Sermon – by Rev’d Chris Wedge
One of the things I love about being a priest is that I get to bless people. In the Eucharist I take a lot of time and care when I’m blessing individuals at the altar. I usually kneel down and look them in the eye and use a form of words which is personal, intimate and which speaks powerfully of God’s love. I might say ‘I bless you because God loves you and believes in you’ or perhaps ‘I bless you in the name of the God of love, may Jesus be your friend for ever’. Sometimes people are taken by surprise, but I am never in doubt that I am on holy ground and that something powerfully of God passes between us.
The experience of being individually blessed is something most of us rarely encounter. We are blessed collectively during the Eucharist or at the end of Evensong but we seldom hear words of blessing spoken directly to us by a priest.
On Ash Wednesday many of us received a form of blessing on our foreheads in ash. The priest will have said ‘Receive the sign of the cross, from dust you came and to dust you shall return, repent of your sins and turn to Christ’. It is rightly, a sombre and holy moment. It often makes me tearful and I find myself deeply moved by the whole experience. This year at St. James’ the emotional impact was of course helped by the wonderful music we experienced thanks to the choir.
For a number of years I was in a parish which had a church school. It was a small CofE primary school with about 250 pupils. On Ash Wednesday I introduced the custom of going into the school at playtime and blessing anyone who wanted it in ash and making the sign of the cross on their foreheads. I had written to the parents in advance and had spoken in assemblies about what I would be doing.
When Ash Wednesday came it was a cold and blowy day. I arrived at the school in my robes with my pot of ash. I wondered if anyone would be interested. Within seconds of my arrival in the school yard there was a queue10 or 20 deep of children wanting to be blessed in ash. There was nothing sombre about it, they were excited, they were eager, they longed to be blessed. The mood was totally different from a traditional Ash Wednesday service but it was utterly holy and filled with smiles and gratitude. I was surrounded by God’s faithful people longing to hear those words of blessing and there was pure joy.
A few years later I decided to go to the tram station next door to the school at rush hour to do the same thing. I stood on the platform, again in my robes, and offered to bless commuters in ash to mark the beginning of Lent. I was rather nervous and expected that I might face some hostility or at least indifference. How wrong I was.
Almost without exception I was met with joy and delight. I changed the words for the commuters, assuming perhaps that this might be something new for them. As I made the sign of the cross on their heads I said ‘Receive the sign of the cross, you are loved and forgiven’.
I think it might have been one of the best experiences I have ever had. Again, people were eager, thankful and more than a little shocked that they were loved and forgiven by the God of power and might.
We live in a world where people need to know that they are loved and forgiven. You and I need to know that we are loved and forgiven.
In our reading from Luke we are reminded that God longs for us to come home, to turn our lives around and to begin again freed from our sins and our failings. The invitation is to be found twice in the reading we have heard. God seeks out the lost sheep, the widow searches for her missing coin. The point is clear: the initiative belongs to God, God is the one who makes the first move, and we are invited, welcomed and accepted.
Repentance is not easy to sell. It doesn’t sound too appealing. If I said to you ‘how are you off for repentance?’ you would think I was deranged and you would probably be right. But if I said, do you want to be set free, do you want to know the depth of God’s love for you, do to you want to begin again unburdened by your past failings then I might have grabbed your attention.
Most of my work is in spiritual direction. I meet one to one with individuals who want to deepen their walk with God. Almost without exception our conversations return to the theme of guilt. Most people that I see feel guilty that they do not pray enough, that they are not holy enough, not clever enough, not patient enough, not disciplined enough and so the list goes on…delete as appropriate to you.
If we are honest we all carry the burndon of guilt and shame. We can believe that everyone else is forgiven by the God of love but, because we know what we are really like, it is hard to believe that God could truly forgive and love us.
The message of Jesus Christ is known as Good News. Can talk of sin and repentance really be described as good news?
Yes, yes and yes again because the invitation of God is to travel deeply this Lent to the place of forgiveness, love and acceptance.
Receive the sign of the cross: you are loved and forgiven.