Minister's Sermon - Friday 8th March 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenFriday 8th March 2019

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

Lent began on Wednesday and the first service of Lent is the Ash Wednesday service. When we’re invited to receive an ash cross on our forehead. And to hear the words “remember you are dust and to dust you return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” I suspect that in earlier centuries, and in other parts of the world, Ash Wednesday and Lent had a very different feel from today. When the fragility of life, and the ever-present reality of death, have them a poignancy we’ve lost.

Sara Miles is an Episcopalian priest in San Francisco. She’s part of a movement taking Ash Wednesday services onto the streets. “Ashes to go” goes into cafes and shops invite people to receive ashes using the traditional words “Remember you are dust and to dust you return.” It raises questions. Is it an appropriate means of evangelism? Do passers-by understand what’s happening? Is offering ashes without the opportunity to repent cheap grace? Sara Miles tells these stories about the experience in one of her books. And I want to tell you two of them. In McDonalds, she says, a “small, serious Mayan woman, sitting alone at a greasy table, unwrapped her tiny baby from an acrylic blanket, and held him up to me. ‘He’s one-and-a-half-week’s old.’ She said proudly. I crossed his forehead with ashes, took a deep breath, and told the baby he was doing to die. And the mother, like everyone else we’d met that afternoon, said thank you. Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that you’re going to die?” Sara asks. She answers herself, “Because the truth is a blessing.” One of the church members, sharing in distributing ashes that day, was Vera. Vera’s sister had died a few years earlier on Ash Wednesday. For years, she hated the day, but with time she’d come to see life and death differently. She says, “Ash Wednesday is the most honest of days. It’s a mystery, a sitting-with the dark. It is bearing witness to the dark.”

I think these stories encourage us to see how our mortality, our humanity, can be the starting point for our relationship with God. I know the traditional view is that repentance comes first and the rest follows. But until we’ve accepted our mortality, until we can be honest about it, we won’t be able to accept the darkness of what it means to be human. Whether the darkness results from things we need to turn away from, or the failure, the loss, the death that is part of the very essence of life. Some will think that this is a recipe for despair. But I do not think it is. For God’s creating, and God’s response to our human being, is rooted in the cycle of renewal. We are part of the dying and the living, the death and resurrection of the same dust or energy, that God created in the beginning and saw was good.

Lent is an annual opportunity to remember this. Beginning on Wednesday, we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, as he lives through failure, loss and death, and is raised to new life on Easter Day. As we share his journey, and acknowledge his mortality, we’re invited to reorder our lives. In today’s Gospel he says, “Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them… do not sound a trumpet before you… do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing… do not look dismal…” This is Jesus’ invitation to adopt a silence of body, voice and mind. He begins by challenging our need to be seen to be good. Most of us have been educated to believe that as long as we’re being good, all is well, and some part of us wants to make sure everyone else knows it too. Sounding a trumpet expresses that well. Jesus’ insistence, that it’s the hypocrites who do this, suggests they’ve got something to hide. And what we often need to hide, is failure, loss, and our humanity, because we often find it hard to tolerate them. 21st century people hide from them by immersing ourselves in “noise”. Not trumpets. But work, celebrity culture, shopping, sport, relentless caring and church activity. And we can allow them to overwhelm us, until they become like anaesthetic that prevents us from feeling life’s light and dark, its ups and downs. Recognising what we’re using to anesthetise ourselves is the first step to recovery. And then, it helps to see failure, loss and death in its widest perspective. Not just the failure we cause, but also the loss and death we’re caught up in, because we’re part of God’s creation.

I won’t ever forget the last night I spent in Queen’s Square Hospital where I had an operation on a pituitary cyst in 2013. While I was waiting to be discharged to another hospital, two women came in for brain tumour operations. Angela was in her 40s. She’d had an operation 7 years before, but after 7 good years, her tumour was growing again and there was no more to be done than keep it at bay. Liz was facing her first operation, she didn’t know what the future would hold, and was apprehensive. We spent the evening talking and laughing and sitting in silence. We talked about life, death, operations, hospitals, friends, family, God, travel and more, and the memory I have of it is an amazing sense of solidarity. At one point a doctor came in, and said we were making too much noise with our laugher, this was a hospital. She wasn’t serious! Had someone come and said “Remember you are dust and to dust you return”, it wouldn’t have been out of place, it would have just been honest. Our conversation wasn’t about the fruits of failure, loss or our mortality. But as we talked together, we acknowledged that knowing we are mortal, is what makes our being human.

Lent offers us a time to embrace our mortality and failure. You may have already chosen a Lent discipline, but if you haven’t, I’d like to suggest that you try silence as a way of nurturing a self-forgetfulness that will enable you to reclaim the aspects of your humanity you’re tempted to avoid. Most of Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel make sense. But what are we to make of the suggestion that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” It seems nonsensical, and yet, I think it’s the clue to the whole. Jesus is inviting us to turn our attention to God and become self-forgetful. Silence makes this possible. When we consciously seek to pay attention to God in silence, we let go of our need to immerse ourselves in noise, to anaesthetise ourselves against our mortality. Silence allows all we can’t control or manage or understand just to be. In silence we acknowledge the things Vera described as dark. The failures we live with, that are failures of nature, society’s systems and our own, as well as the loss and death that is naturally part of life. But instead of struggling with them, or trying to understand, we sit and pay attention to God as best we can. In time, in God’s time and not ours, we are given grace to see them differently. We find ourselves letting go of those that we don’t matter. And of coming to understand those that do differently. This rarely happens overnight and doesn’t only happen in prayer. Maggie Ross talks about this as unknowing. She says, “unknowing is essential to receiving knowledge.” The knowledge of trust, or faith. Vera’s “sitting with the dark”, enabled her to see her sister’s death, as part of the failure of God’s good creation. Angela had accepted that her 7 good years were ending. Liz was at peace when she went to her operation. They didn’t see death as failure. Life is as it is because creation is not yet perfect. Yet the cycle of death and resurrection, loss and renewal, grace in ashes is a God-given gift, and changes our lives.

I think this is a good starting point for Lent. For some it sounds too passive. But our Methodist theology affirms that God is at work in us, before we know it, and when we don’t know it! A prayer in our baptism service says it like this. “…all this for you, before you could know anything of it.” So, “Remember you are dust and to dust you return.” Remember that we, every human being and all of creation, is made of the same stuff. Remember that God created all that there is. That God’s creation dies, loses and fails. And God still said it was good. Remember that all of God’s good creation is subject to the cycle of death and renewal, and that our journey into Lent and beyond, is a journey that leads through death to resurrection. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen