Love Life Live Advent – 10th December – Feed the birds!

Ibird made my fat balls quite a while ago, and was still wondering whether I could find anything profound to say about them in today’s blog post, when I was distracted by a loud squawking from the front garden.  When I looked out I was treated to the sight of three crows fighting what I’ve since found out was probably a red-tailed hawk, for custody of a long-dead opossum.  The birds were being fed but somehow this lacked the poetic warm feeling I had been hoping for. And the opossum was really stinky.

The fight over the opossum corpse had also scared all the regular garden birds away, so for today’s blog post there are some birds that we see on the school run.  They are very ordinary urban sparrows, and they like to gather together on the telegraph wires. We see them every day, and we really really like them, because they’re ordinary, and small, and birdsonawirebecause we think the poor things must stick around for the long, cold Ohio winters (otherwise they would have left by now).  Also, sparrows are very biblical (see Matthew 10.29).  So, here’s a not very good poetic tribute to them, but a little sonnet is the best I could do – sorry birds, you deserve better!


If two are worth a penny – no great cost –
then this great crowd is worth at least a quid;
I’d pay far more to know that I’d not lost
such life, by winter’s frost and cold outbid.

They thickly fur the wires overhead
like iron filings on a magnet’s pole,
Grey-brown against the sky looks black instead
and all the parts blur dark within the whole.

This testament to fragile nature’s strength
in numbers: cold alone, together warm,
as all along the endless cable’s length
they huddle, side by side, before the storm.

A noise – a whir of wings – and then, as one,
the whole great flock lifts skywards, and is gone.

Ash Wednesday sermon 2013

What do we actually do today?

For want of a better way of putting it, I think we turn ourselves inside out. For one day, we show each other and ourselves what we’re really like. We put a messy cross on our foreheads to say, publicly, ‘I have mess. I have sin. I am not right. I need help.’

Today is about honesty. About admitting that we’re not perfect. Admitting that there is much in us which, left unchecked, will prove destructive for us, for those around us, and perhaps beyond, too.

Ash Wednesday can be seen as a service that condemns, that concentrates on what is wrong.  But as some of you may have noticed from what I tend to preach, I have this unrelenting urge to find good news in things, and I want to find good news in the ash, too.   When you start looking, there’s lots of it.

The first bit is that this service doesn’t work if only one person comes.  If I was on my own tonight (which I might well have been, given the snow), it would not work. Why? Because the ash cross is a great leveller. It says, my sin is my own, but I am not alone in being a sinner.  It’s precisely what we see in today’s gospel reading: the woman taken in adultery is not alone. Her sin is her own, but she is not alone in having sinned. That’s the first bit of good news.

The second bit of good news is that although this is the day when we tell ourselves and each other than we are messy people, full of dirt and sin and shame, the fact is that God already knew.  The fact that we are sinful, that humanity as a whole is sinful, is not news to God. He sees us for who we are – perhaps God is the only one in the universe who truly sees us as we really are, inside – and he still loves us. Infinitely. That’s the second bit of good news.

The third bit of good news is that when we receive the ash on our foreheads we are told ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’  We hear these words and we might remember the second account of creation in Genesis, in which God lovingly puts his hands in the earth and shapes a human being out of the dirt, breathing life into its nostrils.  The fact that we are dust is testament to God’s creativity, and God’s ability to bring life out of that which seems dead.  God has done it once. He can do it again. And again.  That’s the third bit of good news.

The fourth bit of good news is that the ash cross is tangible, and visible. It feels real.  It’s an action which changes us on the inside – the church would call what we do tonight ‘sacramental’.  The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace, whereas the ash cross is almost the opposite: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace!  It means that our ‘sorry’ isn’t empty, but feels real.  And that reality is something that needs to be carried forward into our thoughts and words and actions beyond our repentance tonight. The ash reminds us that what we do, our action, the things that people see when they look at us, and what they hear when we speak – these things shape who we are inside as well as changing the world around us. We have a lent’s worth of actions ahead of us that can help us become more who God created us to be.  We may not be able to make good on all our past sins, but our actions and words can bring us closer to being who we are meant to be.  That’s the fourth bit of good news.

And finally, the fifth bit of good news is that we can wipe the ash off our forehead.  It’s not a brand, there for ever as a reminder that we are sinners. It’s a temporary mark, which rubs off to remind us that we sinners who can be forgiven.  Whether you keep your ash on for the rest of the evening, or wipe it off later in the service, there comes that moment when you remove the sign of your sin.  At school, on ascension day, we draw a cross in glitter on our foreheads – to remind ourselves and each other that we are called to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.  It’s a long way to go till Ascension Day, but that commission, to be the body of Christ, to witness to the peace which can, against all the odds, exist between earth and heaven, and to reveal the glory of God, starts now.  That’s the fifth bit of good news.

A brief thought for early on Easter Day

The resurrection happened in secret, the actual moment hidden in the dark hours of early morning. But for each of Jesus’ friends and followers there was a special moment when the resurrection became real for them, when life came out of death for them, when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of their own doubt and fear and confusion.

For Mary, that moment comes when the risen Christ, mistaken for the gardener in the half-light of dawn, speaks her name and she recognises him for who he is. At baptism, God calls each of us by name, allowing us to recognise God at work in us and around us in the world, and giving us access to the light and love of the resurrection.
Over the last almost two thousand years there have been many moments of resurrection, many moments when individuals and whole peoples have been freed from the tyranny of sin (of their own sin, or the sins of others that have oppressed them).  The resurrection is therefore not only a past event, but an eternal moment of rebirth, hope, light and life, which still transforms the dark places of this world.