Ash Wednesday, John 8
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 26th February 2020 at 5.00 PM
There are some things that have to be said today, things I have said before, elsewhere, but not said here in the Abbey. So, I will say something I have said before and then I will introduce the lizard. The lizard is new.
That story we have just heard, the one about the woman taken in adultery is sharp and awkward. A woman dragged forward by men. We all know it takes two to tango, but these moral charlatans have just singled out the woman, for the charge of adultery. We must notice that she is the other in this ghastly scene, made strange, the one not like us. That is what this is all about; it is about the other.
Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?
They have caught her, they say, in flagrante. How they thrill with their own disapproval. There is a heat of the moment quality here, a rush to judgement, the hasty certainty of those who do not stop to think. There is also, we should notice, malice aimed at Jesus himself. If Jesus lets her go he is in breach of Jewish Law; if he says ‘kill her’ he has broken Roman Law. It is clever. Once again, one is pitched against another. Lawyers pressing the case against the Christ. Once again we are invited to see the stranger, the other and pass judgement.
Jesus famously tells the critics that the one without sin can cast the first stone. He asks them to think on their own sin. They, remember, are focused on her sin, on her otherness. These are clever people, moral judgment is their business, it is what they do, but they see sin as something out there. Sin is other - other people, other ways of life; sin is a particular set of actions and they can be avoided. Now, though, these moral purists are challenged to stop thinking about the sin that is out there. They must think about themselves. And, suddenly, the Scribes, and the Pharisees get shifty. They shuffle their feet; they drift away. As a consequence, Jesus and the woman are left alone.
St Augustine summed that moment up:
Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia
This is Westminster Abbey; we do Latin here. Relicti sunt duo - two are left, misera et misericordia misery and mercy. Just two are left: misery and mercy. That is a neat turn of phrase, but if you read Latin in bed you might notice it is also word play. The word misericordia means mercy, but it is also a compound. What you have here is a combination misereri (which means to feel pity or compassion) and the word cor (meaning heart). So, when Augustine says Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia he is actually saying, two were left, misery and pity, taken to heart.
If you want to know what to do with your Lent this is where you can start. Take it to heart. Think about the words you use; think about the way you picture sin. Most of us, I think, make sin other – something we fall into, as if it were out there, a hole in the ground waiting to capture us. Sin, we think, is odd, other. We joke about temptation as though it comes strolling up from elsewhere looking like a box of chocolates, or a long haul flight, or someone strangely alluring in silk underwear. We think it is out there and it should be kept there banished, punished and imprisoned. We use the word penitence a good deal in Lent and perhaps think penitence is about being sorry. Pentitence though is originally yet another Latin word – poenitentia and it all about paying a penalty, or settling a debt. Penitence used to be the business of paying your dues, suffering a punishment. Accept that, and sin is the thing you stamp out, the alien in our midst.
It is my belief that we keep doing this. We make sin into something we can call strange and other – a thing out there, a twisted bit of you, or me, that can be punished. Christian living then becomes a kind of obstacle race in which morally lithe people leap hurdles and dodge deep dark pools where the horrors hide.
And as long as we think like this, as long as we make sin other, we will never take it seriously. Sin is not just what we do occasionally, or what other people do a lot. Sin is not other. The problem is not bars of chocolate, bottle of claret, nor is it the colleague who irritates you. The problem is my desire, your desire. The problem is what you and I want. The Spice Girls were rather better theologians than they knew when they sang tell me what you want, what you really, really want. Do that, tell me what you really, really want; tell me about that very personal desire, and I will tell you where temptation actually gets hold of you and me. It is in here and it is deeply familiar and it is profoundly personal. Sin is not other. Sin is who we are and what we are like. We have to take that to heart. If we fail to do that, we will never see the danger we are in, or the damage sin does. Lent, the season and discipline that begins here, is a time of honest appraisal. This is the time to stop thinking that sin is out there and to recognise it is in here.
Because we get sin wrong we get muddled up about Lent. We make it all about giving up something we think of as mildly tempting – chocolate hob nobs, or buying expensive shoes, or even more expensive wine. By all means give something up if it helps you to concentrate, but do not think Lent is a season to fight staged battles with minor temptations. This is the season of self-examination.
Lent is forty days. It is the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness. Yes, he was tempted there, and yes we can learn from the fact that he was tempted precisely by his own desires, by his hunger, tempted by his own grace and power. It is not just temptation though that creates the story for the forty days. Christ went out into the wilderness directly from his baptism, returned proclaiming and ushering in the Kingdom. These forty days were spent thinking about vocation. Christ came to terms with his desires and the will of God in the wilderness. Lent is about vocation, identity, how you are, who I am.
The fundamental question we are being asked, all of us, all of the time, is what does it mean, what is it like, to be alive? How can we be really alive, fully human, living the lives God gave us? How do we live as fully as Christ, the man who lived without compromise? How do we live with those deeply personal desires and not get deflected into the mere shallows of living where we think we please ourselves but we dwindle and diminish because our only thought is for food, or shopping, or money, or power, or fame? That is the danger of sin, that our own desires get mastery that we choose badly and begin to choke the real life that is in us. The threat is not out there. It is what we do to ourselves that does the damage.
I too often choose badly, I too often choose less. It does not feel like less as I turn aside, it can feel thrilling, or good for me, or it can make me proud. It is never a conversation with something out there, it always a desire in here that feels authentic and compelling. Sin is no stranger to me, it is not other, it is in my head and guts and it will lead me, given its chance, by stages, to the margins of my own life, where at the end, I will be alone with my desire.
Two were left - Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia - misery and misery taken to heart. Christ did not leave her with her desire. Nor, please note, did he ignore the sin. He called it out. He told her to sin no more. Christ called her back into the community that had tried to make her other. He summoned her to confront herself. He restored her to a life that could be lived fully. Lent is a study in vocation. Lent asks us to turn inward for a time, so that, at Easter we can turn outward to one another and live a risen life fully.
This Lent, think about what you are becoming, think about what you are called to be in Christ. Think about what it is to be alive.
I told you about the lizard. The lizard I said is new. I found this lizard in a book I read just before I came to the Abbey, in a poem by D H Lawrence. It a poem about being alive. It is a poem learning to live fully. It might help you if you picture, for a moment a small lizard, out in the sun, head cocked, alert, ready to run
Lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sound of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!
If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.
Women, or men, take this Lent to heart and confront your desires. Pray for grace that at Easter we might be worth looking at.
If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.