Ash Wednesday - 26th February 2020
Today we start the 40 days of Lent, a season of penitence, a season where we are called to reflect on our sins and seek God’s forgiveness.
I have tried to avoid talking very much about sin in my preaching here. This is because I am aware, sometimes acutely, of the tendency of church leaders through the ages to make pronouncements about sin, and all too often about sexual mores. I find this deeply regrettable. For the most part the church comes across as judgemental, narrow-minded, and out of touch. I also do not believe that we clergy have any more insight into these matters than society at large, and often very much less.
I have also been aware in my professional life, how often people I work with, for the most part good people, assume that the church is judging them for their supposedly sinful behaviour. I recall talking to our Diocesan Missioner for Business, Pete Horlock, who described a certain attitude from bankers he talked to in the aftermath of 2008, which could be summed up as, “OK, he’s being nice to us, but that’s only to get us to engage, then he’s going to take off the mask and tell us what he really thinks of us.”
Projecting the imaginary judgment of a stern God seems to me to be a terrible tendency of both institution and individuals, and it is sad that the church is seen by so many people as behaving in this way.
Where I have talked about sin, generally I have focussed on structural sin, the powers of this world that oppress people and prevent them from the fullness of life for which God created them. This, it seems to me, was the main focus of Jesus’ teaching about sin.
But this evening I feel I should make an exception and reflect on personal sinfulness, which it seems to me should be the focus of at least part of our thoughts and prayers in this Lenten season.
But even here, it seems to me that our primary focus should not be on trying not to do bad things, or repenting when we do. It’s true, there are times when we do things we are ashamed of, sometimes later, sometimes even as we are doing them. And in Lent we perhaps try a little harder not to do some of those things. But I suggest that this activity is secondary, it is best built on a more important spiritual foundation.
I draw for my inspiration this evening on Thomas Merton who talks about personal sin with a different focus, drawing on his own experience as a monk. He writes:
“…underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential “dread” – a sense of insecurity, of “lostness,” of exile, of sin. A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth. “Dread” in this sense is not simply a childish fear of violating taboos. It is the profound awareness that one is capable of ultimate bad faith with ourselves and with others: that one is living a lie.”
This makes deep sense to me. Spending time facing our inmost truth, that it seems to me would be a good outworking of our Lenten devotion.
For there is something about our human nature which can so easily slip into bad faith, hiding from that truth. In my experience this hiding, this lie, often takes the form of self-justification. We reassure ourselves that we know the answers where others don’t, or that we are more patient, or more generous, or more kind.
We construct for ourselves a heroic narrative, sometimes a tragic, victim hero. If we are particularly over-confident, we might come actually to believe this story, but more likely we hold to it with the sense of insecurity which Merton describes.
But there are also some, for whom the story they tell themselves is one instead of self-denigration, and their narrative one of failure.
Either way, these stories seem always to be comparative with others. And so we hide in sideways, relative glances, the truth which lies beneath.
By contrast, in our Christian understanding, I believe that the underlying truth is both more ordinary and more beautiful.
We do not generally stand out of the crowd, for better or worse: we are all human, neither more or less. But we are made by God, in his image, and he loves us, without reserve, and delights in us.
The assurance that we are held in his constant love can give us the courage to face our inmost truth with honesty. And I believe a sense of peace and of thankfulness can then free us simply to be ourselves. In this I include the freedom, to give thanks for the goodness in our lives, nod to it once and move on; to strive to live a moral life as we best understand it, and to admit and apologise for our frequent faults openly and without fear, seeking forgiveness from others and from our heavenly Father.
This is the work of creative introspection to which I pledge myself this coming Lent and I invite you to follow your own version of this path.
We embark on this Lenten journey first with the sharing of the bread and wine. And I can find no simpler, more honest picture of our true identity, ordinary yet sacred, individual and yet common, than the receiving of this simple gift from God, which carries with it the promise of freedom from sin and of eternal life.
Richard Young (Rector)