February 22, 2012 (Ash Wednesday)



                                                         Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                             at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on Ash Wednesday, 22 February 2012
                                                        Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
                                                       Readings from the Psalter:        Psalms 51 and 103: 8-14
                                                       Reading from the Gospel:            Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21


Let me tell you about my Daddy’s funeral.  He was a Bible-reading man, and he took to heart many of the things that he read in the pages of Holy Scripture.  He did not approve of a lot of pomp and glory, and he directed that his funeral should be simple and that he should be buried in an unmarked grave.  Above all, he said that none of his nearest and dearest should go out and buy black outfits, and that, if my mother wanted to, she could buy a hat for the day of his funeral, but that it would have to be any colour other than black. 

At the time of the funeral, an early Friday afternoon, parishioners, friends, family members and colleagues from the department in which he worked at the Air Ministry showed up, all in mournful array.  A couple of R.A.F. officers were in their best blues, complete with black armbands.  Mum and I waited outside in the undertaker’s car until everyone had gone into the church.  Then the vicar and his curate came to the car and greeted us, with just slightly raised eyebrows.  They led the coffin into the church with the customary solemn quotations from the Scriptures, and we followed it dressed as Dad had requested.  Mum was dressed in a summer dress that he had bought for her, although it was a cold, grey November day.  It was basically white, with deep blue wavy lines horizontally around it, on which there were several bright orange sail boats.  She wore a light coloured hat that matched.  I accompanied her wearing a long green and yellow wool scarf, knitted in the colours of Norwich City, the club that he and I both supported, even on the day of his death when he had suffered a massive heart attack within minutes of watching them play.  Mum and I were very aware that the eyebrows of many of those present were more than slightly raised. 

(Incidentally, my Mother hated that dress and when the funeral party was over and the guests had left, she went down to the end of the garden and burnt it on a bonfire.) 

The point of all this is that even in death my Dad was following the teachings of the Scriptures, Hebrew and Christian.  As he had drummed into me and my sister, it is not the outward display that matters, but the inner trueness of ones heart.  Now we all know that.  We are all of us familiar with the words of the prophet, Joel.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”  The ancient Jews, like many others in the lands of the east still today, would rip their garments as an expression of sorrow or remorse or repentance.  Everybody else knew when they were ruing their misspent past or were sorrowing over some recent tragedy, probably brought down upon them through some action of their own.  They would rend their garments, or they would put on sackcloth and pour ashes over their heads.  They might even hire professional mourners who would wail loudly on their behalf.  That was the thing to do, and in the story of Jonah even the camels of Nineveh had to put on sackcloth garments!  There is something quaintly amusing in the image of camels in sackcloth diapers!

People were doing this sort of thing in the days of Jesus, and the reading from the Gospel for today spells out what he thought about it all.  For Jesus, as for the prophets, such as Joel, it is not the outward sign of remorse that counts, since that can be quickly laid aside.  It is easy enough to go home and put off the funereal garb of remorse and to wash ones face and comb ones hair.  The question is, do the outward signs of remorse truly reflect real contrition in a person’s heart and mind?  When we say that we are sorry, do we really mean it?  Do we really have an actual change of heart?  And is that change going to be permanent?

Christians, more than anyone else, should be the very people who understand these questions and the answers that they should make.  Our religious life is totally meaningless if our moral life is a mess.  We need a measure of sincerity that is real and true, otherwise it is not sincerity.  It is all very well to come to church and mouth the words of the Confession, but if that mouthing is mere mouthing, then the Absolution spoken over you is of null effect. 

Of course, there are those who know that they do not need to confess any sins, for they never do anything wrong, at least in their lights.  But we all of us surely know that if we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  And then there are others who claim they never do anything wrong.  I once had a vicar who declared that the saddest thing that could be said of anyone at his funeral was that he had never done anything wrong, because the chances were that he had never done anything right either. 

But you know that the Christian standard, the one laid down by Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount, was not about doing the right thing and not doing the wrong thing.  After all is said and done, who determines what is right and what is wrong?  No.  Jesus said, “Be perfect as my Father in Heaven is perfect.”  Christianity is not just a matter of doing, but of being, a matter of being perfect.  And this perfection works itself out in our relationships with God and with our fellow human beings.  As Saint John wrote, you cannot love God and not love your neighbour.  And that love of the Christian is supposed to reflect the love of God for the Christian.

Being a true child of God means being like God, and only when one has this divine quality within is it possible to be the divine agent in the World.  It is the life of God within one that enables the Christian to be the Light of the World in our day, shining forth in such a manner that others see it and give thanks and praise, not to the Christian, but to the Father of all Christians.  It is the life of God within one that empowers the Christian to love all people everywhere, regardless of any apparent differences we might have with them, and for those people to experience the love of God in their lives. 

You have the option to receive or not to receive the ashes.  But do not think that having ashes daubed on your forehead means anything unless and until you have allowed your heart to be broken so that the life and love of the perfect God can replace the stony, unrelenting, unforgiving and, therefore, unforgiven contents of your heart. 

Rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.