Sermon from Ash Wednesday

The Rev. John Lane. This sermon is based on Genesis 3:19.

To the man [Adam] the Lord said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Just before Christmas 1991, I talked to my father on the phone. He died the next day. We drove up to Princeton, and attended a memorial service in the parish where I grew up. My father’s body had been cremated. The ashes were not at the church. When we arrived at the cemetery, they were sitting beside the grave. When I first saw the small wooden box, I lost it.

Obviously, I had known my father my whole life. I had learned a great deal from him. I loved him. I looked at that box, and thought to myself, “87 years, and that’s all that’s left?” At most funerals, those present find a moment, an individual moment, when the reality of death and loss sets in. This was mine, and it helped me grieve.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we focus on our own individual mortality. I remember vividly pouring our son Andrew’s ashes into the ground in the Trinity columbarium. Many of those present cried., knowing he was gone from this world—forever.

It has been my privilege, but not my pleasure, to preside at hundreds of funerals. Nearly 5 years ago, my view of mortality became intensely personal. I was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Because of traveling to the Northwest for a wedding, my appointment with an oncologist was delayed by a month. Riding sleeplessly in the top bunk of a Pullman car for several nights provided a lot of time to ponder my own mortality. It was definitely not fun, but I believe it was very useful. When I finally did see the oncologist, I got very good news.

Death will come for each of us. Whether cremated or buried, our mortal bodies will be gone. There will be virtually nothing left—after all those years. One question I asked myself while I was sleepless in Seattle—actually sleepless on the train leaving Seattle—how do I spend what time I have left? What matters? What doesn’t? Not a bad exercise for Lent, not a bad exercise for daily living.

In a few minutes, everyone will be invited to come forward to have ashes put on your forehead in the sign of the cross, a symbol of your own mortality, a symbol of our hope in the resurrection through Jesus Christ. Those in the Noon Lunch program will be offered ashes before they eat. Beginning at noon teams from many of the churches will take ashes downtown, and offer them to passersby.

Lent, which begins today, is a good time for repentance and amendment of life, as the Prayer Book so clearly puts it. ‘Tis the season to drop some bad habits and take on some good ones. Today is a day to begin or resume considering what each of us wants out of life, the rest of your life.

To the man the Lord said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In a moment I’ll invite you to come forward.