Homily for Ash Wednesday
17th Feb 2021
A S H W E D N E S D A Y S E R M O N
“Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,
turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”
The Christian Call for fasting and obedience comes after a year in which we have already been fasting. We have fasted long accepted normalities, we have fasted the long-accustomed routines and rhythms of our daily lives. Under Covid restrictions, we have fasted freedom of movement and school, church and work routines. We have fasted the old predictabilities. We have fasted long trusted and physically close contact with many of our loved ones, and we have fasted the sustaining spiritual energy that our live congregational worship once gave us despite the rescue of ‘Zoom’ . The past year of Coronavirus has entered the world upon a whole year of Lenten fast. The words of the priest at this evening’s rite of the imposition of ashes come as a reminder of our mortality – “dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”. In the past year, this has been a constant thread in our consciousness of the Coronavirus and its dreadful spread – that we are mortal and that our lives hang on a delicate thread suspended in very provisional time. Hence the reminder of the composition of our bodies as dust. I remember my mother describing our house-proud neighbour in whose living room there was not ‘a speck of dust’. Dust should become just a nuisance to be polished or wiped clean. It is rather unnerving to be reminded that this same dust is made up of human skin particles, which are being shed by human bodies all the time. Dust is a reminder of our lives as bearing continual movement and change and loss. The acknowledgement of our mortality is equally a reminder of the One to which we owe our mortality – God alone. God it is who follows us “…through the changes and chances of this fleeting world.” God is the constant.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ. This is the desert which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the self-emptying that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. Knowing who we really are and knowing who God really is. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost realisation. It invites the offering of ourselves to advance in the hope which God has set before us in Jesus Christ “…just as I am without one plea”.
Lent asks us a question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of human desires and distractions, and if so, how is it that such satisfaction has not left me satisfied? What might life be like if my wanting were to issue out of God? Our Lord Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of small restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. No. it does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’, become one in Him, and accept Him as our life’s true meaning and purpose. To wait upon Him, listen to Him, converse with Him, learn to do his will…
As we place our trust in God in the Rite of Imposition of Ashes on this first day of Lent, we proclaim the power of the Cross of Christ, which lies in and through and above all things and all people in the showing of God’s particular kind of generous and selfless love. This love looks tonight like a cross made of ashes. It reminds us of our mortality and calls from us a longing for communion with God. This is a strong message for the beginning of Lent.
This ash cross is not shown to tell the world how pious we are, but of the God we are acknowledging. He is over all things, and in the Cross of Jesus he is our mortality; our own living and dying. As St Paul reminds us “If we have become on with him in a death like his we will become one with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.3). But for now, on this challenging Ash Wednesday, the Church’s forward progress is well and truly set in motion.
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive only with reluctance. This is the invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. It is never too late to make a beginning and to start, with a reminder of our mortality, and then to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. Jesus, the one who emptied himself of all but love… Henri Nouwen.
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
14th Feb 2021
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year B
“And he was transfigured before them” Mark 9.10.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Mark, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and of wonder and draws us into itself. For Mark and Hopkins we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. It is a meeting with the Jesus who has become Christ. It happens right before our eyes. To see such things with the inner eye is to experience glory. The glory is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals a terrible secret - of the Christ, the One who has fulfilled all things, even unto death and resurrection. The secret is disclosed in dazzling white and yet within thick shadow and dark cloud. Even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August, this Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a key text for the Sunday before Lent. The mountain of Transfiguration the place of amazing appearances, and also of stark realities; of terrible truth. It points to the Cross even as it manifests the glory of God. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, there is already a strong sense of foreboding:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
This terrible truth-telling in the Transfiguration shows us that there is always the danger of not seeing the other side of things; of the existence and the seriousness of human suffering, of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness and the experience of much pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. Jesus takes this Cross upon himself and it is the Cross of Jesus which is the glory that God reveals in the mountain-top. But this is a strange and difficult kind of glory. It is the one which brings us into contact with the living God. But this is the God who is vital, and whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword,
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. It was not easy consolation that is provided here. Instead, there is the invitation to find our truest humanity in Christ and to find it through ‘the changes and chances of this fleeting world’. This is to begin to be honest with ourselves and toward God. To recognise life’s essential contingency. To begin to find in God that active love and the mercy we need to move us on. For we cannot stay on the mountain. It is a place of revelation and a vital and necessary point of departure.
