Ash Wednesday

Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on Ash Wednesday, 26th February 2020 at All Saints’ Church, Cuddesdon

When I was discerning whether or not to apply for the post of Vicar of the Benefice of Garsington, Cuddesdon and Horspath, Mark Chapman tried to encourage me with the words, “Don’t worry, we’re not looking for anyone academic.”

Thanks, Mark!

So, this won’t be an academic sermon!

I have thrown in a tiny bit of Hebrew though – just to show I did learn something in my time at Cuddesdon!!

I remember, from my time as an ordinand here, sitting through many sermons at Wednesday evening Eucharists.  Many seemed to begin with the words, “When I was an ordinand here …” or similar.  Others began with a joke.  I’m not much good at jokes – I can never remember the punch lines.  So, here goes:

When I was an ordinand here, I sat through a lot of sermons.  Some of them were great.  Some were good.  Some, to be honest, were fairly mediocre.  Sometimes I was too busy worrying about my sacristan duties to pay due attention to the sermon.  I was far less competent and confident than Erica, when I was sacristan here.  But, occasionally, I listened and I thought, “I could do better than that!”

I didn’t have many ambitions, when I was at training at Cuddesdon.  I think I was mostly quiet, unassuming and, often – in my first year, at least – lacking in confidence.  But I did have a dream of one day preaching at a college Eucharist. And, today, that day has come.

And I wonder, today, if I was perhaps a little arrogant – or guilty of the sin of pride – on those occasions when I listened to a sermon and thought that I could do better.

Well, pride comes before a fall and, as I sat in my study, on Sunday afternoon, aware that I hadn’t begun this sermon, and that my diary for Tuesday was rather full (and Monday is my ‘day off’, or ‘rest day’), I had some sympathy with those visiting preachers who delivered sermons that were ‘good enough,’ rather than great.

Pride.  A sin many of us are, perhaps, prone to at times?

I remember, many years ago – when I was training for  Reader ministry, and struggling to cope with assignment deadlines, my paid employment, church commitments, family responsibilities, and the loss of my mum – I remember the director of Reader Training challenging me that I was, in fact, motivated by – or guilty of – pride, in my striving to achieve good marks in my assignments, rather than merely settle for a pass, which would be ‘good enough.’

He recommended I read a book, ‘Struggling to be holy,’ by Judy Hirst, and reflect upon the reasons for the pressure I was feeling.  Was I, as he suggested, guilty of pride?  I did buy the book – and I even found the time to read it – I have it on my bookshelf to this day – but I didn’t do a great deal of reflecting on pride.  I think the accusation stung too much, and seemed rather unfair, when I was offering myself for ministry, and striving to complete the training to the best of my ability.

It wasn’t until I came to Cuddesdon that I fully grasped the message that we don’t always have to do our best – that sometimes “good enough,” is “good enough.”  And I’ve never yet done a theological reflection on whether – when we strive to produce a good assignment, or when we strive to prepare a cracking sermon – we are guilty of pride.  After all, isn’t that why we’re here?  To learn how to serve God, and to serve his people.  And ministry is such a wonderful privilege that, of course, we want to do it well.

On Sunday, as I wondered what I had let myself in for when I agreed to preach today – and as I wondered whether I am guilty of pride – I found that book, Struggling to be Holy, and I opened it at a random page and read the following words:

God can live with the reality that we are sinners, even if we find it hard to do so.”

“The only person qualified to throw the stone chooses not to.”

God can live with the reality that we are sinners, even if we find it hard to do so.”

Today – Ash Wednesday – isn’t about beating ourselves up because we’re sinners.  It’s not a day designed to make us feel guilty, or ashamed.

The God who created us in his image knows that we are all sinners – or, perhaps, that we all commit sins – and he loves us unconditionally.

I’m not a great scholar of scriptures.  But a tutor I admired a great deal once suggested that the words accredited to Jesus at the end of today’s Gospel passage, “Go and sin no more,” were a later addition to Jesus’ actual words.  He claimed that the Jesus he followed wouldn’t have said those words, but would have ended at, “neither do I condemn you.”  He based this, I believe, not on detailed analysis of various manuscripts, but on his belief that God knows us, and loves us, unconditionally.

