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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Menu options for a holy Lent

Here is my sermon from today's Ash Wednesday Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook:

In the public imagination, Lent is primarily a time for giving up things we otherwise enjoy. A bit like an extended period of New Year's resolutions and, possibly, honoured as much in the breach as with our resolutions at New Year. For example, in today's Guardian Ian Martin writes: "Deny yourself something you like, reflect that you’re lucky to have it, feel grateful to be able to have it again."

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, of course, although it doesn't include the idea that we give things up in Lent in order to focus more on God and others. As Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with God and himself in prayer preparing for the period of ministry which would ultimately lead him to the cross, so we can use Lent as a time for personal prayer and private fasting as Jesus' words in today's Gospel reading teach. The artworks that we have in church during Lent are intended to assist us in contemplation and you may wish to spend extra time in this wonderful space in prayer and reflection.

As part of focusing more on God, we may take part in a Lent Course, such as the course being run by the Bank Churches group at 6.00pm on Tuesdays at St Lawrence Jewry. Sally Muggeridge and I are involved with this course which will explore the theme of The Creeds. In addition, the Walbrook Art Group have organised a series of art talks on Wednesday's at 1pm to aid our Lenten reflections. In focusing more on God and others, it is also valid to take things up for Lent. So there are campaigns like Love Life, Live Lent which encourage us to undertake 40 acts of kindness and generosity in Lent.

All of these though miss the sense of Lent as a journey on which, through prayer and reflection, we accompany Jesus as he makes his way towards his death. As we accompany him on this journey we reflect on all that he endured for us and the reasons why he endures such things for us. This sense of Lent as a journey with Jesus is one reason why the Stations of the Cross are often so helpful to us in Lent. They take us on the journey Jesus made to the cross in Holy Week from Pilate's condemnation to the burial in the tomb. On the day he died, Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa through the streets of Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, which would later become sacred to Christians and Muslims. Across the chasm of two thousand years, this tortured path resonates with current events for people of many faiths and cultures. In particular, it calls to mind the hazardous journeys of refugees from today’s Middle East.

This Lent we are part of Stations of the Cross 2016, an exhibition created as a pilgrimage around the Stations of the Cross each of which are located at 14 different iconic locations in Central London. This unique exhibition uses works of art to tell the story of the Passion in a new way, for people of different faiths. In this pilgrimage for art lovers, viewers will travel across London, mapping the geography of the Holy Land onto the streets of a ‘new Jerusalem.’ I encourage you to go on that pilgrimage this Lent, visiting the 14 Stations and allowing these Stations to provoke artistic, spiritual and political passions while also reflecting on Jesus' journey, suffering and love.

We are the 13th station on the trail for which Michael Takeo Magruder has created the installation Lamentation for the Forsaken. By juxtaposing the sufferings of the Syrian peoples in our own day with the death of Christ, Michael reminds us that Christ's death is symptomatic of all suffering throughout time. When we lament Christ's death, our lament is for all human sinfulness which has caused such devastation and destruction through our world and history. Michael evokes the memory of Syrians who have passed away in the present conflict by weaving their names and images into a contemporary Shroud of Turin. But the real miracle isn’t the Shroud itself, it’s our capacity to look into the eyes of the forsaken — and see our Saviour.

Alan Everett, in his exhibition, draws our attention to the persecution of Christians in our world today. These are people who have made the ultimate identification with Christ in their lives; being faithful to him unto death. Theirs’ is the ultimate Lenten journey as their own lives become the Stations of the Cross. This year the Lent Appeal in the Diocese of London is for persecuted Christians. You have been given a leaflet with information about this campaign and, beginning today, there will be a retiring offering at all of our Lenten services to raise funds for this campaign.

Jesus says that we store up treasures in heaven when our prayer, giving and fasting (or other Lenten disciplines) are done, not so that others see us and think we are particularly pious, but instead are only seen by God, who rewards what we do in secret (Matthew 6). Alas, these days, as Ian Martin notes," there is no self-denial so slight it cannot be chronicled on social media." "It’s becoming odder with every passing year, the old-fashioned idea of giving something up and keeping quiet about it. If you decide to shun alcohol for a month, we’ll be following you every step of the way, won’t we? There’ll be the Facebook page for a start. A chronicle of bravery and self-love, with its rows of daily “feeling proud” badges you’ve awarded yourself like some lunatic despot. And a photo of your dead dad or your dead dog. And an algorithmic quote in a handwriting font about how it’s not selfish to do what’s best for you because in the end it makes you a better person for others, over a photograph of zebras at sunset or Robin Williams." The reverse of Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel reading (Matthew 6).

We have considered some of the menu options before us as we begin this Lent. Which will we choose? They are not, of course, mutually exclusive and some might choose a gourmet Lent by taking up all the available options while others may pick ‘n’ mix by sampling a little of this and some of that. Whatever you decide the challenge is to make active use of the next forty days in order to deepen your relationship with God. I wish you a holy Lent.


Bill Fay - Bring It On Lord.

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