Sermon for Lent 1
May I speak in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, Lent has begun. And all over the country, there are people giving things up: potatoes, alcohol, chocolate. They’re thinking that there’s no better time to get in shape, as the weather starts to improve, so when the summer comes, you can face things fitter, happier, healthier.
Well what a load of old rubbish that is.
On Wednesday, I was marked with ash, and told that I am going to die: “Know that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the message that underscores all of Lent, and this is why the Lent of cheery self improvement is such a con. It’s not about being fitter, or healthier, or happier. It’s about facing our own mortality, and no amount of jogging will outpace Father Time; no cream or cosmetic can ever prevent us from becoming dust.
However obvious this is, much of our culture is intent on hiding death away and denying its reality. We used to be coy about sex, telling children they were discovered by the stork; now we are coy about death. We refer to it as having “gone to sleep,” or “passed away.” It’s become common to spare a dying person knowledge of their condition so as not to upset them. We say “everything will be all right, and you’ll be on your feet in no time,” and we know it’s not true.
Often these little, well-meaning lies prevent important conversations from taking place: Goodbye. Sorry. I love you.
Well, to the secular world, all this sounds rather morbid––an obsession with death and with sin. But you won’t understand Lent, you won’t understand that it’s really all about life, unless you understand the basic story, the basic theme, that undergirds it all.
The greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the twentieth century, William Temple, once wrote: “The great aim of all true religion is to transfer the center of interest from self to God,” and the reason why that is at the heart of the Christian story is that with the self there is death, and with God, there is life. St. Paul puts it thus: “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” Human beings, ourselves, are mortal; in God there is life eternal. We are called to transfer the center of interest in our lives from ourselves to God, thereby escaping the pain of death.
Sin is not an ethical category. It’s not about being told off. It’s not about the Church grubbing around in your misdemeanors. Sin is a part of this very story. Sin is the stuff that keeps us addicted to self, that impedes the transference of our center of interest from self to God. Sin is not about sex; sin is about love of self. “I have come to call sinners,” Jesus said [in our second reading,] to come to call you away from your addiction and love of yourself to new life, to life in God. Sin is not an ethical category: it’s a category of salvation.
But how very difficult it is to make this act of transference, for we are all addicted to self, addicted, St. Paul would say harshly, to death.
Two weeks ago, I went down for a couple of days to a Franciscan friary in the countryside, a place where they are extremely committed to a life of poverty. And for someone like me who enjoys his comforts, it was terrifying. “Give it all up, rely on God and God alone. Give up your fancy clothes, give up your fancy lifestyle.”
I got to the station, just before we had got the taxi to the friary, and I drew out £100. It seemed to me something I had to do, some protection against this frightening place where I was being asked to rely only upon God. How pathetic that was. There was nothing to use the money for.
Addicted to self. Addicted to sin.
Lent asks you – asks me – to make that act of transference where you take the center of interest out of yourself and place it in the hands of God, the place where there is true life. That is why at the heart of the Lenten discipline, at the heart of giving things up, at the heart of challenging one’s own self and one’s own desires, is not death, but life.
But first, know that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin, and return to Christ. It is the way of life.