Ash Wednesday: "Go and Sin Not"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

Perhaps it’s because I’m an engineer at heart, but I like to plan things out and write them down. That’s the way I write essays - a detailed structure that I can then just fill in the bits in between. It’s also the way I write sermons. I can cope with the unexpected but after an argument I find myself constantly dwelling on what I wish I’d said. Hours later I’ll still be tense thinking about it for hours later, unable to let it go. If only I’d said this or asked that. Eventually I relax, usually because I realise it doesn’t matter. I realise I’m more fussed about making my point and being right-on than gaining a better understanding from the conversation. I let go and can consider what the point my opponent wanted to make might mean.

Last week I was visiting JW3, a large Jewish community centre on the Finsbury road. It’s state of the art having only been completed in 2006. Among other things it has a cafe which is so good it’s been reviewed by Jay Rayner in the Guardian. The Director spoke to us about his mission to improve the Quality of Jewish conversation. His concern, he explained, was that all too often the conversation was about being heard and being right. Rather, he wants to encourage conversation that is for the Glory of God, which betters the Jewish understanding of God and God’s Kingdom. Our fast, Isaiah says in tonight’s reading, is to be for God’s glory - for the good of the Kingdom. The fast should be about loosing those bonds that separate us and others from God, and sharing with those who are oppressed. Not about winning a quarrel over righteousness.

This week, after a temporary & voluntary visit to prison, David Cameron made an announcement about the need for Prison reform. Today’s Gospel challenges us to think about the purpose of prison. Is punishment just for punishment’s sake - to make us feel good that the person whose done wrong is punished. Or is it to seek reconciliation, and to restore criminals and victims to right relationship with society. 

Restorative justice is a process which, often instead of imprisonment or fines, seeks to find a way for a criminal to be subject consequences in a constructive way and for the victims to feel that they have received some form of recompense. It can only be achieved through a mediator and face to face contact between victim and perpetrator. It isn’t always the right solution, but even in more traditional settings, there are opportunities to help criminals emerge from prison not simply to become repeat offenders, but to attempt to become the people that God calls us all to become.

The sad thing about the PM’s statement is that his justification is that these are potential earners and tax payers, rather than recognising that restoration of a person to a life without crime is for a greater good, that those individuals are of greater value to God and therefore to us than what the tax man can procure from them. They like us, are God’s beloved.

In this evening’s Gospel the Scribes and Pharisees want to win, that is why they make their argument, to catch Jesus out. Jesus takes his time to meditate to consider what he’s going to say - he doesn’t even want to engage in this argument about who wins. Finally, when he is done considering what he wants to say and realises he must engage with them, he gives this fantastic line,

Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. That’s the kind of response I wish I could come up with when I’m in an argument. Arguments that I spend hours after trying to come up with. Of course, we are, none of us without sin, so the scribes and pharisees leave. The only person without sin, is the one who remains. Then Jesus, the only one who is truly entitled to cast judgement makes it completely clear: 'Neither do I condemn you.'

Lent is not about dwelling on our sin, it’s not about beating ourselves up, but remembering how much God loves us, how willing he is to forgive us. To remember, as we do tonight we are dust and to dust we shall return. It is by the grace of God that we have life and that the life God gives us will be eternal in the Kingdom of Heaven. Lent is a time not to dwell on how righteous we are by not sinning, or by giving things up. Lent is a time to reflect on How much God loves us. To stop reflecting on how we can get one up on our opponent, on how we can be the more right-on. But rather to make space in our minds and our lives to receive and share that love God gives us.

Finally, Jesus says to go away and not to sin, as if Jesus didn’t know the impossibility of what he’s asking. An impossibility he himself has just acknowledged in the way he’s dealt with the angry hoard. Instead he is highlighting that it is by God’s Grace that we are continually being forgiven our failings. That we are continuously being brought back into right relationship with God. Perhaps the challenge of a good lent is not: ‘go and sin not’ but ‘go and make space to accept that loving Grace.