish priest. In times past, I would spend Shrove Tuesday evening burning the previous years’ palm crosses to make the ash for the next day’s worship. It sounds straightforward, but as I discovered, it can be an irritating and messy business. Often, even if you’ve dried them in the oven, the palms just won’t catch, won’t burn.
Sometimes once they get going they smoke and smoulder so that your eyes start running, your hair and clothes smell, and you feel like a reject from a kipper factory.

But that's what getting rid of sin can be like.
A fresh start isn't always easy, whatever our intentions.
“Turn away from sin” sounds simple…but we seem to have some kind of internal magnet pulling us back to face the wrong way.

That’s why I, personally, value the practice of sacramental confession…which encourages us to look hard at those things what we struggle with, those recurring patterns of behaviour that seem to drag us down…which brings us to name them, not only to ourselves but, aloud, to the God who knows the secrets of our hearts and loves us nonetheless.
We name them. We look at the truth of who we are, we see what needs fixing, we measure the gap that exists between our current state and where God calls us to be.
And then, amazingly, we are reminded that Jesus has already dealt with that gap…and that God’s forgiveness is constantly available, transforming hearts, minds, lives.
Even ours. Even in the face of those things we’ve feared to name, even to ourselves.
We hear that forgiveness spoken directly to us. By name.
We find that we are, after all, reconciled to God despite everything.
A moment to spring-clean hearts, minds and souls so that our light can break forth like the dawn.

I can’t deny that sometimes that process can feel difficult and painful – for it usually involves giving up things that are part of ourselves, things that we hold much closer than even the most stubborn addiction to it's important to keep Lent together, as a community. Together we can encourage and support one another – by word, by example, by prayer. Together we can, by the grace of God, begin again to form ourselves into a community which proclaims by deeds that are louder than words that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation.  

You see, returning to that messy, tiresome business of burning the palms, I found that in the end, the warmth of a whole tinful smouldering together was enough. Finally they caught fire and the flames broke forth and sprang up and in a few moments those twisted crosses had disappeared and the residue.......well, that's what we use to remind us of both aspects of Lent.

Of our frailty and are dust.
And of our hope in Christ......who is faithful to us.
Who accepts us as we are but loves us too much to leave us there,
who will lead us through our own wilderness times,
through the desert of repentance,
who will bring us safely home. 

Welcome, dear feast of Lent

May it be a blessing to us all

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