The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Ash Wednesday Online Communion      17th February 2021
Jan Rushton

Readings: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


This evening on Ash Wednesday, as every year, we begin our journey through Lent. Maybe you are thinking: Haven’ we already been doing Lent - for almost a year now!  Our capacity for self-discipline has been well and truly stretched!  And possibly to breaking point - or beyond.  I’ heard such comments. So I want to suggest a new approach.


Mark Oakley in the Church Times this last week writes:


Lent knows what we are like. ....  It winces at our cyclical, self-destructive repetitions.  It believes in us, though, knowing that, with God and each other, if we reach outside our own hardened little worlds, we set the scene to be helped and, maybe, even changed.


He continues: In the Gospels, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness immediately followed his baptism. Coming up out of the water, he had heard the unmistakable voice that matters, telling him he was cherished, wanted, and ready.  He then goes into the heat, spending time with himself, he hears other voices that want him to live down to them.  But he knows that his vocation can be lived only when he learns to live up to the one voice he heard that day in the river, to refuse to live down to the ones that want him to choose some indifferent and submerged existence as a consumer of the world - and not as a citizen of the Kingdom.


As Mark Oakley suggests, Lent is a matter of the heart.  The struggle between fear and selfishness, trust and openness.  We can only open our lives to grow into that change we long for when we trust the voice which tells us we are cherished, wanted and ready.


Tonight to help us get there I want to suggest a somewhat different sort of discipline.  Rather than self-denial, -we have indeed been practicing rather a lot of self-denial, rather than self-denial, perhaps we can take up a practice of seeking joy?  The joy of gratitude! Which is indeed a discipline!  Let us take time each day, to reflect on one thing for which we are grateful.  Explore it. Spend some time looking for each aspect that makes us smile.  Physically smile! Allow the feeling to pervade our thinking.  How about a ‘ Journal’ where we keep a record, adding something new each day.!  And if we miss a day, no need to be censorious with ourselves, just fulfil our discipline for today.  At the end of Lent we will have a record of so much that is wonderful in our lives!  So much to thank God for!


This exercise may seem somewhat small, but actually, it has trasnsforming power!  When we’ feeling gratitude it drives out fear, anxiety, distress.  It changes us bodily. Without realizing it our demeanor will change.  Which changes the response of others towards us. Everyone feels better!


When we have got into the practice of remembering the things for which we are thankful, we can begin to explore those things which have caused, and continue to cause us distress.  Let us think about what we have learnt from each situation, how it has enabled us to grow as people, spiritually and personally.  These are things also to be grateful for.  And our gratitude will set us free.  Enable us, as Jesus calls us to, to forgive one another.  Of course this doesn’t mean that we fail to speak out, to challenge injustice; do our part to bring about change.  Nor that we can escape grief when death, & other painful events happen in our lives.  Grieving is a God-given process through which our healing happens.  It should not be hurried.


Jesus has an acute understanding of the human heart - which does not and cannot shake his love for us. He tells us, our disciplines need to be practiced for God and for ourselves - in secret!


In his teaching Jesus expands the meaning of God’ Law as captured in those beautiful and challenging words from the prophet Isaiah: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy.  And in Paul’ version of Jesus’ teaching: Bless those who persecute you. But if our love is exercised to enhance our standing in the eyes of others, we have emptied our inner being of love’s power to transform us.  Our actions become essentially self-centred and limited.  But when we do good in secret, it too, like our attitude of gratefulness, such love is transforming our inner nature, our hearts fill with peace and joy, and importantly, we have a growing knowledge of our self-worth, Rooted, not in the eyes of others, rather in our relationship with God.  A battle for the heart! Infinitely worth the discipline!  Tonight, in our changed times, we will make the sign of the cross on our own foreheads.  As we do so, let us commit ourselves to hear the one voice that matters, telling us we are cherished, wanted, and ready, as we seek to observe a Holy Lent.  And when we get to the end of our journey

I would love to hear from you how your Lenten disciplines have gone!

Do join a Lent study group! Amen.

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