A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14th 2018
Toward the end of last year, we visited family in California. It was not long after some of the worst wildfires in that state in anyone’s memory. The smoke still hung in patches, depending on the day. On our second day there, we drove over the mountains to hike among the giant redwoods. Returning, summitting, cresting, on the slope down we saw across the valley new, acrid, black smoke rising and funnelling across the hills opposite. Fortunately, that fire didn’t get too far, but it was a reminder of how close and how quickly the ashes can accumulate and overwhelm.
We reassure ourselves often with talk of the cleansing properties of fire, and the renewing of the earth beneath the ashes, but before long, the rain that doused those flames had turned to floods, and hillsides cleared of their armour of trees and brush fell down and buried the structural survivors of the summer conflagrations. Their ashes were no protection against the deluge.
The ashes that we wear on this, the first day of Lent, are not a badge of protection nor an amulet against sin. Ashes cannot save us. That is not what they are for.
Poet Frank X. Walker tells the story, in his poem, Fireproof, from the collection, Affralachia, of a church burned by racially-motivated arsonists, and how the “church folk” find God beyond the ashes [quoted by permission]:
of the bible belt
the souls of church folk
the home of gospel music
has been forever altered
because only a devil
could set fire
to a church
but church people
are like fire ants
as soon as the smoke clears
they’ll be stirring up cement
testing new extinguishers
installing a smoke alarm
in the pulpit
before you can say
verses seven through ten
they will stop moaning and wailing
and sift through the ashes
tip over charred and smoky stained glass
looking for the mourners’ bench
and come Sunday
twice as many worshippers
will pray on it
from a cross
under a tree
and their blessings
starting a new building fund
’til the roof is raised
and the foundation poured
thanking the Lord
for a new day
and their right minds
regretful for needing
such a powerful message
to continue believing
that God is good and wise and merciful
offering up prayers
for them that done the deed
asking the Lord
to touch their dark hearts
smother out all that evil
on a straighter narrower path
won’t just go up
“Regretful for needing such a powerful message to continue believing that God is good and wise and merciful.”
The ashes, those signs of our mortality, our broken ways, our burial beneath the sins of our own making, our own inheritance, our own oppression, our own neglect;
the ashes cannot make us clean, but clear the way for the rain which in its turn takes advantage of our own burnt souls to bury them in fresh mud and rockslides;
the ashes will not save us; they are, rather, that all too “powerful message that provokes us to continue believing that God is good and wise and merciful,” and in God’s mercy, mitigated to us by Christ, is our hope of getting clean, and breaking loose from the rubble of all that has fallen down around our ears.
The landscape within which we live is littered with sin, from the scars we inflict upon the earth on up through the twisted veins of hearts that would burn down a church built in the image of God’s mercy. And it is impossible to stand here in an attitude of repentance tonight without acknowledging the complicity of our common life in the deaths of 17 students, children, at a high school in Florida this afternoon. Our participation in systems of sin, as its priests and as its victims, is as inevitable as the ice of winter.
But the mercy of God is as unanswerable, and as unpredictable; as overwhelming and astonishing as the first touch of spring, the triumph of life returning from fire and flood, ice and isolation, as though it were irrepressible.
It is out of this mercy, this touch of life, that we find the strength to turn, to repent, to begin to rebuild. The cycle will repeat, and we will find ourselves buried again and again; but here is God whose property is always to have mercy, and we are not helpless. For here is “Faith [that] won’t just go up in smoke.”
I thought again of that drive, cresting the hill and seeing smoke on the downward slope, when I read lines from another poet, from R.S. Thomas’ Mass for Hard Times:
Because we cannot be clever and honest
and are inventors of things more intricate
than the snowflake – Lord have mercy.
Because we are full of pride
in our humility, and because we believe
in our disbelief – Lord have mercy.
Because we will protect ourselves
from ourselves to the point
of destroying ourselves – Lord have mercy.
And because on the slope to perfection,
when we should be half-way up,
we are half-way down – Lord have mercy.
May our hope be in the Lord whose property is always to have mercy. May our hearts be broken only enough to let life flow through them. May our faith in the life, love, and mercy of Christ be fireproof. Amen
R.S. Thomas, ‘Kyrie,’ from Mass for Hard Times, in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2004), 135
Frank X. Walker, Fireproof, in Affrilachia (Old Cove Press, 2000), 56-58