Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1st Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
I like to listen to the oldies radio station. A few weeks ago this song by the band Kansas came on the radio, “All we are is dust in the wind. Just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see. It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.” This is a good song for any mood.
This is a great song for when you’re feeling depressed and want a song to let you know you’re not alone. It expresses all those depressed feelings. Nothing lasts. Nothing matters. All that we strive for is meaningless. Just give up!
Ash Wednesday can also confirm the winter blues. We’re all dying. Nothing we do matters. People only do things to be seen and recognized and get the credit. The things people do behind scenes never get recognized and they do the most good. Why don’t we ever hear anything about that?
On this day we hear the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are some pretty hopeless words. You are dust. You are nothing. Once someone swept the dust that became you, and threw it in the trash, and will do so again. You are insignificant. You are dirt. You are dying.
Yet those words that are so hopeless can also be so hopeful. “You are dust.” You are of the same particles as the rest of the universe. You are made of stardust. Maybe Jesus breathed the same molecule as you do now. “To dust you shall return.” Someday you will be at peace. The things you regret today will be forgotten. Your mistakes will crumble to dust. All this misplaced energy and motivation to gather things is temporary. It won’t last. It won’t have the final word. All this matter goes away and goes on to become something else, to be alive again in a new way, in a new person, or animal or plant. Our dust lives on in a new way. A song that can sound so hopeless can also be hopeful. A time when we remember our failures can also be one where we find hope.
There is also something positive about being honest with ourselves, that someday we will die. Knowing you have a deadline, that this will end at some point, creates an urgency of the moment. I know we hardly visited any of the sights in San Francisco while we lived there until we were pretty sure we’d soon be moving within a year. Then, it seemed like every weekend we were out enjoying what had been there all along, only we thought we had forever to see it. The same is true of the end of life. I kind of thought bucket lists were silly until the last year or so, when I’ve realized I am approaching approximate middle age. I have half my life left to do some things I’d like to do. Time to get busy! And if I happen to live to the age of Muriel or Jackie, I’ve got about 15 years left. There is no time like the present to do the things we’ve dreamed of doing!
Knowing that there will be an end to this life, helps us to stop and appreciate this moment. It is one more moment, one more gift we’ve been giving. It is one more chance to experience the blessings that this life has to offer and to share them.
The Gospel for today reminds us of what really makes for a meaningful life. Recognition feels good in the moment, but that’s all it lasts. Then as soon as someone more wealthy or more articulate comes along, you’ll be forgotten. The Gospel reminds us not to play those games where you try to please other people. It is a waste of time. As quickly as they build you up, they will tear you down. As you try to please others, you won’t be being true to yourself. Instead focus on something that will last, that feeds your spirit, that makes the world better for someone else. In that way, even when you die, you will have left a piece of you with those that remain and you will live on-death and resurrection all over again.
Death and resurrection is what it is all about. Dying to live. Dying and rising again. Letting go and returning. Releasing what doesn’t matter and clinging to what does. Letting what doesn’t serve die, and seeing what will be born in its place. Clearing space in your life for God and God’s people.
Death and resurrection is embodied in our Lenten discipline. Whether you are planning to give up something for Lent that isn’t good for you, like Chocolate or smoking or road rage, whether you are taking on something for Lent, like reading the Bible, or serving people in a particular ministry, or eating your vegetables, or sitting in quiet listening, those things can be a kind of death, a letting go. And something else will arise in their place, in your heart—at least that is the hope.
Death and resurrection is embodied in these ashes. They were literally once the palms that you waved in the church parking lot when you sang “Hosannah!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Those palms of glory and celebration quickly disintegrated as I burned them, just like those shouts of praise as Jesus entered Jerusalem quickly disintegrated into cries for his blood to be spilled on the cross when they cried, “Crucify him!” It was not a lasting celebration. We, who once celebrated, also made it necessary for him to die. The palms died and now are reborn as ashes. We wear the symbols of death and repentance on our brow. We mark our faces to show our sadness, our regret.
Yet we were not made to stay in regret forever. After a threatening first paragraph, the first reading for today goes on, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart…rend your hearts… Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” We are made for repentance, for returning to God, for joyful reunions and celebrating.
We follow this death and resurrection pattern. We were made my God and are loved by God--alive. We go our own way and forget that--dead. God calls us back with encouragement and maybe a few threats. Eventually we seem to come running back—alive again.
The song doesn’t get it quite right. Our bodies may be dust, but we are actually dust and spirit. We have something of us that is permanent and lasting—our spirit. Today we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, with all the gloomy implications and all there is to celebrate about that. Today and each day, we die and rise, sin and repent, transgress and are forgiven as we live, people of ashes and of hope, a mishmash of life bearing witness to who God is for us, the one who can make something of this dust.