Ash Wednesday by the Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:
Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Psalm 103:8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

 

As a child, I was fascinated with ash. My parents had a home with a fireplace, one of those incredibly inefficient brick boxes built into the wall that doesn’t so much generate heat as it sucks the air that the furnace has heated out of the house. And I loved sitting before it. I loved watching paper and then kindling and then wood turn into ash. Sometimes, depending on the intensity of the flames and their heat, the ash would resemble what it had been before the fire came, so that the blackened remnants of a log or, magically, a piece of paper would sit in the fireplace. Sometimes the paper would even have text or an image still visible upon its darkened surface.

It was almost unchanged.

Except what I knew was that the paper was changed, and that it was changed irrevocably.

Once or twice I tried to pick up one of these charred notes or drawings, to hold it in my hands and read it the way that I could’ve done before the fire. But the instant that my hand arrived, the paper turned into dust, black and grey dust that permeated my fingers, so that my hands suddenly told the story of soot, and I had to be careful not to touch the carpet or my clothes or the curtains, lest I spread that story everywhere.

Over the course of a winter, the fireplace would fill up with ash, with the legacy of fire. And so my father would empty it out, spooning the ash with an old and beaten shovel into a bucket. My father was a composter – he remains a composter, even today in his 92nd year. Long before the city began delivering green bins to our homes, my father had an enclosure made of salvaged wood in the corner of our yard into which went banana peels and carrot shavings and forgotten bowls of cereal. Across the wet of the Pacific Northwest winter, the compost would be strangely warm in the cold. And then, early in the spring, my father would dig up the garden bed and pour in the compost. On top of the compost, around it, he would pour in the buckets of ash. And then he would return the soil to the top and the ash and the compost would rest in the darkness.

The sun would return and my mother would plant the seeds. And out of the compost and the ash would come new life.

Around the same time that I was gazing into the fireplace, I was also going to school. And there I learned about the food chain: about the stack of things that eat other things. So, plankton or worms or grass are eaten my small animals which are eaten by larger animals which are eaten by still larger animals which are eaten by human beings (or, as the textbooks called human beings back in the 70’s and 80’s, man). At the top of the diagram, at the top of this buffet provided by nature, stands the human being, proud and free.

Except that what the ash and the garden told me was that the food chain was a fiction, that humanity’s independence from the food chain was a fiction.

There is a moment, just after a person dies, when you stand beside their bedside and someone says: it’s almost they are sleeping. And in a way, that is true: sometimes there is peace on a dead person’s face that you seen for months or years. But in another way, it isn’t true at all: even if you don’t check that person’s pulse or listen for their breathing, you know that they have gone, that they has stepped out of their body, irrevocably.

On this occasion, on Ash Wednesday, we remind one another that we are going to die, that the day when our bodies lay still and empty is coming for us all. On that day, we will step down from the top of the food chain. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the most expensive morticians in the world – no matter how much formaldehyde is poured into our now still veins, no matter how thick the walls of the coffin in which we are laid may be – we will return to the earth.

Like the first humans in scripture, like the ones we call Adam and Eve, we were created by God out of the earth. In a very real, very literal sense, our bodies are crafted out of everything we have ever eaten and all the air that we have ever breathed and all of the sun that has ever landed on our skin. And at the end of our lives, we will return everything. Everything that we have borrowed from God. And it will turn into something new, into new life.

On Sundays, when we say the creed together, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. Those are awesome words. What do they mean? Part of what we are saying is that we have caught a glimpse of a mystery. Through our experience and through our tradition, we have caught a glimpse of the promise that, when our bodies lie still, our life somehow continue. In death, as the Prayer Book proclaims in the funeral service, life is changed, not ended.

Today I am wondering if, when we speak of the resurrection of the body, we are also speaking of an everyday mystery, of the beautiful promise that, when we need our bodies no longer, our bodies will feed life and become life and participate in life. The elements in our bodies were thousands of things and creatures before they were us. And after we let them go, they shall be thousands of things and creatures again.

At the end of our sojourn on this earth, our bodies shall be like the paper in the hearth after the fire. Maybe some of our story will even be visible on our faces. But we, we will be gone. And when the hands reach down to lift us up, we will be already turning back into dust from which we came.

Ash Wednesday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Psalm 103:8-14

*

 

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What an extraordinary sentence. What an unreal thing for one person to say to another. We could probably spend the rest of the day unpacking that sentence. We could write a book together about what it might mean, about its implications. In the interests of time, however, I’m not going to do that. Rather, I’d like to wonder with you about three of the words in that sentence, three words that are particularly “popping” for me this evening. Those three words are:

Dust

Remember

and

You

First, Dust. When you listen to scientists who have studied and explored the mysteries of creation really deeply, it is amazing how much they sound like theologians. When the folks who are studying the very beginnings of our universe, the first seconds after the Big Bang, for instance, are asked what existed before the universe began, they tell us the very same thing that Saint Augustine told us some 1600 years ago:

There was no “before.” When the universe began, so did time. 

Similarly, those who study the elements that make up our bodies often sound a lot like poets or musicians or the authors of the Bible. A few weeks ago, during the first night of our film series, Reel Theology, we watched the Chilean documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. In it, we heard from one astronomer about how the carbon in our bones, in our hands, is identical to the carbon that is found in the most distant of stars.

That astronomer was saying the same thing as Joni Mitchell. Remember her song Woodstock? In it, she sings, “We are stardust / Billion year old carbon.” We are made of the same stuff as the universe, we are integral to the universe, we came from dust and we shall go back to it. The astronomer was saying the same thing as the author of Genesis 3:19 when he or she writes, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” When the Book of Common Prayer quotes Genesis, it adds but one word:

Two, Remember. Phoebe and I used to live in a house that was built in 1910. We loved its many esoteric and whimsical elements, the many things about it that real estate agents call “character”: the boarded up old coal chute in the back, the double hung windows, the glorious mid-century gas stove. One of the house’s character elements was a small nook immediately to your left when you walked in the house. Whether it was intended as a cloakroom or a mudroom, I don’t know, but that’s what we used it for: our shoes and coats waited there. When you stood in the nook there you could look through an archway and see the stairs that took you to the second floor. The archway was covered in drywall.

One day, Phoebe and I had a contractor at the house. And he looked at the archway and explained that, way back when the house was first built, the archway would not have been covered with drywall (of course not, drywall wasn’t invented until partway through the last century) and nor would it have been covered with anything else – not with plaster, not with tile, not with wallpaper. It would just have been a wood post with a loose pin hinge at the top and the bottom, allowing the post’s removal.

The post was removable, the contractor explained, in order to allow a coffin to make the turn and go upstairs.

The design of the house was predicated on the assumption that people died at home, on the assumption that dying and death were integral to life, that these things were part of the rhythm of life.

What a change in a century. I was in my thirties when I first saw a dead body, a fact that I suspect would stagger our ancestors. By and large, today, we hide away death, we work really hard to forget. We send people to special facilities in order to die (although the hospice movement is doing its best to change that, to allow people to die at home.) And we deny the time of dying. I read an interview with a hospice chaplain recently in which he pointed out – and this is one of those things that is completely obvious when you hear it said out loud but that, somehow, had never occurred to me before – that when people post photos of the loved ones at a funeral reception, they virtually never post photos of the beloved’s last weeks or days. They virtually never post photos from the wheelchair or the hospice bed. It is as thought that time did not exist.

We live in a time of willful, deliberate forgetting. But Ash Wednesday says: Remember.

Three, You. Ash Wednesday is about you. It isn’t about someone else. It’s about you

Dust is about you. Remembering is about you. Notwithstanding our radical efforts to stave off death (if you have spent any time at all in a hospital, you will almost assuredly have witnessed heroic and invasive measures applied to a dying person – another practice that would likely have flabbergasted our ancestors). And notwithstanding our post-mortem efforts to stave off decay (think of embalming and the cryogenic freezing of corpses and concrete-lined coffins) you and I can say with absolute certainty that dust is our future, that death is our future. Today, we are naming not just the reality of death as an abstraction. We are naming the reality of our own deaths.

Maybe that is horrifying. And maybe it is beautiful.

High school biology class taught us that human beings are the top of the food chain. And that is half right. The other half is that we are part of the food chain, that we will feed other creatures, that we will make other life possible. Sooner or later, we will help something else to grow. Sooner or later (well, way later) the carbon in our bones will return to the stars. Wouldn’t that be wondrous? To be part of a star, to be sending forth light?

