Ash Wednesday – Year A

When I was in seminary in New York City, I worked at Trinity Church on Wall Street. Trinity Church has served the Wall Street neighborhood for more than three centuries now. And while its 40 story Gothic steeple is by no means the only skyscraper in that neighborhood of massively tall buildings – it probably is the oldest.

In 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was built as a chapel of ease for members of Trinity Church who had moved “uptown” – a few blocks up Broadway north of Wall. No longer “Uptown,” that area has a new name – “Ground Zero.” Because until a few months ago, St. Paul’s Chapel stood across the street from the World Trade Center.

One of the first sermons I ever preached with a collar around my neck was at St. Paul’s Chapel. I preached about Ash Wednesday. I remember standing in that little chapel nervously exploring Lenten themes like Sacrifice, Humility, Selflessness, Generosity, and Prayerfulness. I remember leaving the Chapel, and catching the subway at the World Trade Center, like I always did.

I can only imagine what they will be talking about at St. Paul’s Chapel today – this day of ashes. Because the world outside St. Paul’s wrought-iron fence is a very different one than it was only four years ago. And the world inside St. Paul’s is different too. Four years ago, St. Paul’s Chapel had no real life. It was little more than a memorial building, a museum, a place where people went to hear free concerts, and to learn about George Washington who had spoken there in 1789. It had no real congregation, no real mission, and no real ministry – except of course for that one hour of “church” on Sundays. St. Paul’s was a dusty little place – and it had been for a long time. For while the world around it had grown over the centuries, the world inside slowly drifted away.

A friend of mine was asked to be the vicar of St. Paul’s Chapel last year, and I remember feeling like he had taken on the toughest job in the world. The vicar there would be a curator, a caretaker, but not a pastor, for there was almost no flock! But as it turns out Fr. Harris did not want to be a museum caretaker. No, he wanted St. Paul’s to wake up – to grow – to shake off the dust of complacency – to do something new – by the power of a risen Lord, by the grace of a present Lord. And they renewed a commitment to the world inside that little Chapel — with new approaches to worship, to mission, and to ministry.

And then, one day, all of a sudden, the world outside changed. Some crazy people hijacked some airplanes. They killed thousands. And dusty old St. Paul’s was covered in ashes as the two biggest buildings in the world came crashing down across the street. Now, next to the biggest pile of ashes in American history, St. Paul’s Chapel has been a place where the resurrected Lord Jesus has been doing some work. St. Paul’s is now a round-the-clock relief center for emergency rescue workers at the nearby World Trade Center site.

Moreover, as a space dedicated to the Spirit of Christ, the chapel has now hosted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have come to see Ground Zero – and pray.

Through a baptism of ashes, this dusty little chapel has been resurrected from decades of de facto retirement, and it is making a difference. For while it’s been covered in ashes – it has shaken the dust off its feet. It has not allowed the world outside to overwhelm the world inside.

And I think there is a message in that for you and me. Today, Jesus challenges us to reflect on our calling to serve Him. He asks us to blow off the dust we have gathered inside our spiritual hearts, by getting down into the ashes of the world. The World which is always going to be Ground Zero in the battle between life and death.

But first, in this time of Lent, before we take up the challenge to follow Christ in the world outside, let us begin to focus on our inside world – spending a few weeks trying to hear what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do and sustaining us to become.

For you and I are baptized into the Risen Body of Christ – are we not? If so – then let us be of one mind with him. If so – then let us let him rule our hearts and minds. If so – then let us be reconciled to him and then let us go and do something for the world in Christ’s name. Amen.

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