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Sin – A sermon for Passion Sunday, evensong, 18th March 2018 St Mary’s evensong (not preached due to snow!)
Very occasionally when watching an old film, usually set in London, the street scene will include a man with a sandwich board declaring something like “Repent your sins, the end is nigh”. The only sandwich board I have seen in real life is some poor chap who stands on the A303 somewhere near Andover advertising a pub during opening hours. Like the sandwich board men who have disappeared so has discussion about sin. The church plays it down nowadays perhaps because people see the church as judgemental, goody-goody, and self-righteous if it does call sin out.
There are of course many types of outpourings of sin, of the Ten Commandments written down by Moses, eight are things you must not do. The two readings tonight seem to me to be about stubbornness and disobedience. The king refuses to accept that God is supreme and Adam of course went and ate the apple from the tree when he had been told specifically not to.
I don’t think many of us set out deliberately to sin do we? Do you get up in the morning and think “I’m going to be really bad today”? But there are times in life where we come up against it almost as a dare or just because we wish to rebel. Honour they father and mother is one of the two commandments that doesn’t have a “not” in it, but oh, what an opportunity there is to “not” honour your mother and father. My mother, a primary school teacher who I and Margaret both had the unfortunate opportunity to be taught by, was exceptionally good at pointing out what we should not do. Given this I spent 3 years of my life finding as many opportunities as possible to rebel against her instructions. I may have shared this before. Given we lived in Grantham in Lincolnshire; you may wonder why the school decided that the year four trip would be to Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire. Over 100 eleven year olds cooped up in coaches on one of the hottest days of the year for several hours. We had all been given some pocket money to enable us to but a souvenir but we were instructed, by Mrs Ward, that the one thing we were absolutely not allowed to buy was a pen-knife. Well, challenge laid down, I set off for the gift shop to locate the pen-knives, made a purchase and whilst showing it to my friends cut my finger so badly that eventually I had to own up for fear my life-blood was ebbing away. Needless to say this resulted in the wrath of mother and endless threats as to what she would do to me for several weeks to come. It was, however, the best pen-knife I ever had; I discovered when she eventually reunited it with me. Was it worth it – you bet your life it was. I was the hero of the hour. Have I repented – no.
But disobedience can get us into far worse trouble than a cut finger and being grounded. Fortunately for us though, disobedience to God gets us into far less trouble than it did in Old Testament times. For the Old Testament is full of the vengeful God, the God that punishes, the God that brings terrible things to bear on those who disobey him. If we had started this service at the beginning, instead of where we now do, we would have all repented of our sins, meekly kneeling on our knees, as the prayer book puts it. And here’s the big difference. One act of utter obedience changed the whole relationship we have with God. The only person “without sin” gave up his life so that God would begin a new covenant with us which allows us to be forgiven, no matter what the sin. He didn’t need to go to Jerusalem when he knew the chief-priests were after him. He didn’t need to announce his arrival in such an obvious way which wound them up even more. He didn’t need to stay there when he knew Judas Iscariot was going to betray him, and he may well have been released by Pilate if he had answered his questions differently. But he knew what he had been asked to do – he says to God “if you can take this away, please do so”, but when God doesn’t he stays the course, he is obedient to the last and he suffers the most terrible fate as a result.
But does this really give us carte blanche to do whatever we want to because we know we can have the slate wiped clean? That rule doesn’t apply in society does it? Well, the cynic might say it does when you look at the list of possible crimes that can be committed before action is taken, especially with car crime and robbery. In some places now the police won’t even attend a burglary because they argue they are too stretched to do so. But in general society still exacts punishment for crime. Despite what I’ve just said, our prison population is as high as it has ever been. In secular life we don’t forgive as readily as God forgives. Just take the case of John Warboys, the convicted rapist, due to be released after serving his sentence. Only now are ways being found to try to get him for other crimes so he is never released. Of course the difficulty we have is that unlike God, we have no way of knowing if that person has utterly repented and has changed. The only way we will find out is if he or she is released and then what happens as a result and of course if it goes wrong, out will come the knives. But clearly God will forgive that person. Jesus does exactly that as he hangs on the cross, telling the repentant criminal hanging next to him that he will go to paradise. My guess is that Jesus saw into his soul and saw the absolute repentance of that man.
