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The Cross, that strange sign of Life (Ash Wednesday, Year B, 18 February 2015)

Readings
Isaiah 58.1-12
Matthew 6.1-21

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.

So the psalmist prays in the Ash Wednesday psalm, Psalm 51. We don’t know if this is so, but tradition tells us that David wrote this after his adultery with Bathsheba and his engineering of the death of her husband, Uriah. It doesn’t really matter if that’s so or not; whoever wrote Psalm 51 had a very keen sense of what it means to sin greatly against God.

I imagine there was a great deal of disorder in their life; the knowledge of their shame and guilt, the dread of God’s judgement, and an absolute inability to put things right.

I suppose we all know something about that.

We gather tonight to acknowledge several things.

  • We are mortal, and our lives are like the grass of the field in relation to the earth, the universe, to God;
  • we are finite, and we cannot grasp much beyond our own experience of life in the time and place we are in;
  • like sheep we have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way (Isaiah 53.6).

We may not have done anything like David did, but we know about sin and brokenness.

And it gets worse when we look at what is done in our name as members of a democratic society. So much cries out for justice and for reparation.

  • Children are spending their formative years in detention centres; in the years to come, there are likely be Royal Commissions which will cause us to hang our heads;
  • the gap between first and second peoples in our country is not being closed;
  • sixty women a year are murdered in Australia by their partners, more than one a week;
  • we are in danger of bequeathing an unliveable environment to our great-grandchildren.

It’s a mess.

And what are we doing tonight? We have a bowl of ashes to remind us of our mortality, our finitude, our sin. What use are they?

Yet: we have them with the Scriptures through which God calls, through which God wails for justice. We dare not close our ears to God’s cry.

And we have the cross, that strange sign of Christ’s victory—through what means?—through death!—through the very worst that can happen. The cross is the sign that proclaims God can take the very worst situation and turn it to good.

And those ashes will be placed on our forehead in the shape of that cross. Think of that. We could just put a blob of ash on our foreheads in any old shape, but we place it in the form of a cross.

The ashes on our foreheads will be in the shape of the cross through which the living God conquers evil and sin and even death.

The ashes on our foreheads will be in the shape of the cross that Jesus commands his disciples to carry on the way to life. Think of that.

We are dust, we will return to dust, but we bear the sign of victory. Thanks be to God.

 

Our liturgy  then goes to name the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded in Libya by Islamists. Their crime was to be ‘People of the Cross’. As we say their names, we give thanks for their witness; we pray for their families; we pray for Muslim people of faith; we pray that peace will come.

Milad Makeen Zaky

Abanub Ayad Atiya

Maged Solaiman Shehata

Yusuf Shukry Yunan

Kirollos Shokry Fawzy

Bishoy Astafanus Kamel

Somaily Astafanus Kamel

Malak Ibrahim Sinweet

Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros

Girgis Milad Sinweet

Mina Fayez Aziz

Hany Abdelmesih Salib

Bishoy Adel Khalaf

Samuel Alham Wilson

A worker from Awr village, whose name is known to God

Ezat Bishri Naseef

Loqa Nagaty

Gaber Munir Adly

Esam Badir Samir

Malak Farag Abram

Sameh Salah Faruq

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

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“The Rock from which you were hewn” (24 August 2014, Year A)

Readings
Isaiah 51.1–6
Matthew 16.13–20

 

There are a lot of references to rocks in the Bible.

Deuteronomy 32 calls God ‘the Rock that bore you’. And in 2 Samuel 22:

The Lord lives! Blessed be my rock,
and exalted be my God, the rock of my salvation.

And Psalm 18,

For who is God except the Lord?
And who is a rock besides our God?

Not to mention Jesus:

The stone that the builders rejected 
has become the cornerstone…

It’s a rocky road we’re taking today, as two of our readings speak of rocks: firstly, in Isaiah we are encouraged to 

Look to the rock from which you were hewn.

Let’s ‘look to the rock from which we were hewn’. Sometimes when I’ve holidayed back in England, I’ve visited the church in which I was baptised, Christ Church Harrogate. And I’ve stopped by the font in which I was baptised, and offered a prayer of thanks. Here it is:

Font 

 

You can see that it’s made of stone; I remember the first time I went back, it was this verse that popped into my head:

Look to the rock from which you were hewn.

And why not? Whatever is happening in life, a rock gives you a solid place to stand, a firm place to be. And we need a place to stand.

For me, baptism is one such place. I suppose that’s why that verse came to my mind that day. Baptism gives us a new identity, a firm identity as daughters and sons of the God who came for us in Jesus Christ, and who sent the Spirit among us to bring us new life.

It is easy to feel lost today. Things are changing more rapidly than ever before. So much seems out of control. There are things that we can hold on to: family, friends, home. But so much is out of our hands.

We hear about

  • the way that the forces of ISIS are committing atrocities and terrorising anyone in northern Iraq who doesn’t support their particular kind of religious and political extremism; 
  • the horrors of the never-ending conflict between Israel and Gaza;
  • the way children in detention centres set up by Australia — by us! — are suffering chronic psychological trauma and even harming themselves.

How do we find a place to stand? Continue reading

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Filed under Baptism, Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon