Ash Wednesday – a Love-Life-Live-Lent-flavoured sermon

It’s not mess…

There was an advert a few years ago for Persil automatic.  It was on TV and on billboards everywhere, so most of you will probably have seen it.  It features a film of children happily painting a wall in splashes of multicoloured paint.  Inevitably, more of the paint gets on their clothes, their hands and faces, and on each other, than on the wall.  The captions read “It’s not mess, it’s creativity, it’s not mess it’s learning,” and so on.

An Ash Wednesday service is a messy one: it involves marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross in a very messy mixture of ash and oil.  This service is messy because we are: sin is a messy business, and the ash reminds us of all the mess that we make of our own lives, of other people’s lives and of this world.  If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then the ash cross is the reverse: an outwards and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace. We sign ourselves with this messy mix of ash and oil because all of us are in a mess.  It helps us be honest about the disparity between what we appear to be and what we feel we are.  Many of us may sometimes feel uncomfortable with the respect that people give us – that we don’t quite match up to the person people think we are – the person we want to be.  When people praise us we may feel, ‘if only they knew…’   So the cross of ash helps us reconcile the person we feel we are with the person that others see.  It helps us remember that God sees us as we are – the good stuff and the not so good stuff – and he still loves us, even having seen the truth. Lent is a time for us to learn to see ourselves just as God does: as beloved sinners.

But the washing powder  advert puts an altogether more positive slant on mess, which is worth exploring.

One of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s creativity’.

When we receive the ash cross on our forehead, we hear the words, ‘remember that you are dust’.  And so with the ash perhaps we can recall that wonderful picture of God’s creativity in Genesis 2, lovingly molding the earth into human beings, and breathing life into what was dry and lifeless.  And so as we receive the ash on our foreheads we can give thanks that God can still breathe new life into us even in the dirt and dust and deathliness of our sin.

One of the key themes of Love Life Live Lent is being creative and imaginative – whether that’s making cakes and sharing them or trying something you’ve never done before: when we do so, we reflect something of our creator God, and we give a little bit of life to the world as well as becoming a little more alive ourselves.

Another of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s pride’. Pride is perhaps not quite the right word.  But the sign of the cross that we carry is certainly not something that we are ashamed of.  At our baptism, Christ claimed us as his own, and so we are glad to be marked with his sign of the cross.  Because Jesus took the shame of death on a cross and transformed it into hope and victory, he can also transform the shame of our sinfulness into the triumph over it.

Many of the Love Live Live Lent actions are also about our own identity as human beings and as beloved children of God; learning to be ourselves, making the most of who we are, and giving thanks for the way that we have been blessed – even if it’s just for the food we eat.

The TV advert ends with one of the children accidentally on purpose painting another’s nose – at first she looks cross, but then starts to smile.  The caption reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s forgiveness’.  When we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are a walking testimony to the fact that everyone can be forgiven.

Again, within Love Life Live Lent there are actions that bring real peace and reconciliation – between us and other people, and between humanity and the earth.  Ash Wednesday’s action is to say sorry for something we have done wrong: it may be enough simply to say sorry to God, or it may be that there are others who need to hear it too, and we may also need to acknowledge and repent of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, for sin has a habit of harming the sinner, too.

We are messy people.  The messes we make in our lives are real messes.  They are dark and dirty, and if left unchecked they will be the death of us.  And God does not condone our mess.  It is not that God does not mind about sin – on the contrary, it grieves him that we hurt and abuse ourselves and others, that we deface and corrupt the very air, water and land of this world he has given us. We take heart, and take courage, because we believe in a God who already knows the secrets of our hearts.

Guilt is a prison with sin as the bars, trapping us inside our past mistakes, but true repentance allows us to receive the forgiveness that God always offers, and it may even start to rebuild relationships that we had given up on.  Forgiveness is just as real as sin – and indeed is stronger. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love is stronger than hate.

The actions in LLLL are all about the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred.  Just as sin harms the sinner, so random acts of kindness, creativity and love can help repair the wounds on the soul.  This Lent, let us ask God to breathe life into our dust, that we may live lives of love, for our own sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of God’s world.

What God can and can’t use

Trinity 17 B (2012) Mark 9.38-50

‘Whoever is not against us is for us,’ says Jesus when his friends worry that there are people doing miracles in Jesus’ name who aren’t part of their posse.  The disciples’ worry is a very human one, it’s about control.  It’s a very similar one to the story in Acts when it turns out that a whole load of Gentiles are showing all the fruits of the Spirit, despite not having been baptised.  In both cases, the proof of the pudding seems to be in the eating, or perhaps, by their fruits they are shown to be of God.

‘Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of water because they are a believer, then they will not lose their reward,’ Jesus goes on to say. There’s at least a basic lesson here for the disciples: they, the twelve, the inner circle, are by no means the only followers of Jesus, and there is a role in the building of the kingdom not only for apostles, prophets, missionaries and teachers, but for the quieter, less spectacular ministries of hospitality and care.

But this whole passage is about more than that. It’s not completely straightforward reading at first, but there is a hugely important nugget of truth in this reading which needs teasing out. It’s in three parts.

The first part is that God is very good at taking what we do offer and using it to do something amazing. Look at the feeding of the five thousand, when he turned one person’s packed lunch into a hearty meal for a whole crowd. Look at the wedding at Cana when he turned hard work and plain water into finest wine. Look at the parable of the sheep and the goats when he takes the basic human kindness of people who don’t even consider that they’ve been serving God and counts it to their salvation.  God is brilliant at finding in us something good, something worth using, worth encouraging, worth celebrating, seeing even in our hesitant offerings the potential to build his kingdom.

