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Bouncing back after striking out early Ash Wednesday

Today, something a bit unusual: I'd like to share what I'll call "the evolution of an Ash Wednesday sermon."

To use a baseball analogy, I'd like to share with you what it was like to go from badly striking out at the 6:30 a.m. early service to doing better in each of the three later sermons that day.

Let me start by saying that I would like to live in a universe where all my sermons were written days or weeks before they needed to be preached.

But in the universe I do live in, sometimes - despite my prayers and Bible reading/exegesis and preparation and study - sometimes things conspire to prevent a sermon from being written in time.

And that's what happened late last week and early this week: pastoral and teaching and administrative and other responsibilities, plus a low level exhaustion, took over.

That's not that unusual. Most clergy weeks are full, and clergy are not immune from exhaustion.

But usually inspiration strikes before we have to climb into the pulpit. At one point or another, we're given some idea or insight, something to build on.

Not this week, not for me, not before 6:30 a.m.

Despite reading and re-reading the lessons last week and early this week, I had a complete lack of inspiration.

I'd read, and pray, and think.

But nothing.

Radio silence.

But even that isn't all that unusual: Perhaps because I am hard-wired to do well under deadline pressure, there have been many times in my 18 years of parish ministry (more than I care to admit) when I have gone to bed Saturday night without a finished sermon...but as long as I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and am at my computer/prayer desk by 5:00, the Holy Spirit has always come through by the time the 7:45 usher rings the bells telling downtown Leesburg it's time for worship and me it's time to hit the print button.

Not this time.

Despite the effort the week before and despite getting up at 4:30 Ash Wednesday and praying and trying to write, nothing came.

So at the last minute, I did what I could: I printed off something that I had used in a prior year - some innocuous summary of "the meaning of Lent" and - in an effort to freshen it up a bit - I tried adding some insight I'd been given about how we're reluctant to talk about death.

I think the central point of my 6:30 a.m. sermon was something like, "Ashes have to do with death; we aren't comfortable talking about death and so we don't; but not talking about something doesn't mean we aren't communicating but there's a difference between avoidance and confrontation which has something to do with blah, blah, blah."

I could tell, about a third of the way into the sermon (which was mercifully short to begin with, and I cut it even shorter) that I was bombing.

You get that break-out-in-a-light-sweat, itchy-forehead, the-boat-is-taking-on-water feeling.  

You can't wait to wrap up, and step out of the pulpit. You thank God there's the rest of the liturgy to save the morning.

(Speaking of which: later in the Ash Wednesday service, I was struck by the irony that we confess "our anger at our own frustration," and our "failure to commend the faith that is in us," because I was, at that very moment, angry at my own frustration over failing to commend the faith that is in me!)  

But I also know that the Holy Spirit loves the people of St. James' too much to let me strike out more than once, so I took comfort in the fact I had the rest of the morning to rescue the sermon.

That happened through three things.

First, a quick nap (naps are like hitting CTRL-ALT-DEL for the brain).

Then re-reading the passages in calm solitude.

Then thinking through the passage in a telephone conversation with an out-of-state clergy colleague, for a fresh perspective. 

It was in the telephone conversation that I hit on the idea of the Roman Triumph - how in ancient Rome, military heroes could be granted majestic parades upon their return and a slave would hold a golden wreath over the general's head to denote divine favor, but at the same time the slave would whisper in the general's ear, "mememto mori," - "remember you are mortal.", despite what I'd said at 6:30, ashes are NOT just a reminder of our death, but of our mortality - the fact that we are human...not angels, or God.

My clergy colleague then shared a very similar story, of the Rabbi who carried a stone in one pocket to remind him of his humanity and a gold coin in the other pocket to remind him of his value. 

Using those images, the noon sermon was better. Perhaps only a dribble little grounder to reach first safely, but a base hit, nonetheless. 

In the afternoon, I worked on the sermon more, and received yet more inspiration: running with the idea that we are "only mortal," and how God knows that about us, I developed the idea that Ash Wednesday and Lent are not primarily about focusing on our self...our selves...our own sin.

But rather, God - who "knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14) intends that we "get over ourselves" and focus on God.

That the proper focus of Ash Wednesday and Lent are NOT our death, our penitence, our sins, our resolutions, but rather God.

God's compassion.

God's mercy.

God's loving-kindness and forgiveness.

And how that allows us to make sense of the passage from Isaiah - that the fast God chooses is NOT to "humble ourselves," lay in sackcloth or cover ourselves with ashes," but - out of a sense that we forgive as we are forgiven - the fast God chooses is for us to do concrete acts of service for others, most particularly the poor, the hungry, and the ill-clad.

So by the 6:00 p.m. service, I felt inspired, and hit what I felt was a solid line drive.

By 7:30 p.m. - the last service and sermon of the day - I went into the pulpit with that same sermon, but (for the first time all day) preached with confidence.

And preaching with confidence makes a huge difference...(do congregations, like dogs, smell fear?)...because at 7:30, my sermon just felt different.

It was not by any means what could be considered a "home run," but I did step out of the pulpit thinking - thanks be to God - that it was a nice solid double.

That the sermon did what sermons are supposed to do: lift people's eyes to the Holy, disturb and/or comfort them a little by causing them to reflect on an aspect of God they had not before considered...or that they had forgotten.

Or at least it was a reminder that since all preachers are preaching at least to themselves, God wanted me to hear "memento mori" and not spend time beating myself up for bombing! way of apologizing to those who were subjected to the 6:30 a.m. version, here's what I ended up with -- what my sermon wanted to be when it grew up.

To the degree it got better all day long, thanks be to God.

And thanks be to God for giving me a patient and understanding congregation.


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