Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Years A B & C

John 8:1-11

“In a Jesus Society you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.”

I’m indebted to Bishop Peter (Peter Price of Bath & Wells) for that quotation which I’ll be carrying in my mind through Lent this year.

“In a Jesus Society you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.”

As we hear the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery, God once again invites us to repent by thinking different and, through that thinking, by being different.

We’re invited to think different: about others; about ourselves and about God and to be different in our relationships with others, with ourselves and with God.

In our imagination we can be among the people who have come to the temple to hear Jesus teaching. With them we can watch the drama unfold and, with them, we can learn something about how things work in a Jesus society.

We see the woman dragged through the crowd. Dragged by these righteous men
of religion, the scribes and the Pharisees, determined to trick Jesus into saying or doing something which will lead to his downfall.

The woman has committed adultery. There is no disputing that fact in the story. She has committed a sin which, according to the letter of the law, carries a particularly nasty death penalty.

This woman has done wrong but somehow our sympathies, or mine anyway, are swayed more towards her than towards her accusers.

Here she stands, in front of us all, named and shamed, humiliated and alone. And there is something very unpleasant about the self righteous way these men are gloating, using her for their own ends and attempting to manipulate Jesus who now faces their trap.

If he upholds the law of Moses and agrees to her being stoned, he can be reported to the Roman authorities for inciting murder. If he lets her go free he can be accused of blasphemy against the holy law.

It’s an explosive situation with emotions running dangerously high.

In the middle of this volatile maelstrom Jesus creates a space of calm around himself, a time of silence when our words, thoughts and feelings are echoed back to us.

From this time and place of reflection Jesus gives his response, a response which invites everyone around him, including us, to think different.

To think different: about others, about ourselves and about God

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”.

Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees to see this woman as a person, not an object of hate, fit only for condemnation and death.

He calls them to see themselves as fallible and as vulnerable as she is.

He calls them to see the justice and mercy of God, to see God as above and beyond
their values and judgments.

These men hear the call but are threatened by it. They cannot openly admit their own sinfulness so one by one they slink off to lick their wounds and prepare for their next attack on Jesus.

Only the woman remains, watched by us and the ordinary folk who came to listen to Jesus teach. With them we hear Jesus speak words of forgiveness, healing and release:

“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again”.

If they had stayed, the scribes and the Pharisees would have heard Jesus uphold the holy law of Moses “Do not commit adultery”. Jesus still calls the adultery a sin.

But they would also have seen him show the love and forgiveness of a God who is always wanting his people to turn to him and live.

Jesus calls the woman to the knowledge that, even in her sin, she is not alone or worthless. He lifts her from her public humiliation and shame to public forgiveness and restoration into her society.

He calls her to accept God’s grace and mercy and to live a new life without the sin that brought her shame upon her.

And what about us? Jesus calls us, too, to think different about others about ourselves and about God and through thinking different, to be different, to live our lives in a new way.

Perhaps like the Pharisees we need to learn not to be quite so quick to condemn, judge and sentence people so harshly.

Perhaps we need to learn to create time and space in our anger, indignation or contempt, so that we can think different about the way we’ll act towards others out of those feelings.

Perhaps we need time and space to remember that none of us is perfect and to find enough courage, honesty and humility to see our own shortcomings.

Perhaps, like the un-named woman we need to learn to forgive ourselves, to let go of burdens of guilt and self hatred which threaten to overwhelm us.

Psalm 19 has two wonderful verses:

“Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!
Keep your servant also
from presumptuous sins
lest they get dominion over me”.

We all have secret faults and presumptuous sins which we need to own up to before God and we need to accept our responsibility for causing offence or harm to others.

But we also need to allow ourselves to let go of those faults and sins so that they don’t overwhelm us and cause us to demonise ourselves.

I’ve been thinking different about Lent and the meaning for me of Ash Wednesday and the imposition of the ashes in the sign of the cross.

By sharing my thoughts with you I’m simply offering an alternative way of interpreting the imposition of the ashes which may or may not make sense to anyone else. This is just the way I am making sense of this day for myself this year.

I see the sign of the cross on our foreheads, made from ashes, as an outward acknowledgment of our hidden sins, our secret faults, the things  which create a burden of guilt.

This sign can help us to think different about others. We can’t point accusingly at the mark on someone else’s forehead since we carry the same mark.

It can help us to think different about ourselves. Instead of feeling alone and ashamed of our sin we can see that others acknowledge that they too carry similar burdens and have a similar sense of their own sinfulness.

To help us to think different about God it might be that once we’ve received the bread and wine of our communion we could wipe away the ash crosses. A symbolic gesture, a sign of God’s forgiveness which wipes away our sin and allows us to go on our way freed from that burden of shame and guilt.

We would then see each other as men and women who have received God’s forgiveness and who must therefore also be free from our judgment or condemnation.

If this symbolism speaks to you, when you have received communion you may wish to go to the font and wipe the ash from your forehead in a new act of commitment to think different, and therefore to be different this Lent.

Whether or not you wish to think of the imposition of ashes in this way,  I pray that we will all commit ourselves this Lent to thinking different about others about ourselves and about God because that’s how we will grow to be a Jesus Society.