Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Ash Wednesday – March 5, 2014
Anonymous comments posted on the internet: “The first person that I see on Ash Wednesday with a cross on their forehead always scares the living….daylights out of me until I remember.” And another: “I hope your Ash Wednesday isn’t’ ruined by being reminded you’re going to die.” OK. Well, you let me know how that works out for you.
This is not the most popular day on the church calendar. There are no Hallmark cards celebrating Ash Wednesday. Shop windows are not decked out in sackcloth and ashes. It’s a strange liturgy as well, beginning in silence and showcasing a smudge of dirty ashes placed in the form of a cross on our foreheads.
I looked back at sermons I’ve preached on this day over the past several years. They span the aftermath of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crash of the stock market and plummeting economy, the long wave of unemployment for so many, the tragic deaths in a house fire of two of our members. It seems that on any given Ash Wednesday there are signs around us that point to our fragility and vulnerability.
This weekend, Michael Goodgame, a bright 20-year-old from Westport was killed in an auto accident in Minnesota where he was a senior in college. He was an Episcopalian and will be buried tomorrow from Christ & Holy Trinity Church, Westport. The news continues of the threat of yet another war as Russian aggression pushes the envelope against the Ukraine. Add to the list losses about which you have heard over the past week. Do we really need these ashes to remind us that life is fleeting?
Barry Lopez wrote in Arctic Dreams: “How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only on one’s culture but within oneself?
“If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly an adult, it must be when one grasps the irony that is unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”
So we gather tonight to accept these ashes, not merely as symbol of our mortality, but as a metaphor for making our life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. How we do that is a very personal and private thing—as Jesus tells us in the Gospel. We offer a few recommendations in the theme for our common journey: Feed your soul, for it hungers for God in ways of which we may not even be aware; feed the hungry in the city; feed the hungry in the world for they hunger in ways of which we should be aware. The details are in the Lenten take away and on the back of your service leaflet. Each household will receive a gift package as you leave tonight with information about feeding people locally and globally.
Do we really need these 40 days? Yesterday’s morning news show offered a spot on distracted driving and the grim fact that it was responsible for more than 3,000 deaths in 2012. The reality of our lives is that we are so distracted by our gadgets, by our work, by our indulgences, and so resistant to leaving our comfort zones.
In the Sundays leading up to the beginning of this Lenten journey, Jesus talked a lot about affairs of the heart. The theme is pretty pervasive in our readings tonight. Jesus says, “Pay attention to your heart. That’s where it all begins.”
No one can make us “do Lent.” But if we’ve been looking for some excuse to mitigate and moderate the distractions in our life, this is it. If we’ve been looking for some way to swap our old solutions for new ones, look no further. This is our chance to encounter God’s contagious glory and strive for a heaping helping of God’s grace.
These ashes do not need to scare the daylights out of us. Ash Wednesday need not be ruined by its reminder of the transience of our humanity. These ashes are holy and are worthy of all reverence. It was God who decided to breathe on them and God who chose to bring them to life.
We may all be nothing but dust and we may all be destined to return to dust, but in the meantime our bodies are sources of deep revelation for us. They are blessings and a witness to God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind or shape we come in.
Sixty years ago, theologian Karl Rahner wrote these words in his work The Eternal Year, “When on Ash Wednesday, we hear the words, ‘Remember, you are dust,’ we are also told that we are sisters and brothers of the incarnate God. In these words we are told everything that we are: nothingness that is filled with eternity; death that teems with life; dust that is God’s life forever.”