Sermon for Ash Wednesday High Mass Wednesday 6 March 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses
ASH WEDNESDAY, 2019 HIGH MASS
Readings: Joel 2.1-2,12-17; Psalm 51.1-18; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
‘Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast….let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the people, “Where is their God?”’
Faced with a national crisis, which he sees as the judgement of God on a faithless people, the prophet Joel calls the whole nation to a fast and repentance.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Church faces a time of crisis: it has become “a mockery, a byword among the nations.” We hear more of dishonour and ill repute; more of dust and ashes than of holiness. In Fr. Michael’s native Australia a Cardinal sits in jail awaiting sentence for abuse. In the United States another has been expelled from the priesthood. In our own Church a former diocesan bishop has been jailed for offences against young men. Nor is this just a “catholic” problem: a number of “successful” mega-church founders in the US have been forced to resign or dismissed after accusations of sexual misconduct against women.
Here in England Churches and other institutions are also being subjected to the scrutiny of the Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse. It is looking not only at individual cases of abuse but at how institutions dealt or failed to deal with them. Institutions have been more concerned to defend their reputation, or been in awe of powerful figures, than to see justice down to victims. The crime often being compounded by the cover-up.
Of course, we can say that the Churches and the clergy have not been the only guilty institutions. The BBC and the entertainment industry, politics, education, social and health care, have all been tainted. Most have behaved in similar ways. They have gone into defensive mode. They have failed to exercise discipline and judgement over those in power, at the expense of the powerless. They have failed to protect the weak and vulnerable.
We can say that there are critics who are pursuing an aggressively anti-clerical agenda while ignoring failings elsewhere. We can point out that there are now far stricter safeguarding procedures in place which mean that what happened in the past isn’t likely to happen again. We can speak of the myriad good works being done by churches and religious communities up and down the land and across the world. All that may be true, but there is a crucial difference that we cannot ignore: none of those other bodies claim to be holy but the Church does. While all these organizations should be held to a high standard, we are judged by a higher one still.
This church is dedicated to the Communion of Saints – this means not just a collection of individuals who are especially devout and virtuous – but a community in holiness. We all share in the holiness of the Church which is both the gift of God and the collective result of the sanctification of its people in the service of the kingdom of God.
But just as holiness is a communal as well as an individual thing, so too is sin. So even if we have never been involved in abuse or in covering it up, and are horrified at such behaviour, we are by our very membership of the Church, implicated and involved. We are reminded that the church is, in the language of the Reformation, both justified and sinful; holy and unholy; a divine institution and a very flawed human one.
So what are we to do? How are we to respond as a Christian community and individuals? Assuming that we are all disciples of Jesus Christ whose desire is to love and serve him and his kingdom, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and carry on as we have done. We cannot leave it to bishops and synods. Nor is it enough to lament the past and express our corporate penitence and sorrow for what has been done under the cover of our faith.
We hear a lot in the Church today of evangelism and church-planting. Much of the agenda of the General Synod a couple of weeks ago was concerned with it. But the harsh reality is that the moral reputation of the Church, its good name, has been so damaged that until it is restored much of this talk is like shouting into the wind.
So, we need to heed the note of urgency in both the prophet Joel and and apostle Paul:
- Joel’s “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning:; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
- Paul’s entreaty and his “Now is the acceptable time.”
The repentance to which Ash Wednesday calls us, is not just a turning away from sin, a wiping clean of the slate so that we can put all that behind us and feel better about ourselves. It is [positive turning towards God, a “return to the Lord our God.” It is, in Paul’s words, a turning to God and to the Christ who, “for our sake he made to be sin who knew no sin,” so that in him “we might become the righteousness of God.” We are to accept the grace of God as the power to be holy in the sense in which Paul commends his ministry “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.
We have a right to expect that our bishops and clergy pursue these virtues and we have a duty to pray for them as they do so. But these virtues are not just for those in ordained ministry but for all of us. We are called not just to weep and mourn – though God knows we should – and many of us who have devoted our lives to the service of the Church and of Christ do so in horror and even sometimes despair– but to give ourselves to the active pursuit of holiness through the means God has appointed: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, meditation of scripture, the sacraments – that “grain-offering and drink-offering” which God has left us. The truth is that the renewal of the Church always begins with individuals and small groups. We cannot expect the Church’s renewal in holiness to begin with other people unless it begins with us too.
And all this we must do in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, quietly and humbly, without fanfare, for only so will the Church be renewed in holiness and that moral stature which lends credibility to its proclamation of the Gospel be restored. Only then will people sense the presence of God – not his absence.
This church of All Saints is noted for the beauty of its art and architecture, its liturgy and music; even some say kindly for its preaching. But let it be known to God first and foremost for our pursuit of holiness; not an antiseptic and negative purity, but a devotion to God which overflows in generosity to our neighbours. Let it be known for the beauty of holiness as well as the holiness of beauty.