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Hope in a handful of ashes

Just as I returned from my SCCC meeting in Baltimore, I fell prey to a lingering sinus infection.

Every teacher at the school had warned me that the first year around small children is a recipe for ongoing illness, but I thought I had been doing pretty well, between Airborne, Zicam, and preemptively spraying down the toddlers with Purell.  But the adorable little germ machines outwitted me.

Services were cancelled here on Sunday, due to what we all thought was an impending Snowpocalyptic-type event., which helped somewhat, but when I couldn’t get out of bed on Monday, I figured this was a sign to give in, and go see a doctor.

Which meant that the day prior to Ash Wednesday saw me home sick, on antibiotics, trying to write a coherent sermon.

I think most Episcopal clergy enjoy Ash Wednesday, as I do.  Both for visceral reasons (I get to play with dirt!) and more profound reasons (It’s about death!)  Though, it’s somewhat discordant tonally to stand in the pulpit and exult that “THIS IS THE COOLEST LITURGY EVER!!” while jumping up and down.

It is supposed to be a fairly somber occasion, after all.  Memento mori, and all that.

Here’s what I ended up saying.

Ash Wednesday 2014

I had to take the GREs to go to seminary. Multiple choice math and verbal sections went  fine.  I filled in my little Scantron bubbles with gusto.  Then I got to the essay section.
The essay question had to do with whether the proliferation of multiple sources of news online had
been a positive or negative in our society. I thought about it, then wrote a lengthy essay saying that the
decentralization of authority in the postmodern era was a nuanced issue that had many effects,
including polarization, and greater access to information and possibly even an increase in democratization around the globe, but you really couldn’t say if these were net positives or negatives, because really, it had been a little of both. (Please forgive me, I was in undergrad at the time.)

I failed that section.

When I got the essay back, the reader had written that my assignment had been to pick yes or no and give reasons–not to deal with nuance.

Luckily, seminary is pretty forgiving on GRE scores, and it didn’t much matter.

But it would appear we like things to have answers. Shiny, bright, filled in answers. The same
impulse that leads us to do that thing I always do, and to flip to the end of mystery books.
We need this resolved.

It is an illusion of the modern world that everything can be fixed, everything can have one
perfect answer, that every problem has a solution. If we just try hard enough, if we just work
long enough, we can fix any problem, solve any mystery. As that Cadillac commercial that is on
right now suggests, this is America, and if we work through enough vacations, then we can
achieve anything! Even a shiny new Cadillac.
And yet, despite this relentless cheeriness, the world keeps on presenting us with intractable
problems that don’t go away.
The illnesses that don’t get better.
The poverty that doesn’t let up.
The inbred hatreds that fester and emerge, and never seem to die out completely.
Relationships that never seem to get better.
And behind all of these, that one problem we never can solve or escape—the reality that no
matter what we do, we’re all going to die (just like Olympia Dukakis pronounces so finally in
No matter what, we come back to mortality, to ashes.
No matter who we are, no matter how many problems we can solve, or how many answers we
know, there’s one that still confronts us all, Cadillacs or not.

Lent presents to us no answers at all. Lent actually does something very different. It offers us
the graphic, physical reminder on this day that we are not required to have the answers, all the
solutions, starting with the One Great Unfixable Human Problem that is Mortality,
and Lent offers us the space to offer to God all those things that press on us that we cannot fix
at all.
Lent lets us name those things, all those places where we struggle and we fall short, and we
don’t know what to do, and Lent lets us declare them Unsolvable, and Lent allows us the grace
to offer them to God.
Because this is the season of grace. This is the season where we can sit with these intractable
problems that the world shies away from, that the world declares hopeless, and we can offer
them wholeheartedly to God .

We can take these wounded places in our lives, in the world, and turn them over to God, and let
God live there with us in them. We can take them, not as signs of failures, but as marks of

Because we know that God can bring new life even out of the worst of our mistakes, and our
dead ends. God can bring resurrection from the worst of these un fixable problems. And on
Easter, God comes into our very ashes, and brings resurrection and hope.

So this Lent, consider these ashy places in your life.  Consider those problems you can’t fix, the
questions without answers, and ask God to come dwell there with you.
And then wait together for what Easter may bring.



PS:  One more thing:  It was suggested to me by wise people (::cough:: Meredith Gould ::cough::) that putting out a podcast of my sermons would be a valuable addition to this here blog.  What do you think?  I’m considering taking that on as my “Megan tries something new” Lenten discipline.  Do you listen to sermon podcasts?

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

18 responses »

  1. Meredith Gould

    I think Meredith Gould has given you a brilliant suggestion. In fact, she offers it again after reading this sermon and, you should know, is inspired by it to forgive you for not connecting with her during your visit to Baltimore. Amen.

    • Meredith Gould is spot on with her suggestion. I have seen a video of Megan preaching, and i am praying for her to be the first Bishop of the millennial generation!

  2. I love your Ash Wednesday sermon. A lot. To answer your question about whether I would listen to your sermons in podcast: As someone a lot closer to death than you are (even my grandchildren are beyond the walking-petri-dish ages), I’m not technically adept, have no idea how to load, upload, download or unload a podcast, so, no. As a contemplative, I much prefer the quiet of the printed page and the opportunity to read, mark and inwardly digest thought-provoking posts. (Can you mark, not to mention digest, a podcast?) So, no. But I’m A-OK with having a podcast in addition to your written blog posts. If you go all Gen XYZ on us, do please give us the option of reading too. Thanks!

  3. I cannot say that I listen to pod cast. However, I did read this sermon and I found it quite moving. I have been reading lent madness for hours on end lately and am open spiritually to just such messages. Thank you.

    • Oh…I forgot. I am on the audio guild at St. Paul’s cathedral in Oklahoma City and we do record every sermon and post the pod cast. It is my understanding that there are many who do appreciate having this option open to them. I figure it can’t hurt to have the message out there for the world to witness.

  4. Sounds great! Some learn through the eye, some through the ear. Now if you could just make the sermons edible (not just food for thought), those who are mouth-learners could taste and see.

  5. Pingback: SR Pledges and Priorities, Lent 1 2014 | Theologybird Writes

  6. Charles Lindley

    For us in South Carolina a podcast would be great so we can see you in action

  7. Scarritt, Richard

    Answering the question you posed, I’m not sure podcasts would be worth your effort, but if I had to take one or the other, I’d choose the text.

    Thank you … Regards.

    (What meaning do you intend by the double colon ? The :: ?)

    Richard Scarritt | Spencer Fane | 816.292.8148 Direct | 816.665.0047 Mobile |

    • megancastellan

      The ::verb:: shorthand is something that arose in recent years in internet chatrooms, mostly. It signifies an action the writer is supposed to be doing while ‘speaking’ whatever words s/he is writing–the better to convey the sense of an actual conversation between people.
      Doesn’t make much sense when I write it out like that, but it makes more sense when you use it.

  8. I’m not very tech-savvy, so I haven’t really figured out how to use podcasts yet, but it is on my list of things I want to learn about, so I would say yes, go for it. I am encouraging our priest, Fr. Wilson, to do the same!

  9. I think podcasts of your sermons would be helpful. Those who for whatever reason cannot attend will find listening to your voice better than merely one more text. I feel younger clergy could be inspired by your hip style.

  10. By all means add one, yet I still prefer the written word–especially because I can take bits to Evernote rather than rummaging to find the right spot. I tend to listen to podcasts in the car and note taking isn’t encouraged.

  11. Podcasts? You bet. Reach people the way the majority relate, via portable devices like phones, tablets and their cars. If you had cute illustrations, too, consider a TED talk like format. Consider hiring a hollywood voice, too. What a ministry it would be. In any quiet moment you can plug into a podcast, relax your eyes and really connect with the speaker in a very different way than reading a text.

  12. Yes, yes! Being able to hear the vocal intonations that accompany your wit woven in with the underlying wisdom would add an awe-some dimension to the experience. Listening to podcast sermons, along with my favorite NPR podcasts, makes the daily exercise discipline go down easier, like the proverbial spoonful of sugar.

  13. I am a recovering Baptist just confirmed Feb 23, so this is my first Lent. All my life it was only a vague notion that it was an excuse for those hell bound Catholics to party at Mardi Gras! I hope you’ve recovered, and are feeling swell now . The point of your Ash Wednesday sermon was well taken. Thank you for the insight. We do mostly think we can do it ourselves, and sometimes we need to realize that even if something doesn’t go the way we thought it should that maybe we didn’t actually know how it should go. The Peace of our Lord+

  14. Meredith Gould is infallible as always. You are an extraordinary preacher and you should be podcasting regularly!


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