Sunday, 4 April 2021

Walking into the new day: An Easter Homily

 Preached at Croydon Minster on Easter Day. Mark 16.1-8

‘This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118.24)

Alleluia.

 

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The marking of the Sabbath – a day to be kept holy by commandment of God – gives completion to each week.

 

It evokes the seventh day of creation, the day on which the creative activity of God paused; the creation breathed and took stock. It is a day of silence. 

 

God had not run out of steam or felt tired that morning, but rather gifted to creation and to us, his creatures, the possibility and imperative of pausing, of rest and, supremely, to give a day a week to the one who gave us life in the first place.

 

The greatest Sabbath since the creation of the world is the day on which Christ rested in the tomb, known to us as Holy Saturday. It was yesterday. Holy Saturday is the Sabbath in which the stillness and silence of the tomb dominates. From that darkness and silence a new day is born. The sabbath is over; a new dawn has broken.

 

Our ancestors in the faith, the patristic writers, delighting in all of this, asked a question: the Sabbath was the seventh day of creation so, they asked, ‘when is the eighth day?’

 

It’s worth noting at this point that the Church Fathers were not biblical literalists, as the new atheists assume we all are. They saw scripture, as we do, divinely inspired  with patterns and pointers and meaning that lead us into deeper relationship with God.

 

They reasoned that if the Sabbath was the seventh day of creation, if, as St Paul says, Christ is the New Adam and ‘if anyone is in Christ they are a New Creation’ (1 Corinthians 5.17) - then the Day of the Resurrection of Christ is the eighth day of creation.

 

That’s why St Mark is careful to tell us, ‘when the Sabbath was over…’ (Mark 16.1) The Sabbath completed gives way to a new day, the first day of the Creation renewed in Christ.

 

‘This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it’

 

In his gospel, St Mark sets the resurrection of Jesus in the purposes of creation. This is not a disruption in what God is about in the world, but the fulfilment of it. (It’s also why St John can say that Christ, the Word of God, was in the beginning and all things came into being through him).

 

The Sabbath is never empty, but is filled with God’s creative renewal and possibility.

 

So it is, after the Sabbath, three women – Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome – ‘very early on the first day of the week, as night was giving way to the new day, and the sun risen, went to the tomb’.

 

What they encounter is not the dead body of the crucified man they have come to anoint; but the message of life: ‘He has been raised; he is not here’.

 

It is the new resurrection morning, the eighth day of creation, that drives the mission of God. Those three women embrace that wholeheartedly and give testimony to the disciples, and to Peter, that Christ is risen, and that they will encounter him again in a new and vivid way.

 

We can over labour the Covid parallels, and I don’t want to diminish the undiluted message of the resurrection of Christ on this Easter Day, but perhaps this past year has also had a Holy Saturday or Sabbath feel. We have been locked in and locked down: much as the tomb had been.

 

Yet, throughout the lockdown the Church could be a people of hope. Not because we are naïve optimists or the types who say ‘it’ll all be okay’, but rather because our hope is rooted in the Crucified and Risen Lord who endures the trauma, the pain and coldness of death, so that, whilst we will still know them, we might see beyond those things into the coming future of God.

 

A new day will break for each of us because of the resurrection of Christ.

 

It is appropriate that it is in the Book of Lamentations, which is so full of expressions of bitter pain, that we also read these stirring words that surely were in the hearts of the myrrh bearing women that first Easter morning when the old sabbath day had died and they came to the tomb at dawn:

 

 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

   his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

   great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ (Lamentations 3.22-24)

 

So let us walk together, as an Easter People, into that new day.

 

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Friday, 2 April 2021

The Lamb who Comes

Preached at Croydon Minster on Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 13.1-17,31b-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13.1)

 

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The Christian Gospel is a proclamation, that is to be lived out day by day, of liberation from all that enslaves, obscures our vision and restricts our lives.

 

The purpose of this Gospel is that we are free to gain clarity of sight and to be alive to the ways and purposes of God so that, in Christ, we are delivered into the very heart of God.

 

That is the golden thread that runs through, and holds together, tonight, Good Friday and Easter.

 

This is the Passover of the Lord; the Paschal Mystery.

 

To this day – in fact this week - God’s first-chosen people the Jews, annually celebrate Pesach - the Passover. They celebrate Israel’s long, hard liberation from Egypt, with its false starts and trials, its bitter herbs and laments, as a pattern of all liberation and God’s enduring relationship with them through the observance of Torah.

 

For Christians we find that the symbols and promise of the Passover is fulfilled and made known in Christ, who now opens to all nations what Israel has already tasted and anticipates.

 

This we taste and see as we celebrate the Eucharist. This was handed on to St Paul and it is handed on in turn to us.

 

The Eucharist has echoes of Passover: unleavened bread; wine; remembrance; blood; accounts of God’s liberating love in the scriptures.

 

The one thing apparently missing is a Passover lamb. In Genesis Isaac asks Abraham, ‘where is the lamb for the sacrifice?’ To which Abraham replies, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, my son’ (Genesis 22.7,8).

 

God has provided. As John the Baptist declares on seeing Jesus: ‘Behold, look, see: the Lamb of God’ (John 1.29).

 

In the scriptures the Lamb is the sacrificial offering which makes right Israel’s relationship with God. In the Eucharist, given to us by Christ at the Last Supper – on the night that he was betrayed – he takes the place of the Lamb: he is the victim and he is the priest who makes the offering.

 

The whole cosmos, the created order, our lives: all is God’s gift, God’s offering. In Christ, God is the offerer and the offering.

 

This cosmic reality has a divine and human face. It is the face of the kneeling Jesus who looks up from the feet of his disciples into their eyes and says, you can have no part in me, no part in my mission and life, if you do not let me serve you.

 

What an extraordinary thing! Christ asks no more of the disciples than that they should allow him to serve them, so that they in turn might serve him in one another, and love as he loves us: the New Commandment.

 

As our gospel reading began:

 

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13.1)

 

‘Love to the end’ is what the liberating Gospel is. Hence the traditional Maundy Thursday anthem at the washing of feet: Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est ‘Where charity and love is found, there is God’.

 

Christ, in the form of God and form of man, takes the form of a slave, humbles himself and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2.6,7,8).

 

Isaac had taken wood for the sacrifice of a Lamb; the wood of the cross is the place of sacrifice of the Lamb of God. And that sacrifice is presented to us afresh in the immediacy of broken bread and poured out wine: ‘far as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11.26).

 

This is the foretaste and reality of the banquet of the Lamb, around whose throne all nations gather and to whom salvation belongs. Of this Lamb we read:

 

the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,

   and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 7.17)

 

Tonight from the eyes of Peter and Judas tears of denial and betrayal will flow; tomorrow the tears of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, will flow; on Easter morning the tears of Mary Magdalene will obscure her sight of Christ.

 

Tears are real. Just as Christ washes and wipes feet, our tears too will be wiped away, our sins will be wiped away.

 

O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world: have mercy upon us.

 

Sunday, 14 March 2021

The household of faith: a Mothering Sunday sermon

Preached at Croydon Minster on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday). Readings Colossians 3.12-17; John 19.25b-27


And from that hour the disciple took [Mary] into his own home. John 19.27b

 

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One particular family has been very much in the news these past few days.

 

The pain, misunderstanding and hurt within the Royal Family has led the news bulletins and been the subject of a tremendous amount of speculation, misinformation and judgement.

 

I do not propose to add to that. Like all of us, I am not on the inside and cannot judge different claims to the truth being articulated. What we can all do is pray for those at the heart of this very public storm, whether we associate ourselves with one side or the other.

 

On this Mothering Sunday we might usefully reflect on the nature of family, not just the royals, and also a word that sounded quite old-fashioned until the last twelve months and that is ‘household’.

 

The New Testament has a word that can be translated as ‘family’ or as ‘household’ depending on the context. The Greek word is οἶκος (oikos). From that comes the word οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), from which we get the word ‘ecumenical’, which is about life in the global household or family of the church.

 

So let’s look at the two words.

 

Talk of family can sound quite nostalgic. For some it evokes warm feelings of comfort, safety and belonging where one is most free to be oneself; for others, it evokes feelings of fear, abuse or trauma where one is totally trapped.

 

That means if we talk about the church ‘family’ it will trigger in different people different associations. For some to know the church as family is profoundly reassuring, and for others profoundly frightening and potentially excluding.

 

The model of family that the church offers to us is as a place of mutual love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, united in prayer and service of one another.

 

This is a generous vision; and it is a challenge! The Christian family, at all levels, is a community where children and adults are nurtured in the ways of faith, hope and love.

And that can be hard as personalities grow and assert themselves. How that is handled is what family life is about, and doing it well shapes the wider community.

 

The word ‘household’ has come back into more widespread use in the pandemic, when rules have been applied about what ‘households’ can and can’t do. I realise I rarely used the word before the pandemic, except perhaps in reference to ‘The Royal Household’, which sounds very grand.

 

That said, in the Ordinal, the form of service to ordain priests the person to be ordained priest is asked, ‘Will you endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people?

 

A household implies a gathering of people who may, or may not, be related biologically, but share a life in common and almost certainly at the heart of it eat together as companions.

 

In that way the church is also well described as the ‘household of faith’ (Galatians 6.10); people drawn together to live a life in common, as family or community of prayer and breaking bread together.

 

Just read the letters to the young churches in the New Testament and all the time the likes of St Paul are sometimes encouraging, sometimes cajoling, them to be households of reconciliation, mutual love and service. As St Paul puts it to the Colossians in our first reading today,

 

Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3.12-13)

 

That is what the Christian οἶκος is all about. This is the vision Christian families and households, churches and communities draw from. Sometimes we get it all spectacularly wrong; and sometimes gloriously right.

 

This began with the formation of an οἶκος by Jesus himself from the cross. His blessed Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple were not blood relatives or biologically connected, but they are invited into a relationship that forms the first οἶκος of faith. Their life comes from the water and blood flowing from the side of Christ.

 

To Mary he says, ‘here is your son’ and to the Beloved Disciple he says ‘here is the mother’ (cf Greek text Ἴδε μήτηρ σου). Mary becomes the mother of the Christian family, the Christian household, to shape us as servants of the will of God as she is. And today we give thanks and pray for mothers who mirror that life of Mary in Nazareth and later with the Beloved Disciple shaping a household and family of faith.

 

The Christian οἶκος is most itself when it stands patiently with each other, brothers and sisters, at the foot of the Cross of Christ. It is best revealed when people of every tribe, language and nation stand together and dwell together within the same household, the household of faith, into which we are baptised.

 

May our life together, as the household of faith in this place, be an example of reconciling love, mutual trust, ‘devoted to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’. (cf Acts 2.42)

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Temples, bodies, sacrifice & encounter: A Lent sermon

 Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster. Gospel text John 2.13-22.

 

‘[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body’ John 2.21

 

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For centuries the temple in Jerusalem sat at the heart of Israelite religion.

 

The temple was the place of sacrifice and of encounter with the presence of God in all his holiness.

 

Housing the Ark of the Covenant, the very presence of God, the temple’s roots are deep in the story of God’s people.

 

Early on, in the account of the Exodus it is as a roving sanctuary, resting on the journey as the people of Israel moved through the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.

 

Eventually, brought by King David, God’s presence in the Ark came to rest on Mount Zion and his son, Solomon, began the work of building the temple to house God’s presence.

 

Solomon’s temple fell into disrepair when Israel was captive in exile in Babylon. Yet under the priests Ezra and Nehemiah it was restored, and by Jesus’ day it had recently been rebuilt by Herod the Great, taking some 46 years.

 

That brings us to this visit of Jesus to the Temple, as recorded in all four gospels (Matthew 21.12-17; Mark 11.15-19; Luke 19.45-48).

 

Indignant at what he finds Jesus sweeps away the buying and selling which is a spin off from the necessity to have animals to sacrifice in the temple.

 

Some see this as an example of Jesus’ anger, an example of his humanity. On one level that is right - Jesus has assumed our humanity - but it’s not that Jesus is ‘losing his rag’. As the disciples later remembered, it is ‘zeal for God’s house’ that has consumed him: it’s zeal; it’s passion.

 

Re-read today’s gospel and we see that what Jesus is doing, in the tradition of the prophets, is a purposeful, intentional act of resetting the Temple to its original purpose: sacrifice to God is not about trading animals; encountering God is not a commercial transaction.

 

The temple is to be a house of prayer, a place of encounter with the Living God.

 

What is new, and different from the prophets, is that this is a divine visitation on an institution that had become all too human: as the prophet Malachi had said, ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).

 

The stone-built temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, some forty years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. So where is the temple now? So where is the place of sacrifice now? Where is the place of encounter now?

 

The clear statement of our gospel today is that the temple is a temple of flesh: the temple of Jesus’ body. So, that’s the place of sacrifice; that’s the place of encounter with the living God. The Body of Christ is of course profoundly what the church is: you and me together, who feed on the Body of Christ in the sacrament.

 

This is the place of sacrifice, Jesus Christ gives his life that we might live. Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrificial victim: ‘worthy is the Lamb once slain’ (Revelation 5.12), not a lamb traded in the temple precinct, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

 

The temple is not abolished by Jesus but transformed and relocated in his flesh.

 

Read the letter to the Hebrews and the Revelation to John and you see that the temple, recast by Christ, feeds the Christian life and imagination.

 

In its cleansing, the liturgical life of the temple - its rituals, customs, sacrifices and services - are transformed by Jesus and embraced by the church, not to exploit God’s people but to feed them.

 

So, then, where sacrifice and encounter with God take place there is the temple. In Christ this is a temple cleansed and fit for worship.

 

So as Christians when we speak of the temple we speak of Jesus Christ, we speak of our church building and we speak of ourselves.

 

Our church is a temple, a place of sacrifice – where lives are offered and life is received – and this holy place is a place of encounter.

 

And you are too.

 

As St Paul says, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple’. (1 Corinthians 3.16,17).

 

Christ’s Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the pioneer of this reality. The power of the Most High dwelt in her body, she gave her body – her human body, her woman’s body - as the Lord’s temple; her life was opened to receive his life.

 

This all points to the reverence and honour we have for the body as Christians: we believe in the resurrection of the body, the ultimate statement of optimism about human bodies.

 

So we reject the separation of body and soul, the ancient heresy of Manicheism, which sees the soul as too good or pure for one’s body; the body is seen as a terrible encumbrance on a free spirit, and it means life is only lived through the body and physical gratification. That is the path to self-loathing. It afflicts many in our culture today.

 

We are body and soul together.

 

Christ visits the temple of our bodies and as we pray in Lent, ‘wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psalm 51.2). That is a prayer that Christ might purge us, turn over some tables and upset some of our cosy bargains with God, so that we can become more truly people of sacrifice, offering our lives to Christ, the Lamb of God, that he might give us life in this bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist.

 

Let us pray that we might be worthy temples of the Holy Spirit, a worthiness which is not earned but is Christ’s gift, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

 

We offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee, that all we, who are partakers of this holy Communion, may be fulfilled with thy grace and heavenly benediction. (Book of Common Prayer, Order for Holy Communion)

Sunday, 28 February 2021

Take up your cross

 First preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster on the Second Sunday of Lent, 2021


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A story goes that during a persecution of Christians in first century Rome their Bishop fled. The Bishop was none other than the Apostle St Peter. Christians were being crucified like their Lord and Peter was running away. As he did so he saw the risen Jesus walking towards the city. Peter asked him, ‘Quo vadis?’ (where are you going?) to which Jesus replied, ‘Romam eo iterum crucifigi (‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again’). From that encounter Peter gains the courage to continue his ministry and returns to the city, where he is martyred by being crucified upside-down.

 

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There is a bitterly poignant moment deep in the heart of Holy Week. Jesus has been arrested and brought to the High Priest’s house; his death on the cross is imminent.

 

In the crowd that’s gathered Peter is recognised as one of Jesus’ followers, but Peter flatly denies it. As St Luke records:

 

The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Luke 22.61,62.)

 

Having heard this morning’s gospel there’s an eerie inevitability that it would come to that with Peter.

 

Throughout the gospels Peter wrestles with himself: he recognises Jesus as the Christ and is devoted to him; but also he can’t bear the cost of what this all means.

