Sermon on Ash Wednesday: 6th March 2019

The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster, Lancaster Priory.

This year, 2019, marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2. A sobering thought, especially given that we have only just finished our 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Twenty years is not long between wars.

For those who, like my mother, lived through two world wars – they knew what it was to live in fear, and often without what we call the essentials of life. I grew up with the story of the doodlebugs which flew overhead. She said that they could hear the motors in the bombs, and it was when the motors stopped that people began to count – because they knew that was when the bomb started to fall. Ten seconds and then detonation.

I only grew up with the stories – and the remains of the Anderson shelter still at the bottom of the garden, the gas masks there, which hadn’t been thrown away, just in case they might be needed in the future. Symbols, if you like of a real fear, slowly decaying like the rusting corrugated iron which made the shelters that were never used – in Pontefract, at least.

I’ve just finished watching the new series of Das Boot, telling the story of the crew of a U-Boat in La Rochelle, and the work of the Resistance fighting the German powers in conquered France. And I’ve just been reading Dominion – a “what if” novel, based on what life would be like in England if we had capitulated to Hitler in the 1930s. World War 2 is still with us in popular imagination.

1939 also saw the publication of a small book, “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was written in a German context, conscious of the rise of the National Socialist Party. It is one of the most important religious works of the 20th century, and it is the book that we are reflecting on together throughout this season of Lent which begins today.  It is, without doubt, a book “of its time” but it is also a book for all time.

“Of its time” because it was one Christian’s reaction to an evil regime whose actions were visible to all who had eyes to see; “for all time”, because it speaks of how Christians should live in the face of evil whenever and wherever it may appear.

He writes,

“In a Christian community, everything depends on whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is surely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”

The Nazi regime, however, had no time for the weak, the disabled, the frail. His work as a pastor, as a theologian, as a Christian activist was to oppose the ideology which promoted the strong and discarded the weak. He knew that his opposition to the regime could lead to martyrdom, even his own. As early as 1932 he had said in a sermon, “The blood of the martyrs might once again be called for” as he witnessed the beginning of the rise of a man and his policies which would destroy all that he as a Christian stood for.

For Bonhoeffer it was to lead to his execution in the dying weeks of the war, hanged in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp on 9th April 1945, just 2 weeks before the US Army liberated the camp. He is regarded as one of the many martyrs of that evil regime, and he is one of the 20th Century martyrs whose statues are on the West front of Westminster Abbey.

But why should we be reading this book now, in 2019?

The reason is simple – it is a book for all time. In five chapters he addresses Community, The Day with Others, the Day alone, Ministry, and Confession and Communion. (5 themes for the 5 weeks of Lent!)

We as the family of the Church here, have the extraordinary privilege of meeting together, worshipping, praying, reflecting together, growing together, learning together, and sharing the ministry of the people of God together. These are the great themes on which he reflects, and his words will inspire many thoughts of our own, as they have inspired many in the 80 years since they were written!

His words will challenge us in this 21st century, and in a remarkable way his words are still relevant to us as we struggle with the challenges of our common life as a church in the year of Our Lord 2019.

At our General Synod just 2 weeks ago, we were given a set of “Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together” – these mark the midway point in our “Living in Love and Faith” process seeking to find ways in which we can find a future in which all of us are affirmed, welcomed and can be a part of the local church. The packs we were given invite us to use the packs to help us reflect on our “Life Together” the co-incidence (or as I prefer to say, the “God-incidence” of this pack matching the title of the book we are reading and studying together was too striking for me to avoid. I hope there will be a time when we can reflect together on these 6 Pastoral Principles and how they can shape our Life Together.

Let me briefly introduce them to you.

The first Principle is: Acknowledge Prejudice.

We acknowledge that the journey from prejudice to hatred is a very short step – so we have to ask ourselves – and each other, to reflect on our own attitudes and behaviour. Do we have a bias (conscious or unconscious) against another group – or can we accept that we are all made in the image of God, and that “difference” is a gift to help is see Christ in all our neighbours and those around us?

The second principle is: Speak into Silence

Silence can shelter the abuse of power. A conspiracy of silence covered up the crimes of predatory priests, bishops and cardinals in the RC Church, and the Church of England is not without guilt in letting silence be the answer to accusations of abuse. Speech defeats silence as a candle defeats the darkness. The vulnerable and marginalised have to be given the opportunity to speak for themselves that their voices may be heard.  And heard as God among us speaking to challenge and unsettle our complacent quiet.

The third principle is: Address ignorance

Some ignorance is inevitable, but we can address our own lack of knowledge and understanding, if we are willing to learn. The resources are there among us if only we have ears to hear the stories of those in our midst who have been excluded, victimised, seen as “other,” and even persecuted. Taking seriously our Scripture and our Tradition is not a bar to learning how God is among us in those who are different.

The fourth Principle is Casting out Fear

We are told that “perfect love casts out all fear” and yet we are still afraid to do what we know to be right because of the fear of criticism from those who might object, write a letter to the Bishop, the newspaper, or perhaps they will just stop coming to church… Can it be right that people can still live in fear of their neighbours in church? Or can we really dare to be able to cast out fear in our church family?

The fifth principle is Admit hypocrisy

Can we accept that all are valued and loved on the basis of Christ’s redeeming love, his life, death, and resurrection – and can we be sincere in our courtesy, respect in the belief that absolutely no one is outside the love of God. It can’t possibly be right that people feel they need to dissemble, not truly be themselves based on what others might think!

The sixth and final principle is Pay attention to POWER

Christ calls us to humility, and to regard others as better than ourselves, yet in the world and in the church there are dynamics of power. Some of us have it – others don’t. But power has led to abuse and inequality, so we need to acknowledge that it does exist; and commit to a spirit of service one to another in the Spirit of Christ, and responding to his call for us to submit, in love to one another.

Six principles, and pretty hot off the press! But then again, in another sense, not so new! Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, though 80 years old addresses many of these issues with a directness still fresh and engaging. If you haven’t signed up for your copy or to join in the House Group discussions, please do.

I hope that studying it will help us learn to do more to be a family of Gods people in this place, so that our shared Life Together may reflect the life that God, through Christ, would have us lead in our shared witness in this place, by the power of his Holy Spirit.