In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One year ago today, on Ash Wednesday 2017, here in this Cathedral, Bishop Michael Perham, my ordaining Bishop, mentor and friend, preached what ended up being his final sermon. It was a better sermon than the one that I’m about preach, and it is still on our website so I do commend it to you as part of your Lenten devotions this year. Michael was in the final weeks of his life following his diagnosis with a brain tumour in the autumn, and he knew that he was entering his final Lent. As he preached the sermon, knowing that it was very likely the last time he would speak in public, he invited us to remember that above all else, Lent is actually about joy.
Lent is marked, he said, by three ancient disciplines: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which are the weapons with which we fight against the forces of darkness, and the tools by which we rebuild our joy in our faith and the journey which we walk together.
Michael lived that story of joy in quite an extraordinary way in his final weeks, and died on Easter Monday, or as the Eastern Orthodox Church rather beautifully refers to it, Bright Monday.
There are a number of sermons one can preach on Ash Wednesday. There is the sermon about temptations in the wilderness. There is a sermon about Lent being originally the final stage of the journey of people preparing to be baptised and confirmed at the dawn liturgy on Easter day. There is a sermon about sin and the importance of remembering the presence of sin and evil in our lives.
But I would like this evening to preach about joy. I would like to pick up on Michael’s final thoughts, and remind us, again, on this first day of 46 day journey to the empty tomb of Easter, that above all Lent is here to give us back our joy.
The three ancient disciplines of Lent, prayer, fasting and charitable giving, are opportunities for us to, in the words of our bishop’s challenge and call to us as a diocese, to “renew our hope.” And, I would like to suggest, as our hope is renewed so too is our joy. Taking the time once a year to look really quite hard at the way in which we pray, to take advantage of the gift of a sparse and paired back liturgy which gives us more space for silence and for reflection, reclaiming in our own personal lives space for prayer and study, ought to lead us into an exploration of how better praying, or at least less inadequate praying, ought to make us better, also, at serving the world around us, and growing as a church, not so much in numbers but in holiness.
As a diocese we are invited to frame all of our thinking as Christian communities in this part of the country, around those three core elements of Christian living: Pray, Serve, and Grow. Regular members of the Cathedral will notice that more and more we will use that language in the way in which we work here too. And praying comes first because it is in prayer that we discover our identity, our belonging in the family of God. Without prayer, our serving will not be God-focused, and our growing, if any growth happens, will be self-serving and inward looking, and less than the kingdom of God.
So Lent is a time to re-discover our joy, through prayer. And there is a lot of nonsense talked about prayer. I think prayer must be one of the most frequently misunderstood elements of the Christian life. It can seem difficult, complicated and perhaps most alarmingly of all, terribly boring. We stack ourselves up with misconceptions of what prayer actually is. And that leads us directly down the alley of inadequacy. I don’t really know how to pray, so my prayer must be inadequate. I don’t pray for long enough, so my prayer must be inadequate. I don’t know the fancy words that other people seem to use, so my prayer must be inadequate.
And some of that is of course the church’s fault. Fancy, beautiful prayer, of course, keeps people like me in work. But there, you see, is another popular misunderstanding. What we do here, together, in church, is hopefully, some of the time, beautiful, balanced and accessible. But the vast majority of prayer doesn’t happen here in church at all. The vast majority of prayer ought to be going on everywhere else, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our homes, as we move, with Christ, through the joys and sorrows, through the highs and lows, through the trials and temptations of our lives.
Prayer is simply conversation. It is conversation with God. Anything more complicated than that is unhelpful I think.
So it’s worth thinking a little about conversation this evening. Our conversations with each other, can of course be perfunctory and transactional. Our conversations can also be cruel and abusive. Our conversations can be hurtful, or illuminating, they can be loaded with power dynamics: “where’s that report I asked for yesterday, you low-level functionary?” They can, of course, be tender, loving and exciting: “Will you be my Valentine?”
My first spiritual director once said to me that if you can imagine the best, most perfect, most loving, equal and respectful conversation you’ve ever had, perhaps with your partner, with a best friend; a conversation where you felt safe and loved and honest, then that is the inkling of the hint of what prayer might be. Prayer is conversation with God, and it is always loving, safe and has the potential at least to be entirely honest.
And I think that’s the key to recovering the joy of Lent. Here you have 40 days (46 actually if you count the Sundays), to reopen the conversation with God. Now, Lent does have this strain of penitence about it which is important, but I think the crucial theological truth to hold in mind is that when we come to God in penitence, when we confess, which we might want to do in an informal way, or more formally to a priest, and here in this Cathedral that possibility is always open, though in Lent we set aside some special times when, if you’d like to, you can come to one of the clergy and receive, as the book of common prayer puts it, “ghostly counsel and absolution”, when we take the time to be honest in conversation with God we realise that, just like our other relationships, human relationships, relationship with the planet, our relationships with the rest of God’s beautiful creation, there are problems. There are things unsaid, there are selfish things done, and we face up to those in this season. But this is the crucial truth: the conversation with God about those things is still one of absolute love, safety and honesty. God never changes. He is always, only, love. But because we are human and inadequate and not like God, from time to time we encounter that love as judgement, or disappointment. It’s still love, and still free and endless.
One of the gifts that our Bishop has given us this Lent is again a resource for getting back into our praying. If you haven’t picked one of these up, do take one as you leave, or it’s available as a PDF on the diocesan website, or a daily email, or as an app. I’m using the app, and it’s marvellous. With very little technical know-how you can set up to have this material, together with our diocesan cycle of prayer, and the Anglican cycle of prayer, and a cycle of prayer for our brothers and sisters in Sudan and South Sudan delivered to your telephone or iPad or whatever every day, completely for free. Try it, as a way into that conversation.
This time last year I imposed the Ashes on the forehead of just one person in this congregation: Bishop Michael. And then he imposed them on my forehead. Neither of us could walk so we were up here by the altar while you were all down under the spire. And we said to one another “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And the reality of that statement has never been so striking. But that statement is followed by another: “turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.” Doing that, completing the challenge set before us each Lent, is no more complicated, and no less profound, than recovering the conversation. When we pray well, we serve Christ’s world, and the kingdom grows. When we are talking to God, the devil is terrified, the darkness is suddenly less dark, and today’s cross, marked on our forehead in dust and ashes is revealed as the sparkling, shining, joyful cross of victory of the eternal Easter Day.