Friday, February 12, 2016


I’ve often refused to give out copies of sermons that people request when one I’ve preached pleases their ear, mostly because I think that a sermon is more effective audibly delivered, but sometimes people hear a story and ask for a hard copy of it. Ash Wednesday I talked about pride and its effects and how Lent was a meet time to do a little self-examination, pray for, and practice humility, and several people expressed interest in a printed version of a story within the sermon. Here’s the story:

“Almost twenty years ago, I was director of Solomon House, an outreach mission at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New Iberia, Louisiana, and a woman came to me on a day we didn’t usually give out money for emergency assistance. She had visited us often, many times going into the sheds behind Solomon House that held clothing for rummage sales…to get clothes for her sick husband she always said. The woman made the request so many times and carted away such quantities of clothing that I thought her husband was either the best-dressed man in a small community down the road from New Iberia, or she was collecting clothes for her own backyard sales. In my arrogance, I presumed to know what her real needs were.

The morning she came to me, I began, rather impatiently, to explain why I couldn’t help her. When I finally shut up, having used up all the reasons, justifications, and explanations I could summon to mind for not helping her, she just looked at me and asked if she could come into my office. I said “yes,” but I was suspicious.

The woman held a small cardboard box with a lid on it that she brought into the office with her. “I don’t want money or clothing,” she said. “I just want you to help me with some closure about my husband. These are his ashes.” She pointed to the box she had plunked down on my desk. “And you’re a good person, so please bless them.” She began to lift the lid, but I motioned for her to leave it on.

As minister of an outreach mission, I had to be prepared for most anything, but this request was a first. I can’t tell you how small I felt. Most Episcopalians say that when all else fails, consult the Book of Common Prayer, so I picked up the BCP lying on my desk, flipped the pages until I found the Committal in the burial service and read it aloud, then embraced the woman, who was, by now, crying softly.

As I ushered her out, a friend who had accompanied her said: “She has been riding around since daybreak waiting for you to open Solomon House to do that blessing.” The women got into a car and sped off, sans clothing, sans emergency assistance, leaving me with my presumptuousness and my former judgments about who the woman with the ashes really was. And she, of course, had been the face of Christ.

Most of us have met at least one person who holds up a mirror for us to see the real Self. Thank God. This Ash Wednesday we confront with humility the fact that we don’t possess super-powered lenses to see into the soul of others, and we’re forced to let go of our presumptuousness, to allow faith and trust to take over.”

That’s not the complete sermon, but it’s a starter for going into the desert of Lent, to enter this time of self-emptying. As the Scot preacher George MacDonald once said: the love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of Self — nothing else added, nothing else needed.

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