Ash Wednesday Sermon

February 14, 2024
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

I remember several years ago, just a few days before Ash Wednesday, I put on my clergy shirt, threw my stole in a bag, and jumped in my car to drive to St. Joseph’s. My next-door neighbors had just had their first baby, and I was speeding off to pray a blessing over him. They held him in their arms and cried as I prayed for a long life filled with love.

Still glowing from that miracle of new life, I left their room and was walking through the lobby when a couple saw me. “Are you the chaplain?” they asked in distress. “I’m not the chaplain, but I am a priest.” “Can you come with us?” And on the way to the elevator I heard their story. Frank was dying. 44 years old, his cancer had metastasized throughout his body. On the way to the room his cousin asked me, “You do this a lot?” “Yeah,” I said. “I do.” And then, tentatively, he asked, “Have you ever, you know, seen a, a…” He couldn’t finish the question – too timid to give voice to his desire. “A miracle?” I asked. “Yeah. Have you?” And as I looked into his almost hopeful eyes I had to tell him the disappointing truth. “No. Not like this.” The whole family was crowded in the room. Frank’s mother was prostrate over her son’s unconscious body. I led the family in the “Our Father” and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be at work, as Frank’s spirit completed its sojourn in this world.

There is a deep wisdom in the church that sets this day aside for this one purpose: to remind us of our mortality. “Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return.” It is undeniably morbid, in its way, but not inappropriately. It’s simply the truth being spoken aloud. Together. In our church.

The baby being born in one room will one day become the Frank, dying in the next.

As we remember our own mortality – as we stare at its graven message scored across our foreheads in ash – its purpose is plain: Your death is certain and unavoidable. And so the question – of this day and the season to follow – is simply this: What do you want? Consider now what you want to have been made true of you as you reach the inevitable conclusion of your days: who you will be, what character will have been fostered within you, what behaviors laid down.

At St. John’s, as we’ve looked ahead to this season, mindful of this world we’re living in and the fractures that are deepening throughout society, we’ve chosen a corporate Lenten theme of Loving Kindness – fostering in our hearts and our prayers a deliberate mindfulness that desires the wellbeing … of everyone!

So each week, we’ll broaden the scope of our intent. Beginning with desires for our own well-being, we’ll extend that desire to our families, to our church, to our wider community, and on to our enemies and those we hold in contempt. This focus will appear in the sermons. It will be in Kae’s Wednesday evening presentations at Soup Supper. It will be in the Lenten meditation booklet that we’ll have ready to pick up on Sunday.

For surely, if our desire is to “be like Jesus,” it must draw us towards this boundaryless resolve to love.

In his life and in his death, Jesus showed us how to live and how to die: in union with his father in heaven and in grace-filled union with us. When I look at Jesus, and especially at how he prayed in his final hours – when his own death was looming before him – I see him entirely focused on this theme of unity, of not letting any evil power wedge itself between him and God or between him and his disciples or between the disciples themselves:

At the Last Supper: “Father, let them be one, as we are one.”

In the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my own will, but thine be done.”

On the cross, of those who are killing him: “Forgive them, Lord, they know not what they do.”

On the cross, to the thief beside him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Death has wrought its divisive work throughout this world, and death must be our end, too. But it is our choice whether we allow the divisiveness of death to permeate how we will live until that day. I am especially aware, in these days, what a corrosive, dividing spirit is saturating our communities: our politics, our churches, our families – breaking in and corrupting whatever vestiges of health and virtue had dwelt there.

And I would be a fool to think my faith or my politics or my family loyalties were alone sufficient to protect me from such corrosion. I do not want to become cynical or outraged and disgusted or self-righteous. I want to be like Jesus. So I will set my eyes on him and walk towards him: my savior, my beacon, my tutor, and my guide. This Lent, I will begin afresh a deliberate practice of desiring and seeking everyone’s good – person by person – to love, even my enemies, until they are my enemies no more.

To frame this intent in our Episcopal language, what I seek (for me and for our church) is a deepening embodiment of our Baptismal Covenant, our clearest statement of faith and resolve: our faith in the Triune God and our resolve to live out that faith in grace-filled community: in worship, in conversation, in love of neighbor, in striving for justice and peace among all people – where “all” knows no boundary of any kind.

At its heart, this is what Lent is entirely about. It is a season of preparation. It is preparing us to encounter again the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, when we celebrate Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and the union with him that is now ours: as recipients of his grace and partners in his mission.

And so, as the service ends today, all are welcome to come forward and light a candle as a sign of your hopes and intentions for this Lenten season, and to make this intention as an offering to God.

We’ll light our candles from a flame – the light of Christ – floating within the baptismal font: a sign of our reason to hope. Christ has conquered; we are made one with him; his grace and resurrection have been given to us through our own baptisms in him.

The candles we light can take a little while to ignite. That’s okay. Let it be. Keep holding it in the flame, letting that slow igniting be as a sign of grace that our becoming like Christ does take time. And in Christ’s time, our conversion will be complete. And we will be like him – in life, in death, and in the life that to come. Amen.