Maybe the integration of our bone’s carbon into future stars of what we mean when, in the Creed, we speak of the resurrection of the body. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I believe in heaven, I believe that you and I keep on participating in life after our deaths, that we keep on participating in love, that we keep on participating in God. I believe that death is not the end. And I also believe that there is a kind of miracle in the reality that everything that you and I are made of will soon enough be part of someone or something else.

That is a kind of immortality.

When we speak of the Resurrection of the Body, in the Creed, many of us make the sign of the Cross. Today is the one day of the church year on which that cross is visible to others, on which it is painted in ash on our foreheads. Today is the day when the cross is visible on you.

Three words:

Dust

Remember

and

You

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

A Place of Stillness + Ash Wednesday by The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver

Lessons:

Joel 2:1-2,12-17

Psalm 103:8-14

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

There comes a time for stillness. A time to stop. To assess. To look around what is on the outside of us and what is on the inside. A time to focus. A time to peer into with intention.

It is a time of awareness.   When we have courage enough and allow ourselves to truly act as witness to our own thoughts and actions toward ourselves and toward others. To go into a place of quiet, where there is just room enough for one’s self and God to ask a question to which the answer will always be true.

Who am I? Am I whom I perceive myself to be. Am I truly who others think I am. Just as Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is asking us to ponder the same question.

It is not an easy one.   The answer to the question cannot truly be found in easy conversation with a group of friends over dinner, no matter how long you’ve known one another. It cannot be found by reading books, or even, may I say, listening to sermons. All they can do is lead to you find your own quiet place…a place of stillness, where all can be asked, all can be heard, all can be explored and where truth is given perfect freedom. As we find ourselves bowed down by the transfiguring light of that truth, we might, if we have the strength, the courage and the will to do it…..change.

What is it we would change? We can probably think of much we would change about ourselves and the world. We all wish we could change the world in some positive direction. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are prepared to do that, even in a small way if we have not yet created positive change in ourselves?

And so….we have a need to stop and ask ourselves, how much are we influenced by the world in which we live? How important is it for us to be seen succeeding by all the politically correct, to conform to the latest trend in order to be viewed as au courant? Why do we need to be the first and the best?   If this is what the system under which we live demands, then to fly in the face of it is to bring about great disappointment in us by others, and in ourselves and we become angry, frustrated, or judgmental, blaming and bitter. Sadly, when we don’t believe, or when others don’t believe that we have measured up to the demands of the system, we are hardly in a position to create positive change in ourselves or in the world.

To give the outward appearance of creating positive change purely for the reason to be typecast as “good,” in order to satisfy the system, is probably to reach the highest form of sinful arrogance in God’s eyes.

We hear God’s remedy for such arrogance in Jesus’ words to us today. Before you can bring about any kind of change….in yourself or in the world….. go inside. Go into a place of stillness and meet God there. And not just once, but more and more until the place of stillness becomes familiar….like home. All that you find there, you know well.

You can probably picture your home now and know where all those pieces of yourself that you treasure are located. A piece of driftwood from the beach, a rock from the side of a mountain where you prayed early one morning, a feather, a lock of hair. They are where your heart is, and you know where they are.

And so it is in your place of stillness. Perhaps it is harder to locate all that you treasure there. Perhaps it is harder to acknowledge that the treasure there is real….and really a part of you…..for good or for ill.  Yet, just like any other activity that is difficult at first, the more you visit it, the more familiar it becomes and the easier it will become for you to recognize that which does or doesn’t belong there.

I have a Tai Chi teacher and I tell him, I’m too busy to practice every day. He looks at me in response and I see the eyes of Christ and hear his voice in my teacher’s gentle words…..just a few moments a day will bring the change you seek. This will be one Lenten discipline I will undertake in order to bring about positive change in my life.

As Brian McClaren points out in his book, “We Make the Road By Walking,” [1] if you suddenly decide to run twenty miles but you haven’t even tried running round the block, no matter how good your intentions are, it isn’t going to happen. But you can do it if you practice. You can start out running a little bit each day and before you know it, you will be running twenty miles. As McClaren states, it’s not that practice makes perfect, it’s that practice makes habit.

