Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Twenty-five years ago today, I trudged up the marble steps, past the stone lions, and into the cold church next door to my house. I think I was in fourth grade at the time. That day I got to miss the bus because that day was special. That day was Ash Wednesday.
I stepped into the nave of the church. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in the stillness of pre-dawn, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. I looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. No one had come to the early morning service.
“Adam,” boomed a voice from the sacristy door, “I thought you were coming.” I looked up and smiled at my father. He met me halfway down the aisle and pulled me into an embrace. I buried my face in the soft silk of my dad’s purple stole, and my short arms got lost in the folds of his surplice. “Doesn’t look like anyone is coming this morning,” he said. “We should probably get you to school.”
I extricated myself from the hug and stepped back. “But what about the service?”
“It’s just the two of us. I think your math class is more important.”
I scowled. “One-quarter plus one-eighth is three-eighths. See, I already know how to do fractions. And I want to wear my ashes to school.”
My dad grinned at me. I suppose my scowl softened into an expression of earnest, insistent innocence that only ten-year-olds can pull off. “Well, I guess missing one hour of fourth grade won’t do too much damage,” he said. Then he winked at me conspiratorially: “We can stop for pancakes on the way. Just don’t tell your mother.”
The two of us processed to the altar rail hand in hand. Kneeling together, my dad handed me a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. I read the lessons aloud, determined not to stumble over any of the big words. Then it was time for the ashes. We rose and walked to the altar. I stood on tiptoes to see the ashes in a small glass bowl sitting on the fair linen. I held my breath and closed my eyes. My father knelt down and swept the hair off of my forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he whispered. He scraped his thumb gently in two lines, vertical and horizontal.
“Your turn,” he said, and he offered the glass bowl to his me.
“You mean…I get to do yours?”
“I hope you will.”
I took the bowl in trembling hands and dabbed my thumb in the ashes. I looked up at my kneeling father. I scraped the vertical line. “Remember that you are dust.” I scraped the horizontal line. A few silent seconds passed. My dad whispered, “And to dust…”
“And to dust you shall return,” I finished. We looked at each other for a long moment. Then my dad pulled me into a second embrace, and I’m sure I left an ashy thumbprint on the back of his vestments.
That’s the moment the sun chose to crest the stained glass window. Blues and purples and reds and yellows sparkled on the altar rail and choir stalls. The riot of color danced down the chancel steps, and shone on our somber, jubilant faces.
Years later, my dad and I were talking, and we realized that was the moment God planted within me the seed of my call to ordained ministry. Why did God choose that moment to plant the seed? Because ash is wonderfully nutritive for things growing in the ground and growing within you and me.
You see, the ashes are a sign of our mortality and a sign that God cares about us no matter our short, little life spans. Each year the ashes remind us of the precious nature of our earthly lives. The ashes invite us to reorganize our priorities so they more closely reflect the yearning God has for each of us. The ashes communicate to us that blessing I love so much: “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us. So be quick to love and make haste to be kind.”
Unfortunately, that Ash Wednesday morning is one of the last happy memories I have from that church. My family was forced to move after enduring some of the worst behavior the Church can possibly display. And yet, somehow those horrible feelings and memories did not kill the seed growing in me. For we are not defined simply by the worst we have endured. The ash reminds us of this, as well. When the forest burns down, new growth springs forth all the more riotously.
On this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to look inside yourselves. When in your life can you identify God placing a seed within you? What has led to that seed’s flourishing or languishing? As you receive your ashes today, imagine them soaking into your bodies and flowing down to your depths to fertilize that seed. Yes, life is short, but there is always time, in this life and the next, to grow from strength to strength in the power of God’s call planted in you.
If the story that opens this sermon is familiar, that’s because it’s an edited version of one of my “Davies Tales.”