A SERMON FOR ASH WEDNESDAY for the Cambridge Theological Federation.
Given by John P. Bradbury on 18th February 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21  

Ash Wednesday is a hard day. A day for hard words: Isaiah railing against the people of Israel with biting satire, ending with the stark condemnation that “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice hear on high.” Jesus, railing against the hypocrites who flaunt their religiosity in public to parade how very pious they are, for then, says Jesus, “you will have no reward from your Father in heaven”.

Ash Wednesday is a hard day. We come to say words that we know are hard to own – recognising our sin, our faults and failings. To make promises that we fear we will not keep. To face realities that we often seek to hide from. For we do not like to acknowledge our faults and our failings. It is human to seek to defend ourselves in the face of those things we get so deeply wrong. To cast the blame elsewhere, to make excuses. This day, is a day to face such things squarely. Original sin, it is said, is the only empirically verifiable doctrine – but one, tellingly, we like to deny. I’m  a good person really, aren’t I?

Ash Wednesday is a hard day. A hard day ecumenically. Ten years ago I discovered this the hard way in one of those moments we are so good at in Church life, that is simultaneously tragic and comic. Having left the Federation as a student and been ordained I was ministering in  inner-city Liverpool, a place where over half the houses were boarded up, the shops had close and gone, there was not even a pub that was not abandoned. And full of ecumenical zeal we held a joint ecumenical Ash Wednesday service between the Anglican Parish, the Methodist Church and us in the URC. The Old Testament reading had been from Amos: “When you bring me burnt-offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them”. As one of my colleagues moved around the circle of folk gathered imposing ashes for those who wished to receive them saying: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, one of the URC Elders in a very obvious stage whisper repeatedly declared “you bring me burnt offerings and I will not accept them”. All the Anglicans received ashes, many of the Methodists, and the members of the URC who came from Malawi and Ghana. All of the white British folk from the URC refused to be ashed.  For the Elder repeating those harsh words of Amos what was going on was a direct contradiction of his reading of scripture, and verging on idolatry. Our divisions were plainly manifested: between different Christian traditions, between black and white, even within individual traditions. And yet, the shops had left the area, the pubs had left the area, anyone who could afford to had left the area leaving a population many of whom felt totally trapped. And the body of Christ was there. Broken. Imperfect, but hanging on in when no one else was – fractured, but yet even if in only a small way, a sign of hope. It was one of those moments when  you think: ‘they never taught me how to deal with that at college’. Fortunately the Scouse sense of humour won the day as eventually everyone saw the funny side – and yes, in subsequent years we did keep marking Ash Wednesday together.

Ash Wednesday is a hard day. It is a hard day for us as a Federation. We hear the words of Christ about hypocrites, and yet here we are, appearing to the world for all intents and purposes united. If we are to heed the cries of Isaiah and Christ, and to avoid hypocrisy, maybe we need to name and own some of the tensions and divisions that we represent as God’s broken people here this morning. For some at Westminster this is very hard service for us to be asked to lead. Whilst the imposition of ashes is not unknown in the wider Reformed tradition – our liturgy comes from our sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian Church in the USA, one of our hymns, written specifically for Ash Wednesday comes from the URC minister, a former Federation student. It would be very rare, though, in the United Reformed Church to impose ashes. For some of us leading this service in the way we have chosen to is to have sold out our tradition. To some it seems impossible to reconcile Jesus’ critique of public acts of religiosity or Isaiah’s concern for justice over empty acts of piety with the public mark of an ashed forehead. For some, perhaps, it is to risk idolatry – that perpetual reformed fear. For others of us here from other corners of the life of the Federation, the rhythms and seasons of the churches year are precisely a gift of God to the church that forces us to be drawn up short. To not be allowed to forget our sin, guilt and brokenness. Precisely the way in which we are prevented from hollow praises that rush us to cheap grace. To choose not to mark Ash Wednesday would be to fail to take a long hard look at ourselves and remind us that God demands an ever new radical transformation of our lives – a turning around and setting out in the direction God has given us, not the road we are most naturally drawn to. For some the very materiality of ash, the same materiality in which Christ became incarnate, serves as the physical reminder of precisely the justice and integrity that Isaiah and Christ demand of us. Some here, will experience in this act of worship a deep lack – a lack of episcopal ordination in those of us imposing ashes and presiding at the sacrament of the Eucharist. The deep relatedness between priest and bishop and the church of all times and places with it’s head, Christ, will seem missing. For some, maybe, that may be a need that will need to be met elsewhere today.  Some here will not be able to receive the sacrament because the discipline of their church teaches that only when one is in full communion with one another can it be anything other than hypocrisy to celebrate the sacrament of unity. Others believe that sharing the Lord’s Supper together is a gift of God that can lead us on our way to unity, a unity which already exists in Christ.  Some hear believe that the Spirit can and does work to bring us to perfection. Other’s that whilst we are justified in Christ – we remain sinners. For some, today marks the beginning of a period of fasting that draws us into union with Christ’s privations in the desert. For others, this day marks the anniversary of the moment Zwingli ate a sausage in Zurich to disprove superstition which marked the beginning of the Reformation in that place.  Some here will wonder what all the fuss is about and think that everybody should just get over themselves. To others, that may seem a terrible indifference to gifts and graces that have been given by Christ to his people.

Ash Wednesday is a hard day. The easy way out, maybe, would have been to do what to some would have seemed simply sensible – and for either Westcott of Ridley to have led us in this act of worship – just as in many years, they have.  And yet, not to be here, at least on occasion in our life together, with all these tensions, divisions and difficulties would actually not be real. It would run the risk of choosing the path of least resistance to put on an easy show of oneness to the world. To have paraded ourselves as a great success story of Christian unity when in many ways we are deeply, sinfully, broken. And yet here we are. Broken, but none the less, somehow the body of Christ. United, even if only in the sense that we have actively chosen to stand side by side with our brothers and sisters in worship this morning. Not to shout from street corners about how wonderful we are. Not to parade our goodness, holiness and religiosity to a world we consider ourselves superior to, but precisely to acknowledge that in reality we are not superior. We are sinful. We get it wrong. We all too often manifest the worst of the things of creation not the best. We are here not to laud it over people who are not like us, but simply to stand before our God in penitence. To recognise that in our own power we achieve only human sinfulness and to ask God to transform and transfigure us. To fire us through our worship to transform the unjust structures of the world. To witness at all times to the greatness of God – not the greatness of ourselves. As we set out on the journey that is Lent. As we receive or decline the invitation to receive ashes, as we come into the real presence of Christ be that through bread and wine or simply through the promise of Christ to be present when two or three are gathered in his name, we come today to own our sin. To recall our brokenness as individuals and as a body. Cross and resurrection, forgiveness and new life, wait ahead of us on our journey. But this moment, whether led to it through the reading and breaking open of God’s word, through the materiality of Ash and bread and wine, through the season of the churches year or perhaps, even, because we simply happened to end up here this morning somehow or another, is a moment when we stop. Ponder with contrition and penitence, and say together “Lord, have mercy”. Amen.