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Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday Shrove Tuesday by Ash Mills at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : June Osborne Wednesday 10th February 2016

A sermon for Ash Wednesday preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL, Dean of Salisbury

Joel 2 v1-2, 12-17; John 8 v 1-11

Stoning someone to death seems to us particularly barbaric doesn’t it?  We know it’s still occasionally practised in parts of the world, just like the meting out of public lashings.  Such punishments feel like they offend everything we associate with human dignity and a humane society.  We describe those who do such things as ‘medieval’ indicating that we consider ourselves more enlightened, more civilised.

But the religious leaders who stood before Jesus with stones in their hands, having dragged a woman caught in the act of adultery into this public arena: they understood themselves to be protecting civilised society.  You see, they weren’t just seeking to punish an individual.  The very cruelty and public humiliation of a stoning served a wider purpose.  Of course it acted as a deterrent, an example was being set to control social behaviour.  But it also announced that certain acts or inclinations destabilise society so they need purging.  Some behaviour is so deviant that we need to show our abhorrence.  It needs special treatment to stigmatize it. 

·        Impure women have always come into this category.  Think of how prostitutes have almost always lived on the edge of towns, on the far side of the tracks lest they contaminated the mainstream community.  For two centuries women having children out of wedlock could find themselves committed to Magdalene asylums, forced to work in brutalising conditions, yes to express social disapproval but also to separate them off lest they contaminate decent society.

·        Or think of our behaviour towards traitors.  Traitors to the state would find themselves routinely executed. 

·        And consider our reactions to paedophiles.  Not only do we want them to answer for their heinous crimes but we find it almost impossible to hold them within our communities.  We’d prefer they were locked up and put away from us for life.  Not only to be punished but to be excluded.

There are categories of behaviour which, like the woman caught in adultery, human society has treated as beyond the pale, beyond redemption, beyond merciful rehabilitation or beyond affording them human dignity because they contaminate us.

The only way societies have been able to cope with certain manifestations of bad human behaviour is to expel it, to send it out into the wilderness, to isolate or even annihilate it.  In the final reckoning we still want to stone some people to death not only to express our disgust with what they do but more especially to protect those who are decent, family loving people.  To maintain order.

Jesus is confronted with this human scenario in the woman caught in the act of adultery. I used to see this story as an artificial construct.  The Scribes and Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus so they use the woman and her misdemeanours to challenge him to intervene in this quasi-judicial process.  That may well be part of this story but there’s also something more authentic going on here.

Whether it’s stoning or another kind of acting out our taboos what we see played out before Jesus is one of the great challenges of human society.  How do we deal with the darker side of who we are?  In a way the religious leaders are confronting Jesus not so much with the fate of one straying woman but with our total human condition.  Do we have any options other than expelling what makes us ashamed, what offends our deepest taboos, the parts of us we simply can’t face or cope with?

Lent is an invitation for us to face that challenge but at a personal level.

Let me suggest to you as we begin this Lent together that all of us are tempted to divide ourselves into on one hand the decent, law-abiding, moral people we respect or on the other hand the deviants we despise and fear.  We believe God loves the decent bit of us but condemns the deviant in us. But what do we do with the fact that there isn’t one of us here this evening who isn’t a mixture of decency and deviancy?  The families represented here hold secrets within them: of loyalty matched with adultery and betrayal; of stable families matched with divorce and births outside wedlock; of corrupt dealings alongside enormous courage and philanthropy and distinguished service.

And knowing that, we’re tempted to divide ourselves into the parts we like and approve of, whilst rejecting the darker parts we’d like to deny or expel.

Lent copes with that tendency, with our difficulty of seeing ourselves as both children of light and children of darkness.

Lent is an invitation to integrate ourselves.   And to find our integration there are three parts of that invitation as we see it in Jesus’ response to the outcast woman.

1             Lent invites us to face the reality of our shame.  I think we have to assume that the men who dragged this sexually active woman into the public arena did so in part because she reminded them of their own sexual desires. The darkest desires of our life are real and need redeeming but we often cope with them by denying them or trying to expel them. Lent gives us the resources to face our reality.

We know we have failed in some relationships; we have disappointed ourselves; we practice habits and addictive behaviour which would disgust us if we let ourselves think about it.  At very best we know ourselves complacent and defended in the face of the world’s needs.  We have lacked compassion, generosity and integrity.

But Lent is our facing that inner darkness knowing that God isn’t afraid of disorder and deviancy. 

2              Knowing ourselves for what we are, Lent then invites us not to try to isolate the parts which shame us.

That’s the brilliance of what Jesus achieves in this encounter.  He makes those who want to cast out the woman see that they themselves are identified with her sin.  If they expel or execute her they expel part of themselves.  “When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’”

Let’s apply that to ourselves.  Do not cast stones at the parts of yourself of which you’re ashamed.  God does not cherry pick his love of you.  He has mercy on your good and your bad, he loves your light and your dark. He recognises the parts which shame and guilt you, and sees them as just as much a part of his beloved child as the parts which we like to polish and present proudly to the world.

3              And Lent is an invitation to hear that there is no condemnation.

“Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you . . . neither do I condemn you.’”

Lent is about your liberty from any burdens of guilt or shame you may be carrying. It’s no easy task to let go of our condemnation of ourselves, but that is the power and purpose of this season.

The journey we travel together these next six weeks leads only in one direction, to God’s own life poured out so that we might live, forgiven and free from guilt.

When the bishop invited you at the beginning of this service to a holy Lent it was one of the most extraordinary and radical invitations we ever receive.

Instead of denying the human condition or trying to expel it from our midst he issued us a life affirming offer.

·        can we face up to who we truly are?

·        can we see our sin for what it is, a part of us individually and corporately.

·        and can we then know the greater power of God’s forgiveness?

Lent is a profound and difficult journey but let us travel it together.