SERMON: Ash Wednesday 2021

SERMON: Ash Wednesday 2021

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 17 February 2021.

   ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,

   turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Every year we hear these words addressed to us as the ashes are placed on our foreheads. This year we’ll still hear these words spoken, even though no ash is being used.

The words echo words used at every Christian burial:

   ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’

We’re reminded of our mortality, and invited to walk humbly on this earth.

   ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,

   turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’

Lent is an invitation to be honest with ourselves, and to be honest with God.

Today’s gospel offers a striking contrast between the God of the scribes and Pharisees, and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, the woman has committed adultery; but she’s made into a victim by the scribes and Pharisees, who surround her, stones in hand, ready to complete the task of stoning her to death.

The scribes and Pharisees are also trying to turn Jesus into a victim, by testing him ‘so that they might have some charge to bring against him’ we’re told.

What shines through in this story is the extraordinary freedom that Jesus is able to bring to the situation. Towards the woman certainly – but also, I suggest, towards the scribes and Pharisees.

Because unknown to themselves, they too are trapped, they too are victims of a way of thinking and acting that diminishes not only this woman, but also them.

‘Gotcha’ is the world they inhabit.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus takes his time and bends down to write with his finger on the ground! He’s searching for a way, not just to get himself out of the trap, but of getting everyone, scribes, Pharisees and this woman, to a place of greater freedom.

Who is God? Is there an alternative to the ‘gotcha’ God of the scribes and Pharisees?

First Jesus’ reply to the scribes and Pharisees:

   ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to

   throw a stone at her.’

This doesn’t diminish the scribes or put the Pharisees down – instead it offers them a way out – which they take. They walk away, their hands no longer clutching stones, their minds and hearts no longer hell bent. For the time being they’ve been freed from their own mindset!

Jesus pauses, bends down and writes on the ground a second time. Then comes his conversation with the woman, a conversation that we know well:

   ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

   ‘No one, sir,’ she replies.

   ‘Neither do I condemn you.’

The God whom Jesus knew was not the God who traps and humiliates, but the God who forgives and frees. She too can now walk away, no longer cowering in fear for her life:

   ‘Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’

This extraordinary kingdom that Christ lives and invites us to live, is extraordinary because it has the power to free us all, perpetrator and victim alike.

We shall have to wait now for a few weeks before we can shout ‘Alleluia!’