Ash Wednesday - In the face of mortality
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
1 John 3:14, 16-23
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
[Jesus said to the disciples,] "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another."
At Decorah Chorale rehearsal last Sunday night, during announcement time, one member stood up to announce a “Pal-entine’s Day” party happening tonight, for people to come and celebrate Valentine’s Day without any romantic pressure, but just to have fun with friends. Another member connected to a florist business stood up, tongue-in-cheek, to remind us that he can set us up with all of our Valentine’s Day flower needs. Everybody was laughing.
I couldn’t help myself.
I stood up and said, “And, y’know, if you need something different to do on Wednesday evening, Chad and I can offer you a reminder of your mortality and tell you that you are dust, and to dust you shall return....”
And we all laughed. Because the juxtaposition is so jarring, so funny. Choose to celebrate love? Choose to remember death? Which would you rather do?
But that is exactly what Ash Wednesday does and is supposed to do: confronts us with our mortality, this truth of being finite that knocks us all down to the same dusty ground. Down here, with dirt smudged on our faces, we hear, without euphemism or sugar-coating, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This truth is a great leveler - no matter what our station in life, no matter our possessions, our successes, our failures, the end-game is the same: Our lives are finite. We are mortal. This will all end.
Most years, I would say that Ash Wednesday is of particular importance, because it does the hard and essential work of confronting us with our mortality in the midst of a wider world that would rather pretend that we can cheat death if we just don’t talk about it. And Ash Wednesday confronts us with our mortality so that we as people of faith don’t feel tempted to write off the real pain of death and grief because resurrection is just so much nicer to talk about.
But here’s the problem with Ash Wednesday this year. I don’t need Ash Wednesday in order to be confronted with my mortality. There isn’t one of us in this community that hasn’t already been confronted with our mortality in this last tragic week.
How many of us, last Monday, after getting word of that devastating car accident, put ourselves in the shoes of those grieving parents, imagining how we ourselves would receive the news of the untimely deaths of our dearest ones? How many of us went home that evening and hugged our children a bit tighter, a bit longer, sat closer on the couch to our loved ones, called up a sister or best friend, leaned in to our loved ones and into the places and activities and soft things that bring us the most comfort?
It is Ash Wednesday, and friends across the country from here mourn their stillborn daughter. It is Ash Wednesday, and parents in Florida are facing their own worst nightmare as our nation mourns at least 17 dead in yet another school shooting. It is Ash Wednesday, and we each can reach out and touch our own grief over loved ones lost, whether in these last days, or last months, or years - and even old grief feels so fresh when it is stirred up anew.
Friends, we don’t need these crosses on our foreheads to help us remember. We know the truth. We are dust. To dust we shall return.
I would urge you tonight, to resist the temptation to skip ahead 46 or so days. Yes, we are beginning a season that will end with resurrection, but tonight is not about resurrection. I would also urge you tonight, to resist the temptation to put up walls around your heart, or to stick your head in the sand, because you are afraid or ashamed of your grief.
Tonight, this sanctuary is a space of death, in all of its pain and mystery and sacredness. And that is okay. We can enter into this space together and we don’t have to feel pressure to make everything okay, or to pretend that grief has any sort of predictable timeline. We can simply be here together, in the ashes, and ask ourselves the question,
“In the face of mortality, what then shall we do?”
Isaiah gives us some direction:
We loose the bonds of injustice.
We untie the bindings and set free the oppressed.
We share our bread with the hungry.
We bring the homeless poor into our homes.
We clothe the naked.
We are honest with one another and not ashamed.
We remove the heavy yoke of injustice from among us.
We resist finger-pointing and gossip.
We satisfy the needs of the afflicted; body or soul or mind.
In short, in the face of mortality, in the ashes, we become love. We “do” love.
1 John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
Death is real, but love is what defines us. Death is real, but we abide in the loving arms of the one who showed us greater love by laying down his life for his friends. Death is real, but love abides in us and we help our brothers and sisters in need. Death is real, but we learn and live and become love anyway.
Because love raises us up from the ashes. Love gives us a purpose. Love lets us do the holy and satisfying work of creating bits of life and renewal for others, and letting others do that same work for us. Love does not help us cheat death, but it helps us to bear it, because love helps us to bear one another’s burdens and hopes alike.
Christ shows us that death and love are not mutually exclusive, that we can grieve and love at the same time, that we can suffer and serve at the same time, that we create whatever light we can in the midst of darkness and whatever life we can in the midst of grief and whatever hope we can in the midst of fear...and that we do every bit of this even before we get to the empty tomb, because the love of Christ isn’t just for people who have “gotten over it” and the call of Christ to show love to others isn’t just for people who float above grief with thoughts of “yay heaven and yay eternal life!” No. Jesus, in his life, in his suffering, in his death took on our human flesh and frailty precisely to make sacred the griefs and deaths we experience, as we experience them. And Jesus calls us to the work of love when we are still limping, when we are still weeping, when we are still dying. Maybe he calls us to the work of love precisely because we limp and weep and die. Because there our hearts are most sensitive and vulnerable to the wounds and weeping of others.
So we remember tonight, together, that we are dust and we are frail and we are finite. And we don’t need the ashes to remind us of this truth, but here we are anyway.
Together, we are stare down the truth of death and all its friends - sin, brokenness, failure, fear. Friends, these ashes and these deaths are not your shame. They are simply your truths.
And as such, they are entry points for God’s mercy and compassion. They are the beginning of God’s grace and forgiveness They are the things that reveal God’s steadfastness. They are the things that remind us of our world’s deepest need for love to abide.
You are dust.
And you are love.
And in the meeting of these two, there is hope to face each new, fleeting, uncertain day of this frail and beautiful life.
May you cling, always, to this love, this hope, this peace.