Christians gather on Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of Lent's baptismal preparation for Easter. On this day, the people of God receive an ashen cross on the forehead (a gesture rooted in baptism), hear the solemn proclamation to keep a fast in preparation for Easter's feast, and contemplate anew the ongoing meaning of baptismal initiation into the Lord's death and resurrection. While marked with the ashes of human mortality, the church hears God's promise of forgiveness and tastes God's mercy in the bread of life and the cup of salvation. From this solemn liturgy, the church goes forth on its journey to the great baptismal feast of Easter.
And here's a sermon I wrote for Ash Wednesday while I was in seminary:
It was a September day,
one where you could feel the coming of autumn.
The breeze that was blowing felt cool…so that you needed a light jacket,
but if you went out into the sun,
or if you did a bit of work around the garden,
then you could still feel the warmth of the summer that was almost past.
Lewis put on an old cardigan.
He could always take it off later
and toss it onto the garden bench if it got too warm.
It really was hard to know how to dress for this kind of weather.
His vegetable garden had produced a bumper crop this year
and he still had a lot to harvest
so it was time to get out into the back-yard
time to do some work.
"Look at these tomatoes!
I've picked more than I can eat."
He had given lots away to the Hewitts next door.
The cherry tomatoes were still hanging like clusters of grapes.
He wondered if they'll still get ripe before it freezes.
"Judy loves tomatoes. Loved…tomatoes."
Lewis' wife of forty years, Judy, died a year and a half ago.
She was pretty tired that night when she went to bed
then she didn't wake up the next morning.
Lewis walked past the tomatoes, over to the zucchini's
He didn't really like zucchini
but he'd been growing them for 15 years
so he planted them again this year.
The Fosters who lived on the other side
were always willing to take them off his hands.
He took an old basket and his good sharp knife
and bent down to cut the ripe zucchinis from the vines.
At that moment he felt like he was knocked down to his knees.
Everything started spinning
and before he could think about what was happening
he was face down in the dirt.
"Oh, Judy, what's happening?"
"Oh, God, what's happened to me?"
There was pain…his head ached.
Lewis couldn't move
and he was lying between the zucchinis and the cabbages
His face was in the dirt
the dirt was sticking to the sweat of his brow.
…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Lewis began to wonder. Who could help him?
His Judy was gone. Who knew that he was out here?
The Hewitts were both at work.
They wouldn't be home for hours.
By the time they came home it would be dark too.
The Fosters were on a trip.
Lewis took their mail in for them while they were gone.
The mail carrier!
She'd be about the only other person stirring in this neighbourhood.
It was so deserted on a weekday.
Kids were all at school.
These days both parents worked in most families.
Who would find him? Who could help him?
The mail lady wouldn't see him in the backyard
lying with his face in the dirt.
Life wasn't fair lately.
His wife was taken from him
just seven months before he retired.
They never went on many vacations.
They were saving for their retirement.
Now was when they were supposed to travel…together.
Lewis didn't deserve this!
He always did what he thought God was asking of him.
He was friendly to his neighbours.
Hey, he shared the abundance of his crops with them.
He made donations to charities.
He never cheated anyone in business.
He knew right from wrong.
He went to church every week.
He even sat on church council back in the 70's
and led the campaign to finance the new Sunday School wing.
Now he was alone.
Lying face down in the dirt.
Isn't doing what you figure is God's will
supposed to bring you blessing?
Lewis Greene is a good man.
A man of many virtues.
But they didn't seem to make God hear him,
He wondered why he deserved all that happened to him.
The sun was warm now.
And where he was lying, shielded by the zucchini vines on one side
and the cabbages on the other,
he didn't feel the breeze.
He could probably do without the cardigan now.
Judy wanted to throw that tattered thing away so many times.
Now he lay here in the dirt…in the dust
in his tattered cardigan…sackcloth and ashes.
Lewis closed his eyes
He dreamed of days gone by
he and Judy were new in town, had just bought the house
and the pastor came to visit.
He brought flowers, a gift from the congregation
and he said a blessing:
O God, we pray that you will bless this home
and Judy and Lewis who live here
with your gracious presence,
that your love may be their inspiration,
your wisdom their guide,
your truth their light,
and your peace their benediction.
He dreamed of Judy's funeral.
The people of the congregation
showed him so much love, compassion, caring.
He didn't hear much of what was said at her funeral.
He was in shock, he couldn't believe she was gone.
In his dream he saw her coffin being draped with the pall
then he heard the pastor's words:
When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.
…if we have been united with him in a death like his,
we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
He dreamed of the Hewitts and the Fosters.
Last winter they practically raced each other
to come and clear his driveway each time it snowed.
I will pour out my spirit…[and] your old men shall dream dreams.
Lewis woke up.
He thought again about how fair life had been lately.
What did he really deserve?
Did he deserve the 40 years he had with Judy?
40 years in God's presence together
40 years of her love and God's peace?
Did he deserve the grace
that the people in the church showed him
when he thought he couldn't go on without her?
Did he deserve to be part
of the caring community that he'd found
living between the Hewitts and the Fosters?
If you remove the yoke…
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
…then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
How blessed Lewis is.
He knows what he deserves or doesn't deserve,
and it's not because of what he has done,
but because of who he is…whose he is.
"How long have I been lying here?"
Judging by the warmth of the sun
and by the length of the shadows
it must have been close to noon.
His headache wasn't nearly as bad as it was before his sleep.
He realized that he could move his right arm.
He began to drag himself toward the house.
Then he heard someone call:
"Mr. Greene, are you alright?"
It was Mr. Foster, back from his trip, and he came running to help.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
With dirt on his forehead,
threadbare in his old cardigan,
but with peace in his heart
Lewis rode in the ambulance to the hospital.
The Hewitts and the Fosters finished harvesting the garden
while Lewis recovered.
Under the warm sun
by the sweat of their faces
there was abundance in Lewis' watered garden.
Life from the dust.