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Archive for February, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

My father died in 1988 from Altzheimer’s Disease when my son Woody was ten years old. Daddy—and the family—had suffered in different ways for years. Always, tucked in among the on-going and increasing moments of deep grief was one of sadness— sadness that my son would have few memories of the man his grandfather once was: a vital, strong Baptist preacher who adored children, sang with gusto, and doted on the only grandchild he would ever have.

Pneumonia mercifully finally took Daddy Home and his body was cremated. After a memorial service in Raleigh, N.C., we drove about an hour to a church cemetery in Siler City, where my mother had been buried eleven years earlier. My brother and I, driving separately with family members, followed the limousine in which my sister, her husband and Woody rode. At some point, he noticed the dark wooden box on the seat next to him and asked what that was. Karen told him “It’s Pa-Paw’s ashes.” While he initially recoiled from that idea, he must have begun to ponder this new mystery. By the time we reached the cemetery, this ten-year old boy asked his aunt, “Can I carry Pa-Paw?’

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We live in a 21st century world with technology, research and lovely retirement communities. In addition, many more of us now live in cities or suburbs. In article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, Dr. Craig Bowron wrote this: “Our nation’s mass exodus away from the land and an agricultural existence and toward a more urban lifestyle means that we’ve antiseptically left death and the natural world behind.” None of us want to face death—either for ourselves or for people we love. So Dr. Bowron notes that we push end of life care to its extreme capacity and beyond, perhaps because “doing something often feels better than doing nothing.” As post-modern people, even we people of faith do not want to face the fact that at some point—despite the best medical care—we will die. Some of us will die suddenly. Some of us will suffer from chronic disease and thus more slowly. However, the truth is, you and I will die. Our mortal bodies will return to earth from whence we came. Our souls will return to the Holy One who created, redeemed and sustained us during this early journey.

We are reminded of this reality in a powerful and visceral way every Ash Wednesday–in the readings, in the prayers, in the imposition of ashes. The prophet Joel calls us to repent to God with all our heart. To return to God because God is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The apostle Paul entreats us to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that it does no good for us to give up something, to fast for our sins if our actions do not match our words. In other words, God knows our hearts. If we pretend to be faithful and observant, others might be fooled. However, God is never fooled. God knows that in our hearts, we are really more interested in acquiring money, land, techie gadgets and comfortable lifestyles. Jesus reminds us that in order to be in right relationship with God, we must understand that the real treasures are hidden in God’s kingdom—not on earth. In order to possess those treasures of unconditional love and justice, we must be willing to turn from our comfortable ways, die to our own desires, and live in communion with God.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

You and I are not perfect. We are human beings. Despite our best intentions to die to self and follow Christ, we make mistakes. Yet our God is not just a God of judgment. God is a God of mercy and steadfast love. So very early on in the Christian tradition, a season of repentance and preparation for baptism was established, and much of that tradition continues today. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday—a holy day observed by fasting and prayer. The season of Lent is a time to remember the Lord’s passion and resurrection in intentional ways. Many people of faith give up something they love, as a Lenten discipline. Others take on extra Lenten disciplines: prayer, Bible study, devotional reading, attending extra worship services, or a book study.

On this holy day that invites us to a holy Lent, we kneel to ask God’s forgiveness for sins done and left undone. We remember that we are mortal human beings who will not live forever on this earth. We feel the cross traced on our foreheads with black, gritty ash. This reminds us that someday, we will return to the good earth from whence we came. Yet there is hope for more. As faithful Christians, we can anticipate the holy waters of baptism at the Easter Vigil, when the newly baptized feel the cross traced on their foreheads–not with ashes, but with holy oil. Sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism. Marked as Christ’s own forever. This is our treasure—a treasure without price, a treasure strong and precious and eternal—the hope of the resurrection of the dead, and the life to come.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On a sunny day in 1988, I watched as a ten year old boy solemnly and slowly carried the earthly remains of his grandfather across a cemetery. Gently, he placed the wooden box down. Towards the end of the service, the priest prayed the Commendation from the Burial Office. His words rang out with certainty: “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Death is inevitable. On that day, as I stood at the graves of my parents, these words reminded me of my own mortality. Yet I knew that death would not—does not—will not have the final word. In Jesus Christ, the cross—sometimes etched in holy oil and sometimes etched in gritty ashes on our foreheads—reminds us that we possess the hope of resurrection life. Hope, faith, love. Such treasures we only glimpse in this life. So even at the grave, we make our song.

