Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday 2021

Here is the transcript of my sermon for Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday

Reading: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

One of my favourite passages in English Literature is the opening to Charles Dicken’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Many of you will be familiar with it. Let me read you the passage:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …’ (A Tale of Two Cities, Para.1, Line, 1)

The best of times and the worst of times. This, I think, describes rather well our own times.

Why they may be described as the worst of times is obvious. We are living through a pandemic the like of which none of us could ever have imagined even just over a year ago when it first began. It has resulted in Governments around the world having to take actions that are more of the kind that you would expect in war-time: locking down their citizens and taking economic measures the consequences of which we are all going to have to live with for many years to come.

If, for example, a politician before the pandemic had suggested Government borrowing and spending of the magnitude we are seeing, people would have thought them mad. And yet billions of pounds and dollars have been spent without even the whisper of opposition. Commonsense, however, tells you that there will eventually be a price to be paid, and it will be the young who have to pay most of it. The pandemic itself may eventually go away, but its effects will be with us for long time to come.

The financial cost, however, is as nothing compared to the cost in human life and suffering. The number of deaths from COVID has been a tragedy unseen since the second world war. However, there is not only death and physical suffering, terrible though this is, but also the psychological, emotional, and mental suffering it is causing. It is having a significant impact, on the one hand, on the elderly, who have been particularly isolated from family and friends, and, on the other, on children whose parents are fearful of them going outdoors and who forbid them to play with their friends. We have yet to see what psychological effect all this will have on young children who have been locked up and deprived of schooling and who are being brought up surrounded by images of death, disease, and dying.

The worst of times indeed.

Imagine, however, if this had happened 20 years ago, when I first came to Hong Kong. Yes, we had the internet, but it was still relatively in its infancy. We hadn’t heard, for example, of smartphones, Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. You may think that not having heard of them would not be not such a bad thing, but I certainly wouldn’t be talking to you now if we didn’t have them.

The internet and the communication it makes possible represents a technological achievement that has made living in lockdown more bearable and is now changing the way we work, study, shop, play, and live. This Lent, for example, I have registered for a Virtual Pilgrimage to the Holyland. It may be just a small thing that I am able to do this, but it is symbolic of great human achievement and ingenuity.

And great human achievement in these times isn’t confined to technology and communication. The speed, for example, at which vaccines have been developed would not have been possible in previous times.

And this, the best and worst of times, has brought out the best and worst in people. The best, as we see medical staff selflessly working around the clock to care for those who are infected, and workers in Care Homes putting themselves at risk to look after the old and vulnerable. We have also seen the heroic efforts of people volunteering in different ways to help others less fortunate than themselves.

But we have seen the worst too as we see people who put others at risk by refusing to abide by the restrictions. Those whose selfishness goes even further and who not only don’t obey the Law, but organize parties and social gatherings knowing that it is precisely such events that spread the virus.

Then there are those like the so-called ‘social influencers’ who care more about getting a tan in the sun than they do about people gasping for breath on ventilators. Their selfishness is mirrored by the behaviour of rich nations. The rich nations only care about getting vaccines for themselves, so they can open their economies, and couldn’t care less about poor nations. The poor nations, for their part, don’t have an economy to open, and people in them are being left to die while the rich nations look forward to basking in the sun of economic recovery.

It has brought out the best and the worst in Churches as well. The best as Churches have sought to provide services online and to offer pastoral support to those who are lonely, isolated, and afraid. The Church has genuinely tried to reach out to those who are sick and to those who have been bereaved, and, in reaching out, to offer them comfort and help.

But the worst too as many church members have abandoned all thought of church and who will probably never return. And this is not to mention the scandal of the Church so readily allowing the pandemic to achieve what the black death and world war failed to achieve. We have kept our supermarkets open, while shutting our places of worship. Jesus words: ‘man shall live by bread alone’ have a cutting edge to them this Lent.

What, you may be wondering, has this selective Litany of good and bad got to do with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent? Well, Ash Wednesday also reminds us of the worst in us. The best in us we don’t need any reminder of for we are quick to see it.

There is much that we as individuals can accomplish and do. But we can do it because we are made by God in the image of God, and being in the image of God means we are capable of great creativity and achievement. We reflect something of the character of the God who created us in the way a great painting reflects the character of the artist who painted it.

We don’t, however, need to be reminded of our capacity for greatness. We are always telling ourselves how amazing we are and how much we can achieve if we just believe in ourselves. ‘Just do it’ is the slogan of an age certain it can do just about anything if it puts its mind to it. We are careful, however, to leave God out of any explanation of how we are able to do anything that is worth doing.

Ash Wednesday reminds us, however, that, no matter how great our achievements, we are also capable of great wickedness and sin. Our Collect today talks about how God ‘hates nothing’ he has made. We like that. But it goes on to speak about ‘acknowledging our wretchedness’. We don’t like that. We don’t like being told that we are sinful, rebellious, and will die. St Paul tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) and ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23).

Death is the one thing none of us can escape. Tragically, the virus has killed many people, but our sin will kill us all. The Imposition of Ashes is meant to challenge us and remind us of our mortality: ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. It reminds us of our weakness and our limitations. For we too will die.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:19-21)

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. This is a time in the Church’s year for spiritual reflection. It is a time to reflect on our own lives as individuals: to reflect on who we are, what we have become, and who we can be.

The times we are living through should themselves cause us to pause and think: to ask ourselves what matters most to us and to examine our priorities. Lent this year, seen in the light of the times we are in, gives us the chance to ask where our own heart is.

Do we, for example, long for the end of the pandemic and a return to normality so we can go out to eat, drink, and consume again without restriction? Is our main concern being to travel and book a holiday? Or are we looking forward to being able to meet with the body of Christ and to worship God together again? Are we longing to receive the body and blood of Christ? Have we felt hungry and thirsty without it?

The experience of the present time should, in other words, lead us to look at the condition of our hearts, that is, our spiritual condition. Some people give a great deal of thought to their physical well-being. They will wear, for example, smart watches that monitor every bodily function, but, sadly, they don’t give more than a passing thought to their spiritual health.

Lent is 40 days long because Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his public ministry. He was challenged there during this time about his own priorities and attitudes.

Would the focus of his ministry be on material well-being: what would come first bread or the Word of God? (Matthew 4:3-4; Luke 4:3-4)

Would he seek power and glory as he pursued his dream of being the Messiah or would he worship God and serve only him? (Matthew 4:8-10; Luke 4:6-8)

Would he see God as the One who was there to serve and protect him whatever he did, or would he trust God whatever happened to him? (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12)

We know the answer. Jesus chose the hard and lonely path of suffering and death rather than the easy and popular path of self-fulfilment and success. And he challenges us to do the same. For us, his followers, his path is to be our path, for it will only be by losing our lives for his sake that we will find them.

As humans, there are times when we long for the best, but all too often end up doing the worst. As St Paul puts it:

‘For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.’ (Romans 7:19)

As followers of Christ, we know that there is no good in us and that left to ourselves we will only stumble and fall. In the Communion Service, we say together the Prayer of Humble Access:

‘We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.’

It may seem that this makes being a follower of Christ sound very gloomy and miserable. St Paul, however, wrote that it was when he was at his weakest that God was at his strongest (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). It is after death that there comes resurrection (Romans 8:11).

In our Collect, we asked God to ‘create in us new and contrite hearts’, and, at Easter, we will see that there is indeed the hope of new life, but it is life we will only find when we are prepared to acknowledge our wretchedness, abandon trust in our own righteousness, and turn away from sin and follow Christ, as we are urged to do in our service.

I began by quoting one of my favourite passages of English literature. I would like to close by quoting from one of my favourite books, the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien saw his great trilogy as expressing the truths of the Christian faith. He said it began implicitly Catholic and ended explicitly so. At one point Frodo says to Gandalf:

‘I wish none of this had happened.’

Gandalf replies:

‘So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’

The time of the pandemic will pass, but what will we be like when it does?

Lent gives us the opportunity to make sure that for each of us the best time is yet to be.


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