 

Peter is a man of contrasts:

Peter is the Rock on which Christ will build his Church (Matthew 16.18) and he is the denier;

Peter is praised by Jesus for his declarations of faith and, as we see in today’s gospel, also rebuked by Jesus as ‘Satan’, an adversary, opposing Christ’s purposes.

 

We all have an inner Peter: at times we can be passionate about our faith in Christ and at other times deniers. We can’t just look at Peter and shrug or tut; it is ourselves we see.

 

So what’s Peter’s problem? Or rather what is your problem? What’s the Church’s problem?

 

The issue is being so earthbound that we don’t, won’t or can’t see the Cross as the path to life.

 

Peter was so scandalised by the reference to the Cross – suffering, rejection, death - that he even took Jesus aside and rebuked him. It was too much for Peter to stomach; perhaps he saw what was coming, that the way of discipleship is the Way of the Cross.

 

Peter’s denial of the Cross means that he has set his mind on earthly concerns and not heavenly ones. In St Augustine’s terms Peter is preferring the Earthly City and not desiring the City of God.

 

Peter has yet to grasp St Paul’s phrase in the letter to the Colossians, ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (Colossians 3.1-4).

 

Peter’s mind is set on Peter, not on Christ. There’s the challenge for you and me today: setting our minds on Christ publicly and proudly.

 

Martyrdom is the most extreme outcome of setting your mind, and living your life, in Christ: and there are Christians around the world who are living that, now, today.

 

Do you find yourself wondering why they don’t just keep quiet about their faith, keep their heads down? If so, that’s your inner Peter coming out.

 

Martyrdom is a remote prospect for us, but there is much in our culture that assails the Gospel today, that calls us to walk the way of the Cross.

 

Christianity is routinely ridiculed, caricatured, diminished and pushed aside in our culture. The vision of the reign of God is being replaced by the reign of self, the culture of ‘me first, me alone’. A culture of grievance, shame and blame is flourishing: the things of earth, rather than reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; the things of God.

 

Our culture is not beyond redemption. There are many people of goodwill, but the signs of the times show that people’s concerns are with themselves first and God a distant second. (Remember, though, Jesus described his generation as ‘perverse and adulterous).

 

Now is the time to witness to the way of Jesus Christ more than ever: proclaiming faith, hope and love; being of service to our neighbour out of love for Christ; honouring the body, cherishing the young and the frail; drawing people into worship that sets their minds on the stuff of heaven; handing on the Faith humbly and confidently.

 

Now is the time to reorient our hearts, minds and lives: setting our bearings and compass to be followers of Christ, who died for us and for our salvation.

 

Will you walk, with Peter and with the Crucified and Risen Lord, on the Way of the Cross back towards the City of God?

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Christ in the wilderness

 

Preached as a sermon at Croydon Minster, the First Sunday of Lent, 2021


‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;

repent and believe in the good news (Mark 1.15)

 

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This is the third time since Advent Sunday that we have been given this passage of St Mark’s gospel.

 

At its heart is the Baptism of Christ, but we have come at it from different angles.

 

First, in Advent, we read it through the lens of the ministry of John the Baptist; then on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ we pondered the mystery of Christ’s Baptism itself; and now, in these forty days of Lent, our focus is on what happens after his immersion in the waters of Baptism, when he is driven out into a place where there is precious little water: the wilderness.

 

The whole scene is dramatic. It begins with the almost violent image of the heavens torn open, ripped apart like a piece of cloth.

 

From that fissure comes the tranquillity of the Spirit, just like a dove, who rests on Jesus, as he is told by God the Father, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (v11).

 

Then, just as a breeze can pick up and blow hard as a mighty wind, so the Spirit’s breath picks up and drives Jesus out. Into the wilderness. Immediately. No hanging about.

 

The relationship declared at the Baptism – of intimacy between the Father and the Son - is now to be demonstrated in the driving power of the Spirit out in the wilderness.

 

The wilderness is by any terms, and certainly in the scriptures, a place of challenge, devoid of life. But Jesus brings life to the wilderness, so he is not alone and without comfort: ‘he was with the wild beasts, and the angels comforted him’ (v13). The beasts are not a threat, they are with him.

