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Observing Lent

Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday - the start of Lent

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17 & Matthew 6: 1-6 & 16-21

A couple of years ago I came out of the evening Ash Wednesday service at St Peter’s church in Hale and popped into the local Tesco Express.  The chap behind the counter said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me mentioning this, but you’ve got something on your forehead.’

So I explained that this was a cross drawn on my head in ash that was there to remind me of my mortality and that I had just come out of an Ash Wednesday service which marked the start of Lent, a season when Christians all over the world fasted in an effort to come closer to God.  I then paid for my chocolates and as I turned to leave the man said, ‘All right, mate’. 

Which may have been a reference to the verse from Joel which tells us that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Or he may have just been saying good bye.

It’s a few years now since I started the practice of leaving my office at lunchtime to find a church with an Ash Wednesday service that offered imposition of ashes.

The first time I did this, I came out of the church, got into my car, thought for a second and then spat on my hand and cleaned the ash off my forehead.

Maybe I was responding to the command of Jesus not to look dismal like the hypocrites, disfiguring my face to show others that I was fasting.

Or maybe I just didn’t want to look weird when I went into my meeting with a client that afternoon.

That was the last time I did that.  In subsequent years I left the ashen cross on my forehead.  People would ask me what it was and I told them.  It meant that colleagues knew where I had been.  It started conversations. 

It’s how I found out that one of my colleagues was a Catholic and would be going to her own church later that day.  And that she and her husband didn’t drink alcohol during Lent.  Except on Sundays.  And on St Patrick’s Day.

Observing Lent is a bit of a minefield.  Our Gospel reading tonight seems to be pro fasting but fasting in secret.  So where that leaves having an ashen cross on your forehead, I don’t know.  Because having an ash cross on your forehead is a bit like having a sticker on your forehead that says, ‘Hi, I’m observing Lent’. Which seems to be exactly what Jesus is telling his followers not to do.

Then at other times Jesus seems not even to be in favour of secret fasting.  Somebody even asked him why his followers didn’t fast like the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees did.

Some churches are pretty much against fasting because of these texts.  Which may be why some people say they don’t give things up for Lent, they do additional things.  I get an email every day during Lent from some organisation that tells me what additional thing I have to do today because it’s Lent.  But, I’ve got so much to do already, that I rarely read those emails.

How do we negotiate this minefield?  How shall we negotiate it together?

Well, one thing I think we should reflect on is that we live in what the current Canon Theologian of Chester Cathedral calls ‘post-secular society.’

Post-secular society is a society where there are many religious traditions, where it is increasingly acceptable to move from one tradition to another, where there are also people of no faith but a society nevertheless that is becoming more curious about religion again, at least in part, because globalisation is bringing us, here in Western Europe, into closer contact with other parts of the world where religion is clearly booming.

In other words we live in a society where if you walk around with an ashen cross on your head, people will ask you, ‘what’s that’?  Rather than, ‘what are you trying to prove you hypocrite.’

Which is why I came to think it was a good thing to walk around with an ashen cross on your head.  There may have been a time when to do so was a form of showing off.  We don’t live in those times now.  Now it is an act of witness.  It is an act of taking your faith out of church and into the world you live in.

And when we take our faith out of church and into the world, the most important thing we need to do is be honest.  We need to be honest with ourselves and about ourselves.  People will respond positively to honesty.  They will be repelled by hypocrisy. 

The point about Lent is that it is a time when we are honest about ourselves; honest about the gap between the faith we say we believe in and the faith we act out in our lives; honest about what we need to do to narrow that gap; honest about what the really big obstacles are that prevent us from closing that gap.

Lent is a time of honesty when we bring our life and our faith together as closely as we can.

Now fasting might help us do that.  If fasting keeps God on our minds as we go through our day so that it affects our behaviour in all sorts of other ways and we begin to make permanent changes in our lives as a result, then by all means, we should fast.

But don’t get mixed up between fasting and going on a diet.  If we want to go on a diet anyway, then, if I’m being honest, we are still looking for the thing we need to find this Lent.

Giving to charity is something else people do during Lent and if we give an amount to charity that changes our monthly budgets for March to the extent that we have to give up on something we really wanted but we do it anyway because we know that God wants us to love our neighbour as well as ourselves, then, by all means, we should give money to charity. 

You will see that the Mother’s Union have come up with some ways you could do that and I commend them to you.

But don’t get mixed up between Lenten charity and emptying your pocket of loose change, because, if we are giving an amount to charity that we know we will barely notice, then, if I’m being honest, we are still looking for the thing we need to find this Lent.

Lent is about honesty.  Rend your hearts and not your clothing is what Joel said.  

Let us make this pledge for Lent.  We will observe Lent in different ways.  We will explore our hearts as honestly as we dare.  We will find gaps between our faith and our lives that we know we need to close.  Some of them will look very big; almost impossible to bridge. 

But then we will remember the words of the prophet.  We will remember that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  He will help us bridge those gaps.  And those gaps we cannot bridge, he will bridge for us.

 

 


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Page last updated: 12th Jul 2018 12:33 PM