Sermon for Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
I was up in Birmingham with my son who was interviewing for a university scholarship not long ago. I don’t know Birmingham well. I was trying to find the diner where we planned to eat breakfast, but I found myself approaching a place where the road split, and just before it split there was a crossing street with its own traffic light. Not knowing whether to take the left or right, I kept getting closer, until finally I realized I had run a red light and was headed into oncoming traffic. I quickly turned off into a parking lot as the cars went by.
I thought to myself, life is sometimes like that. We blunder into mistakes, make wrong moves, realize only too late that we have made bad decisions – but we get away with it. It turns out okay. Everybody has near-misses.
But then later when we were trying to find parking around the university, I turned down a street that ended up being exactly one block long. It was a dead end.
There are only two things you can do at a dead end. You can sit there, stuck, going nowhere. Or you can turn around. There is no third option.
Life is like that too. All of us have hit dead ends. We have all engaged in dead-end thinking. It gets us nowhere. Some of us have taken a long time to accept it. We can sit stuck for a good long time in that condition. Eventually, however, denial becomes impossible, or the pain level gets too high, and we finally take option two: turning around and making a new start at finding our way.
Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to get un-stuck. To change our thinking. It is a chance to recognize dead ends for what they are, and to decide to turn around and make a new start.
That’s why it begins with ashes. Ashes are all about honesty. They are not pretty. They do not make us look younger, more attractive, or stylish. They announce that we are what we are: merely mortal. They announce that life is limited. They advertise the truth that there are such things as dead ends. Especially the dead ends we get into when we try to find ways around the fact that this life will end.
Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to become mindfully aware of the tragedy of our finitude – for we do experience it as tragedy.
As Richard Rohr says, “the essential human question is, “Are we related to something infinite or not?” – Rohr, Richard (2010-12-30). Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Kindle Locations 339-340). St. Anthony Messenger Press. Kindle Edition.
The Christian answer is yes, but.
Yes, we are related to something infinite, but not because our own personal story is infinite. It is not. It is finite, mortal, and limited.
And we are related to something infinite, but not because of our group’s story – that is, the story we tell ourselves about how we belong to our gender, our family, our nation, our political group, or our anything. These too are destined to pass away.
Rather, we are related to something infinite that Rohr calls “The story.” It is the story of what God is doing in the world, and who we are in God.
The Christian response to this tragedy of being finite is the bold assertion of the three cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love.
Reinhold Niebuhr has said, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn has written a book entitled, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.” It’s about the practice of mindfulness. It is about coming to the awareness of things as they are and accepting them as they are. It is about becoming open to the present moment just as it is, recognizing that the present is the only moment we are ever given.
Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to become mindfully aware. We are mindful of our mortality; we are mindful of this moment of life. As we face the fact of the present for what it is, we become aware that we have options. If we are at a dead end, stuck, we can decide to turn around and continue the journey down other roads. We can become newly open to faith, to hope, and to love. We can lift up our eyes from our own limited story, to see ourselves in God’s story.
Jesus helps us here. As he taught in the text we heard, if our lives have been lived simply to accommodate the scrutiny of others, we can become mindfully aware that that is a dead end, and choose to live more authentically. If we have lived the superficial and trivial lives of mindless acquisition of treasure, we can become mindfully aware of that dead end, and choose to turn around to live for higher values.
If we have been in despair of our mortality and have wondered what is lasting, we can choose to embrace faith, hope and love. We can come to understand that our own personal story is part of a much larger story, and finds its truest meaning in that larger story: in God’s story.
This season of Lent, I want to invite you to make a fresh start. Receive the ashes and accept the truth. We are mortal. We are limited. In this way, all of us experience life as tragic.
But there is no good reason to stay stuck at that dead end. Life is also beautiful. Each moment is alive and real. But the meaning of our lives resides in a story that extends beyond our own personal lifetimes. Find yourself in God’s story.
There is nothing trivial about God’s story; it is a redemption story. We do not have to stay stuck at dead ends. We do not have to live in denial. We do not have to miss the present moment.
In a moment we will come to the the time in which we will come to receive the imposition of ashes. You will hear me say, ‘
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I invite you to make the response:
“In life and in death, I belong to God.”
That is your assertion of the role of faith, hope and love in your life. You belong to a longer story than the story of your life. Your life is limited, but not tragic. You are part of a redemption story; a love story. Through Jesus, you are part of the story of God’s good creation.