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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

21st February 2007

Fr David Shepherd

Ash Wednesday 2007

We Christians can be a depressing bunch – and that’s just the clergy! These days the Church comes across as an organisation that is against things. Undeserved it may be, but that is our media image. Religious people can often seem worthy, unrelenting and life denying, hard work. Actually I don’t think it’s just the Church; there is a Puritanism abroad that seems to want to control and ban, an intolerant liberalism that hides behind political correctness. (Much as I hate cigarettes, when the government bans it, I feel like taking up smoking! There’s a thought for Ash Wednesday!). Still until ‘the king enjoys his own again’ that is the state we are in.

Given what I’ve just said, Lent can seem rather problematic. Of all the Christian seasons, it is the most negative and disapproving. If we are honest there is part of us that quite enjoys all that self-abasement. I seem to remember a scene from long ago in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ where the voice of God booms out from heaven telling the over pious psalm singing knights to ‘stop grovelling’. Echoes there of our reading from Isaiah where God condemns false religion.

In Lent Christians are traditionally urged to do three things - to give alms, to pray and to fast. Jesus speaks of them in today’s Gospel. But he doesn’t simply commend the existing Jewish practice; rather he issues a note of warning. Then as now religious people could be a bit of a pain. Jesus, the friend of sinners, singles them out for criticism. He was familiar with the alms givers who liked to give their gift with the flourish of a trumpet; the equivalent of those who enjoying flaunting their wealth at all those charity Dutch auctions.

Jesus had a word too for the hypocrites who liked to be seen at prayer. It wasn’t that long ago when the important thing was to be seen in church in your Sunday best. (Sidesmen in frock coats!) Similarly condemned were those who disfigured themselves to demonstrate their fasting and enjoyed their dismal looks.

If we are honest non-religious people can seem much more fun and interesting, the life and soul of many a party. Certainly Jesus seems to have found them so. There’s a painting by Bruegel depicting the combat between a rather debauched carnival and a fish-faced Lent. It reflects the dualist tendency in much mediaeval religion. You still experience in the Carnival and Mardi gras of Catholic countries. Carnival should win hands down. Stinking fish, the stuff of hospital food and school diners seems like a loser.

The problem comes if we see ourselves as righteous and others as sinners. Its only when we see ourselves as sinners too, in need of God’s redemption that we gain a true Lenten perspective – ‘Just as I am’ in the words of the hymn. We might even dare to have a little fun and Lent can emerge as a winner.

Jesus urges us to give alms to the poor in secret, he urges us to pray from the heart in secret and to disguise our fasting. In so doing we accrue treasure in heaven, deepening our relationship with God and benefiting our fellow human beings. In being Christ like we become fully alive. All have sinned because all fall short of the glory of God, so St. Paul tells us. The glory God, Irenaeus tells us, is a man or woman fully alive.

Who is more fully alive the carnal carnival goer or the puritanical and pious Christian? It is a question that can only be asked as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ who is the glory of God, fully alive. Not a bad question to set before us during Lent and not a bad task as well, as we give, pray and fast.


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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at Last updated 21/02/2007 09:30 Author: David Shepherd