I struggled to write my Ash Wednesday sermon. A combination of things contributed to this struggle. l have been overly tired and emotional the last week or so. Ellen is at an age where she demands a lot of attention. She requests and requires a lot of my time–something I haven’t had a lot of lately. The normal household duties of laundry, grocery shopping, light cleaning, and what not that need to get done that just aren’t. The stress of things not getting completed in my daily and weekly schedule is getting to me. And now…I have to talk about death. I have to be reminded of my own mortality and it is my call to remind you of yours. And here’s the thing, I just don’t want to.
I have been talking about and immersed in too much death lately. First there was the funeral for Margie Schoening which was nice. I always think that “nice” is a weird way to describe a funeral. And then Augie’s death and funeral which affected so many not only in this congregation but in this county. And I have been dealing with a lot of metaphorical death lately too. I have colleagues who are having to let die ideas related to ministry and that’s always sad. I have friends who are on the verge of letting their marriage die and that’s just heartbreaking. And although this seems kind of mundane, one of my favorite shows has a storyline in which the family dog is going to die. And after I saw that, I just couldn’t handle any more death.
So forgive me, my brothers and sisters, for not wanting to talk about death. Forgive me for not wanting to remind you of your own mortality and forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to talk about mine. It’s not that I think we are immortal but it’s just that instead of the hard hand of the law reminding me that we’re all going to die in one way or another, I need the soft embracing hug of the gospel telling me that it’s going to be okay.
Sometimes I feel about Lent the same way I feel about Valentine’s Day. I’m not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. Not because I don’t like chocolate, flowers, cards, special nights out, or any of that other stuff that normally goes along with Valentine’s Day. I don’t like Valentine’s Day because I am vehemently opposed to there being one designated day to tell that special person or special people in your life that you love them and care for them. It’s a ridiculously schemed up marketing idea from the geniuses at Hallmark. At least, that’s how I feel. So I feel the same way about Lent. We don’t need 1 day to remind us that we are mortal. We certainly don’t need 40 days to remind us that we’re going to die and that our own sin caused Jesus great pain and suffering. Hallmark has really missed the boat on Ash Wednesday and Lent cards. I bet that would be an uplifting department to work for!
We don’t need the reminder because death surrounds us all the time. If we aren’t dealing with it immediately (within our own families) we can hear about the death of a friend’s loved one. Or we hear about that high school classmate that passed away (thanks to Facebook). And when all else fails, we can hear about death on the news every single night. We can hear about the 21 Coptic Christians who were the recent victims of ISIL’s continuing terrorist reign. Or we might hear about young children who died thanks to the ebola crisis in Africa (that’s still ongoing, by the way) or children who die of measles because vaccines are a choice in this country. We don’t hear, but SHOULD hear about the hundreds of American citizens who die every day because they are without food or adequate shelter. We don’t hear, but SHOULD hear about the dozens of people who die everyday waiting for organ transplants. But, sadly, we hear about death too much and we’ve almost become immune to the shock of it.
So forgive me if I’m borderline angry that I have to not only proclaim to you but hear it for myself that death is a very real thing. Forgive me for being angry because I already know. I don’t want to be reminded. I’d rather have that cross drawn on my forehead and be told “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Or maybe I’d rather be told “you’re forgiven even when you can’t forgive yourself.” Hearing “God loves you, completely and totally and death is not the last word.” But no, we’ll hear “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Dust. The stuff that gathers on my coffee tables and dresser tops. Dust. The stuff that stops other stuff from shining brighter. Dust. The stuff that dirties up other stuff. Awesome. So if I’m dust does that mean that I put a damper on things or dirty things up? I’m feeling better already!
Yet here we are. Faced with another Ash Wednesday. Faced with our own mortality. Faced with a journey that will ultimately lead to the cross. Perhaps that’s where our focus should be: the cross. Because in the cross the message that we hear is “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” When they nailed his hands and feet to those boards with every drive of the hammer we should hear “you’re forgiven even when you can’t forgive yourself.” And when Jesus breathes his last breath and gives up his spirit what we should hear is “Gove loves you, completely and totally and death is not the last word.”
If we are dust, brothers and sisters, we are dust on the road to the cross. If we are dust, we are dust on the bottoms of the disciples feet as they go from town to town trying to spread the good news. If we are dust, then we are the dust that clouds up from Jesus robe as people try and cling to him, hoping to be healed. If we are dust, we are the thin veil that Peter tries to hide behind as he betrays Jesus. If we are dust, then we are in the midst that greets the morning of the third day and an empty tomb. God made us out of dust. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. We are dust. And to dust we shall return.