I once went to the Louvre, the French National Art Gallery in Paris. At some point all visitors head towards one great painting, The Mona Lisa. She gazes impassively through bullet proof glass and is constantly surrounded by her own paparazzi – with cameras and continuous flashes of blinding white light. She has become like the namesake Madonna, a superstar. It is difficult to get near her. But with all the adulation, one wonders what is going on? What is it that is happening when thousands of tourists take photos constantly? There seems to be a manic rush to record it all, and while the photographer is snapping away to ignore its real presence. There is the attempt to capture it. To possess it. To take it away. The Transfiguration offers us the opposite of the blinding camera flash and the image you can put into your pocket. The appearance of Jesus in white light on the mountain-top is God’s revelation to his people, you and me, of his merciful love. In all we have to do or to suffer, God’s presence lies before us as and with it the promise of his holiness to surround us and to inhabit our inmost being. His face shines to show us the light of the revelation of the fullness of God…What is real is not looked at from exterior vision but from within the truth of what has appeared…
But how are we to bear true witness, especially as we approach the beginning of Lent? The Church offers us as individuals a way forward in the practice of Sacramental Confession. To tell it like it is. Though it has been derided and caricatured and is less practised by many, its effectiveness is very real. The costliness of our being more honest about what we are and what we do wrong is often too humiliating to bear. But this is a necessary humbling, a Cross, which provides us with an effective remedy. It provides a pathway to the restoration of the soul, often so damaged and maimed by our own essential pride. It is an attempt at an honesty from which new life may emerge. We trivialise this aspect of our lives at great cost to the integrity of the Christian Faith. The Transfiguration opens up on honesty to reality. It is what St Paul called
The light of the fullness of the revelation of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ”. 2 Corinthians 4.6.
It is a revelation of what lies most true for human nature. It provides the marriage between what the Old Prayer Book in its General Thanksgiving called ‘The means of Grace and the hope of glory’.
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
7th Feb 2021
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent year B (2018)
“We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14).
I said last week that this time in the Church’s calendar represents a tipping point. Even while we celebrated the Feast of Candlemass and blessed our Easter Candle, I had to remind you that we were being lead very surely into Lent. Today is now the Second Sunday before Lent and we have left Epiphany behind us. This movement is bound up in the word ‘glory’, which speaks not only of Epiphany joy and wonder but also of the Lenten glory that Jesus must win through his own suffering and death.
Paul, in this morning’s second reading reminds us that this movement has a human outcome. He calls it ‘making peace through the blood of the Cross’. This is the glory which emerges out of the crucible of Christ’s Passion. Out of this will emerge the truer glory which has the power to reconcile and to heal. This is of course is very strong theological language. It beckons us into the more challenging territory of Lent. As Christians we ‘go with Jesus’. And we go, if we are honest, reluctantly. Despite this, we are being encouraged by our three readings this morning to ‘begin at the beginning’ and to consider the Creator God in whom our whole lives are intimately connected.
For the writer of Proverbs this connection gives ‘delight’ as he speaks of being with God at the moment of Creation. Somehow, God the Father’s creativity, as a ‘master worker’ and the singularity of the writer’s own life come together, and both belong profoundly to each other. As Paul was later to say, with as much joy: “Who can separate us from the love of God?” (Romans 8.35) When John wants to speak of Jesus he cannot escape that word ‘glory’ - he tells us that “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). This is what determines the Christian life as we are to live it. Not what we can do for God, but what God has already done for us out of his love for us. “To God be the Glory, great things he has done” as the hymn tells us. And when we have admitted this another ‘tipping point’ is to be recognised; the one which places God and not ourselves as the one great determining life influence.
Lent is to be the time not for spiritual self-improvement or expressions of narcissistic pride but for a relaxing and an easing of those tendencies which would have us believe that God is to be acknowledged but his influence shunned. The promise which Lent brings is the one which would bid us respond to God’s grace, God’s loving influence in all our lives. God’s intimacy. We respond as we acknowledge the divine initiative in all things. Of the God who has gone before and has already made complete that which we would imagine can only be completed by our own will power and in our own time. The well-worn grace is still most meaningful and effective ‘For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.
It was in thankfulness that this church came to be built and it is in thankfulness to God that it will grow and thrive. It is unusual for our parish meetings, normally given over to business of one kind or another, that today’s council meeting will be full of plans and hopes – of the forging of new partnerships and the transformation of the way in which we are able to use and share this building. He have been given gifts and in this I have become aware of the God, who beyond recourse to our own designs and desires, is experienced as the supreme provider. So much has happened in the past month and there is for the first time that I can remember in this church a remarkable momentum for opportunity. I have been privileged in one week to be a part of four separate community activities representing many different nationalities, and we now have a bid from a Chinese church to come and make this their place of Christian worship on Sunday afternoons.
The Church and its influence is needed in our communities more than ever and the influence of this church is far greater than might be seen with the eye. We communicate the love of God in many different ways.
The acknowledgement of God as Creator is so vital because it is an expression of thankfulness from life’s true source, a joyful activity. As our joy in believing finds expression in our reaching out for the enrichment of our local community in committed service, so the existence and the love of God is being very surely proclaimed. We are acknowledging that it is God who gives; God who gives the increase, and once we respond to God’s provision of love, to grace as living truth, anything becomes possible.