Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

It is still horribly cold…but the days are beginning to lengthen at last!  And that’s where we get the word ‘Lent’ from.  The old English word ‘lenten’ means the time of lengthening and growing days.  And that time of growth has for centuries been a pointer to the idea of spiritual growth and renewal.

Traditionally, spiritual growth and renewal has always been assisted by penitence, fasting, giving to the poor, and prayer.  None of these ideas are only about self-denial.  Like anointing with oil, fasting was believed to be a purifying and strengthening challenge…a preparation for some challenge yet to come.  And the idea of giving things up for Lent was always balanced by the requirement to give something out to the poor:  for we surely cannot claim to love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the poor at our door that we do see.

That is why each year our Bishop invites us to participate in his Lent Appeal.  This is an extra call on our purses – at a time when we are encouraged to think most deeply about what it means to be a follower of a Lord who gave up everything for us.  This year, Bishop Christopher is inviting us to contribute to two causes: one at home, and one abroad.  Homelessness at home; and helping those affected by climate change abroad.

This is a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter.  In our gardens there are dead leaves to clear away, bushes to trim, seed to plant.  And so it’s a time for tidying our spiritual lives as well.  In a moment, I will invite you all to receive the sign of the cross, drawn in ashes and olive oil on your foreheads.  This is a sign of repentance…a sign that we recognise ourselves to be human beings who fail – and who seek the forgiveness of our heavenly father.

The priest and poet John Donne once preached a sermon to King James I, the authoriser of the King James Bible.  In it, he gave a fascinating list of the kind of sins which he perceived in himself.  He said:

“Forgive me O Lord;  forgive my sins, the sins of my youth and my present sins….Forgive me my crying sins, and my whispering sins, the sins of uncharitable hate, and sins of unchaste love, sins against thee, against thy power O Almighty Father, against thy wisdom, O glorious Son, against the goodness, O blessed Spirit of God.  Forgive me my sins against him and him, against superiors and equals, and inferiors; and sins against me and me, against mine own soul, and against my body, which I have loved better than my soul.”

But then he concludes…

“Say thou to my sad soul: ‘Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’.  Let me be so blessed, that I shall envy no man’s blessedness.  O say thou to my sad soul ’Son, be of good comfort, thy sins are forgiven thee’.”

This then is the heart of Lent…growth and spiritual renewal stem from an appreciation of who we are…failing human beings, who like a plant that needs the sun, cannot grow without the Love, Wisdom and Power of our heavenly father.  That’s why, alongside the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, we also invite you to participate in a Lent Course again this year…a chance to deepen your understanding of the wisdom and power of God.

As we receive the Ashes, today, we will be reminded that we are ‘but dust…from dust you came and to dust you shall return;’.  To the modern ear this sounds a rather morbid thought…but actually it’s intended to remind us, very simply of what we are…

We are made of dust.  Stardust, in fact…our atoms once burned in the heart of the Universe before they became grouped together with the ball of rock we call Planet Earth.  From the nutrients, atoms and molecules of that planet, each of us came forth.  Our mothers ate what the planet provided, and we came forth.  We are the product of a physical and biological process.  But what else are we?

Christians proclaim that yes, we are made of Stardust…but we are also given life by the Spirit and Power of the living God.  It is his power that sustains us, his wisdom that guides us, and his forgiveness which frees us to become all that we can become as Children of God.  From dust we came, and to dust we shall return…but thanks be to God:  our Spirits will sing, and our souls will be set free.

So let me invite you to receive the Ash cross this year, as a sign of your commitment to carry on growing in God…to reach beyond the dust from which you were made, to become the child of God you were destined to be.


Saturday, February 2, 2013


Luke 2:21-32

According to Navy legend, once upon a time, in the early days of naval radar, a United States aircraft carrier called the USS Constitution was making its way into British waters. The Radar operator spotted a blip on his screen, directly in the path of the mighty carrier. So the Captain radioed ahead and said "Unknown Vessel, please change your course by 20 degrees to avoid a collision".

The radio crackled, and a reply came back. "Unable to comply. You change your course." The captain picked up the radio again. "Listen, this is a naval vessel - heading straight for your co-ordinates. Now change your course, or risk being sent to the bottom of the ocean".

The radio crackled again, and the reply came back, "We were here first. You change your course!" By now, the captain of the mighty war machine was incandescent with rage. "Listen, you little British pip-squeek. This is the USS Constitution - the largest air-craft carrier in the world. We won't even feel you when we run over you. Now move!"

The radio crackled for a third time. "This is the Eddystone Lighthouse. Your move."

There's something really special about lighthouses, isn't there? As a boy, I used to spend holidays in the fishing town of Brixham, down in deepest Devon. I loved watching the Berry-head lighthouse, streaming its beam out over the waters. There's something deeply comforting about the regular, pulsating light...the swoop of the beam...the knowledge that this light is making this bit of coastline safe.

Today we are celebrating the feast of Candlemass - the time when members of the Orthodox church bring beeswax candles to church to have them blessed by the priest - candles that will be used throughout the year.  The blessing takes place, in some places, after an all-night vigil. So, if we were really to be 'doing' Candlemass properly, we should have been here in church all night...and you should have all brought candles to be blessed at the Eucharist. Next year perhaps?!

In some churches, today, there will be processions around the church, or around the town, with each member holding a candle.  We're going to do something a little different - using candles as a focus for our prayers of intercession in a short while.  Ultimately, of course, however it is celebrated, the symbolism of Candlemass is all about light. It stems from the reading for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple - the gospel we heard just now. As you know, when Christ had been presented, Simeon the Righteous declared that he had seen the promised Messiah - and that he was now content to die. Crucially, he described Jesus as 'a light'...a light to the non-Jewish world, as well as glory (which is another light-related metaphor)...glory for the people of Israel.

Light is a theme which permeates the whole bible - just like the search-beam of a lighthouse. God's first command, according the Great Legend of Genesis was 'Let there be light'. God led the Israelites through the Sinai Desert by a pillar of fire...a great light. Jesus is described as the light of men, and the light of the world. Saul was struck by a light on the road to Damascus. And on the nearly the last page of the Bible, in chapter 21 of the book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem is lit not by the sun or the moon, but by the glory of God, and the Lamb, who is described as the light.

Of course, these are all metaphors  -  metaphors which make us wonder what life might be like if it was lived in God's way...if life could be lived fully 'in the light' of the teachings of God.

Now, this is the point in many sermons on light when the preacher will give you a list of things you can do to be someone who lives in the light of God. But you don't need me to do that. You know what the difference is between a life that embraces the light and a life that embraces the dark. You know it instinctively...because God's light is in you. You know the difference between getting or giving, between hating and loving. You simply need to decide which way you want to live.

Last year, as I’m sure you remember, we celebrated the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  At the offertory, in the old Communion service, we used to use a phrase of Jesus, from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven”.  (Mat5:16)  The older folks among us will remember that phrase, I’m sure.  It was, and through Matthew’s Gospel it remains,  an encouragement to all of us to live lives that are filled with God’s light…light that overflows to our families, our community, our friends.

Jesus came to be a light to world.  And we are now the bearers of his light, filled with his Spirit, and tasked with bringing his light into all the dark corners of the world that we encounter.  The dark corners of violence, poverty, depression, prejudice, greed and unbelief - to name just a few.  That is our sacred charge, and our sacred duty.

So, may you re-discover, daily, what it means to live as a Child of the Light.  May the light of Christ so fill your heart and your life that it flows out in healing waves to all whom you encounter.  And may your light so shine before all people, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Heavenly Father.