The second part concerns the very real truth that there are things that get in the way of all that. There are things we do and think and say that pollute our kindness, that subvert our good intentions, that poison the good fruit that we might otherwise offer to God.  These things will be different for each of us, but there are certainly some popular besetting sins: anger and resentment, being quick to take offense or slow to forgive, assuming the worst of each other, rather than the best – it is for each of us to discern within ourselves what stumbling blocks we lay down both for others and for ourselves, for these are the things that risk stopping us being able to offer the simple things we have to God.

The third part is that God is also simply amazing at spotting what he can use, and purging away what he can’t use. He sees our sins far more clearly than we do. He knows the difference between real current sins that are actively acting against him, and the memories of past sins that are long forgiven by God and yet still haunt us and cripple us. He is adept at sifting through the complexity of our lives and finding in us things that are worthwhile, precious, priceless… and of identifying those things that need to be excised.  God is the great divider: but the division between the sheep and the goats, and between the wheat and the tares, is not between one person and another, but within each of us, separating out what can be used in the building of the kingdom and what cannot.

And yes, we may be amazed by what it turns out God can use. For even some of our memories of past hurts and wrong-doing can become the cup of water that we offer to a fellow pilgrim.

Trust in God, that he can use far more of each of us than we can possibly imagine. And in that trust, find also the courage to ask God, once and for all, to free us from those few things that really do stand in the way.

For whatever is not against God, can be  used in his service and to his glory.

The Beheading of John the Baptist

Sermon for Sunday 15th July 2012 (Mark 6.14-29 & Ephesians 1.3-14)

I so often begin a sermon by saying that the gospel of the day is one of my favourites. This is not one of those times. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find any good news in this gospel.

As a moral tale, one can read it politically: point out that corruption and sleaze are nothing new, but have always been there, and that when those in power try to save face rather than face up to their mistakes, there are often casualties. We may lament at this, and at how those who speak up and speak out so often seem to pay too high a price for their integrity.

But there is no good news in any of that, no gospel, merely confirmation of what our sometimes-cynical minds know represents some of the worst of humanity. If anything, this shows us how much we – just as the world in Herod and John’s day – need the gospel.

And that gospel had been the whole meaning of John’s life. He’d spent his adult years preaching essentially three things:

  • Repentance and forgiveness are real, and necessary, and they are for everyone
  • The kingdom of God is coming closer, and this a promise of hope and a threat of judgement
  • There is someone greater coming: Jesus the Messiah.

These three messages were John’s whole reason for being.

The last one, that Jesus was coming, had finally started to be fulfilled.  The story of John’s beheading is told by Mark between the account of Jesus sending out his twelve disciples to begin their ministry, and their return, full of stories of success. The baton has well and truly been passed on.  John’s role as the last great prophet has been accomplished, and his work is done.

But the other parts of John’s message are not yet finished. And Herod stands as the final person to whom John brings them, and with whom he tries to share them.

John brings Herod the gospel of repentance, the truth about sin and forgiveness.  John’s right, Herod should not have married Herodias, it broke the laws that were there for a reason. And if Herod didn’t like it being pointed out, Herodias liked it even less. But Herod, at least, seems interested and ambivalent enough to listen. Were there stirrings of guilt and a desire for change somewhere in his heart, that could, eventually have found expression in the way he lived his life?  We will never know. But undoubtedly John’s last act was to keep on preaching repentance to Herod, and keep offering him the chance of God’s forgiveness, the chance to make things right. John never gave up his calling to show Herod the reality of God’s mercy, even though in the end, no mercy was shown to him.

And John also spend his last days showing Herod what the kingdom of God was like. This, I think, must have been what really intrigued the king. It’s as if he caught a glimpse of a different way of doing things, of a different kind of power, or a different world order, and was both fascinated and frightened by it. No doubt Herod would have kept John around far longer to see more of this kingdom of God at work, had he not made that rash, wine-fuelled promise to Salome and offered her anything up to half his kingdom.

So Herod was faced with a choice. Save John, and keep alive the glimpse of another kind of kingdom, or sacrifice John to save his own kind of kingdom, his own political reputation. Herod fails the test, just as Pontius Pilate would fail his own test when Jesus showed him a glimpse of the kingdom later. Herod, like Pilate, chooses the values of his own kingdom over the glimpse of the kingdom of God, and rejects his own shot at receiving mercy by failing to show it to others.

There are so many pre-echoes in John’s story of the story of the passion of Jesus. Not only the corrupt leader who can’t seem to make the morally right and spiritually right choice, the condemnation on a whim – but above all the way in which both John and Jesus approach their deaths offering to those who are hurting them a glimpse of the kingdom and a chance at forgiveness.  Right up til the end.

Jesus and John lived their lives as a blessing from God to the world.  But God’s blessing was not always straightforward or painless. They brought life and truth and mercy, and these values are sometimes so much at odds with the ways of the world that they may seem impossible to accept.  Jesus and John showed how to make good choices even when bad choices were easier, and they showed integrity even when self-interest was easier. But above all they showed us that there is nothing that God would not do, no length to which he would not go, to keep on giving his people glimpses of the kingdom and offers of forgiveness.

If we want a glimpse of that today, then we need look no further than the epistle reading: Ephesians will go on to talk at length about how to lead a moral life and how to live as a Christian community, but all of that is in the context of what Paul puts at the start of the letter: God’s love for the world is eternal, his blessing is beyond our imagining.  If we can keep that vision alive in our own hearts, truly grasping that the kingdom of heaven is not something far off and unattainable, but as something that is bigger than any of us, too powerful to be held back even by the corruption of the world, and is our whole purpose for being since the creation of the world, then we, like John and like Jesus, may find the strength and inspiration never to give up our calling, offering with every breath we have a glimpse of God’s mercy and blessing and forgiveness – to those around us.