Ash Wednesday – evening
Wednesday 26th February 2020
Ash Wednesday – evening
2. Cor 5. 20b-6.10
John 8. 1-11
Revd Preb Maureen Hobbs
Imagine, if you will, that instead of the woman ‘caught in the very act of committing adultery’ – we have brought in a man, accused of sexual abuse. And has it ever struck you that it is curious we hear about the woman in this case, but not about her partner? Committing adultery requires more than just one person I would have thought! Where is the censure for him???
This past week there have been several people caught up in just such a scandal. Harvey Weinstein has been declared guilty of at least two of the charges brought against him. And far more shocking for many Christians – the great Jean Vanier – the person who founded the l’Arche communities around the world and who has done so much for those with learning and physical disability. A man who pioneered the notion that such people should be treated as people and not as some sort of lesser being. Whose writing has been inspirational for countless thousands of Christians around the world and who – before his death last year at the age of 90 was seriously being talked about as a candidate for sainthood. A veritable ambassador for Christ.
Jean Vanier it emerged this week, was guilty of serious sexual abuse of at least six women in the context of providing them with spiritual direction. The one saving grace is that none of the women were disabled or learning impaired, but they were certainly vulnerable adults when they met Jean Vanier.
How could someone who seemed to be so good, so holy, all the while be abusing the trust placed in him? It is a sadly familiar story. A kind, caring and compassionate and pious individual becomes so intoxicated with the power and adulation that others afford him that he cannot withstand the temptation to abuse that power. And lives are damaged , souls left distraught and betrayed as a result. We have seen the phenomenon – sadly – several times in the past as the stories of the disgraced Bishop Peter Ball and – from the other, Evangelical wing of the church, the story of John Smith and the Iwerne Christian camps have demonstrated. And, sadly, it won’t be the last shocking story to emerge from the Church or other institutions.
As we come to the beginning of Lent, it is high time for us all to consider where we too have fallen short of God’s standards of behaviour. I don’t mean just in a moral sense, – I would like to believe that no-one here has fallen prey to the temptation to abuse others or is living themselves with the consequences of such abuse. But I know that the likelihood is that there will be those among us for whom these references bring back very dark and painful memories. If you find yourself in such a position, please know that you can come to me in private to share your pain. And if I am not able to help you myself, I will try to point the way to those who can.
But how would Jesus respond I wonder to those who abuse? I don’t think he would go easy on them. Not in the sense that he would in any way collude with their behaviour or the self-justification that they may claim for themselves. But neither would he be the first to cast stones – real or metaphorical. He would remind them that – no matter how serious the allegations made against them – God is willing to surround them with his healing love if only they accept themselves for what they have done and vow to ‘sin no more’. And Jesus would also wish to love and to heal those who are hurting and afraid because of the actions and abuse of others.
Lent is the season that the Church sets aside for us all to spend an extended time being honest with ourselves and exploring the hidden depths of our own backstory. It is the environment in which, in the bleak, scarce, wilderness experience, we allow our illusions and pretences to be challenged. It is the place when we decide to let ourselves be defined no longer by the public mask we all wear, but by the struggle of the vulnerable child behind it; not from the outside, but from within; not from the shallows, but from the depths.
It’s the space where we allow ourselves to be persuaded that, as someone put it, “what you are always comes out, what you project rarely comes off.” Lent is the season not for gestures of self-denial that may feed our self-satisfaction, but for abandoning ourselves in the self-sustaining love that God has for us. That is why some of us choose to carry the mark of the cross today. Not to proclaim how good we are, but to acknowledge the depths to which we too can all too easily sink.
Lent is not meant to be easy or particularly comfortable, but in five weeks’ time or so, as we emerge from Lent into the profound experience of Holy Week, may we too experience some echo of that of Jesus himself, as he returned to his public ministry, and hear the most important affirmation that we can and need to know; You are my son, my daughter, my child; with you I am well pleased.”