The God-Fountain

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

One of my favorite American poets, James Weldon Johnson, opens his book God’s Trombones with a poetic prayer, which begins like this:

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.* Continue reading “The God-Fountain”

The Ash Remains

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015 || Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103

ashremainsThe twins are six and half months old. They’re sleeping pretty well, waking either zero or once during the night. They’re beginning to crawl and sit up by themselves. Their hair is really coming in. And they have the absolute softest skin imaginable. I could spend all day kissing their cheeks and foreheads and want to do it again all day tomorrow. So when I think of offering them the imposition of ashes, when I imagine scraping two coarse lines of grit on those smooth foreheads, I shudder. I recoil. How could I sully such perfect skin?

As this question hangs in the air, I think back to last week, when I was blessed to go up the street to Mystic Healthcare and offer prayers by the bedsides of two women who were actively dying. They had lived long, long lives. Both passed away over the weekend, one in her mid-nineties and one who was 105 years old. I prayed by their bedsides as they breathed the short, staccato breaths of those who are living their final days. I touched and kissed their foreheads during the prayers, and I found them to be spotted and wrinkled and dry, more like wax paper than skin. Surely, these were the foreheads made to receive the imposition of ashes.

And yet the ashes are made to adorn the newborn infant and the dying elder both the same. No matter how much or how little of this life we have left, the ashes are made for us to wear. This thought might make you shudder, like it does when I think about offering them to my babies. But if we take another look at the ashes, we might come to a new understanding.

You see, more often than not we associate ashes with death. I think we make this association for two reasons. First, when a fire dies out, the ashes remain. Second the rate of cremations in the United States has risen from three and a half percent in 1960 to over forty percent in 2010.* And this number will continue to rise. We are closing in on half of all funerals in this country involving the deceased person’s ashes.

So it’s only natural to associate ashes with death. Even the words I will pray in a few minutes before the imposition of ashes speak of them being a “sign of our mortality.” Then when I scrape the ashes on your foreheads, I will say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of this seems to be pointing to our deaths.

But I would suggest the ashes are not about our deaths at all, despite all this evidence to the contrary. The ashes are about our lives. The ashes remind us how transient this life is; how impermanent. The eighth century monk and historian known as the Venerable Bede compared this life to a sparrow fluttering into a brightly lit banqueting hall, flying the length of the room, and then disappearing into the night. The psalmist speaks the same truth in today’s psalm: “Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.”

If our lives are so transient, so fragile and brief, then we have to wonder why God would bother with us at all? We scratch our heads in wonder at the 105 years of the woman at Mystic Healthcare, but even that is less than a breath when we zoom out the camera to geologic time. So why would God bother with us? Why would the psalmist say, “As a father cares for his children, so does the LORD care for those who fear him?” It all seems a bit daft in the grand scheme of things.

But remember, I said the ashes were about our lives, not about our deaths. While this life is transient, yes, and while we aren’t more than vapor on the wind (as the Bible so often reminds us), there is more to the story. Because death is not the end, just as birth was not the beginning. Have you ever looked at an infant and seen a hidden wisdom hovering just behind his wide-eyed wonder? Have you ever held the hand of a dying elder and realized that she was excited to see what comes next? Both of these instances speak to the “something else” or “something more” that we feel in our gut when we meet the beginning or the end of life. We call this “something more” eternity. We call this “something else” the promises of God made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God made us for eternity, then we can in all faithfulness zoom out the camera again and see geologic time fade away.

This is the true life that God invites each of us to live: the expansive, abundant, eternal life, which fuels the fires of our souls. This is the life we have, but it is rarely the life we live. And so we return to the ashes and our new understanding. When I burn last year’s palms to make the ashes, the fire gives off light and heat. The process changes the material of the palms into the energy of the fire. What’s left over when the fire goes out is the ashes. The keyword here is “change.” Each of us is on fire for God. We are burning our whole lives long, shining God’s light into the dark recesses of this world. But like the burning bush in the Exodus story, we are not consumed. The fire does not annihilate. It purifies. As we live, all that will not burn for God filters away. All that keeps us from shining with the love and grace of God filters away. All that separates us from God, what we call “Sin,” filters away. And becomes ash. When we are done burning and God has gathered us home like those two blessed women at Mystic Healthcare, the ash remains behind. All that separates us from God remains behind.

We scrape the ashes on our foreheads each year to remember that we are still burning. God is still calling us to shine the light of God’s reign on the darkness of the world. Today the prophet Isaiah gives us a blueprint for how to shine: “Loose the bonds of injustice…share your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into your house…cover the naked when you see them…let the oppressed go free.” When we burn for God doing these things, our ashes filter away, and we live the promise Isaiah offers next: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

* Source: National Funeral Directors Association http://nfda.org/about-funeral-service-/trends-and-statistics.html: accessed, 2/17/15.

Ashes (Davies Tales #6)

Aidan Davies bared his teeth at the cement lion, which guarded the steps to the church. The lion snarled back and pawed the air. Davies hefted his projectile, took aim, released, and the snowball exploded on the lion’s face. Defeated, the beast slunk back to his dozing pride in the corner of the boy’s imagination. A triumphant Davies took the steps three at a time and entered the narthex.

He knew that today was special because he was in church on a weekday. I even got to miss the bus this morning, he thought as he stepped into the sanctuary. The coughs and groans of the overworked heaters echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The church hovered in pre-dawn stillness, awaiting the riot of color that would dance down the chancel steps when the early morning sun reached the stained glass behind the altar. Davies looked around in the dim light. The nave was empty. I guess no one came. Sighing, he glanced at his watch.

“Aidan,” a voice boomed from the sacristy door, “I thought you were coming.” Davies looked up and smiled at his father. Alastor Davies met his son halfway down the aisle and pulled him into an embrace. Aidan buried his face in the soft silk of Alastor’s purple stole, and his short arms got lost in the folds of his father’s surplice. “Doesn’t look like anyone is coming this morning,” Alastor said. “We should probably get you to school.”

Aidan extricated himself 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.”

Aidan 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.”

Alastor couldn’t help but grin at his son. Aidan’s 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,” said Alastor with mock resignation. Then he winked at his son conspiratorially: “We can stop for pancakes on the way. Just don’t tell your mother.”

The pair processed to the altar rail hand in hand. Kneeling together, Alastor handed Aidan a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer. Aidan read the lessons aloud, determined not to stumble on any of the big words. “Do you know what fasting is, son?” Alastor asked after finishing the Gospel lesson. “It’s when you don’t eat for a long time,” said Aidan.

“Right,” chuckled his father, “but it’s more than that. We fast in order to make room for God in our lives. We are so full of all kinds of things all the time that we often forget that God is the one who should be filling us. When we fast we intentionally open up a hole for God to fill. And the more parts of us that God fills, the better we are. So, can you think up something to give up to make a space for God this Lent?”

“Can I give up giving up stuff?” Aidan said. Alastor raised an eyebrow. Aidan retracted quickly, “Just kidding. How about I give up irritating Brigid?”

“I’m sure your sister would appreciate that. Alright, are you ready for the ashes?” They rose and walked to the altar. Aidan stood on his tiptoes to see the ashes in a small glass bowl sitting on the fair linens. The ashes were made from the dried fronds from last year’s Palm Sunday. They were gritty and a few shades lighter than black. Aidan held his breath and closed his eyes. His father knelt down and swept the hair off of Aidan’s forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” Alastor whispered. Then he scraped his thumb gently in two lines, vertical and horizontal. Bits of ash fell on Aidan’s nose, and Alastor brushed them off. Aidan let out his breath.

“Your turn,” said Alastor, and he offered the glass bowl to his son.

“You mean…I get to do yours?”

“I hope you will.”

Aidan took the bowl in trembling hands and dabbed his thumb in the ashes. For a moment, his imagination sprinted to moon rocks and volcanoes. Then it returned, and Aidan looked up at his kneeling father. He scraped the vertical line. “Remember that you are dust.” He scraped the horizontal line. A few silent seconds passed. Alastor whispered, “And to dust…”

“And to dust you shall return,” Aidan finished. They looked at each other for a long moment. Then Alastor pulled his son into a second embrace, and Aidan left an ashy thumbprint on the back of his vestments.

Suddenly, the sun crested 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 the cement lion roared a salute to the morning.

Fifteen years later, someone asked Aidan Davies when he knew he was going to be a priest. “I think some part of me knew that Ash Wednesday morning,” he said. “Not the part that does the thinking. I didn’t know in my mind. I knew in the part that helps you catch your balance when you’re slipping on ice or that lets you know when it’s time to get up when you haven’t looked at the clock yet.

“I knew in that deep place inside. I knew in the space that God filled that day, but which got buried soon after and took a dozen years to excavate.”

The invisible cross

For many years, I became queasy at the thought of having ashes scraped across my forehead — not because they are a reminder of my own mortality, not because I dislike being called to repent, but because I couldn’t square the action with Jesus’ command in the Gospel for the day. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes to task those who do things merely for show rather than for dedicated spiritual discipline. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray ostentatiously on street corners so others will see you. Don’t disfigure your face when you fast. Give alms, pray, and fast in secret, “and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”ashes

Don’t disfigure your face. These words stuck in my mind while walking to the altar rail, while watching the priest’s trembling thumb touch the powder, while feeling the gritty scrape first vertical then horizontal on my forehead, like sooty sandpaper. Why are we disfiguring our faces when Jesus just told us not to?!

I was preparing a children’s sermon when I realized I had it all wrong. As far back as I can remember, I had not seen the ashes as anything other than a disfigurement, a liturgically pretentious sign that I was a pious person. Everything changed when I tried to explain Lent to a group of five-year-olds.

“Did you know that you have a cross on your forehead,” I asked, arching my eyebrows as high as they could go. They all looked back at me with those funny, squinched up faces that kids make when they are quizzical. Several shook their heads emphatically. “It’s true,” I said, “but the cross on your forehead is invisible.”

That got their attention. They began looking at each other’s foreheads. I continued, “When you were baptized, a priest took some oil and made a cross right here” — I demonstrated on myself — “and said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’

“That cross is still there, but you can’t really see it. It’s a reminder that you belong to God and that God loves you very much.” They nodded, open-mouthed. “Today is a special day because today we are going to use some special dust to make that cross appear on your foreheads again.”

On Ash Wednesday, we don’t disfigure our faces so others can see how pious we are. In fact, it’s just the opposite. By making visible again the cross that we received at Baptism, we acknowledge our impiety, our lack of repentance, our apathy to the suffering in the world. The renewed visiblity of our baptismal crosses indicts us for our indifference to our baptismal promises.

We look in the mirror and see a pair of lines, crude charcoal calligraphy. And we remember what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We remember that we have only a limited time on this earth to make a difference in the lives of those we meet, to show forth the love and light of God to a world too familiar with darkness. Disfigurement happens when we rub the ashes away and forget that there is still a cross written on our foreheads.

On Ash Wednesday we make that cross visible, if but for a brief time. This small, crudely drawn cross reminds us of another cross, the one that Jesus calls his followers to pick up when they decide to follow him. All too often, this cross also fades into invisibility, a wooden victim of our lethargy and misplaced priorities. During the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity to discern how to make that cross visible again.