Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2023
We do not easily use the words provided.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle MBE Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 22nd February 2023 at 5.00 PM
Working somewhere else I used to sit next to a thoughtful devout Catholic in church. Sunday by Sunday, he would get restless, shift in his seat a bit, as Evensong began. His problem was the Confession from The Book of Common Prayer. He struggled with the words he had to say.
… there is no health in us, but thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders …
He did not believe that there was no health in him, no health whatsoever. He did not regard himself as a miserable sinner. He knew he was no saint, he was honest about his weakness, but he could not embrace the language of catastrophic moral failure.
I think of my friend when I get to Ash Wednesday and set about deciding just how sinful I really am. What words should we use? What do we think we are talking about today? The Book of Common Prayer wants us on our knees, head in hands, it seethes with disappointment and disapproval. Indeed, it goes beyond ‘manifold sins and wickedness’. On Ash Wednesday it would have more to say, if we let it. There is a service for today that urges us into contrition
bewailing and lamenting our sinful life…
Bewailing and lamenting, because,
[God] shall pour down rain upon the sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest; this shall be their portion to drink
My friend would beg to differ. I wondered about him when I started to think about our first reading:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
That was the Book of Joel. Joel is alarmed about sin and judgement and believes we need to be on our knees,
rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God (Joel 2: 13)
Now, we take faith seriously in the Abbey. We take Ash Wednesday seriously, but I see no bewailing and lamenting this afternoon, no rending of garments or hearts. So, we have a problem. It is a ‘snares and fire and brimstone’ problem. Or perhaps a ‘saints and sinners’ problem. We have come here to be serious about Ash Wednesday, but we do not easily use the words provided. We do not find a part to play in the drama Joel describes, in that darkness and gloom.
Most of us know we are not good, not really good, not utterly generous hearted, not entirely selfless. And most pf us know we are not hopelessly evil. Honestly, we arrive today knowing that we come with dull, dreary and predictable sins. I am indeed a sinner, I know I am. I absolutely know that. I also know that I am not a murderer, or a torturer and in all the lamenting and bewailing it can be a bit tricky to find my voice.
Today is a day for me to think about my sinfulness and for you to think about yours. That is actually a rather important beginning. It is much more interesting for me to think about your sinfulness and you to wonder about mine. Lent though is not a season of thinking about sin in general. We are not here to shake our heads at horrid things out there. This is all about what is happening to me.
Why does sin matter, what does it look like and what might the damage be? That reading from Joel is an interesting place to start. We know nothing about Joel and not much about what he is trying to describe. What we do know is that Joel seizes on a crisis and uses it to summon up, to remember all the other crises. A bad thing happens and he reminds us of juts how bad things can become. If you have a memory, if you have some history, well you know they can get worse. Joel is the strange man on the street corner, who is possibly a bit barmy asking us if we know how bad thigs can be. We can ignore Joel; we usually ignore the Joels. Nothing barmy please, no brimstone here. Or, today, we could just possibly pause and wonder about how serious sin might be.
That is the point of Ash Wednesday. This is the day to wonder about sin and seriousness, about where it might lead and about how much it matters.
You see, I am indeed a dull and dreary sinner. I am a predictable sinner. I am afraid it is quite likely that you are just the same. Honestly, if I was a torturer, I might be more alarmed. If I was a murderer I might really want to be forgiven. I might turn to God and be given what God alone can give. My difficulty is that I am not really in that league and not as serious as I might be. My dull and dreary sins, my predictable failures are not dramatic. My sins are not startling, my sins are habitual. My sins are a mild addiction. And like any addiction I do not notice that it grows. My sins have me thinking about what I like and what I want. They have me thinking about that more and more. I start dull and dreary and what happens? I become a bit more dull and a bit more dreary. I become more predictable. That is where our desires take us. Little by little, my desires make me more and more like me. They make me less and less interested in being something else, being like you, being in company at all. They make me less interested in being forgiven. They certainly make me less and less likely to want to die to myself and rise with Christ.
That is what today matters, why it matters very much. This Ash Wednesday is exactly what Joel has just made it, a day for memory and imagination, a day to think about the seriousness of what never seems serious enough. Surely, we are not saints and sinners here? Surely, no snares, no fire and brimstone? Well, no, not today, not even tomorrow. Nothing to see here, it is just dull, and dreary, and predictable. Dull and dreary and predictable surely never goes anywhere at all. It just stays the same. What harm can that do? Dull and dreary and predictable, take you to a place where there is no past and no future, that is a choice you could make would that be a problem?
Well, says Joel. That is indeed a problem. That is a very serious problem.