You are Alive: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

What follows is my meditation on Psalm 30 for our Monmouth College Ash Wednesday Service. 


I realize I am slow coming to this, but apparently the zombie apocalypse is a thing. My eight-year-old son came home from school the other day and asked, “Mom, where will you go during the zombie apocalypse?” Hmm….can’t say that I had given it much thought. But a quick Google search revealed an actual article by U.S. News and World Report that listed the top five cities to run to in order to survive the zombie apocalypse. (Apparently Boston is the best place to survive. I have no idea why. Maybe zombies don’t like historic walking tours and cream pie.)

Honestly, though, we don’t need a zombie apocalypse to feel like we are being pursued by the walking dead or are about to become one of them ourselves. This past Friday I sat down at my desk to write this sermon and I felt terrible. I’d stayed up too late the night before and maybe I’d had a little too much wine in my glass—which led me to skip my morning workout—which left me feeling foggy and lethargic. I just couldn’t get my wheels turning. I felt like, well—hell.

I know you can relate. I’ve seen you students stumbling to class in the morning—earbuds in, noses to your Smartphones, grunting a hello as you pass by—or sitting in the back of class with a vacant, numbed-out look on your face. In fact, I’ve seen a lot of church folks with that same vacant look sitting in their pews on Sunday morning. We’ve all known our fair share of zombie days.

In our psalm for tonight, the writer gives thanks to God for raising him up from a place called Sheol. Sheol, for the Jews, is the place of the dead—the place all people go when they die (there is no concept of heaven or hell here in the Psalms). Sheol can also be a metaphor, though, for a place of “spiritual death”—a place where we are living, but not really alive. It’s a place of “zombie days” but if we get stuck in Sheol it can become a whole “zombie” way of life.

In her poem, “The Messenger,” Mary Oliver describes her work as “standing still and learning to be astonished.” I love that line. I love it because life is astonishing. But too often we miss it because we just can’t stand still long enough to see it. At a church I served in South Carolina, there was a woman who seemingly had it all. She was smart, funny and beautiful. She had married into a wealthy family and lived in a gorgeous home. She and her husband had four children who were all healthy and super cute. So one would think this woman, I’ll call her Mary, would be living her life astonished—grateful—joy-filled! But Mary never stopped long enough to learn this. Whenever I saw her, she was in constant motion, trying to keep up with her four kids, volunteering for every committee in the church, running errands around town, taking care of everyone—except perhaps herself. It wasn’t that Mary was an unhappy person. She would laugh and joke with others. But underneath that “happy” exterior I always sensed a sadness about Mary—she carried it around her eyes that seldom shone with excitement, or flickered with passion, or burned with curiosity. I reached out to Mary a few times—inviting her to a class on contemplative spiritual practices that I was teaching or to a special retreat for women. I thought if I could get her to slow down and pay attention to herself and to her spiritual well-being that she might somehow come alive. My invitations always caught her attention. I could tell she wanted to accept. I think she knew she needed to accept. But, in the end, she always had a reason to say no. It saddened me to see her living so joylessly.

The psalmist’s soul was headed to Sheol because his foes were dragging him down. His light was about to be extinguished. But into that place of darkness and death, God reached to draw him back up, to turn him away from death and back towards life.

Here, in this turning, lies our hope. Verse 5 has gotten me through many a dark place. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” These words remind me that, by the grace of God, there is always a new chance, a new day to turn from death and embrace the joy of life, no matter what is happening.

For those of you who know and follow Stephen Colbert, you know that he is a devout Catholic. He speaks openly of his faith on The Late Show. You may not know, though, that this man who is hilariously funny and who has devoted his life to making people laugh, has known the deepest grief. When Colbert was 10-years-old, his father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash. The tragedy rocked his family and framed the way Colbert forever viewed life. His mother set the example for him. “She was not bitter” Colbert said in a recent interview. “Broken, yes. Bitter, no. She drew on her faith to understand her suffering in the light of eternity.” So it was this tragic encounter with death that taught Colbert to be grateful for life. On Colbert’s computer he has a sign that reads, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy—yes, joy—comes in the morning. To be clear, joy is not an absence of grief, it is not a denial of suffering, but instead, it is a claiming of life. Joy comes in the morning, at the beginning of a new day because with it comes a deep understanding that we are alive.

Christian Wiman is another poet I love who writes wisely and passionately about life while living with incurable cancer. His writing makes me stand still, as Oliver asks us to do, and learn to be astonished. In light of tonight’s Ash Wednesday service I was particularly struck by a passage where Wiman describes a sand storm in his hometown of West Texas.

“Worse than snow,” he writes, “worse than ice, a bad sandstorm shrinks the world to the slit of your eyes, lifting from the fields an inchoate, creaturely mass that claws at any exposed skin as if the dust remembered what it was, which is what you are—alive, alive—and sought return.”[1]

You might say that tonight, on this Ash Wednesday, when you will receive the ashes on your forehead and hear the liturgical words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” that we’re kicking up our own sandstorm. The dust will be in the air tonight as if it is trying to remember what it was, even as it reminds you what you are—alive, you are alive! Return to this reality tonight. Live as if you are alive, not dead. Embrace the hope and the joy that is here to rescue all of us from zombie ways of Sheol.


[1] Wiman, Christian, “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer”, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York), pg. 13.

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