Ash Wednesday sermon 26 February 2020


John 8.1-11, Isaiah 58.1-12

One evening when I was in Sweden, two of the art students from my college said hello to me in the street and said they were going to an art exhibition and would I like to go with them?  It was the launch of the exhibition so there was a jazz group, lights, food – all very inviting on a winter’s evening- so off I went.  The art itself was intriguing; it was what I think would be called mixed media; there was paper and pencil, paper and ink, canvas and paint and an assortment of fabrics, most of them faded or torn, and on each surface whether paper or textile was written or embroidered the words ‘förbarma dig’, and nothing else.(See example pinned to the lectern – no screen tonight)  The words mean ‘have mercy on yourself’, or compassion or pity.  When I asked the artist about her work she said that as a child she heard the words regularly in church as, ‘Lord, have mercy on us’, and she wanted to claim them for everyone, not only for the shrinking number of people who go to church.  They can reach our roots she explained, transforming us.  I was struck by the power she attributed to these words and recalled the conversation with her as I prepared for this evening.

It can be reassuring to say to someone, or to ourselves, ‘Be kind to yourself’, the modern version of ‘Have mercy on yourself’, and perhaps missing out the reference to God (‘Lord’), makes it more inclusive; but at the start of Lent I’d like us to consider how including God in this invitation can lead us into a deeper understanding of who we are before God, and therefore of who we are in relation to one another, and to the earth.  This can indeed be transformative, and perhaps at an even deeper level than that anticipated by the artist.

So, it’s mercy that I’d like us to consider this evening.  Lent is a time to strip away illusions, to earth our faith, and we can see Isaiah doing that as he addresses his people – ‘Being a Christian is about more than going to church’, he might have said, if he was speaking today.  ‘Demonstrate mercy in what you do, and not only in what you say’.  It’s a wonderful legacy of the Jewish roots of our faith that for us worship of God is not only about singing hymns and praying but also about merciful action; they are two sides of the same coin.

Now to our gospel; the scribes and Pharisees want to engage Jesus in a discussion about the interpretation of the law.  They want to pin him down, catch him out.  The woman in this encounter is simply being used to score points.  Jesus might have engaged in the kind of dialogue we see elsewhere in the gospels when tackled by the scribes and Pharisees.  God is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing’, he might have said, quoting from another prophet, and setting off a rabbinical discussion about mercy.  Instead, he literally earths the conversation by drawing their attention to the ground in front of them by writing on it.  Inevitably their attention is also drawn to the woman lying on the ground, a flesh and blood human being like themselves and one on whom they are contemplating a brutal assault.  They need to see that.  They have to look down, and that simple physical movement makes possible a move from what’s going on in their heads to something deeper down in themselves.  Already they are better placed to hear what Jesus says; ‘Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’.  Jesus is stripping away illusions, helping them to face the identity of not only the woman (they had already defined her as a sinner), but also their own identity, and that of God himself in relation to the woman and to themselves.  Without using the word mercy Jesus puts them in touch with the desire we all have to be treated mercifully when we are at fault.  This insight leads to being able to receive mercy and then pass it on to others.  As if to demonstrate what that might look like Jesus finally turns to the woman herself and tells her she is no longer condemned and that she should sin no more.

There is a close link between sin and mercy throughout scripture.  Our Swedish artist invites us to have mercy on ourselves and perhaps somewhere in that is a sense of the weight we bear as human beings for things that are not necessarily our personal fault, but which are part of belonging to the human race.  Where do we get the mercy to offer to ourselves, though?  We can’t give ourselves or others what we haven’t received.  The gospel message is that when we get in touch with our own sinfulness, as we see the scribes and Pharisees doing in our reading, we can then find ourselves turning to something/someone greater than ourselves to help us.  Remember Jesus saying, ‘I have not come to call righteous people, but sinners to repentance….it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’.  (Mark 2.17)

Acknowledging that I am a sinner is not popular.  It’s seen as bad psychology.  It’s vital that we are all confident, have a positive self image, and don’t run ourselves down.  I’m strongly in favour of all those things, yet I believe that getting in touch with our identity as a sinner, turning to Christ for help opens us up to his mercy and to that healing grace that gradually frees us to be ourselves, human beings made in his image, beloved and yet also ‘frail creatures of dust, and feeble as frail’, as one of the old hymns puts it, and as we will be reminded when we receive the ashing tonight.  As we receive the ash cross we can acknowledge that frailty and the more we do so the more we receive mercy and grace, and the more space there is inside us for grace and mercy to grow.  There are numerous self help books, blogs, U tube clips on how to become a more flourishing human being.  There’s lots of wisdom there, but at the end of the day it all seems to depend on us, and that’s hard work.  Perhaps during Lent we can turn to the riches in our faith for dealing with our human condition, and practise bringing God’s mercy to our sinfulness.

There’s one simple way I’d recommend you try during Lent to encourage this.  I’m sure you will have encountered this before and perhaps some of you already do it.  It’s saying what is known as the Jesus Prayer – ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.  This comes from the Eastern Orthodox church and is traditionally a means of enabling prayer to move from our head to our hearts – ‘heart’ here meaning that deepest part of ourselves, that part where we are closest to God, rather than heart in the western understanding as the seat of our emotions.  Its origins lie in the desire of the desert fathers and mothers to pray constantly and in the later history of the Orthodox church it was taken up by lay people as a daily discipline, described most famously in a book called ‘The way of a Pilgrim’, which relates the experience of a 19th century Russian pilgrim.  He practised saying Jesus Christ, Son of God…..’ throughout the day and as time went on it was rather as though the prayer said itself, it was so rooted in his being.

If you are starting off with saying this prayer I suggest you consciously practise it during times when you are doing something routine, like washing up, or when you are on a familiar journey – walking to the bus stop for example, or exercising the dog, or when you are waiting for something – waiting to see someone, waiting for the train, waiting for an appointment.  Some people find it helpful to have something to carry in their pocket, like a small stone, for example, that serves as a reminder and that they can hold while saying the prayer.  The other good times to do it are as you settle down to sleep, or if you wake in the night, and when you wake in the morning.  If you’re out walking somewhere on your own you can try saying it to yourself or aloud to the rhythm of your walking.  You can also say it in rhythm with your breathing – Breathing in, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God’, breathing out, ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’.

Let’s try it now…..

So förbarma dig, have mercy on yourself, have mercy on others, and before all that know that you are a loved sinner as you acknowledge your sinfulness and thus open yourself to receive God’s mercy.                         Christine Bainbridge