If God knows us, he’ll know that we’re imperfect, and that, regardless of our best intentions, we will sin, time after time, after time.  This woman, hauled before Jesus by the scribes and pharisees, no doubt fears for her life.  If she was truly “caught in the very act of committing adultery,” she’s probably in a state of undress.  We know nothing of the man with whom she was supposedly committing adultery but – in a society where men generally wielded far more power than women – it’s at least possible, if not highly likely, that this woman was a victim of an abusive or non-consensual relationship, rather than a temptress who deliberately led an innocent man astray.  I’m guessing that – regardless of whether she was guilty of sin, or was in fact an innocent victim of male power – she’s now feeling frightened, remorseful and ashamed.

Jesus – the healer – a man who feels compassion for the crowds – who wouldn’t break a bruised reed, nor extinguish a smouldering wick – the Jesus who I follow and serve, wouldn’t impose another burden of shame on this woman.  On this woman who – even if she’s not a victim of abuse – is certainly a pawn in the political games of the scribes and pharisees.

In my spare time, I’m currently working my way through the Game of Thrones DVDs.  [Yes, I got a similar reaction at Horspath this morning – looks of surprise, as if to say, “That’s not suitable viewing for a Vicar!”]  Perhaps you’ve read the books, or watched the television adaptation?  You might remember Cersei Lannister’s long walk of shame, through the streets of King’s Landing, after her arrest for the crime of incest and adultery, accompanied by a nun who castigates her with the repeated word, “Shame … shame … shame … shame.”

Today is a day for humility – but not for shame.

Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame leads to hatred, revenge and mass murder, as she blows up the citadel on the day of her trial.

Today is a day for humility – but not for shame.

On Sunday evening, I attended the launch of Sacred – safe, inclusive, evangelical worship – at Christ Church Cathedral.

There, I heard the stories of Christians who’ve been led – by the Church – to feel ashamed: to feel ashamed of their identity; to feel ashamed of their sexuality; to feel ashamed because of who they love.

Shame is a terrible, dangerous state in which to live.  In fact, it’s hard to live at all when you feel ashamed of who you are.  It’s certainly hard to live life in all its fullness – the life Jesus wants for each one of us: “I came that they might have life: life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)

Shame leads to depression.  It can lead to self-hatred, to self-harm, to suicidal thoughts, and, tragically, in too many cases, to suicide.

There’s nothing loving – nothing Christian – in causing our fellow-brothers and sisters to feel shame.  There’s nothing loving in the scribes and pharisees dragging this poor woman before Jesus.

Today isn’t a day for shame.  It’s a day for humility – but not for shame.

It’s a day to remember that “God formed the man of dust from the ground”:

  • “ha-Adam afar min ha Adamah”

a day to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return – but that dust isn’t a cause for shame.

In Philip Pulman’s trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, set partly in Oxford, the religious authorities, or Magisterium, associate dust with original sin, and seek to destroy dust.

The heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, however, realises that dust is part and parcel of the world:

“The street below her was saturated in Dust.  Human lives were generating it, being sustained and enriched by it; it made everything glow as if it was touched with gold.”[1]

Dust.  Generated by us, sustaining and enriching us.  And we, in turn, return to dust.  A circle of life and death.

Today’s a day for humility. For remembering that we are formed from the dust of the ground.

A day to know ourselves as created by God, in his image, for relationship with God – and with our fellow human beings.  Loved unconditionally by God; and called to love, unconditionally.

Humility is about self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-love.  For it’s only when we accept ourselves as created and loved by God – just as we are – that we can set aside pride, and practice true humility: not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.[2]

Soon, we’ll receive the sign of the cross, on our foreheads.

I encourage you, don’t think of yours as a badge of shame, or guilt, but as a badge of love: a reminder that God loves you so much that he sent his Son.  That Jesus loves you so much, that he died and rose again for you.  That, in baptism, you have been crucified with Christ, and are a new creation.  That you are fearfully and wonderfully made – formed by God, and loved by God, just as you are.

And – whatever else you’ve decided to give up, or to take on for Lent – I encourage … I urge you to give up worrying about your life, and to take up – and lift high -the cross, and proclaim the unconditional, abundant, all-embracing, wonderful, inclusive love of Christ.

In Jesus’ name.



[1] Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth, David Fickling Books: Oxford 2019, page 549

[2] CS Lewis?