Ash Wednesday

Sermon: Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ash Wednesday

The Revd Alison Adams, Diocese and Cathedral Social Responsibility Enabler

When I was born some foods were still rationed in this country.  And as well as free school milk – remember that? – my generation downed cod liver oil tablets and what was termed ‘welfare orange’.  It was glorious!  There was huge national concern to ensure the wartime and post-war children grew up healthily.  And, of course, many of them now are the baby-boomers enjoying healthy and interesting retirements.  There’s a lot we didn’t have and in many ways a lot of us were poor.  But we didn’t lack for essentials and we certainly didn’t go hungry.

It’s very different today, and in some ways a lot more complex.  I have two sons, one of whom earns a substantial salary and, although his wife currently doesn’t work, lives a comfortable family lifestyle, living and working in the London commuter belt; the other we are constantly providing with food parcels and warding off loan sharks.  I worry what both their sets of children, all pre-teens, will face as they approach adulthood, and what messages they will have taken from their childhoods.

Now my sons’ situations are largely due to personal choice.  But even the relatively affluent one worries about the future and knows that security is an elusive concept.  The mantra is oft repeated that many people are only one bill away from catastrophe.  If not yourself I suspect you, like I, know people for whom that is harsh reality.  And the scandalous and bitter truth is that even working families are in that situation and worse.  Many food bank clients are working families.  For many people income is not supporting even the most basic of lifestyles.

What has all this to do with Lent?  Well, for starters there is currently considerable media interest in hunger and poverty issues – not least following a letter to the Daily Mirror which Bishops and other faith leaders signed.  The issues of food and food poverty are on the lips of parliamentarians.  People want to know what is going on.

And the Church is deeply involved.  The Bishop of Truro will lead a parliamentary enquiry into food banks and food poverty.  Our own Bishop signed the letter to the Mirror and is talking up the issues in the corridors of power.  Cardinal Vincent Nichols has been quite vocal.  There is a national End Hunger campaign and our own Think Hunger group also.

Why is this so?  Well, if we serve a Master who demonstrated a clear preference for the poor, and who famously, quoting the prophet Isaiah, asserted his mission to the poor and vulnerable, and if we aspire to walk in his ways, then we are bidden to ponder and act upon these issues.

There are many who will question the legitimacy of the Church’s role in entering what may feel to be a political arena.  To those I would say it is only truly political if seen as a threat to one or other power group.  If our intervention raises the issues, asks the questions, challenges ignorance and blindness and seeks to help us collectively move forward towards lasting solutions, then we are doing no more than Jesus did.  And to do less would be unworthy of us.

Lent, as we all know, is traditionally a time for fasting and spiritual discipline.  When I worked in a prison, the Muslim tradition of fasting for Ramadhan was well established and, indeed, much money and energy was expended to ensure the practicalities of this could be fulfilled within the prison regime.  But when Christians opted to fast huge questions were raised.  What do you want to do that for?!  Fasting was not seen as part of our tradition whatsoever; and I had to come on quite strong when Christian prisoners under my care chose to fast.  However, Christian or Muslim, not many people outside of the faith understood the connection between faith and fasting, seeing it, rather, as a quirky cultural tradition.  Not all prisoners understood either, of course, despite the Chaplaincy’s best efforts!  But the opportunities for examining the basic foundations of one’s faith were enormous and lasting in their effect.

It was interesting that prison officers often wanted to deny prisoners the privilege of fasting if they were not particularly well-behaved.  He’s not a good Muslim – why should he fast?!  Of course we would have a different argument – we are all sinners and fasting conducted as part of a wider spiritual discipline can help us draw closer to God.  Fasting is the pastime of sinners.  We Chaplains constantly worked at that interface between faith and popular belief, hoping and praying that in some small way our conduct just might begin to open up windows onto God.

And so we come today, in all our weaknesses and imperfections, owning our mortality and acknowledging to God that we have marred his image in us.  Who are we that we can effect anything in or for his Kingdom?  Of ourselves not, but collectively and in his company… God knows.  And he does.

There is work to be done out there.  If each of us invites others to ponder, to learn, to question and to care that in this our highly developed Western nation people still go hungry, choose between heat or food, or rake up enormous debts just to hold their family together, then we are not only dispelling ignorance but also sowing the seeds of change.  If we take the trouble to fast, we are demonstrating our solidarity with those for whom fasting is a regular necessity.  And if we are stirred to act in practical ways, we follow the example of him who never failed to be moved by the plight of those he encountered.

The statistics are terrifying and the stories heart-rending, no less so than those of the people Jesus encountered and looked in the eye.  This Lent we too may encounter Jesus – wherever, and particularly if perhaps in our food banks or on the streets let’s ensure we can look him in the eye as we honestly and wholeheartedly attempt to do his bidding.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry?  Every day the scandal of food poverty continues to haunt our country and our globe.  Every day a new person turns up at a food bank.  Every day the deep inequalities persist.  Every day another person’s hopes are dashed.  Every day we fail to act.

I wish you a productive and Spirit-filled Lent.

© The Revd Alison Adams