 

There are echoes here of the Garden of Creation, where the ‘creatures of the field and birds of the air are created’ (Genesis 2.19). In that Garden Satan comes to disrupt, humanity colludes and sin enters the world. In the wilderness, by contrast, Satan is faced down, humanity in the New Adam, Jesus Christ, rejects the Prince of Darkness, and the power of sin is annulled.

 

From the Garden of Creation flowed mighty rivers. Life flows from Christ. At the heart of the garden was a tree; at the heart of the Christian life is the Tree of the Cross.

 

And all this, the Church proclaims, is Good News! It’s the Good News of water flowing in a wilderness; light shining in the darkness; life triumphing over death.

 

Many of us are in a wilderness at the moment. It may be a wilderness brought on by the pandemic, or brought on by quite different circumstances.

 

In our wilderness, Christ is with us, bringing life to us, generating within us a New Creation, saying ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’ (John 7.37). And as St Paul declares, ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a New Creation!’ (2 Corinthians 5.17). Good news indeed.

 

As the Israelites were fed by God with miraculous manna from heaven as they trudged round the wilderness of Sinai for forty years, so may we be fed, in our wilderness, with the bread that comes down from heaven so that we hunger and thirst no more.

 

Make me a clean heart: A homily for Ash Wednesday

 

Preached at Croydon Minster, Liturgy of Ash Wednesday


‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12.34).

 

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The gospel reading we have just heard, read in the context of Ash Wednesday, calls us to almsgiving, prayer and fasting, which, along with penitence, we know as the traditional features of Lent.

 

And it calls us to ponder deeply what we really treasure, because that will be a sign of where our hearts truly lie.

 

This is what acts of piety are, and what their outcome is meant to be: getting our hearts right with God; righteousness.

 

And this task of practicing our piety, our righteousness, is for the private sphere. You could almost say Jesus calls for ‘piety distancing’.

 

For those Christians given to be highly sociable, activist and extravert that is really rather hard to get their heads around. Privacy sounds very individualistic – me and my God - privacy is what they crave at out of the way early morning services, isn’t it?

 

This isn’t about a worship-style choice or temperament, but the heart of righteousness.

 

Piety, as taught by Jesus, is unshowy, seeks no flattery or admiration from others but rather focuses on the intensity of our relationship with our Maker and Redeemer.

 

The refrain throughout this passage is when you give alms (charitable giving), when you pray, when you fast, do these things for ‘your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (vv4, 6, 18)

 

We have all been driven out of public spaces into the private realm by the lockdown. That has been uncomfortable for so many people. People are finding it hard to live with partners, family members, or households.

 

Or perhaps it’s just they find it hard to be with themselves, whether living alone or in company.

 

No wonder there is such widespread poor mental and spiritual health, and not just because of the pandemic.

 

The hardest person to confront is yourself. The hardest place to enter is one’s own heart.

 

Lent is the time for ‘spiritual audit’ and a deep heart check-up.

 

What in my faith has nourished me in the pandemic? Where have I found myself bereft? Ask those questions, and if you want help with them, be bold, ask: that’s is what I and your priests are here to offer, and there are other wise fellow Christians you can speak to amongst our number. What are the ‘tools of the spiritual life’ as St Benedict calls them, that you need now?

 

One outcome of the pandemic must surely be for us to re-learn the disciplines - the structures if you prefer - of our lives of prayer. (And that’s for now, not just when Boris says it’s okay to mingle again).

 

Ultimately in Lent we are invited to go deep into the chamber of our own hearts. It is an invitation into what the mystics call the ‘interior life’. That is what the action of penitence is all about: as tonight’s psalm says, ‘Make me a clean heart, O God : and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51.11)

 

And what do we find in our hearts? Perhaps it’s anger, bile, frustration, vitriol; perhaps it’s faith, hope, love, endurance, gentleness. Perhaps it’s some of all of those.

 

Lent gives us grace and space to turn in and examine our hearts and the places we don’t really want to go, because as Jesus says, later in St Matthew’s gospel, ‘For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12.34). After all, he says, the place where what you most value, what is most you and where what you treasure is, it is there your heart will be also…