Sermon - 10th March 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday, which we are choosing to mark today. Today is the first Sunday in the time in the Church’s calendar we call “Lent”. The word itself comes from an old German word “Lenz” meaning “spring”. The tradition of self-denial in the time leading up to Easter extends back to the 3rd Century CE, but it was 7th Century CE when Lent became the 40 days (not including Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
Some of you come from Islamic backgrounds and are familiar with the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting, a time to prioritise the spiritual. Lent is similar, albeit longer!
Around the world, Lent is kept in different ways. For example, Orthodox Christians keep Lent very strictly and do not consume meat, fish, eggs and diary. Here in the UK, our tradition of eating pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday, called Shrove Tuesday, is followed by abstaining from something. Typical examples include giving up chocolate or alcohol.
The beginning of Lent is a call to us all, a reminder to us all of who we are in the created order. We use words from Genesis 3:19:
“You were made out of the ground. You will return to it when you die. You are dust, and you will return to dust.” / “Tu retournes à la terre, puisque c’est d’elle que tu as été tiré. Oui, tu es poussière et tu retourneras à la poussière.”
These words are a great leveller: whether we are rich or poor, no matter the country where we were born, whatever our sexuality or gender identity, if we consider ourselves to have only a little or a lot of faith: we are all equal in this one respect – that we are mortal; we will all die.
At the start of Lent, we use ash as a symbol of the earth to mark our foreheads and hear those words from Genesis spoken over us, as a reminder. But the core message of Christianity is that death is not the end: Jesus’ painful death on the Cross was followed three days later by His glorious Resurrection, through which we have the promise of eternal life.
The reading we have just heard – Psalm 51 – is traditionally read at the start of Lent. It is not an easy Psalm, especially as it uses the first-person. We can read it, speaking “I” as each one of us personally. It is not surprising that in one online database of hymns, 318 are listed as being based wholly or in part on Psalm 51!
It is written against the background of a terrible happening in great King David of Israel’s life. You can read it in full in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, beginning at chapter 11. To summarise King David’s wrong-doing: from his palace, he saw a beautiful woman called Bathsheba. He committed adultery with her, then schemed to have her foreigner husband Uriah killed. Bathsheba became pregnant, but the baby died. The prophet Nathan confronted David with his appalling actions.
In ancient cultures, pouring ash over oneself was a sign of being sorry or of grieving. The ash we use at the start of Lent is not only a symbol of our mortality, but also of our being sorry for the times we have failed to love others, failed to love God, and even failed to love ourselves.
Earlier in his life, David was God’s chosen king over Israel. Around half the Psalms are ascribed to David; however, Bible scholars doubt that he actually wrote them. Psalm 51 more than any other has a clear link with an account elsewhere in the Old Testament.
How far David had fallen! You may know the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”… While it has a powerful, haunting melody, if you listen to the lyrics, it tells the story of David as the Bible describes them…
Well I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
Well your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya…
We know the wrong things that King David had done, and in the Psalm, we read of how sorry he was and how God forgave him.
Looking more closely at the Psalm, it begins with a statement in which we anchor our faith about God’s love being faithful, tender and kind. The writer is confident that God will forgive all sin. The whole Psalm is typical of Hebrew poetry, where the same ideas are repeated, each time phrasing it slightly differently.
However, as an LGBT congregation, we need to be careful here and pause and stress something important – who we are in our sexual orientation or gender identity are not sins, and neither are expressions of our love.
The next 4 verses speak of how wrong-doing has affected the writer. It would be glib to say that because God’s forgiveness is complete and all-embracing, that we can do whatever we like without consequence. Each week, in our time of confession, we introduce it by mentioning the times we have failed to love each-other, failed to love God and even failed to love ourselves. I find this is a good way of identifying sin in our lives.
Verse 7 uses two images of renewal. The second is familiar to us: no matter how grotty our surroundings look, when snow falls and covers everything, it looks beautiful! The first image of hyssop refers to a ritual of the priest dipping a hyssop branch into water and sprinkling it on the worshippers as a sign of being washed of their sins, a ritual still used in some Christian traditions.
Verse 8 is at the heart of what we all want to hear: that our sins are forgiven us. In the midst of this Psalm with its roots in sinful actions come positive words: joy and gladness.
The co-incidence of Lent being as Spring begins is a metaphor worth developing. The first 7 verses are like the autumn and winter: the dying-off, the darkness, the cold. Verse 8 is the turning-point, just as we see now the buds starting to appear on the trees, the early Spring flowers blossom. The remainder of the Psalm is the first-fruits of a new summer, a new beginning to life.
Verses 10 to 12 tell of David’s longing to live anew the spiritual life he did in his youth: a faithful follower, someone full of God’s life-giving Spirit, someone who is filled with joy and lead a life that bears love as fruit.
Verses 13 to 15 speak of the hope and promise by the Psalmist to use his previous experience as a model to support others. Jesus, when speaking about forgiving the woman who washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair said this: “Her many sins have been forgiven. She has shown that she understands this by her great acts of love. But whoever has been forgiven only a little loves only a little.” It follows, therefore, that someone who has been forgiven much will love much. The Psalmist, in Verse 15, speaks of how he will praise God, having being forgiven much.
So, what is it that God requires of us? One of the key messages from the Protestant Reformation is that we are saved by God’s grace alone. A leading Reformer, John Calvin, believed that only God could offer the mercy, loving-kindness, and compassion necessary to overcome the gap created between God and others by human sinfulness.
There is no act that we can do that can save ourselves: Jesus did it all! Giving money to the church or charity, giving up chocolate for Lent, going to church more often, or reading the Bible – these things are not what God asks of us, not from our own motivation or sense of obligation anyway, and like many New Year’s and Lenten resolutions, likely to fail.
The final verse in our reading – Verse 17 – is what God wants from us: God wants us to open our hearts and let Grace fill us. To do so, we must be honest with ourselves and our own short-comings. Once we do this, God’s Grace can begin to work in us, changing us. This may lead us into doing things like giving, changing our habits, drawing closer to God, but in opening our hearts to Grace, the motivation is God’s Spirit.
The late Brother Roger of the Taizé community in France wrote this: “Christ came ‘not to abolish but to fulfil’. When you listen, in the silence of your heart, you realise… that [Jesus] comes to change even what is most disturbing with you.”
Ash Wednesday and Lent bring with them a journey in our minds, emotions and spirits that begins in reflection, and having opened our hearts to God’s Grace, we experience the joy of a Spring-time of our souls.