Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

(A sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Isaiah 58:1-12 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)

I’m told that, depending on the bone structure of the person, the cremation of a human body usually produces somewhere between three and nine pounds of ash. If you’re buried rather than cremated, it’ll take a good bit longer for you to get back to basics. Either way, though, your ashes are eventually going to join their cousins the ashes of the earth; your dust is going to rejoin its cousin the dust of the earth.

And so God said to the first man and by extension to all human beings, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19), which admittedly has the spirit about it of “You work hard all your life and then you die” and so leaves you saying, “Surely there’s more to it all than that!”

Indeed there is.

Now, don’t get me wrong; it is important that we remember that we are mortal, that we are created, and that we are temporary. It is important that we maintain a sense of humility and even a sense of humor about ourselves. It is important to remember that as surely as we were born, we will die.

It is important to remember that, being made of stuff, we are prone to do stuff, and some of the stuff we do is not worth doing or is stuff we shouldn’t have done to begin with—we call some such stuff “silly” and we call other such stuff “sin.” Some of it we do because we are willful and some of it we do because we are prideful and some of it we do because we are weak, frail, and frightened. But we do it and in our honest moments we know we do it and we’re willing to confess that we do it.

Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement of our humanity, of our frailty, and of our impermanence. Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement and confession of our sins and about our repentance of them. Ash Wednesday is about our acknowledgement of the twin facts that we are dust and that to dust we shall return but that while we are in our present state as sentient dust we are responsible for what we do with and in our dustiness.

So here tonight at the beginning of Lent we face up to our humanity—“we are dust”—and to our mortality—“to dust we shall return.” But let’s also face up to our possibilities—while we are conscious, self-aware, spirit-fueled dust we can love God, we can love ourselves, and we can love others.

The prophet whose words are preserved in our Isaiah reading warns us that participating in acts of worship including fasting is not enough; God expects God’s people to care about justice and righteousness so that they feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

The Savior whose words are preserved in our Gospel reading tells us that when we pray or fast or give to help those in need we are not to do so in order to be seen by people but to do those good things in secret where only our heavenly Father will see them.

Granted that we struggle with such concepts and with our ability to meet such challenges, but still, let us acknowledge that those are, by the grace of God and with the help of God, our possibilities. We can, by the grace of God and with the help of God, love in the ways that God made us to love.

Guided by the thoughts of the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), let’s think of it this way: as we receive the ashes, let us do so with a prayer that we will move from loving God for our own sake to loving God for God’s sake to loving self for God’s sake to loving others for God’s sake.

As we grow in these earthy bodies to love God more and more only for the sake of loving God because God is, because God is love, and because God incites love, we will grow more and more to love ourselves out of God’s love and to love others out of God’s love.

And if we can truly grow in our ability to reach out in love to each other, it will give us another and most helpful way to think about the meaning of “ashes to ashes”…

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