Ash Wednesday 2015

(Isa 58:1–12 & John 8:1–11) [Years A, B & C]

What are you giving up for Lent? Every Ash Wednesday sermon asks this every year – but for good reason! Fasting – which strictly speaking is limiting what you eat and drink – is one of the key traditions for Lent, which is this period, starting today, every year, when we prepare for Easter. Traditionally we fast or ‘give something’ up each Lent to remember Christ’s time in the wilderness before he began his ministry, and to focus our minds towards anticipation of Easter, which is, of course, the ‘big deal’ – our festival of hope, but let’s not skip ahead.

Today, I want us to think about scapegoats. The idea of the scapegoat originates in ancient times – most prominently in Israel. As part of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) rituals in the Temple, one goat – The Lord’s Goat – was given as a blood sacrifice for the sins of all Israel. Then the high priest would confess before God all Israel’s sins, and figuratively send those sins out from Jerusalem embodied in the scape-goat. Today, the word scapegoat means anyone whom we unfairly blame for things going wrong. The masters of scapegoating were the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, who waged a concerted campaign against Jews, gay men, socialists, travellers, people with learning disabilities and many other groups and races. By their campaign of propaganda and misinformation, the Nazis created an atmosphere in Germany where all the blame for everything which was going wrong was heaped on these ‘sub-human’ groups. ‘It wasn’t us; it was them!’ By the way, the front page of the Times says today: “Cameron incensed as bishops stir welfare row”. (Although, to be honest with you, a few weeks ago when I first gave this sermon to my preaching class, the Mail headline was much more helpful: “At last! A crackdown on foreign patients abusing the NHS!”) By identifying groups of people as ‘other’ to you and scapegoating them, you can convince yourself that you are justified in your inaction; that you can’t do anything to make things better because it’s not your fault.

Thankfully, the first reading, from the writings of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, has a very interesting take on the idea of fasting: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ Here the author is having a real go at hypocrites: people who fast (in the strict not-eating sense), yet continue to go about their usual wrong-doing or blissful ignorance without striving to turn from sin or pay attention to people who are less fortunate. Rather, says the prophet, it is more pleasing to God that you offer food to people who are hungry, that you give even such basic things as clothes to people who lack them… …or that you bring people who are poor and homeless into your house – can you imagine that!? It’s quite difficult to imagine. At my previous church, I led the team which ran the winter homeless shelter. We were very good at welcoming people who were homeless into our church-building. But I lived next door to the church; the corners of the buildings were connected – it really was very close indeed; but did I ever consider, even for a second, inviting any of them into my home? We have all internalised this ‘othering’ of fellow human beings – it is that bit of you that would rather ignore the Big Issue seller who tries to greet you cheerfully. Wherever that may come from inside you, it is your responsibility to change.

At the beginning of this month, the broadcaster and ‘national treasure’ Stephen Fry gave an interview on the Irish television programme ‘The Meaning of Life.’ In the interview, he dismissed the Creator-God as “utterly evil” for creating a world in which suffering happens. Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge of St Mary Newington, London, wrote in reply that that picture of that Creator-God simply does not match that of God in Christ: Stephen’s monstrous God is an image of God more to do with power than with the God we know through Christ. However, it is comedian, ‘personality’ and activist Russell Brand’s response that I found more interesting. In his interview, Stephen mocks the teaching ‘let one who is without sin cast the first stone’ (from our second reading) as impractical for a basis of a justice system. Russell replies that the proper application for this teaching is to acknowledge in every person that we all share our human natures. He uses the example of when we pass judgment on murderers or paedophiles – it’s not about seeing a person’s particular sins in ourselves but rather about seeing the capacity for evil within ourselves – he says (and I won’t try to do an impression!) “acknowledge that the thing in them that has manifest this negativity is also within us and that our first duty is to negotiate with the negativity within ourselves.”

And what Russell says relates back to scapegoating: for when you see the same human nature in the other as in yourself, you can’t make them ‘other’ or ‘them’ so easily; rather, you regard ‘them’ as ‘us’. The Irish theologian James Alison explains that on the cross Christ not only perfectly enacted the Temple atonement ritual as both sacrifice and scapegoat, but also in doing so exposed the whole sham of the scapegoating system in which we all still take part, because, on the cross, he is the perfectly innocent and blameless victim.

So, this Lent, what fast do you choose? Will you use some of your resources – whether you have a lot or a little – such as time, money, energy or influence, to help your fellow humans? Will you be more alert – especially during the General Election campaign – for examples of scapegoating? Will you stand up and challenge ‘othering’, when someone says ‘it’s the immigrants’ fault…’ or ‘they don’t deserve our help’? Or, as David Cameron declared in the recent documentary Inside the Commons, ‘we’re on the side of hard-working people’? What is the fast that you choose?

Dan Barnes-Davies, 4 & 17 February 2015
Given at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Arbury, Ash Wednesday 18 February 2015

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