At the end of the graveside service, Woody turned to me. “Mom, shouldn’t we sing something?” he asked. Through my tears, I nodded. So we held hands, stood close to the earthly remains of the old Baptist preacher and sang softly our hope in Jesus Christ: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture of Nelson headmarker by Sheila N. McJilton. Other pictures accessed through Google images.

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Ash Wednesday Poem

I wrote this poem years ago, as a reflection after reading Psalm 102. On this Holy Day, I share it with you.

“I am like a sparrow, lonely on a house-top. . .” (Psalm 102:7b)

She perches high on a windy rooftop,
Tiny dark silhouette against gray skies of Lent,
Lonely singer of psalms whose
Ancient music haunts those who hide.
her throat sets notes free that
Echo among the ruins
In stony wilderness below.
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing.

Ah Lent, come again
To lay bare our sins
Of mortality and hatred
That wither joy and
Throw broken bones of peace against parched earth.

She eats no bread.
The salt of her tears creates
Rivers of ashes from a
Dark cross drawn on her forehead,
And her bones burn
From tight shrouds of fear
That wrap her trembling body,
That entomb her broken heart.

Ah Lent, come again
To lay bare my sins
Of fear and anger
That tightly clutch my heart and
Throw broken bones of peace onto parched earth.

She shrugs her old life off
Like a worn-out cloak.
It falls silently around her feet,
A soft, dark shroud
That no longer keeps her
Warm and safe.
She perches naked, high on a windy rooftop.
Deeply wailing. Deeply wailing.

Ah Lent, come again
To heal my wounds
Of loneliness and fear
That cut harsh lines into my soul and
Throw broken bones of peace onto parched earth.

She perches in silence, high on a windy rooftop,
Waiting for narrow-eyed enemies.
They scoff under darkening skies,
Their stony hearts crusted with pride.
She knows they will spit in her face
For sins left undone.
The silence of her voice echoes over the bones of earth.
Its deep wails set free against gray skies of Lent.

© the Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Published in The Anglican Theological Review (Spring 2000, Vol. 82, No. 2)

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“Have you not known?  Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?”     

ImageFive years ago, at 7:51 a.m. on a cold January morning at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, a young man removed a violin from its case. Tossing in a few dollars and some change as seed money, he began to play. Within forty five minutes, this street musician played J.S. Bach’s “Chaconne,” Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and other classical masterpieces. The notes from his violin rose and fell over each other in exquisite timing and graceful phrasing. While he played, over a thousand people—mostly government workers in that area—rushed by with barely a glance.

One man did break stride to listen for a moment, then moved on.  Several mothers with children passed; the children tugged, wanting to stop and listen, but their busy moms pulled them along. One woman on her coffee break stopped nearby and stayed as long as she could. One man stopped as he got to the top of the escalator. He stood against a nearby wall for nine minutes. Then close to the end of this impromptu morning concert, one woman recognized the street musician. With a wide grin, Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, planted herself in front of the violinist, where she remained until he finished playing.

Who was the musician? A homeless man? A music student? No. It was world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell. What did Bell earn for his early morning concert? $32.17 (other than the $20 Stacy threw into the case). Yes. For about forty three minutes, during Washington D.C. morning rush hour, “one of the finest classical musicians in the world”—who can command thousands of dollars per concert —played a priceless Stradivari violin for commuters. Exquisite beauty, creative energy and fine craft were mostly ignored. These folks were not ignorant. They were not mean. They were just too busy and self-absorbed to see something larger than themselves in the midst of ordinary life.[1]

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?”

We may think that we in the twenty first century are plagued by more stress and demands than people in other times. However, in every age, human beings have faced challenges that rob them of the ability to see beyond themselves. In the sixth century BCE, the prophet Isaiah must remind the people of Israel of this. They are living in exile in Babylon, cut off from their people. The remnant of their people live in what remains of Jerusalem, which the Babylonians have pretty much destroyed—including the Temple. The people of God are weary and discouraged. They have no power over their own lives. They are forced to live under the domination of a system that has taken them hostage from their own land. In the midst of a pagan culture, they struggle to live in a faithful way to their own faith traditions. They wonder if God has abandoned them completely.

ImageIsaiah reminds the people that God has not abandoned them. Yes, they have grown weary. Yes, the powers and demands of political, economic and cultural systems have drained them of hope and energy. Yes, they—like all human beings before and after them—must cope somehow with illness, grief, stress and separation from loved ones. Isaiah tells his people to go outside and look at the heavens. Look at the expanse of blue sky and sun. The countless stars that fill the night sky. The clouds and rain that give life to the earth and its people.  In the face of creation’s grandeur and majesty, Isaiah says, look, there is something greater than yourselves. Pay attention! Look beyond yourselves.

Yet this reminder is not always helpful to people who are stressed or struggling with life. If God is all that great, that majestic, that perfect and glorious, then why does God allow violence, war, grief, depression, illness and stress to be part of life? God in the stars might be awesome, but where is God when I need God? Isaiah reminds his people—and us—that the same God who is beyond us is also with us.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see,” Isaiah challenges. “Who created these? [God] who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name.”  God may be beyond us, but has also numbered and named the stars. So if God has named the stars, then God must know each of us by name—which means that God is with us.

Isaiah encourages his people. “[God] does not faint or grow weary; [God’s] understanding is unsearchable.”  In other words, things happen in our human lives that we either do not, nor cannot understand. Stuff happens. Sometimes it is good stuff, sometimes it is not. We—or people we love—become ill. Struggle with chronic disease or disabilities. Live with cancer. We get depressed. Bury people we love. Become estranged from family members. We deal daily with jobs we hate, but endure because we just can’t afford to quit.

ImageSo where is God in all of this? When will the Lord renew our strength? When will we mount up with wings like eagles? When will we run and not be weary? When will we walk and not faint?

The preacher suggests today that the answer is not in the sweet by and by. The answer is in the here and now. The present moment of life. Some of the descendents of Isaiah’s people were blessed to see God come among them in Jesus of Nazareth. Some descendents sit here today—we who have claimed the resurrected Christ as our Lord and Savior. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is still with us.

Sometimes we need to stop and pay attention. In the midst of the stress and struggle of our own lives, we must realize that we experience God most often in Christian community.God’s people come together in community and that is critical. Why? Because when we gather at the Table in worship, God feeds us with blessed bread and wine that nourishes and strengthens us. Then when we leave that Table, we still have community. On a day when you are grieving, one of your brothers or sisters will give you a hug and let you cry. On a day when you are depressed, someone will encourage you with a smile, a handshake, a reassuring pat on the back. On a day when stress and demands overwhelm you, someone will say “come sit down and have a cup of coffee with me.” On a day when your children demand more energy than you have, this community, this tribe, this village, can make a difference in both yours and your children’s lives.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation of the earth?”

On this winter day, remember that God is beyond us. God is with us. And in sweet communion—with God and with each other, God is within us. For these powerful and unsearchable blessings, may God’s holy name be praised. Amen.

© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton

Pictures accessed through Google images


[1] Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast” in The Washington Post, Sunday, April 8, 2007.

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