Ash Wednesday C – March 6, 2019

Remember you are dust…

            “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  We hear these words as the dust made from Palm Sunday’s branches are marked on our foreheads in the sign of the cross.  In the hearing we remember God reaching down into the dirt, the humus, the dust of the ground, shaping a human and breathed out the breath of life into a brand-new living being.  We are dust – dirt dust, star dust, living, breathing dust.  The miracle of it all is breath-taking.  Most of us, except perhaps the young, know too, the grief when the final breath of a love one is taken, and we stand at the graveside for their committal, commending them to God:  earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Today we wear the mark of our human reality on our foreheads.

            We go to great lengths to avoid this reality – pretending that we are Masters of the Universe, in charge of ourselves, even in charge of God.  We imagine ourselves to be super-heroes who come the rescue and God ought to be ever grateful for that.  We turn the world upside down, putting ourselves on top, God on the bottom, and then wonder why there’s such a mess.  We might even acknowledge that in confession, carefully listing our sins – what we have done and left undone – piously telling God all about them, going through the list again, checking it twice, just to be sure our naughty and nice columns run heavy on the nice.  And then boldly telling God what we are owed. 

            The Gospel for today from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, tackles the moves we try to use to prove our worthiness before God and others – how we seek to justify ourselves.  Eugene Peterson’s translation from The Message is helpful: “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it.  It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.  When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself.  You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure, ‘play-actors’ I call them, treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds.  They get applause, true, but that’s all they get.  Just do it – quietly and unobtrusively.  That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes helps you out.” 

I’ve been reading the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as I prepare to preach next Wednesday at our Community Lent Worship.  His book, The Cost of Discipleship is a reflection the Sermon on the Mont. In it, Bonhoeffer writes, “Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes before us.”  He continues, “The genuine work of love is always a hidden work…it is self-forgetful and clings solely to Christ.”[i]  It’s not about us no matter how wonderful we are, but about God, always about God.

Continuing: “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either.  All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom!  Do you think God sits in a box seat?  Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God.  Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.  The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense God’s grace.”  

People can struggle with praying– worrying about using the right words or having a correct theology.  So, they ask Pastors to do it on their behalf.  There is grace in that and I will always pray when asked.  But it is like me telling your spouse or your best friend that you love them, instead of doing so yourself.  Don’t know how to pray?  Settle your thoughts, take a deep breathe, and as Jesus said, “just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.”  To help, Jesus gave us what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  It begins with the Hebrew word, Abba – Daddy – and then acknowledges that we are embraced by love, surround by God we live by grace, our needs met, our sins forgiven and we share in that miracle by forgiving others, God is in charge, God’s glory abounds, Amen – YES!  There are times when my prayer is the simpler, even desperate, “I’m Yours, save me.”  It’s from Psalm 119: 94.  Johann Stauptiz, Martin Luther’s superior and friend, gave this verse to the young monk when he was in distress and felt cut off from God.  “I’m Yours; save me.”  You belong to God who will, who has, saved you.

More Gospel: “When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it.  It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint.  If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face.  God doesn’t require attention-getting devices.  He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.”

Fasting is about more than giving something up for Lent – donuts, ice cream, chocolate, beer – whatever.  Bonhoeffer writes, “fasting keeps us conscious of our sloth and self-indulgence….it is daily self-discipline.”[ii]  We are not to call attention to ourselves by letting everyone around how much we are suffering because of what we have given up.  Fasting focus us on God.  And if doesn’t, if it is all about you and your suffering, EAT THE DONUT!

Then the last few verses: “Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or – worst! – stolen by burglars.  Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars.  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be and end up being.”  Here Jesus sounds a lot like Marie Kondo the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  She teaches KonMari calling it a state of mind and a way of life that encourages cherishing the things that spark joy in one’s life. Belongings are acknowledged for their service – and thanked before being let go, should they no longer spark joy.  While one of my sisters has been tidying up with great satisfaction, the focus is still on her stuff.  Whether our belongings spark joy or need to be let go, Americans are addicted to stuff.  There are more than 52,000 storage unit facilities in our country with an average of size of 46,000 square feet – or almost 2.4 billion square feet of stuff, and that doesn’t include the stuff my closet. Is this where we want our hearts to be?  Bonhoeffer writes, “Earthly possessions dazzle our eyes and delude us into thinking that they can provide security and freedom from anxiety. Yet all the time they are the very source of all anxiety.”[iii]  Let go and trust God by remembering that you are dust, as is all your stuff, and to dust the stuff shall return and so shall you. 

The ashes, the dust, on our foreheads makes the sign of the cross – the same cross from which Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Into the Father’s hands, God’s hands, all of our spirits will be commended.  May our Merciful Savior, acknowledge that we are sheep of his own fold, lambs of his own flock, sinners of his own redeeming.  Received into the arms of his great mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: McMillian, 1963, 176-178.

[ii] Ibid., 189.

[iii] Ibid, 197.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville