"Repentance, Forgiveness and New Hope"

Rev'd Heather
Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - 7:30pm

Ash Wednesday  -  "Repentance, Forgiveness and New Hope"

There is a wonderful community nestled in the hills of rural Dorset, some miles from any major settlements. It’s name is Pilsdon, and it is home to a Warden, and handful of core Community members, and a number of residents – about 20 or so – who are recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction. Many have been homeless as a result, and experienced great pain. Together they work the land each day, milking the cows, sowing seeds for vegetables, cooking, washing up, cleaning, hedge building… and three times a day prayers are said in the chapel. Only a handful attend the daily prayers, but the Sunday Eucharist sees the small chapel fill up with community members, residents and local friends sat on hay bales. It’s prayer, along with gentle action, that keeps the heartbeat of the community going strong.

Dominic and I had the privilege of spending a few weeks with this community back in 2017. And once of the things that struck me so much was the tenderness with which the Eucharist was celebrated, and the introduction to confession in particular. Before we prayed together ‘Lord have mercy’ there was such an emphasis on the promise that God would forgive us, that the chapel was a safe space, where in the silence of our hearts we could be open with God. ‘As far as the East is from the West, so far has God set our sins from us’ says the Psalmist. For how can we be open before God, facing the most difficult parts of our character, our life, unless we know that we have safety, that God will look upon us with infinite love and mercy and justice. 

And it is with that knowledge of God’s infinite love and mercy and justice that we gather here this Ash Wednesday; this day of self examination and repentance, marking the beginning of Lent together. Before we acknowledge our faults before God, we remind ourselves of God’s unconditional love for us. That as St Paul tells us ‘there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’ It is with this reassurance that we are able to be so open, and to know the depths of forgiveness.

And with repentance, with saying sorry and knowing the depths of God’s forgiveness, is the freedom to seek to live a better life going forward. A clean slate if you like. You may have heard before that the root of the word, metanoia is about turning. Knowing God’s love, we turn away from sin towards that which is good and holy. And so our ashes today show not only our penitence, but our commitment to live a better life going forward. 

And for a Christian, a better life is a holier life – one that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today Jesus speaks practices that were at the heart of the hearer’s Jewish faith, and thinks about how they are lived out with a pure heart.  Generosity, prayer and fasting. Each of which it to be done quietly with love of God. Jesus is clear that being the one who shouts the loudest is not often equated with being the one with the purest heart. The quietest members of a community can often be full of unheard wisdom, and that give rise to the question of how those voices are heard. 

The quiet wisdom of Pilsdon is a voice for us today. A voice that says that prayer and gentle action matter. That being with one another as we work the land, a process that takes time and cannot be rushed, leads to healing. Those gentle actions the see new growth, help to transform the lives of those who are there. And then then there is the prayer, either gathered in chapel or personally indoors or out. Gentle action and prayer: it is all intertwined. 

Our reading from Isaiah speaks powerfully of this. The people of Jerusalem were particularly interested in the spiritual discipline of fasting and wondered why it wasn’t working. But the prophet Isaiah points out that their fasting is not connected with action and prayer. 

Jesus grouped all three together: prayer, fasting and generosity. For as the Jesuits remind us with their daily reflections, ‘prayer without some element of fasting and almsgiving could become so heavenly, as someone has said, that it is no earthly use. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving might end up as simply self-preoccupied dieting. If we give alms but have no time for prayer or some self-denial, perhaps our motto is “do good and avoid God!”’ Indeed if we give without any sense of self-denial is our giving generous enough?

And so this Ash Wednesday, as we begin again this season of Lent, we come before God, God who is love and forgiveness to acknowledge the ways in which we have failed to live up to our calling as Christians, we commit again to seeking to live a holy life of prayer, fasting and generosity. We know that as we seek to change we are likely to fall back into old ways, and need to commit to turning and turning again. But over time, we – like the community allotment – sees magnificent change and new hope blooming. Amen.