Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Ash Wednesday
February 23, 2012, 12:51 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Wednesday 22nd February 2012

It is one of the little quirks of the English language that our word for the season we are beginning today is quite unrelated to its name in other European languages. The Italian Quaresma, the French Carême, come from the Latin Quadragesima, referring to the Forty Days in which our Lord was in the wilderness before his public ministry. Our word Lent, however, is related to the English word “length”- it is the season when the days begin to lengthen, when winter is on the way out, and springtime is on the way in. In our northern regions it is indeed springtime, and the season for spring-cleaning.

Our motto this Lent is “seek and ye shall find”, and when we begin spring-cleaning the first thing we find is usually dust and cobwebs and things like that. Cupboards full of junk that has accumulated over the past years, stuff that we have forgotten why we ever got it in the first place. It is much the same with our spiritual lives: we ourselves are, spiritually, rather dusty and full of junk. Lent should be the time when we make an effort to sort ourselves out.

I suggest, then, that the first thing we need to do is to take a good look at ourselves, making a note of all the various things that need attention. “Examination of conscience”, it is usually called, an exercise we often associate with the preparation for sacramental confession, but which is valuable in its own right. With domestic spring-cleaning, it is useful to make a list of the jobs to be done, perhaps with a rough plan or timetable for doing them. We can find it just as useful in the spiritual realm.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord focuses on three spiritual exercises: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are three useful headings for our self-examination. Fasting in its most literal sense is going without food, but we can take it more widely. Compared with most people in the world today, you and I live pretty comfortable lives. We eat and drink well, we have comfortable homes, we have all sorts of entertainments to occupy our time. These are good things, things to be very thankful for: but do we take them too much for granted? Are we as grateful for them as we should be? Are we sometimes a bit too keen on them, a bit too greedy? Do they make us, shall we say, a bit too soft? This is where “giving up” things comes in, cutting out the excesses not just in eating or drinking, but in anything we are conscious of slightly overdoing. Time itself is a valuable and strictly limited resource which it is all too easy to waste. Ask yourself how much of what you do and have is strictly necessary.

Next, almsgiving: again, not just in the restricted sense of giving money, but in the wider sense of being generous with our resources, being more conscious of the needs of others, and our power to bring happiness to them. Once again, the gift of time is underrated: to spend time with other people, especially those who may be lonely, is sometimes more urgent than seeing to their material wants. If fasting involves looking at ourselves and our excesses, almsgiving means looking at others and their needs- looking outwards. Ask yourself not how little you need to do for others, but how much you can.

The third thing is prayer, not just saying prayers and performing religious devotions, but deepening our awareness of God, of our Lord’s constant presence, of his friendship. It is easy enough to take family and friends for granted, how much easier it is to forget God! God is both within and without, in the depths of our hearts and in our fellow men and women. But if we are too self-absorbed, we overlook him in both. Prayer should be a constant inner dialogue with an ever-present friend. Read the Bible as if our Lord were sitting beside you, looking over your shoulder, as it were. Go out and about as if he were walking visibly beside you, as he is invisibly. Examine yourself not about your feelings (or lack of feelings) of devotion, but about your intentions; how much do you really want to know God better?

We have six weeks ahead of us to make a start. Make your survey, make your plan. As the days draw out and the sunshine (we hope) floods into our homes, make them fit for our Lord’s visitation. Not tomorrow, or the next day: now is the proper time, today is the day of salvation!


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