Where does that leave us then? And of course we are not just talking about simple disobedience now are we, for sin can manifest itself in much more evil ways. Clearly we can forgive huge sins. Just look at some of the reconciliations between allied and German or Japanese soldiers from the second war who have surpassed the hatred to form bonds which have lasted until death. Torture has been forgiven in the name of peace and being able to move on. But it can’t be easy can it? How does a mother forgive someone who has murdered her son, yet it happens.
Fortunately few of us will ever be placed in such situations but we do face sin every day in our lives. People hurt us, people say things which cut into us, sometimes it is intentional, and sometimes it’s just carelessness of actions or thoughts. Families are torn apart, relationships ruined, over relatively trivial things, because sometimes we would rather keep the hurt than let it go. How many times have I heard, “I have a brother but we haven’t spoken since…” I come from a tiny family. I knew my parents, two of my grandparents and I had an aunt and an uncle. All my other relatives were a more distant link than that. I didn’t have the opportunity of brothers, sisters, cousins and I’m certain I lost out as a result. I married into a huge family and now I have a reasonably significant one of my own, three children with spouses and almost six grandchildren. I look at families that have split and I wonder, how could that have happened, how could they have lost something so precious? Things have happened in the family I am now part of in the past which could have caused rifts but I thank God that every time at least one person on the wrong end of the issue has been gracious enough to forgive.
So I guess my message is this. From one sinner to another, and I very rarely dispense advice, but I’m going to make an exception tonight. Over the next two weeks we will watch Jesus take the most excruciating journey, the ultimate sacrifice for every one of us here, a man without sin, nailed to a cross and left to die in agony, for us – to give us the chance to start again, to be free of all the things that mark us. So tonight I leave you with this – if there is a hurt you can forgive, if there is something which has separated you from another – forgive it, let it go, especially if it stemmed from some petty disobedience, for God has forgiven our disobedience time and again, and will continue to do so as long as we ask for it. Amen.
There’s no two ways about it, the gospel reading today isn’t full of joy although it does end with Jesus offering hope to those who follow him. Why isn’t it joyful, because it’s about death. It is said that there are three topics to keep away from avoiding conflict, discussions that talk about sex, politics or religion, but I’d also add another which we don’t like to talk about – death. It’s a paradox in many ways because it is the one thing that we will all end up doing at some point, so in many ways it is the most normal and natural thing, but the logic of that argument doesn’t take into account the things that make us human – relationships, love, trust, reliance on each other – all the stuff that comes from the heart. Whilst it is completely normal when it happens it hurts because all the stuff of relationship is lost and the greater the relationship, the more it hurts those left behind.
I make no secret that when my great friend Andrew died just over 3 years ago, I struggled for months. I ended up finding someone I could talk to about it because I could not come to terms with it. That made me feel guilty at the time – he was my friend, but he wasn’t my husband or my father, what right did I have to feel so lost? I came to realise with help that it isn’t the level of relationship that regulates grief; it’s the depth of it. Andrew and I clicked at a level where we had a deep trust of each other. He enabled me to sing in public, he was there as a sounding board if I needed one and I for him, and we both loved single malt whisky in equal measure but I suspect the latter wasn’t the root of our relationship. It turned out he wasn’t “just” a friend, he was everything a friend could be, and I was poleaxed by his loss. So whilst death is an everyday occurrence it is far from simple to deal with when it happens to someone you are close to.
I don’t know if it is the case or not, but if we spoke about death more, perhaps it would be less scary. But is it also the case that if we really told each other what our relationships mean we might feel more comforted when we lose someone. How often have you heard someone say “I wish I had told them that…”, or “I never got so say…” I have no idea if the British are more reserved than other nations, but we do seem to have a tendency not to express our feelings good or bad. We don’t whoop like the Americans, we don’t wail when in deep distress like many eastern and African people do. Just think about the last disaster you witnessed on the news in somewhere like Egypt, husband, wives, mothers, wailing in deep, deep anguish, but that isn’t our way is it. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry” we often hear when someone breaks down during a eulogy – why – why do we feel ashamed to show our grief?
So when the Greeks came visiting Jesus I suspect they were somewhat taken aback when he started to tell them he was about to snuff it. They had heard of his miracles and the amazing things he had done and suddenly he started to talk about his death. I wonder what their reaction was?
