Sermon delivered at the service of Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday the 14th February 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church, 461 Shedden Road, George Town.

Scriptures: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17     2 Corinthians 5:20b - 6:10     S. Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

Joel 2: 12f "Yet even now," says the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments."

The idea of Lent includes within it the theme of growth, because the word itself in old English suggests growth or springing up. The gardener knows though that for certain plants to grow, and to grow in the desired way, they must be cut back. That cutting back would be paralleled by the inclusion, in the Lenten observance, of acts of self-denial. A garden, after all, does not grow in the desired way by itself. By itself, it or parts of it may grow wildly, while other parts will die off for lack of water, or get choked by the wild growth of the rest of it. This is just as true for a garden like ours at the Rectory that is developed stage by stage trying to make use of the wild trees that were growing before the garden existed as such, as well as some of the natural rocks, as it is for the gardens that rather quickly begin from levelling everything down and starting from scratch. Doing it our way does not seem natural to some, and I remember a couple from our congregation in our garden’s earlier stages describing part of it as "ruinate". A garden, however it is formed, is not an independent entity; even the Garden of Eden needed intelligent attention according to Genesis Ch 2, where we read that the Lord took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. So the idea of an independent garden is really a contradiction in terms, and the health and good growth of our souls is likewise something that cannot take place in isolation and independence, and without submission to the equivalent of the good gardener, who may need to prune or cut back or even to root out.

For many years western culture has confused the ideas of independence and maturity, and people have been encouraged not only to "paddle their own canoe" as the saying goes, but also to be blinkered or in denial about the dependence of any canoe that can be paddled, upon the water that bears it. Christian thinking on the other hand declares that a soul's maturity and desirable growth needs not so much independence, as a freedom of a greater sort, a sense of a greater dependence upon God and His will, always gracious but always sovereign. Christians think not so much of being less dependent as changing the nature of our dependence, which if it does not change in a God-ward direction becomes in practice as time passes an idolatrous dependence. The purest form of mental independence is surely madness, and as the classical saying goes, "Whom the gods would destroy they first turn mad". Some of the finest minds of western culture have moved, as they matured independently of the norms that fostered and nurtured them, into isolation, depression, madness and suicide. This is surely a form of the very same syndrome that we see in the perils of modern stardom, when those who have delighted and entertained millions sadly fall prey to drug-dependence and early death. *

It is possible that over recent years, some of the assumptions of our lives on which we have depended have been shaken, and while that is uncomfortable, Christians may be reminded by this to see it as a call to change the nature of their dependence to a truer sort. Old Testament prophets such as Joel often address themselves to people who are similarly rather shaken, or indeed frightened or in a state of denial. Joel envisages or describes his people in the grip of some impending great catastrophe, the exact nature of which is obscure, though several commentators regard it as an invasion of locusts, something that I understand is of a far more disastrous nature than we who have never witnessed such things can possibly imagine. Especially with the memory of hurricane Ivan, or regional earthquakes, what we in Cayman would without doubt find more possible to imagine would be a hurricane that raged through the Islands leaving many dead, or a very serious tsunami. There is no mistaking the sense of urgency about today's Old Testament lesson. It is a call to the people of Judah to drop everything they are doing and gather at the House of God to make repentance and intercession for the land and the people. In such conditions our underlying sense of dependence on forces greater than ourselves comes to the fore, as we saw clearly after Ivan and after the disastrous Haiti earthquake. Such circumstances might bring even an atheist to his knees, though he may wish to deny it when the emergency is past. But the truth is that disaster, in one form or another, is always impending, always around the corner if not actually visible. Ever with us is the acceptable time for genuine repentance and genuinely living and enjoying openly our divinely dependent lifestyle, a lifestyle of real repentance and genuine dependence on our Father who has given us such grace as reconciliation with Him through Christ. May we live this way in the face of whatever disaster confronts mankind and the world; for this age is not self-sufficient or independent. It can only live by drawing from outside itself, like a garden that needs tending. If we have been truly dependent on our Father as we are directed in today's Gospel, and as the Lenten disciplines can suggest to us, as part of our reward from Him we may be His helpers in tending this needy and thirsty garden.

St Paul shows us a portrait of his life, a life into which we see integrated all the Lenten disciplines before any of the Christian seasons like Lent were distinguished in the Church’s life. We see “afflictions, hardships, calamities”, general difficulties of a physical or spiritual sort. We see “beatings, imprisonments, tumults”, deprivations caused by other people, and we see “labours, sleepless watchings, and starvation”, his undertakings in order to tend the field of the Kingdom and further the gospel among men. He fasted, he prayed, he made himself poor to make others rich. I see in St. Paul’s life the great sign of Christ’s cross. For who more than Christ Jesus Himself was treated as an imposter, yet was true: as a nobody, yet was well known: as dying, and behold, He lives; as condemned, yet unconquered by death; as the Man of sorrows, yet eternally rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. It was the One who knew no sin that was made sin, who was freed to make exodus into the Resurrection life that was, for the apostles, first poured down upon them with the Holy Spirit. The apostles then also bore their cross after Christ Jesus in order to communicate that Resurrection life to their charges, and if we who are called Christians are to play our part in the communication of life to our charges, we too must bear our cross after Christ. Let our Lenten disciplines, then, be a modern bearing of the cross, so that we play our part in communicating the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ to the  (often seriously unknowingly) dependent and needy garden of this age.

*[Interestingly, in some areas the culture has recently shifted its position by nearly 180 degrees about maturity. Effectively, the word for maturity in these areas of life is not so much “independence” as “compliance.” It is not only dependent oversees territories that are now being encouraged to be compliant with over-arching legal standards and conventions, but all countries and indeed all individuals. However, to be legally compliant is an idea that still differs significantly from the Christian understanding of exercising principle, which involves an adherence of heart and conscience to God’s declared will. As St. Paul declares in our second lesson today, "we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake God made Jesus Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." This is an appeal that comes from the heart of God, through the apostles on behalf of Christ to His body the Church, and then from the communion of the Church to the people that the Church addresses with her Gospel, an appeal for reconciliation to God our Father and therefore an appeal to acknowledge a dependence of heart, soul, mind and strength upon God’s declared will in Christ. Christians cannot but see appeals for moral compliance to standards other than demonstrably godly ones, to open a dangerous door to idolatry. For the instructor of our souls wants to know if we have absorbed and followed his directions.]