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Ash Wednesday

A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer

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Ash Wednesday

Posted By : Robert Titley Wednesday 6th March 2019

A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer

Readings Joel 2: 1–2, 12–17; John 8: 1–11

Picture The Woman taken in Adultery, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), known as Guercino; reproduced by kind permission of Dulwich Picture Gallery.


The shame game

One of the gems of south London is the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and one of its gems is a picture, by Guercino, of tonight’s gospel scene, the woman taken in adultery. A young, gimlet-eyed Jesus searches the face of one of the shamed woman’s venerable accusers: ‘And how shame-free is your life?’ he seems to ask.

As we begin Lent, we are invited to be with Jesus in a particular way. In this service, most of us bear on our forehands the sign of his cross in ash, and we are now called to follow his steps as he goes into the wilderness for forty days as a prelude to his ministry. In tonight’s scene, however, let us instead picture ourselves in the place of the woman and of her accusers.

The accusers first. This scene portrays an extreme example of a shame culture. In such a culture the desires, even the needs of individual people are heavily constrained by the society’s need for its norms, its structures, its sense of itself, to be maintained. And that brings problems. For instance, some are always shamed more than others. We hear the story of the woman ‘caught in the very act of adultery’; we don’t hear the story of the pursuit of the man unaccountably not caught in the same act of adultery. We of course have our own cultures of shame. The causes of shaming and the sanctions change, but the impulse is still there. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any society with no sense of shame at all. But shaming is an easily abused thing, as Jesus shows.

As I picture it, Jesus does not respond quite as the painting suggests, with visible anger. He appears nonchalant, doodling in the dust before delivering his zinger of a response, which exposes the sanctimony, the hypocrisy, the casual viciousness of the men who are using this woman as a pawn in their lethal game of chess with Jesus. ‘So this is about sinlessness, is it? Right, gentlemen – who would like to go first?’ Then back to doodling as, one by one, the accusers melt ashamedly away.

Later this evening we and our colleagues in BBC Wiltshire host the first of the Salisbury Conversations. The theme tonight is, ‘How should we talk to each other?’ It’s a timely question. You don’t have to wait long on our public channels of communication to see or hear sanctimony, hypocrisy or casual viciousness. Quite a few in our society seem very keen to throw verbal stones at those they disapprove of. Here is Tim Berners Lee, the kindly inventor of the world wide web, talking about one of our social media.

If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay, but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it…propagates much more strongly.

What is driving this? The forty days are partly for us to seek an answer, to find that wilderness in our hearts where God can show us what  makes  us – if only on the inside, if only for a moment – side with the accusers.

But what about us and the woman? For the wonderful writer and critic Clive James, it is tonight’s story that most makes him an admirer of Jesus. On BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, he once said of this scene:

It was a turning point in history, because nothing quite like that had ever been recorded before…it was the generosity of his intervention that set a new mark…I first heard about these things in bible class when I was very young, and I can't think of how the same permanently necessary message about tolerance could have been transmitted in any other way.

‘Generosity’, yes, but ‘tolerance’ isn’t the first word I’d use. When he chooses not to condemn the woman, Jesus does not say, ‘Hey, it’s all cool;’ he says, ‘Don’t sin again.’ He intervenes on her side as the victim of cruel hypocrisy, but he then gives her the uncomfortable dignity of being an actor as well as a victim. He acknowledges that she whose life was almost destroyed just now has herself engaged in destructive activity, even though it involves not stone throwing but sex, something intrinsically good. Her now absent accusers need to change and be changed – but so does she. Go, and don’t sin again.

When we were thinking about the Salisbury Conversations, we talked about ‘common ground’, that shared space of humanity that enables us not to agree at once, or ever, but to have genuine conversation, exchanges of words that presuppose that I might benefit from listening to you, even though you are not saying what I want to hear. So where is the common human ground here between the woman and her accusers, who each experience Jesus’ intervention, and between them and you and me? It may lie in our shred need for self-control.

Rather unfashionable, with an early Fifties whiff about it – all sweet rationing and national service – self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit that St Paul says God longs to give us, though it usually polls less well than some others, like love, joy and peace. Self-control is the fruit of knowing that, in seeking self-fulfilment (nothing wrong with that) I can’t just decide what counts as fulfilment for me (especially if it’s at your expense). The way I express myself needs some other control apart from my appetites and desires.

Lent is a time set aside to cultivate self-control. It’s a season in which together we can own up to our desires and appetites, and so by God’s grace begin to dismantle the walls of self-absorption around us, and challenge that instinct to grab at whatever will make us feel better, whether it’s a stiff drink or a stone. The process of cultivating self-control is not a smooth one. It’s more of a zigzag path, the ebb and flow of failure and repentance (when Jesus says to us: ‘I don’t condemn you – now go and don’t sin again’); like the to-ing and fro-ing of feast and fast in the Christian year, the rhythm of Lent and Easter.

Lent calls among other things us to the ancient practice of fasting, which we hear about in the first reading, and fasting is a nursery for self-control. Give something up for Lent. Giving up vindictiveness and cruel words, who could be against self-control like that? But giving up alcohol, or chocolate, or having a digital sabbath, a day a week off social media until Easter – why? Not to make life less fun, and not because these things are evil. No, walking away from some of the good things of life – for a while – reminds us that they are gifts to be enjoyed but also, like some of the darker material in our lives, an obstacle course to be negotiated. They too have destructive potential. It also helps us learn to prefer God, to love the Giver more than the gift.

The aim of letting God grow in us the fruit of self-control is paradoxically so that we might be set free: free from what the Prayer Book calls ‘following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts’; free from things and free for things; free for one other, free to bear each other’s burdens rather than consume each other; best of all, free for God.