February 22, 2012
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Fargo
+ I just got back from vacation last week. Now, I don’t mean to rub it in, but I spent a wonderful week and half in Florida, enjoying the sun, the ocean and some wonderfully warm temperatures. Of course, you can’t tell by looking at me. I’m Scottish, after all—I just don’t tan. Not even a little. But I can tell you, it’s a strange feeling coming back from vacation—from not thinking about “church things” for about two weeks and then suddenly shifting gears and having to deal with Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are definitely things we need to gear up for, just as Lent is a way for us to prepare ourselves for Easter. We need to prepare ourselves a bit for the momentous occasions in our lives as liturgical Christians.
What we are gathering together for this evening is a sobering event. To have ashes smeared on our foreheads and to hear those words, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” are hard words to hear.
This day is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that everyone gathered here this evening is going to quit breathing one day and will die. I’m sorry to be so morbid about this. And I’m sorry I’m the one that has to tell you this sad news. But, it is a fact. We are all, one day, going to die. There’s no getting around that.
And these bodies we have with us this evening will one day either be buried in the ground or burned to ashes by fire. Or maybe one or two of you are going to be cryogenically frozen. Good luck on the waste of that money…
One way or the other, these bodies we have—this flesh and bones we carry around with us—will one day crumble away and turn to dust and ash. I know it’s not pleasant. I know it’s difficult to look at the hands on our laps at this moment and realize that they will turn to dust and that these bodies fail us.
For me, I realized all of this very early on. Yesterday I celebrated a very momentous day in my life. I celebrated 10 years of being cancer free. It’s an amazing event to be able to say those words.
But, let me tell you, back then, I faced the reality of my mortality. I realized, back then, that I was being touched by something that could very easily have killed me. And there were moments when I found myself examining everything aspect of my life. I thought about how I had failed. I thought about how I had failed my parents, my friends, my siblings, my self and my God. And I realized how far short I had fallen in my life. It was sobering.
And it was even more sobering when, in the midst of all of that, I had to think about things like my funeral. I made my funeral instructions, for example, and thought about things like wanting to be cremated and having my ashes buried in the family plot in Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Cemetery.
For us, this Wednesday evening is a similar experience. Tonight, we too are hearing, in our liturgy, that we are going to die. We are reminded that, despite the fact that we think so much depends upon us, in reality, we realize we are dust and to dust we all shall return. This is what Ash Wednesday is really about.
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittester, in her wonderful book from The Ancient Practices series, The Liturgical Year, says this about Ash Wednesday:
“Ash Wednesday, an echo of the Hebrew Testament’s ancient call to sackcloth and ashes, is a continuing cry across the centuries that life is transient, that change is urgent. We don’t have enough time to waste time on nothingness. We need to repent our dillydallying on the road to God. We need to regret the time we’ve spent playing with dangerous distractions and empty diversions along the way. We need to repent of our senseless excesses and our excursions into sin, our breeches of justice, our failures of honesty, our estrangement from God, our savoring of excess, our absorbing self-gratifications, one infantile addiction, one creature craving after another. . .”
Ash Wednesday, then, is a time for us to realize our time is limited. We don’t have an excess surpluss of time. If we are going to do good in this life, we need to do it now.
And we really do not have the option of wasting time doing wrong. Doing wrong robs us of that precious time we have left to us. Ash Wednesday and Lent are not times for us to beat ourselves up unmercifully, as so many Christians believe. It more than just giving up some things we might like—like candy or caffienated drinks.
It is rather a time for us to remind ourselves that it is not all about any one of us. Because we all fall into that dangerous cycle. We easily fall into that delusion of beleiving the universe revolves around the all-mighty ME. The fact is, it doesn’t. It’s not all about me, or you, or any one of us. We are, after all, dust. And we will, one day, return to dust.
But this is not something to despair over. It is not something to become depressed over. Rather, it should be something that motivates us. It should be something that makes us sit up and go out and do some good in this world in the time we have.
Jesus, in tonight’s Gospel, tell us, “Do not store up for yoruselves treasures on arth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
We store up our treasures in heaven by doing whatever good things we can do in this time we have left to us. We store up treasures for ourselves when we recognize and live our lives knowing full well that the time we have is precious time. It is sacred time. It is time given to us by God to do something good and meaningful with. We don’t have the option anymore of wasting time. It is time now to go serve God and each other in love.
And when we do, it does not matter that we are dust. It is not matter that we will die. Because, as Jesus shows us again and again, what seems to be laid low—what seems to be only dust and ashes—can be raised up.
This is what it means to be a Christian. This is what means to be a follower of Jesus. We don’t have to be perfect. We can’t be perfect. But we can do much good even in our imperfect state.
Sister Joan goes on to say in her book, The Liturgical Year:
“Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Indeed, Lent, we learn on Ash Wednesday, is not about abnegation, about denying ourselves for the sake of denying ourselves. It is about much more than that. It about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as a result of it. It is the call to prayer, to liturgy, to the cocreation of the world. It about our rising to the full stature of human reflection and, as a result, accepting the challenge to become fully alive, fully human rather than simply, grossly, abysmally, self-centered human.”
I love that whole concept of how Lent helps to accept the challenge to become “fully alive…” We know that sometimes the only time we realize we are fully alive is when we are confronted with the fact that we are mortal and will one day die. Well, tonight, confronted with the fact that we are mortal—that we are dust—we realize as well that we are also, right now, right here, fully alive.
So, let us live fully during this holy season of Lent. Let us open our hearts during this season to the Word of God, speaking to each of us, so that we might become new as a result of it. And let us love and serve God and each other fully and comepletey as we are called to do.
This Lent can be a time for us to blossom, to grow, to flourish. We are dust and we will return to dust. But, as we will realize in the next several weeks, somehow, life—glorious, reusrrected life—can be born even from the dust.