In order to change from a way of being that we know is displeasing to God toward a way that may be less pleasing to the system but worthy of God’s pleasure and praise, we have to practice stillness, practice searching for reality and truth in that place. And we discipline ourselves, with God’s help, to go to this place more and more, until going there is habitual….. and our hearts become welcoming and hospitable toward our presence.

Beware if we don’t, Jesus tells us. Beware of your own brand of personal hypocrisy – it can, like a spiritual cancer – kill your own spirit and your capability for positive change.

Whether it be piety, good works, charitable giving, prayer or fasting, we are called to approach each with humbleness of heart, to offer these as truth from a place of stillness, from an encounter with the holy. Jesus asks all this of us, but asks us to find the motivation for our prayer and fasting, our giving and doing from a place deep within. Jesus asks us to be who we are outwardly as a result of who we are inwardly. To make an outward show of these solely for one’s own appearance is to lose a holy opportunity for change.

One might ask, if Jesus asks us to hide our piety, why is it that on this day we wear ashes out into the world? After all, it’s a wildly countercultural act, isn’t it? Or is it? Or, according to the world we live in, just how countercultural is it?

Some of us received ashes earlier in the day. Were the ashes left there on their foreheads all day long? And if so, why? And if not, why not? Here, in Portland, the system is such that we are allowed to display our piety in such a way or not. To do so, however, proclaims to the world that we are part of a radical faith tradition. We are Christians. And Jesus is urging us to go into a place of private stillness, to ask ourselves what it means to be a Christian.

There are fellow Christians all over the world, part of the body of Christ to which we belong that will receive the imposition of ashes today. They live in places where it is dangerous to identify themselves as Christians, living in fear of violence and persecution, in places like N. Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, parts of Africa and more, most recently Egypt, that is as real and terrifying as it was for the early Christians under Roman rule.

Knowing this, perhaps the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is my commitment to Jesus Christ? What does my Christian faith mean to me and how is it made manifest in the world and in the eyes of God. What is the strength of my courage and my desire to be faithful in the face of a world that demands a different order?

What do you desire more than your desire for God? What do you long to be in the eyes of the world more than in the eyes of God? What is the meaning of living for you?

As we still ourselves more and more in order to listen God’s direction, our awareness of God being at the heart of all creation….of all God’s people and thus at the heart of all we are called to be as part of ………. the easier it becomes for us to freely acknowledge God as at the heart of the holy mystery we call life…..at the heart of our coming in and our going out…..into a place of stillness…out into the world at peace.

With time and with practice, what we desire becomes more and more attuned to that which God desires for us and for God’s creation. We desire more and more to change the world, not for our own interests but for God’s.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, we come face to face with the urgency to listen to Jesus’ words. It’s not about a quick forgiveness fix…not about momentary absolution. God wants us in for the long haul…wants us to go into the wilderness of our own heart and soul to find the path to true forgiveness so that we can become instruments of reconciliation, working to create an atmosphere of forgiveness and reconciliation in an angry world.

With time and practice we begin to understand our sins….and are able to openly identify and name them….even as God already has. We are able to ask God directly for forgiveness and pray for the strength to seek reconciliation with God and our neighbor.

Ash Wednesday brings us to the threshold of Lent …..the point at which we must choose the path we will take to make our way through the maze of our foolish and false self-perceptions. Our goal is to find a way to work in our corner of the world…., a world filled with destructive ideals, knee-jerk reaction, punishment, misplaced judgment….. to reconcile our faith journey with hope.

It is the work of Lent. With unabashed faith in God….to go into a place of stillness …seeking the strength to change…..seeking the strength to face all our iniquities…..seeking strength to hope…… for ourselves, for our daily living and for our suffering world.

Ash Wednesday is more than a reminder of our physical mortality, it is a reminder of our spiritual life.  God said, “Be still and know that I am God.” It is in the place of stillness…alone with God, that we glimpse the entrance to a path that will take us through our personal Lent to a place where we can experience a particular freedom of recognizing the treasure of our own truth. Then, having found it… we can live to enjoy it…….presenting to the world through the eyes of God the good news of renewed hope and joy.   And from deep within this secret place of stillness…… we are propelled into an exciting newness of spirit…not just for one day….or for 40 days…but for a lifetime.

End
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
February 18, 2015

[1] Brian D. McClaren, We Make The Road By Walking, Jericho Books, New York, NY. 2014. p137-9.