Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
When Rob Lee was here two weeks ago for the St. Augustine lecture, we had dinner with some of our board members and local faith leaders. It’s important to know that Rob is severely allergic to peanuts and to shellfish. As we were about to order dinner, I double-checked with him about how other folks’ orders could affect him, and he said shellfish was just his problem, but he needed us to all abstain from peanuts. Our server stepped in and said that the restaurant was actually a peanut-free establishment. We were delighted! She then said, matter-of-factly, “you will live one more day.” We all laughed at her frankness, and Rob thanked her for the reminder.
We have a cultural saying, don’t we, about taking things “one day at a time”? It’s sort of questionable advice, right, because there are things we need to plan ahead for. If you never looked at a calendar, you would be unprepared all the time, and never accomplish anything that took more than one day’s advance planning. Usually, though, we err too far from this “one day at a time” plan. We are always counting the weeks of the quarter, or checking the calendar for when our friends are coming to town, or perhaps looking ahead to our next birthday, or even the impending anniversary of a personal tragedy. We are so occupied by what’s next, what’s next, what’s next that we rarely live in this moment, here, and now. We are so busy living that we rarely stop to consider if we like the lives we’re leading.
Frankly, we are so busy living that we rarely even notice that we are all dying. We know, intellectually, that we are on this earth for a limited time, and that our death is eventual. Most of us are healthy enough to be fairly confident that our own deaths are in the distant future. And most of us are fairly uncomfortable with that fact, anyway. We just go on living like it will always be this way. Even though we know that can’t be true!
Our friend Martin Luther, instigator of the Protestant Reformation, had a habit of theological paradox. (We reflected on this in LEVN this week, doing some reading about feminist and womanist theologies.) For Luther, it is perfectly sound to say that we are all simultaneous saints and sinners. You’ve heard that one before? What about that we’re simultaneously empowered and humbled? What about that we’re simultaneously bound and free? What about that we’re simultaneously living and dying? We’ll skip that last one, thankyouverymuch. Death-denying is one of our favorite activities.
Except tonight. Tonight, in observance of Ash Wednesday, we’re intentionally reflecting on the inescapable truth that we all will die.
As surely as you live and breathe, you will surely die. It’s okay! It doesn’t always feel okay. The death of a loved one earlier than expected is one of the worst human experiences. The tradition of Ash Wednesday is not to trivialize the pain of death. It serves as an annual reminder, an occasional familiarization, a slow softening.
In our world of 24-hour news, we are no stranger to violence and death. We see images and read headlines of natural disaster, gun violence, police violence, domestic violence, car accidents, mass shootings, war, terrorism...we are nearly desensitized to mass deaths of innocent people. It’s unjust. We cry out to God, wondering why any of this is happening. We cry out to God, wondering if God has noticed that God’s people are dying. God has noticed. The deaths of thousands of people every day to hunger, disease, war, famine—God sees those lives and those deaths. The long, quiet goodbye of an elderly family member—God sees those lives and those deaths. The devastation of overdose and suicide—God sees those lives and those deaths. Each life and each death is precious to the God who created each and every person, each and every creature.
If pressed, we would say “of course, we know that.” But as it’s happening, we don’t always remember. Tonight, we remember. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We remember that just like every person who has lived and died in the generations before us, we are made of the same substance, the same mud into which God has breathed life. The same bundle of cells that somehow become the miracle of humanness. The paradox here, dear ones, is that you are made of the same stuff that everyone has ever been made of, and you are the only you there has ever been. You were created by a God who loves you, and you live each day in that belovedness.
I know this to be true about me and about each of you, and about every human who has ever lived and died and will ever live and die.
Remember how Martin Luther liked paradoxes? And that one of them is that we are simultaneously bound and free? As created beings, we are bound to our God—we depend on God for our very existence. And, at the same time, because of the grace we have received, we are free. We are free to be fully human. It is not hard to see, as we look around at our fellow full, free humans, that we do not always do what is right with our freedom. We sometimes use our freedom to inhibit the freedom of others, to directly oppress others, to indirectly allow someone else to use their freedom to oppress others. The scripture that we read on this Ash Wednesday reminds us of the connection between our bondage and our freedom.
The prophet Isaiah basically mocks the community, saying that their fasting is empty because they do it only for show. They cover their faces in ash, they wear sackcloth, they writhe about in performative anguish. After everyone has seen them behave in this most holy of ways, they return to their wicked ways: oppressing their workers, quarreling, and fighting. The prophet tells them that he has seen—and God has seen—right through them. Their fast is false until they fast from oppression. Until they fast from injustice. Until they fast from unchecked power. They must change their ways. They must share their food with the hungry, and clothe the naked, and invite the homeless into their families.
Jesus, too, goes down this same path. “Do not be like the hypocrites,” he says. Do not come here to this place of holiness and perform your sacrifices. Do not come here to this refuge and make false promises to your God. Come here and put this ash on your face and feel the scratch of this sackcloth on your skin only if you mean it.
It may seem like a very odd choice for us to hear these words and then proceed to mark ourselves with the sign of the cross, and then walk out the door into the world. It may seem like we are doing exactly what these prophets have told us not to do. When you walk back out into the world with a cross of ashes on your forehead, someone is definitely going to look at you funny. Maybe you’ve gotten used to that over the years. Or maybe this is going to be your first time receiving ashes, and you’re sort of worried about it. Wherever you are, God is there.
When you receive these ashes tonight, listen to the blessing that accompanies them. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember your fellow creatures, and treat them well. You are made of the same stuff. You are bound to the God who loves you, free to love and serve your neighbor. Free to do as the prophet Isaiah challenges: loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke. Untangle yourself from the things that hold you back from being your best self, from treating everyone like their best self. You are made of good stuff. Remember yourself.
My friend Emily, who is a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, writes a blog from a queer perspective. They sometimes write re-imaginings of stories from scripture, or traditional prayers, to reflect queer identities and the true vastness of God’s family. They wrote the most beautiful blessing for Ash Wednesday, and so I will close this homily by blessing you with it: