“Remember, o mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What haunting words those are. I remember the look in my dad’s eyes every year as he would trace the sign of the cross during our church’s Ash Wednesday sermon. I remember that his hands would shake and tears would fill his eyes. And I remember the first year that I was a minister, and I made the same sign on my new husband’s forehead, my own eyes filling with tears. And this year, I’ve said the ancient liturgy, “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust” as I’ve commended a dear friend into the hands of God. They are haunting words. The words are not easily said. They do not tumble joyfully out of our mouths as do other things that we say. No, they become thick and syrupy, and force the speaker to think very carefully about what he or she is saying.
And they are words that no one wants to hear. After all, who of us cares to be reminded that our days are finite-- that there will come a day when air will no longer fill our lungs, and our spirits will again be joined with the Creator.
These words stand in opposition to what our culture would have us hear. Every year, we as a nation, spend more money than is imaginable to keep ourselves from aging. I’ve laughed at my Dad the last few years as he keeps saying “I’m a 25 year old, trapped in a 62 year old body...that’s a dirty trick!” He is not, nor are mom and I, interested in thinking that his body is growing older, and that he is just not able to do all the things he once was. The world around us says “You’re only as young as you think you are.” But God says to us, “The days that you are alive in this earthly realm are numbered, but from start to finish, that is in my hands.”
Oh yes, the ashes remind us that our days are finite. And the other reason we mark ourselves with ashes is no better. After all, who cares to be reminded that in addition to being creatures with a limited lifespan, that we’re also tremendously sinful creatures. Yes, I know...I’m just filled with good news tonight.
And I know, maybe from personal experience, that it’s quite easy to convince ourselves that our sins aren’t that big. Most of us work rather hard at keeping the Big Ten, at least. And because we don’t murder and steal or take God’s name in vain, we figure we’re doing alright. Oh, we know we’re not perfect, but we reason to ourselves that we’re probably good enough. At least we’re not as bad as some people. And besides, surely we get some heavenly brownie points for the fact that we come to church, and offer of our time, talents, and treasure. We seem to have the same attitude as the country song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven”, which says this:
Said preacher maybe you didn’t see me
Throw an extra twenty in the plate
There’s one for everything I did last night
And one to get me through today
Here’s a ten to help you remember
Next time you got the good Lord’s ear
Well, of course, that’s silly when put like that. We know we don’t buy our way into God’s good graces--at least not literally. But it is awfully easy to think that God might put a checkmark next to our name every time we love our neighbor or warm the pew or refrain from saying something we shouldn’t. Tonight, our pews are thin-- this isn’t a popular service because we really don’t want to be reminded of our failings, or be forced to take our sin as seriously as God takes it.
When I get a few free dollars in my pocket, one of my favorite things to do is go to an antique store and find pieces of sterling silver for not too much. I’ve found lots of great pieces this way-- pie servers to tea sets to serving bowls--and they are usually quite inexpensive. I asked one of the dealers why that was, and she said “because it’s a different world. No body either wants to or has the time to bother with polishing silver. People would rather have something that doesn’t require so much care.” Well, of course, upon hearing that, I determined that I would break that pattern. I’d buy silver or receive it as gifts and I’d keep it polished.
Every time I’ve walked by some of my favorite pieces in the last month or so (which have been really busy), I’ve thought “Gosh I need to polish that.” And then I will remind myself that it won’t get much worse in a day or two, so I put it off until a day when I have a little more time.
But of course, it all starts adding up-- and pretty soon, the silver pieces that I love so much are this ugly color. And what if the maker of my silver pieces, the ones who lovingly and gently fashioned them, saw how I was taking care of them? They’d be horrified, because that’s just not what the pieces were created to be. They were created to be beautiful and shiny, to bear witness to good craftsmanship.
As I was noticing how tarnished my pieces were becoming, it dawned on me that that’s how sin works. Even our little sins that we think don’t matter too much start adding up-- and pretty soon our hearts are terribly tarnished. Pretty soon we’ve gotten so far away from God’s will, and we haven’t even seen it. Wouldn’t it be awful to realize that our hearts, like silver, some times require more work than we’d really like to put in?
And so we gather here tonight, not sure that we want to hear it, but knowing deep down that we’ve lost sight of Christ’s call to us, and that we’re every bit as tarnished as my poor tea set here. Tonight, we will be marked with ashes, and remember the ways that we miss the mark.
There have been years when I’ve thought that the Ashes on our foreheads were a sign and reminder of our sinfulness, but that’s actually not entirely correct. We wear ashes as a sign and reminder of our willingness to repent. The tradition of ashes even shows up in the Bible-- several times we read that Job sat down in ashes and repented. Even the gospels mention the idea. We allow ourselves to be marked with the ashes because we want to do better, because we again want to draw close to Jesus, because we want the world to know that we are a new creation, and that sin will not get the last word in our lives.
So my invitation to you during this six weeks before Easter isn’t about giving up things. It’s not even about adding things to an already busy calendar, but if you’re feeling so called, please do those things. But my invitation to you right now is to make a conscientious effort to shine.
“How’s that?”, you say. Shine by coming clean before God-- own up to your sinful ways. Recognize that you want something better, and ask God to show you how. Work really hard at being Christ-like, even when it’s downright inconvenient. Let Christ’s light shine through you, because when that happens, that smudge of ash on your forehead means not that you are sinful, but that you don’t want to be tarnished anymore.
Don’t shine to impress people, or because you think you might get a checkmark by your name in heaven’s roll books, but shine because this [hold up candelabra] is who you were created to be.
Charge: There’s a verse in Isaiah that says this, “The Lord has anointed me to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” As God has again made us clean, we have been given beauty for Ashes. Our only job is to shine, to be the people we were created to be.
"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.