Ash Wednesday Sermon by Fr. Winston T. Smith
When I was a boy growing up in rural North Carolina we had a fairly large vegetable garden. It was probably as large as the nave here at St Anne’s. We grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables in it – tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peas, green beans, even watermelons, and quite a few rows of corn. I don’t think my mother ever bought vegetable produce from the supermarket, at least not in the summer. We always had more than enough and my mother canned quite a bit of it.
But, honestly, throughout my childhood, I hated that garden! To me that garden represented hours and hours of labor – precious summer hours that could have been spent riding my bike, swimming, hanging out with friends, or playing video games. Instead, those hours were spent under the blazing hot sun on my knees, hands in the dirt, dripping in sweat, weeding row after row after row. It was dirty, hard, boring labor. And I didn’t even like half the things that were grown there! Like okra! I mean, seriously, okra!? Who eats okra?!My parents required my brother and me to help them simply because they needed the help, but to me it felt like punishment. I would rather have done anything than spend a minute working in that garden.
But what I realized later, after I had matured a little bit, was that my parents LOVED the garden. They were doing the same work I was doing, and more, and they treasured it. They LOVED deciding what they were going to plant each year, what variety, how much, and where to best situate it in the garden. They lovingly planted each seed. They tenderly watered and cultivated each sprout as it came out of the ground. And they went after the weeds as if the weeds were threatening the lives of their very children. And when the first ripe tomatoes were picked, the first ear of corn was cooked, or the first watermelon cut open, they beamed with pride and savored it like they had never put anything as tasty in their mouths.
It was the same garden, the same job, but two very different experiences of tending the garden.
Today we enter into the season of Lent and it is time to make special effort to tend to our spiritual gardens. And it makes me wonder, what is Lent like for you? I think it’s easy for us to enter into Lent as if it’s punishment. After all, one of the first things that usually comes up when someone mentions Lent is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Right away, it sounds like punishment, like your privileges have been revoked until Easter! But I want to invite you to let today’s psalm, Psalm 103, set the tone for you.
We only have a small snippet of Psalm 103 in our liturgy today, so let me supply some of the verses that were left out. The Psalm begins with a kind of Lenten exhortation, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.” The psalmist knows that he needs something, that his soul is in need of a renewed focus on the Lord. He is acknowledging the fact that we are all prone to forget the Lord, for God to slip from our focus, for us to become numb to the realities of God’s love that once excited us.
Then notice where the psalm goes from there, in verses 3-7, “who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.” To awaken his soul from slumber the psalmist calls to mind the wonderful qualities of God’s love. It’s not a punishment. It’s not groveling. It’s a feast!
Of course, there is recognition of our need, of the ways that we forget God. There is recognition of our frailties and sin. The Psalmist goes on to say later in the Psalm, “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting...” The psalm is very honest about our sins and frailties but it is always understood in the light of God’s grace and mercy and love. That’s the key. It’s OK to see ourselves as we really are, to acknowledge our sins, to admit we need to change and grow, to own our weaknesses as long as it is in the context of God’s love for us. It’s God’s grace which makes it safe for us to be honest.
In other words, why did my parents seem to not mind the hard work, the time on their knees pulling weeds and tending to sprouts? Because they had minds full of the goodness of what was coming. See, it’s not so bad spending time in the garden pulling the weeds when you realize that it’s not punishment, but preparation for a sweet harvest. Lent is not punishment. It’s not about giving things up. It’s about making room in our hearts and minds for new things to spring up and come to life.
It’s focused labor for a season so that we can enjoy the fruit that God will bear in our lives. So I invite you to leave here today, not gloomy, but serious minded about how you will make room for something new to grow in your hearts, in your spiritual garden. What weeds will you pull, or at least, what plants that aren’t really that fruitful will you put to the side to see what God will grow in that space if you break up the ground and add some prayer and scripture and meditation.
I invite you to not just be serious minded about that, but excited to see what we will taste and enjoy together when we turn our minds on Easter morning to Jesus’s resurrection.
Grace and Peace,
Fr. Winston T. Smith