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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

5th March 2003

Fr David Shepherd

Ash Wednesday

I just finished a fascinating book on the cultural history of Russia. It's called 'Natasha's Dance' and is by Orlando Figes. It includes an account of Peter the Great's building of St. Petersburg in an area of swamp liable to flood. As his new capital had to be built from scratch everything had to be imported. Once completed St. Petersburg became the Venice of the North with a network of waterways lined with palaces. However behind the stone facades traditional Russian wooden construction was used. Inevitably fire broke out and much of the city had to be rebuilt from the ashes.

Fašade and ashes fits well with Ash Wednesday. We are invited to look behind the fašade of our lives to see ourselves as God sees us. As we do that we will be led to acknowledge our sinfulness and mortality and repent, turning to him once more. We receive the sign of the cross in ashes as a mark of this inner process. A traditional exercise is to reflect on the 10 Commandments always reading them in the light of Our Lord's two-fold summary of the law with his command to love both God and neighbour. So here goes.

  1. 'I am the Lord your God: you shall have no other gods but me.' We begin with God who should be first in our lives. Everything else in our lives flows from our faith in God who is the Creator and redeemer and has made himself known to us in Jesus
  2. 'You shall not make yourself an idol.' It is difficult to keep the first commandment because we all to easily fall into idolatry. Our idolatry is more subtle than the crude, primitive worship of idols but more dangerous. We can worship material things, possessions, power and status. In our society the cult of celebrities has replaced the worship of God. If we worship celebrities we will soon be disappointed when their flawed humanity is revealed. Another constant difficulty is that we turn the living God into an idol. So many of us are hampered by false images of God, often given to us by other Christians. Instead of the loving God shown to us in Jesus we can reject the false monster like God presented by the distortions of Christian history, God as a mad cruel uncle locked in the cellar.
  3. 'You shall not dishonour the name of the Lord your God.' Sadly the name of God is only ever uttered by some as a swear word although deep down it may be a prayerful cry for help in despair. The aim of course is that in all things we should honour the name of God. The Christian calling on the name of Jesus opens us to receive his grace.
  4. 'Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.' Just as we should always begin with God, so the worship of God should be at the forefront of our lives. In the modern world that is less easy with the abandonment of Sunday as a common day of worship and rest. However we still make Sunday worship a priority even if we cannot always achieve it.
  5. 'Honour your father and your mother.' Having dealt with God the commandments now turn as Jesus did to our dealings with our neighbours. The first of these concerns family life, one of the essential building blocks of society. Parents are not always honoured by their offspring, some times because they have not honoured their children. As Christians we should seek to support and build up family life and to have compassion for those whose relationships are hurt and broken. All of us fall short of God's will and intention for us and yet he forgives us like a loving father. That should inform our attitude to others.
  6. 'You shall not murder.' Human life is sacred because we are made in the image of God and are temples of his indwelling Spirit. Any Christian discussion of the complex ethical issues surrounding abortion, euthanasia and ethics of war and peace will always have the sacredness of life as it starting point.
  7. 'You shall not commit adultery.' Marriage is meant to be a sign of the faithfulness of God in his covenant with his people which adultery destroys. In all our sexual relationships we should seek God's will and ask what it is we wish to express to the other person. Any relationship of exploitation is wrong because it falls short of the love of God. The word chastity that applies to both marriage and the single life means integrity. In our relationship with others we are called to be people of integrity. Once again we are mindful of Jesus' compassion especially for the woman taken in adultery. Our own struggle in the journey towards sexual maturity helps us to understand the foibles of others.
  8. 'You shall not steal.' Respect for property follows a respect for persons. Theft and burglary can have a devastating effect on people and is wrong. However in compassion we will wish to consider why some people commit such crimes and not forget those in poverty who have no property.
  9. 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.' Effective human relationships are dependant on the trust that lying destroys. Civilisation is dependant on justice. False witness particularly in a Court of Law is an evil
  10. 'You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour.' Coveting reflects an excessive desire for something belonging to another. In the end it eats away at our spiritual lives. The Christian life of simplicity is a good foil to it.

There then are a few brief reflections on the Ten Commandments to get you thinking. In the end such reflections should not be morbid and guilt inducing because in coming to own our true nature we discover that God loves us just as we are and that as we are led to repent so by his grace we learn to love others as he does too.


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Last updated 04/03/2003 10:00:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd