Summary: A sermon for Ash Wednesday - for a UK congregation
I’m beginning, totally unsuitably for Lent, with an expression of pride. I’m very proud of my collection of the complete set of Carry On films - it’s the earthy British humour of the 1960s and 1970s at its best (or worst, depending upon your point of view!). One of my particular favourites, quite unsuitable for Lent, of course, is Carry on up the Khyber, with the wonderful scene where the British party are dressed in formal nineteenth century attire for a dinner, with all their jewels, and regalia. The compound is attacked by restless natives, fighting for their independence. As the dinner goes on the attack gets worse, as shells hit the room and yet they still go on with their dinner as if nothing is happening. By the end of the scene everyone is in tattered clothes, with blackened faces, covered in dust and rubble, and yet the meal still goes on, just the same. Keep calm and carry on.
The opposite is in one of my other collections: Dad’s Army. Just about every episode features Lance Corporal Jones getting over excited about small things, running around shouting “don’t panic!” when there’s absolutely nothing to panic over.
I know which approach I prefer. The now ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On brand, was a private propaganda poster printed by the government in 1939 in small numbers for internal muse only. In 2000 it was spotted, and has now become one of the most famous images of our current age. It’s an encouragement to observe the British 'stiff upper lip' - a polite version of the late Michael Winner’s “calm down, dear!”
The prophet Joel reminded us to rend our hearts and not our garments. That rather strange phrase, I think, means it’s what’s inside that matters, not what’s outside. God is more interested in our hearts, than in outward things. Hence, Keep Calm and Carry On might be the modern English expression of “rend your hearts and not your garments”.
What Joel’s getting at is not to go over the top. He’s suggesting that we don't tear our clothes to shreds, in an artificial display of emotion. If you prefer, it’s a recommendation that penitence needs to be sincere in our hearts, but it doesn’t need to be thrust into the public gaze. In other words, keep calm and carry on. It's a good warning to us all against overt dis¬plays of our piety during Lent - and in any case, none of us can better the Pope in the giving things up in Lent stakes.
Sometimes, though, we do need to share things with others. Repressing your emotions, and denying that you have any, is very dangerous. If not dealt with, deep emotions can unexpectedly well up and cause violent behaviour. It’s much better to face up to them and think them through. Burying our heads in the sand is not helpful. I’m not suggesting the keep calm and carry on message of rend your hearts and not your garments is to not seek help when we need it - keeping calm and carrying on - rending our hearts and not our garments - is not about burying our heads in the sand - it’s about not going over the top.
Many people suffer deeply in their lives, but don't let others know about it. We all need someone or somewhere to release the floodgates of feeling. How many of your friends, who haven't a care in the world, as far as you can see, are bravely hiding an inner grief? I’m not suggesting that we cross-examine each other, people will speak when they’re ready, but be gentle with each other. Keep calm and carry on - rend your hearts and not your garments.
In Lent we have a time to examine ourselves, and seek the opportunities to amend our lives. One way you might want to consider for this is to think about joining one of the Lent Groups taking place in all of our churches. As for me, I’m giving up religion for Lent. Religion’s become a toxic term in our society, associated more by the general public with fundamentalism, hatred, and rules. I’m going to try and give up religion, and take up faith and discipleship in its place.
In our gospel reading we encountered Jesus writing in the dust. All of us, at some times and in some places, find ourselves in the dust. Yet here was Jesus writing in the dust - speaking a word of love and forgiveness to the woman who found herself in the dust. There’s a hymn we sometimes sing, which ends, “glory to God, who bids us fight for heaven, here in the dust and joy of human life”.
Lent is a time for acknowledging that we do find ourselves in the dust sometimes, and seeking God’s help, which is freely offered to us by our God of total and complete love.