ASH WEDNESDAY SERMON
BY TERRY SWICEGOOD
“Lord, teach us to number our days, so that we might gain wisdom of heart.”–From Psalm 90
I was walking around the community of Bryn Mawr Pennsylvania on a fine October afternoon. It was one of those exquisite fall days, leaves in all their grandeur, a cerulean sky, crisp October air. As I walked, I stumbled upon a little jewel of a church. It was Anglican, small, Gothic, old, tucked away on a quiet street in Bryn Mawr. But the only way you could get inside the sanctuary was to walk through the cemetery. You had to pass smack dab through the church cemetery to go into the main entrance of the church. There was no other way. Whether that was by design or accident, I don’t know, but I think if I were building a church, that’s the way I would landscape it. For I could think of no better preparation for worship each Sunday than to pass through the cemetery. It would remind us of those who have gone before us, who have fought the good fight, finished their course, and kept the faith. It would remind us that one day there will be a little headstone there with our moniker upon it, and that might help us each Sunday to focus upon what worship is all about: the eternity of God and the mortality of human beings, how we are but strangers and sojourners in this land. In our Ash Wednesday service, the pastor imposes ashes upon our forehead with the marks of the cross and says to us, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
It’s not a bad exercise to reflect upon our own deaths. It’s not a bad exercise to reflect on that whether you are 18 or 80. For when we reflect on our own deaths, it concentrates our attention wonderfully, and helps us sort out that which is urgent from that which is significant.
In this past year you and I couldn’t help reflect upon our own mortality. I often thought I was in a race between getting the Covid and getting the vaccine. If I got the Covid, I wondered, would I survive? If I got the Covid would I be left with some permanent disability that would diminish my quality of life. Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain wisdom of heart.
Each time we attend a memorial service, we are confronted with the fact that life is mercilessly brief, that it runs from beginning to end all to quickly, that we do not have forever.
Mortality–I think we sense our mortality as we see our children and grandchildren grow older. As you approach middle age, you realize that your life is half over, perhaps more. A man talks about this experience. He said, “As a teen-age boy, my mother and I took a long bus trip. My mother was a young-looking fifty-three. On the return journey the bus driver stood outside the bus to help us get on board. “Help your sister with her bag,” he told me. As I turned to correct him, my mother nudged me sweetly and said, “Do what the man said, Brother.”
I think I realized it when somewhere in my career the perception changed of me from a young, dynamic pastor to a wise, older mentor to my associate pastors.
The concert pianist Mischa Elman made his debut when he was twelve. At seventy-two he was invited to give a concert in Berlin, in the same hall where he had made his debut. After the concert he said, “When I made my debut as a twelve year old people said, ‘Isn’t he wonderful for his age!’ Now they are saying the same thing.”
Mortality, we feel it in the passing of friends. Or bodies that no longer work like they should. A woman who had been a life-long exercise freak and very conscious of her diet had a heart attack at 56. She said, “When the doctor told me what had happened, I was stunned. It couldn’t happen to me. I’ve taken such good care of myself.”
But it does happen to us. Sooner of later, it does.
Will Willimon, chaplain at Duke attended a funeral service when he was a young pastor. His wife, Patsy, went with him. Willimon said it was the worse thing he ever saw. It was held in a little rural Baptist church in some back woods Georgia town. They wheeled the coffin in and the preacher began to preach. He waved his arms, he shouted, he mopped his brow. He said, “It’s too late for Joe. He may have wanted to do this or that, but it’s too late. He’s dead. It’s over for him.”
Willimon mused, “Geez, what a comfort to the family!”
“But it’s not too late for you,” the preacher said. People drop dead every day. You may drop dead before you go to sleep tonight. Now is the time to meet your Maker and give your life to him.”
Willimon could barely contain his rage. He said to his wife as they drove him. That was the cheapest, most manipulative thing I’ve ever heard. Imagine inflicting that on his family.”
His wife agreed that it was tacky and manipulative and callused. “Of course,” she said, “the worst part of all is that what he said was true.”
When we number our days, when we really count how few we have, we inevitably turn to the question, “Where do I stand before the Lord.”
I also think it lead us to reflect upon our relationships with other people. Where are we in those relationships which matter most. Have we offended someone and need to say a word of penance? Have we withheld something of ourselves that we should have given?
The Apostle Paul says that we should not let the sun go down on our anger (Ephesians 4:26). I think he means that we shouldn’t go to bed angry with someone because if we should do before we wake, we will have been catapulted into eternity holding a grudge.
Who is it you need to forgive? One person? Many people? Your parents? A brother, a sister. Somebody who did you in business? OK, let’s acknowledge that some people don’t deserve our forgiveness. Let’s acknowledge some people have hurt and misused us. Let’s acknowledge that they may never ask for forgiveness.
But let’s acknowledge at the same time when it comes to not being deserving of forgiveness, when it comes to hurting other people, when it comes to not always asking for forgiveness, God has that problem with each of us. Yet, that didn’t stop the forgiving heart of God for sending Jesus Christ at the right time to die for our sins.
So nobody deserves forgiveness. Would we want to fall asleep harboring hate and wake up in eternity the next morning. Would we want to appear at heaven’s immigration office with these words on our green card? : He wouldn’t forgive.
A woman who had recently become a widow wrote: “I remember a moment shortly after my husband died when I paused for a red light, and a car with a young couple in the front seat drew up beside me. The husband said something angrily to his wife. She replied with a few fierce, rapid paragraphs, complete with gestures. Then she turned away, staring stonily at the red light. “Please speak to him. Forgive him for whatever it is, “ I found myself muttering to this girl I had never seen before…
“My husband and I were reasonably articulate and reasonably close as old-married couples go. But the number of times I have found myself saying, ‘I wish I had told him that’, continues to astound me. If we can recall, soon or late “something” is going to happen to us, it probably will not make us less likely to become angry with each other. But it may make us forgive faster…It might give us an extra push toward opening up the subjects we have always put off talking about till later.”
Lord, teach us to number our days and so gain wisdom of heart. Whether we are young, like our communicant’s class today, with the sun just coming up on the horizon, whether we are halfway in the journey, with the destruction that wastes at noonday, or whether we are living under the sharply slanting rays of a setting sun, I can think of no words more meaningful or apropos than these. Take them home with you. Let them lodge and simmer in your hearts.
“Lord, teach us to number our days.”