But he wasn’t just talking about his actual death I don’t think, nor just about anyone’s actual death. He was also talking about the loss of opportunity when we fail to grasp it. A plant grows, it produces fruit and seed and it dies – it has gone, yet if we plant the seed next year and it grows then the old plant lives on too, its death has brought life. How often do we cling on to something which is only just about alive because we are too frightened to let it go and replace it with something which will bring so much more.
Through my dealings within the deanery I am involved in working out how we re-use the ordained post that we release at Hyde which has been gifted to New Milton. It was clear that the post at Hyde whilst doing good, could never have the impact that it can have in New Milton. So we worked out how to look after Hyde, Harbridge and Ellingham differently, and in effect the post of vicar died.The plan is to start a new resource church in New Milton – a church plant and use the now dead vicar’s post as the person who will lead this new church, but we had to let one thing go to start another.
The reason we can start a resource church in Milton is because two other deaths already happened. St Swithun’s church in Bournemouth had closed, first as a CofE and then as a free church. It was empty but it was surrounded by many students and young people. Holy Trinity Brompton, the founders of Alpha took a leap of faith, took the building on and sent some of their people to start a renewed church and now in its fourth year it has over 600 mainly young people worshipping every Sunday. A short while later St Clement’s church in Bournemouth was also about to close. Its congregation of a few older people had decided they could no longer continue. St Swithun’s was asked if there was any way it could help and so they planted into St Clement’s which is still open and now has over 100 worshippers each Sunday. But there is a twist to this. St Clement’s still had that small faithful group of older people and the people from St Swithun’s knew their brand of worship wouldn’t suit those people, so as well as introducing all the new stuff, they honoured and kept the existing and they even increased the number of times the existing was available, so now that church which was at death’s door is flourishing and still giving life to those who had remained faithful to it. Whilst it didn’t die, it took the congregation to decide that their way of life might have to go if survival was to happen.
So what do we cling onto – a job we can do but we don’t enjoy, a relationship that isn’t all it should be, a house that costs us every penny we earn but which isn’t a home, material stuff so we can keep up with next door, but which doesn’t make us happy. And why, mainly because we are afraid of letting it die because we don’t know how that will make us feel and we fear change and we fear loss even though whatever it is might be causing us pain – “better the devil you know”. I don’t tell you this to make me look good, but when I left HSBC several people I knew who I thought were really fulfilled and who had big houses and nice cars, who I thought might judge me, came up to me and said “I wish I’d had the courage to do that because what I do really doesn’t fulfil me” and I was shocked.
So back to the reading – if Jesus hadn’t died, our slate wouldn’t have been wiped clean, we would still have the relationship of the Old Testament people with God, a vengeful God who visited retribution. But it’s not like that for us is it – we can mess up time after time after time and ask to be forgiven and we are, but what pain did Jesus have to endure for our sake? New life was given that day, Christians were born as we now are because Jesus put away the bad stuff and bargained for us a new relationship with God and as a result, as it says in the reading, “the ruler of this world”, what we might call the devil or evil, became less powerful. Yes evil still exists but we have the power in God to overcome it.
And personally – what should we let die so we can spring forth new life – what conversations should we have to make dealing with real death more bearable? What should we do as a church? It is said we are slowly dying, so what do we let go, and what do we dare to do instead. Do the maybe 500 or so of us that make up the worshippers in Avon Valley need 7 churches, no we don’t, but can we bear to part with any of them – for that is like a death. Buildings are very important, they witness to the world that we are here, they hold memories of changes in our lives, baptisms, weddings, funerals and much more, but at the end of the day WE are the church and it might be that we need to define ourselves differently in 2018 to 1818 or 1518 if we are to do God’s work in these places. I’m not suggesting it has to happen, but I do think it’s a conversation we should have, death and all its trappings are difficult to deal with, especially if we can’t bring ourselves to talk about them. But if we can what amazing things might happen as a result?
Commemorating those who died int he First World Wars on the 100th Anniversaries of their deaths.
All welcome to these short ceremonies.
A wonderful Service for the end of Good Friday.
The city of London Chamber Players, directed by Brian Lloyd-Wilson, and the Choir of St Mary’s, Fordingbridge,
All welcome. Retiring Collection.