A Sermon from Sherborne
Dust and reconciliation
A sermon for the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Wednesday 14th February 2018 by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar
At the beginning of our service this evening I, as president, invited you all to share in the Lenten journey; by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s word. Some of these activities are part of the everyday experience of those of us who seek to follow Christ; prayer and bible reading should be at the heart of what we do every day. In Lent though, we are asked to look at the bigger picture of our Christian lives.
Lent invites us to rediscover what it means to be human. Perhaps we have become too devoted to the comfort of our sofas; our food; our way of life: taking the middle pathway of looking after the poor, yes, but not so as to interfere with our own lives too much. Lent gives us an opportunity to cleanse the system spiritually; Lent is an old English word meaning to lengthen and of course refers to the lengthening of days which comes in the spring; so it’s an opportunity for a spiritual spring-clean. Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not what we can supply for ourselves.
It is a bit like signing up to run the London marathon when you have been a couch potato for years. You perhaps sign up to do it to give the illusion that you are in control of your life. You hand yourself over to a trainer who suggests that you will need to do the most punishing of training regimes. Then you are of course on your own. No one else can do the running for you. This is when you find out who you really are; what you are actually made of both physically and mentally. And so with Lent. How long will we keep to our Lenten resolve? Sister Wendy Becket in her book, The Art of Lent, reminds us that we are all fallible and so we should acknowledge our failure and humbly begin again. So if you find your Lenten resolve weakening, don’t give up, start again.
Of course we all need signs of encouragement to help us succeed. On our Lenten journey, being here this evening might be one of those moments. Later on we will be reminded that we are but dust. But what dust! Genesis, using story to tell a theological truth, affirms that we are made from dust and that God gave us life and made us in his image. That dust made from the explosion which created the universe is part of our human makeup; star dust. Scientists will tell us that we are made of a chemical concoction and a great deal of water and that may be true, but never forget that God lavishes great love on us which makes us so much more than a collection of chemicals. God breathed life into us and we take on a life of our own. As the psalmist said ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’ [Ps8:4]. To know that we are wonderfully made by God may be all the encouragement we need to keep a holy Lent. You cannot be insignificant when God loves you. It is an optimistic time remembering who and what we truly are.
But we are also here this evening to receive the ashen cross on our foreheads. The ash made so symbolically from our palm crosses of last year. This act is anything but extravagant. It is an action which is borne out of words we may have been trying to express. The cross is for every aspect of our humanity; for heart and mind and soul.
As the sign of the cross is marked on our foreheads it is a reminder for us of our baptism, whether in the innocence of childhood or as an adolescent or as an adult: at that moment we received the grace of God which will accompany us throughout the rest of our lives. This journey with God may not always be an easy one; at times it may be a struggle; we have fallen away, but tonight we symbolically put that cross back, in ash this time, as we recognise those struggles and failures, and despite them remember we are made by God out of love.
As we look back to our baptism we also look ahead to Holy Week. Lent can be used to consider not only what it means to be signed with the cross but also what it means to take up your cross. Back to the water of baptism and forward to Calvary. As we receive our ashen cross the two come into one focus.
God does not leave us comfortless in this time. Later on we will receive bread from the Lord’s Table and however unworthy we might feel we are welcome at the table because God is merciful. As Michael Perham a former Bishop of Gloucester says, ‘The church gives us ash, a sign of reconciliation. God gives us bread, the banquet for those who have been reconciled, and he gives it again and again.’ [from the Way of Christ-likeness]
These 40 days of Lent are a journey, an opportunity “to reconcile” and “to work with God.” Lent is an opportunity to see that beneath the ashes and dust is the promise of resurrection and new life! Now is the time to deeper our relationship with Christ. Lent is the time to see that Christ leads us to the cross, so that He can lead us through the cross!
And if we keep the cross at the centre of our Lenten Journey, we will come to see that it embraces all that is, has been, and will be, in our lives. St. Paul says, “Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” Your Lenten Journey begins today! May you all be blessed with a holy and life changing Lent.