Ash Wednesday Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 25th February 2009
‘You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence’ Psalm 90:8
I spent seven years in a small country group of parishes. One of the problems of being in a group of parishes with just 90 families, with the same people being in church 52 Sundays of the year, as many of them were, was finding something fresh to say every Sunday. On one hand there was a danger of being bland and saying nothing, on the other there was the danger that, if one said anything challenging or provoking, someone would take offence and there would be muttering around the parish for the following week.
They were nearly all related – I once asked a man in one parish how he was related to a man in the neighbouring parish. His answer was quite convoluted and sounded something like a second cousin once removed. ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I thought the connection was closer than that’.
‘Oh, that was on my mother’s side’, he replied, ‘he’s my first cousin on my father’s side’.
Trying to say things that were challenging, but would not be misunderstood or taken as personal attacks was sometimes very difficult. One Sunday I preached on family life being important and upset a lady who thought I was criticising her son who had separated from his wife. The same lady was then upset when I questioned the earnestness of the paramilitary ceasefires; her daughter had married a paramilitary murderer while he was still in prison.
Sometimes there were things that needed to be said, other times offence was caused because I had expressed myself in a clumsy or insensitive way. Re-reading sermons I would realise that I could have said things in a different way. There were times when I was simply unaware that offence had been caused, months later I would get some inkling that someone had been hurt by something. I suspect that on more than a few times offence was taken and I never ever heard about it.
I think that for most of us, sin is something we do unwittingly. We cause hurt or offence to others without even realising what we have done.
When we think of sin, we think of the sins of commission, things done with thought or deliberateness. We can recognise those, we know when we have done something wrong, we know when we have thought something wrong. There are sins of omission, our failures to be sensitive to others, our failures to be aware of the feelings of others are much more dangerous, because generally we are not aware of them.
If I asked you to sit and think for five minutes, you could think of a hurt or offence that someone has caused you, perhaps years ago, and I think if you were honest, you would have to admit to yourself that the person meant no offence, they were just clumsy or insensitive.
I have been at church meetings where people have said the most offensive things and there has been the temptation to fly at them, but then I have realised that they have not been aware of causing any offence.
When the psalmist says in Psalm 90,
‘You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your presence’.
I think our secret sins include not just the things we have thought or said or done without others knowing, but also the things that are a secret even to ourselves.
In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we speak of sinning against God and our neighbour, ‘through ignorance, through weakness’. The secret sins, the sins unknown even to us, can cause pain and division to people for years and years.
Being too ambitious during Lent doesn’t work, we can aim at too many things and end up hitting nothing. This Lent, let’s take time in our prayers to think about the unwitting sins we have committed, the hurt and pain we have caused through ignorance and weakness. As we seek forgiveness for ourselves, let us also forgive those who have hurt us and try to begin anew in our relationships.
Ignorance and weakness can be a cause for causing hurt and pain. They cannot be an excuse for doing nothing to change.