THE SECRET ROOM.................
A sermon preached at the church of the ANNUNCIATION, Brighton on ASH WEDNESDAY 2015
The second penitential season of the year is upon us.
The first, Advent, always seems a bit of a rush and a bit confused. There is the constant, almost hysterical background of shopping days till Christmas and decorations to put up. It’s only 4 weeks and it bumps up against Christmas Eve. We’re told to be waiting simultaneously for the 1st and 2nd comings, the birth of the baby Jesus and the end of the world.
Never mind. Now it’s Lent and we have nearly six uninterrupted weeks (if you count Holy Week) to prepare for one thing – the Resurrection. It is time that we can put to good use without distractions, an opportunity for getting to know God better and to understand better what God is really like.
And this is something we need to think through carefully.
I suggest that we don’t start with the old cliché "Giving something up for Lent."
Straight away, that makes the whole thing sound negative. What we want to achieve by Easter is a positive result. That will certainly mean changing our routine but not necessarily punishing ourselves.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Lavinia Byrne (she was Sister Lavinia at the time). She told me she was taking up cream cakes for Lent, precisely because she was normally far too austere in her eating habits and wanted to mark the season with a change.
Being determined to punish ourselves in some way can have quite hilarious results:
For example: the Anglo-Catholic clergy tradition is to give up alcohol but then to make this bearable by relenting on Sundays and other “Solemnities” - of which there are a notable handful in Lent: S.Patrick's day (at least if you're 10% Irish), S.Joseph's day, S.David's day if you're 10% Welsh, and of course the Feast of the Annunciation.
The result, predictably, is that more gin is consumed in presbyteries on those days - and that is allowed to include from 6pm the previous evening - than would normally be consumed in the whole 6 week period. I think doctors would call it "binge drinking".
I wish we could call Lent a season, not of penitence, but of REpentence in the literal sense - a time of turning around, looking at things from a whole new angle, never being the same again.
Fasting CAN help to sharpen the mind and dull the sensual appetites but it’s a dangerous form of discipline if taken to extremes. If you did it for forty days, unlike Our Lord you’d be dead but, like Our Lord, on the way you would be subject to hallucinations. The other problem with fasting is pride: Ooh, look at me – I’ve lost a stone – aren’t I a good boy!
Almsgiving is a much more liberating and healthy experience. It is an expression of love of neighbour in a very helpful way and it frees us from worrying about hanging on to our money for our own rainy day. It teaches us that if we share more generously with others and alleviate their rainy days, the Lord will provide.
Love of neighbour and help to the poor are at the heart of the gospel. It can take many more forms than cash donations. The practical help given to the homeless by churches opening up as night shelters in Winter is a good example.
To give of your money, your time and your talents is a fumdamental expression of your faith. Indeed St.James’s letter in the New Testament tells us scathingly that, without some "good works", in the old phrase, our faith is a hollow mockery.
However, it is above all prayer that will bring us nearer to God and to understanding what He is like.
Now there is corporate prayer and there is private prayer. Both are vital.
We can do so much more together than we can do separately. Our witness can only be effective if we are a community committed to being and worshipping together.
But we each need to cultivate our one-to-one relationship with God as well.
"When you pray", Our Lord said tonight, "go to your private room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place."
Do you go to that private room? Do you sometimes get out of the habit? I'm afraid I do. Don't be shocked - I'm only human. Pray for me a sinner too.
But when we do go to that private room, wherever it is, in our houses or in our heads somewhere, Our Father is so pleased to see us. And we can share with Him in so many ways. We can read set prayers, say a short morning or evening office or whatever. Or we can pour out our troubles or our thanks to Him in our own stumbling words. Or we can read the scriptures or a spiritual book and let Him speak to us through the written page. Or we can just light a candle and be quiet and still.
Do you go to that private room regularly? If you don't, make it a habit this Lent. Give your heavenly Father 10 minutes first thing in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening.
If you do use the private room already, give it an extra 10 minutes morning and evening this Lent.
And your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
These are the beautiful words, this is God's own promise, which will sustain us and feed us and turn this Lent into a precious and fruitful time in our lives.