Ash Wednesday - where your treasure is, there your heart will be also

A sermon preached by the Revd Canon John White at St George's Campden Hill, 13 February 2013

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6 v 21); words of Jesus, as
they appear in Matthew’s Gospel and which form part of today’s Gospel reading.

 When I was in my late teens my mother, an observant Methodist at the time, became quite concerned that I was taking religion too seriously. My father, a Unitarian rationalist, calmed her anxiety by saying that it was “just a phase”! He was correct, an important phase, but nevertheless, just a phase.
Traditionally, the majority of the British have been very much against taking religion too seriously! I suspect in history it has not always been a national characteristic and as today’s British-ness has the contribution of people of a variety of religious traditions and expressions, it will not be the case into the future. Howbeit, I guess the majority of those who call themselves C of E still reflect a certain caution about taking religion too seriously.

Another so-called traditional British attitude to religion is that its basic justification should be its usefulness. The majority population of Britain remains, I venture to propose, pragmatist rather than philosophical and judges a religion, including any particular expression of the Christian religion, more on what it does than what it believes. But another manifestation of the ‘I know what I like’ approach to life.

So perhaps it is not surprising that many British Christians have come to accept the popular secularist assumption that religion is a form of mildly eccentric leisure pursuit offering, nevertheless, some social value to more than its adherents (a bit like Scouting) particularly around death and occasionally in keeping a few young people off the streets for the odd night a week. So religion is all very well, whilst it ‘doesn’t frighten the horses.’ Slowly we Christians drift into the leisure industry seeking to satisfy the diminishing audiences and to keep the theatres open.

Perhaps the most pervasive traditional attitude of the British population to religion is that it is a very personal affair about which individuals have rights of absolute privacy. I heard a day or two ago an account of a ‘real life’ event which had about it all the marks of black comedy. An older couple had decided to return to church going in their parish place of worship, well at least for one Sunday morning. They immediately complained that the service was new and unfamiliar and were informed that the present service had been in use for five years. But they were, however, in no way prepared for the moment when the Peace was proclaimed and the young incumbent came to the elderly man and shook him warmly by the hand. His response was to drop dead on the spot!

For many of us not taking religion too seriously; justifying religion through actions rather than beliefs, and claiming it to be a human right that religion is entirely and invincibly personal and private, is quintessentially the British-ness which we value. British maybe, but I fear not Christian. These two things British-ness and Christianity, contrary to some peoples belief, are not synonymous, not the same!

Simone Weil, born into a French Jewish agnostic family in 1909, who  became for a while, some years after her premature death in 1943, a religious philosophical writer of considerable influence in both liberal and Christian circles, held that human rights come from human obligations. “A man,” she said in those pre-politically correct days, “A man who was alone in the universe would not have any rights but he would have obligations.” Obligations come first and are essentially part of what it is to be human; rights come as a result of obligations and are what we should seek to give to others as a reflection of our obligations to them.

For Simone Weil there is a religious imperative behind our obligations, we might say they are what God requires of us consequent upon our being part of humanity. They are not some club rules that help keep the entertainment show on the road.

It seems to me that one of our obligations is to express the sincerity of sorrow for our failure to match our human potential for goodness and love and for our willingness to turn on our neighbours with hatred, violence and indifference. This expression of sincere sorrow is the only way towards reconciliation with one another, and the only way we can begin to understand how God is towards us. The Christian story has Jesus taking to himself not simply his own shortcomings, should he have had any, but the shortcomings of humanity, the humanity which he not only shared but acknowledged. There is, I think, no suggestion in the New Testament that Jesus thought of himself as a good man denied his human rights but as a human being who accepted his obligation to suffer and die on behalf of the people who were responsible for his crucifixion and yet who were, nevertheless, also human beings.

It is, I recognise only too well, a hard “philosophy” to follow, namely that we with Christ accept our part in total human failure, human sinfulness if you will, not because we shall, necessarily, by so doing, bring about change, but because it is for us, as it was for Christ, an obligation of love and a responsibility given by goodness.   
To do this we have to have some real belief, that emerges from a genuine act of faith, in the fundamental God-given core of every human being; namely that which, within all of us, enables God to love us. Our own judgement of different degrees of failure and sinfulness comes from the same source as our wish to put rights before and beyond obligations. In fact what really matters is that we all share in the same human tragedy and are mysteriously part of the same human predicament. Our Christian religion cannot be fundamentally personal and private, though it has aspects which are marked by our sacred individuality;-it cannot be fundamentally personal and private because the one whom we follow, we believe, was sacrificed for all humankind, for it is all humankind that God draws by Divine love towards God’s own being.

Simone Weil wrote this;
“At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crime, committed, suffered and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.”  She wrote this in 1943, in England, as she waited to go back to France on a dangerous mission supporting the Free French forces, and knowing what was happening to her fellow Jews under the Nazi regime.

You have a right to ask, what has all this to do with Ash Wednesday, coming from a preacher especially invited to reflect on this day, the beginning of Lent. I think it provides the only legitimate context for our Lenten discipline. In our drift towards being a form of entertainment, Lenten disciplines have effectively become risible, especially when compared with what our forbears, not least our Anglican forbears, put upon themselves. Generally, but not of course for everyone, we plan disciplines that we suppose will do us good in the long run. We give up perhaps a few luxuries , promise to lose weight, cut down on drinking, or instead of giving up take on perhaps some additional church going or spiritual reading. All good in themselves and very British!  Not too serious, justified by practical results and very personal and private.

Fasting of course has a personal side and in the past required that you abstained from the staples of life, as there were not many luxuries to give up! But primarily Christian Lenten discipline, I believe, should be an active symbol of response to the obligation to share in our human need to express a sincere sorrow, a genuine penitence, for our continuing human failure to match our God-given potential for goodness and love and for our willingness to turn on our neighbours with hatred, violence and indifference.  We Christians, in this country alone, have an increasing responsibility to do what many others of our society cannot or have no wish to do, namely to bring before God on their behalf as well as our own, humanity’s need for reconciliation, amongst its members and with our Creator.

This is not a simple practical issue; we cannot restore authentic God-given love as the motivation of all human life by the promulgation of a number of human rights however laudable and necessary they may be. It costs more to restore humanity than that. Lent is an opportunity for Christians, in their communities in the Church, to show that they recognise that suffering and self-sacrifice are the marks of Christian discipleship. They are also the way to genuine joy and truly shared happiness. We should perhaps, therefore, spend some time in Lent asking both as a community and as individuals what costs us the most in  trying to believe that God does not judge between us, only for us, and that it is an obligation set upon us that we seek to overcome the prejudice, the partiality, the willingness to condemn fellow human beings to any kind of social or religious perdition and the fundamental acceptance of human hopelessness, which marks so much of our ‘personal entertainment religion’ today.

More than the little self-disciplines we may have planned, we need, I believe, to talk to one another, to face the implications of Christ’s being sacrificed for all humanity and, with openness, to ask what we will have to sacrifice of our pride and religious particularism if we are to take the command to love God and our neighbours seriously. We need to ask one another, what we most value and what we would be willing give up to preserve and keep it.
“for where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”
Holland Park Benefice