SERMON for Ash Wednesday 2016 (Gospel John 8, 1 -12)
At first sight Ash Wednesday, or more specifically, the Ash Wednesday rituals must look a bit odd.
Imagine being brought into church as a total outsider and witnessing ash being placed on people's heads, in the shape of the cross. You might rightly wonder what on earth was going on; strange lot these Christians.
So what is going on? What is the point of Ash Wednesday? And why is so important that we never lose its message? Well, I think that Ash Wednesday calls us back to some of the most foundational characteristics of our faith.
It firstly calls us humility. As we look at the world and gaze on God we surely must recognise our smallness, but even as we remember our smallness we must also accept our significance. We should not stand before God with a false humility, proclaiming that we are, 'ever so humble.' We are not to be modern day Uriah Heeps. Revelling in humility is no form of humility at all.
Yes, we are small, but we are God's children, we are chosen, called, predestined to be agents of his grace. Ash Wednesday asks to accept this our mandate; confident that we can be agents of His grace but not in our own strength. Ash Wednesday, in the Words of the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, asks us to repent of 'the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.'
The prophet Joel describes the casting off of pride leading to trust in God as 'returning.' And what do we find when we repent in order to return? 'Steadfast love, and blessing.'
Ash Wednesday invites us to receive God's steadfast love, which is our blessing, so that we in turn can become a real blessing to those who we encounter.
And this is the point of the Gospel story we have just heard, a story which incidentally is depicted on the reredos behind the altar. Why don't you gaze at it afresh when you come to receive communion
According to the customs of the day Jesus should have agreed to the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. But he doesn't. He instead does something remarkable: he reminds the gathered crowd that they are all sinners.
By inviting those without sin to cast the first stone, he invited the crowd to abandon hypocrisy, to recognise themselves as they really are before God and to exercise grace; to become a source of blessing and affirmation. That too is part of our Ash Wednesday invitation:
To abandon hypocrisy, to recognise ourselves as deeply fallen and as a consequence to become a blessing to those equally imperfect folk who we encounter in the ordinary waif and wain of life.
And here is the great Lenten paradox: we become agents of grace and sources of blessing not because we reach some superhuman level of moral perfection, but instead, because we recognise our ingrained weakness and sinfulness. None of this of course means that sin is okay or that morality should be thrown out of the window. Consider the last words of Jesus to the woman:
'Go your way and from now on sin no longer.'
This Ash Wednesday we need to hear those words for ourselves. We need to encounter the Christ who seeks to meet us as we really are, in our sinfulness, but who seeks also to affirm and bless us with his healing grace, for that is how we get better, that is how we increase in holiness, that is how we become sources of blessing and agents of grace. That is how we become Christian. It is all done through an honest encounter with Jesus, the great redeemer.
So today let us approach the altar with soft and open hearts, thankful that Jesus wants to feed, affirm, bless and sanctify us so that we may in turn feed, affirm and bless those who we meet and encounter as we make our pilgrimage through life.
And by the way do gaze afresh at the Reredos; in some ways I think it was made for days such as Ash Wednesday.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Sermon, Sunday next before Lent
The story of the Transfiguration is a strange story; there is no getting away from it. I don’t know how you would react if you were there watching the drama unfold but I suspect my response wouldn’t have been too different from Peter’s. At least John and James had the good sense to remain schtum.
So what is the story all about, what is its meaning for us today and, why on earth does today’s Gospel reading end with the story of the healing of a boy with an evil spirit? The story of the Transfiguration and the healing of a demon possessed boy seem at first sight to be slightly at odds with each other, don’t they? But, perhaps they are not.
The Transfiguration, I think looks both forward and backwards; it is a 360 degree story. The strange presence of Moses and Elijah surely testifies to the fact that Jesus came from the Jewish faith, that as we heard last Sunday he is for the ‘glory of his people Israel’ hence the presence of Moses and Elijah, whilst also verifying his claim to be the ‘fulfilment of the law and the prophets.’ But the transfiguration also indicates that God is no longer to be veiled and that we, God’s people, no longer need to approach God with our guard up. We can come to God just as we are.
The story is also about power and radiance. Jesus, the light of the world, is literally illumined. This transfiguration literally depicts Jesus as the light of the world. It brings to life in a very physical sense his claims to be light both to the Gentiles, you and me, and his people Israel. As followers of Jesus we should allow ourselves to be transfigured and illumined.
But to what purpose? The answer to this question is in the second part of the Gospel reading. Jesus is transfigured so that he can fulfil his mission of salvation. He is physically and spiritually illuminated and transformed so that he can with power and authority enter into the chaos of the world, and this is the rationale behind the second part of the reading. Jesus first post transfiguration act is to heal a boy who we are told is demon possessed.
If we are to follow in the path of Christ we need to first allow ourselves to be transformed and then we need to get out into the chaos and disorder of the world and work for the world’s healing. We can do so in the sure and certain knowledge that we have been equipped to do so by God. Our efforts don’t necessarily need to be dramatic. Let me illustrate with a story.
Fifty or sixty years ago an incident took place that changed the course of human, and salvation, history. A small coloured boy had gone to work in a Johannesburg hospital with his desperately poor, and in many ways, unloved mother. The mother worked in the hospital as a cleaner. She was very much a second class citizen. The boy, being of a sensitive disposition, felt great sorrow for his mother’s state and real anger at a system that institutionalised prejudice and injustice. Just then a tall man wearing clerical clothes approached his mother, smiled, asked how she was and doffed his hat. The man was called Trevor Huddleston and he was white, English and a priest who had gone to work in South Africa because he was appalled at the injustice of apartheid. The young boy, Desmond Tutu, had never seen a white man talk to, let alone smile at his mother before. From that moment the boy decided to find out about the God that Trevor Huddleston represented and, the rest as they say is history. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Trevor Huddleston was a transfigured figure, the physical embodiment of the Christian faith? Did he illuminate the world for the young Desmond? I think so. Did Trevor Huddleston do anything dramatic? No he simply smiled and offered a common courtesy. He was able to do so because he had been transformed from within. His faith allowed him to see the world and its people through God’s eyes.
As we start our journey into Lent, we too should ask God to transform us from within and then to illuminate and transfigure us, so that we too can point people towards a better future. As we increase in holiness, we become the sort of people who can bring real and lasting healing. We don’t need to become superheroes, but just ordinary transfigured Christians.
Let’s leave the last words to St. Paul:
‘Therefore since we have such hope, we are very bold…….whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom. And we with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory.’
Let us pray:
Lord by the power of your Holy Spirit come and transform us from within so that we may present you with boldness to the world, for its freedom and healing, in the name of your Son our Saviour we pray,’ Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Sermon, Midnight Mass
I wonder whether you have ever received a present that has changed everything for you? A present that has led you on a journey of discovery? A present that has stimulated a life-long interest, or fascination? For many boys of my generation – though not me – something like a Meccano set may have led to an interest in engineering. Or what about train sets and dolls houses? I suspect that many parents and grandparents thoroughly enjoy giving gifts to family members that they have enjoyed, and in reality still enjoy playing, or tinkering with, many years later. There is something about giving to someone else something that has enriched our lives.
My life changing present would be this: R.J. Unstead’s Children’s Encyclopdia of History. As a boy I loved delving into it. I really enjoyed learning about the events that have shaped our, British, history. But, in particular I enjoyed learning about the characters that have left an indelible mark on our history and culture. Through this book I developed a life long interest in understanding the events that shape people, and also how people shape events. This book opened up a whole new world for me. In fact when I applied for my MA in Ministry and Theology I was asked to list five books that had shaped how I view the world. As I was training for priesthood I thought that I really ought to put the Bible at the top of the list. I nearly put the BCP at number two on my list, but was talked out of it by a friend who thought it a ‘little smarmy,’ and suggested that my interviewers might view it as an opportunity to ask a whole load of questions, that I would be completely unable to answer on the some of the more arcane services in the Prayer Book. So, Unstead’s masterpiece was given the ‘silver medal’ position.
I don’t think it is too big a claim to say that this book shaped how I read other texts, even sacred texts such as the Bible. You see I am far more interested in reading about and reflecting on the great biblical narratives and, the nature of the characters that bring these stories to life than I am in finding so called proof texts to validate any prejudices or dogmas that we might hold. It seems to me that religion goes very badly wrong when the latter approach is taken.
Christmas is of course a major event in the Christian story. And, Christmas invites us to reflect on the nature and character of Jesus. In the Christmas story we learn that ‘the word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.’ As we gaze upon the Babe of Bethlehem our task is to ‘see his glory.’ And yet the glory we are asked to see is presented in the most vulnerable of forms; a baby. Our task is to cherish the gift we have been given, and to become increasingly intrigued by the person, and character, of Christ.
The bible readings associated with Christmas give us plenty of insights into the character of Jesus. We learn that he is ‘the prince of peace,’ and from the Psalm that he will ‘judge the peoples with equity,’ we have heard that he came to be the ‘light that shines in the darkness.’ But tragically we also learn that even though he came ‘to what was his own, his people did not accept him;’ the greatest present ever given.
So as we receive the present of Christ himself, let us receive him both with grace and fascination. We need to accept him as a vulnerable child to be cherished, we need to reflect on his character, so that in the words of the Psalm we can ‘sing a new song to the Lord,’ and to ‘all the earth.’
Our invitation at Christmas is to receive the word made flesh and then to share the story of the word made flesh, in the sure and certain knowledge that should we do so righteousness, equity, truth and light will follow, and the world surely needs, more than ever, these most Christ characteristics. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
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