Ash Wednesday/ Lent 1 Sermon (2 Corinthians 5, 20b -6.10; John 8, 1-11)
For the last two years of her life, my mother lived in a residential home near here. One morning in February, one of the staff rang to say Mum had fallen, possibly broken her wrist, and had been taken by ambulance to A & E. So I drove to the hospital to be with her during the long process of being assessed and treated.
Just when I thought we might get out of there before lunchtime, the curtains to our cubicle were suddenly closed, extra trolleys were parked in front of it, and all the staff stopped attending to us. Four ambulances had arrived at once, including one containing a man who had fallen six feet from a platform while cleaning an empty sewage tank at the Sewage Works.
Through the curtain, I could hear the staff talking about him. They were concerned about the man’s injuries, since he had fallen onto a concrete floor, meaning possible broken bones or internal injuries; but they were even more concerned about his general state. He had been lying for over an hour outside in the winter cold before he was rescued, in a layer of sewerage sludge. Their first priority was to get him clean, dry and warm.
The nurses asked the paramedics about the actual rescue. “How did you get him out?” “Two of the fire crew went down into the sewage tank and put him on a cradle” a paramedic answered. “They got absolutely filthy – and so did we when we put him in the ambulance. I was so glad I didn’t put on my clean, new uniform today. It would have ruined it”.
Every time I hear lines from today’s reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, I am back in A & E, and I hear that conversation again.
“At an acceptable time, I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I helped you.”
“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
When we fall into sin, we are like the man who fell into the sewage tank. We lie helpless and disabled by our fall, damaged even more by the cold and dirt and infection that surround us. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to get ourselves out of the situation – we need outside help if we are to escape. But that help can only come from someone who is prepared to come into the mess we are in, and risk getting fouled up themselves as they rescue us.
Christ is the firefighter who comes down to us in the sewage in his clean new uniform and carries us out. ‘On a day of salvation, I have helped you ‘. Jesus is the paramedic who gets himself in a mess to make sure that we are safe and warm and free from risk. For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin’.
And he does so without fuss, without complaint, without blame. He doesn’t moan about the mess he’ll get into as he provides the way out for us. He doesn’t berate us for getting ourselves into trouble. He doesn’t side with those who blame us for our problems, in order to make themselves feel better, and refuse to join in with the rescue, in case they mess up their own perfection. He just draws with his food in the mud, and says “Only those who have never created any sewage themselves are excused”.
As Julian of Norwich reminds us, God’s eyes look on us with pity, not with blame.
During the season of Lent, we think particularly about our human tendency to get ourselves into a mess, and our need of help to avoid it. But we do need to be realistic about this. Often the church’s penitential material seems to proclaim that we are all permanently in the sewage sludge. Hymns like Wesley’s ‘Jesu, lover of my soul ‘ which says: ‘Just and holy is thy name, I am all unrighteousness; false and full of sin, I am; thou art full of truth and grace’. Or the BCP confessions stating “There is no health in us” which is simply not true.
Just as the man in casualty didn’t spend his life in a sewage tank, we don’t spend our life in mortal sin. I am sure God does not require us to exaggerate our sinfulness, and go in for what my tutor used to call “grovelling before God’, and Jesus caricatured as the actions of dismal hypocrites. Some of us may occasionally be deep in the mire: more often we have merely fallen into one of the cow pats that litter our lives, or are just permanently a little smelly and grubby about the edges.
Exaggerating our sinfulness and our penitence can be just a way of drawing attention to ourselves, like people who make false 999 calls to the emergency services. But it can also be a way of avoiding our responsibilities. For in the Kingdom of Heaven, those who are rescued by God’s emergency services take on the responsibility to become rescuers in their turn.
Not all of the rescues we are called on to share in will be as dramatic and life threatening as the man in the sewage tank. We will not all be called upon to exorcise people from demon possession, or meet with those who have committed major crimes, or become chaplains in prisons or counsellors for those addicted to drugs or other compulsions. We won’t all have to endure the hardships Paul describes to the Corinthians in our Christian lives – though we need to be trained and ready to do so, if those challenges come to us. Some of us will be called on mainly to work with our own families, and in our own neighbourhood, dispensing the odd sticking plaster, and lots of TLC. Others will be like the Red Cross or St John’s ambulance volunteers, working at the ‘first aid’ level of rescue from sin; and most of the time, even God’s mostly highly trained paramedics will be called to carry out to routine, clean and safe operations, like picking my Mum up off the floor, rather than things which make the headlines in the local paper.
Lent is the annual opportunity for us Christians to get into training for the rescue missions we will be called on to carry out in our world of sin, through realistic penitence, self-discipline, reflection on the Gospel, and through prayer. Now is the time for us to consider and finalise plans for what exact form that training will take.
Lent is often experienced as the gloomiest season of the Church’s year, with more than its fair share of dirge like hymns, and churches devoid of colour and flowers. Getting back to the basics, and concentrating on the essential can often help us to concentrate on our training, and become more aware of how much we have still to do.
Of course, if we are truly penitent, there will be times when we are saddened by the extent of our sin, the extent to which we continue to be stuck in the messes of our own and others’ making. But as Christians, we always live in the certain knowledge that help is never far away, and it will never be long before we are cleaned up our injuries treat and we are back in action for God again. Through the gloom of Lent we can always see the light of Easter, the greatest rescue of all time.
A very wise priest, who I was privileged to have for a time as my Spiritual Director, said to me that because of the confidence that Christ was always there to help us in times of trouble, and the certainty of resurrection, Lent could never be a gloomy time for him. So, may I wish you, as he always wished me, a very happy Lent. Let us rejoice together in the hope we have in Christ that we will always be rescued from the deepest pit we could fall into, and let us train with enthusiasm to become part of God’s rescue mission in our turn.