Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51:1-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today we start our annual journey into the wilderness of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. We fast and pray for forty days in his example of his desert wanderings and temptation. This is our season of ashes and covered crosses, of abstaining from alleluias and chocolate and baptisms and booze. This is a somber time when we accept the Christian tradition’s invitation to serious reflection and repentance, to mind-body-spirit preparation for death and life that we will experience in Holy Week. The Lenten preparation, this deep soul work of putting reflection into practice day after day, is especially important to deepening our faith and connection to the heart of the gospel, to the life and death of Jesus because, unlike the story of gospels, which leads one chapter to the next, from Gethsemane to the empty garden tomb, our lives, our journeys of suffering and death and resurrection, aren’t linear. Our liturgical observance captures a bit of this winding road. Throughout lent, throughout the season of repentance, of reckoning with our limits and mortality and failure, each Sunday is still a celebration of Easter, still our resurrection feast each week. And of course, we all know the days of reckoning with our limits and mortality, of hitting bottom and coming to deep repentance, don’t just happen during the appropriate season of lent, and we acknowledge this  in the church, too, when we repent and grieve and reflect together all year round.

Days of hurt and loneliness, those terrible Good Fridays, come when we least expect them. Days of emptiness and uncertainty, Holy Saturdays, pop up in our lives. But those Easters! The Easters come, too, don’t they? Sometimes they’re small, like the same old narcissus coming up in the yard again this year. And sometimes the Easters are glorious, life-changing: reconciliations and births and prison releases and remissions and falling in love. Not only is there no rhythm to them, but the Good Fridays and the Holy Saturdays and the Easter Sundays will sneak up on us all at the same time.

Like when you’re holding the newest baby in your family, and even though he’s been gone for years, you see your dad. His eyes have skipped generations and shown up on this little girl’s face, and you are so full of gladness for her and missing him terribly at the same time so that you can’t breathe? Or the feeling when you’re in the rubble of an ended relationship, figuring out what the new normal looks like, and one day realize with bittersweet satisfaction that your own solitary company is very good company. Or all those triumphs and setbacks of the journey of recovery, that slow healing of all tangled up pain and victory and knowing, practicing, that the key is in holding it all much more loosely than you want to.

We gather today and enter together into this season of honoring these good and hard things, life’s frightening and vulnerable things, of repenting, of doing our inner work with God. We do this so that we can be strengthened and grounded, more able to recognize that in the ordinary and extraordinary jumbled moments of death and resurrection, God is present with us. God is at work, and calling us to God’s work. We enter into the suffering and the death and in the resurrection with Christ himself.
Our experiences of death and the resurrection are always all together. And God knows this about us. God made these lives of jumbled up death and resurrection. The ashes are for us, not for God. We’re the ones who need the reminder. The Gospel reading makes clear that Jesus isn’t asking us to disfigure ourselves in prayer. God doesn’t need us here, kneeling and marked with the grave. Psalm 134 says it so tenderly: “God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” But we need to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. We need to remember that on our own we are small, we are frail and failing.

This reminder, this mark of our dustiness, is something for us to pat ourselves on the back for, be proud of having been in church today. And it’s not so that we go about feeling terrible for ourselves. It’s not a sign of pride, but it’s also not meant to get us stuck in shame. Because remember? The Easters are all tangled up in the Lents and the Good Fridays.

When we know that resurrection life and death are always tied together, our practice of remembering our death, remembering our failures in repentance, can be, more than anything, a practice of trust. By taking this step of remembering we are dust, we are calling on God’s mercy with confidence, the psalmist says, in God’s steadfast love. We can take on the daunting work of the fast, entrusting our treasure and our hearts to God, because God is our understanding creator, our loving parent. We can bravely accept Isaiah’s call to loose the bonds of injustice because we know that the task of breaking yokes of oppression happens only with the guidance and strength of God’s Spirit, our constant companion. We can venture into the unspeakably vulnerable territory of speaking our sin and shortcomings because love divine is waiting for us in the wilderness, and that love divine wants us to be free, healed, and whole.

We don’t face our sin and stare down our death for the sake of sin and death. Sure, the ashes represent this, but they also point us to so much more. The poet Jan Richardson nudges us to thinking differently about our ashes. In an Ash Wednesday poem, she asks her readers, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The psalmist knew. When we remember we are dust, when we repent of our wrongdoing and turn to God to make us whole, God will teach us wisdom, restore us to joy, and make us living declarations of praise, of love and mercy.

“Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?” The prophet knew. When we remember we are dust, when we let go our ambitious grasping to make space for neighbors in need, God will satisfy all our needs and rebuild us, and our light shall rise in the darkness.

Richardson’s poem goes on to say,

let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not by false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust.

Today, let us be marked by repentance, a repentance full of trust and hope. Yes, come and be marked by death, but a death that’s always, always pointing to resurrection. Let us be marked by what God can do with the dust.


Imperfect Resurrections

Sermon—The Third Sunday in Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8–24; Psalm 30; Luke 7:11–17
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
5 June 2016

This winter I got a fresh perspective on Ash Wednesday. As an intern at St. Augustine’s Chapel, I helped behind the scenes for two of the three services and I walked through the holy seasons of Lent and Easter immersed in the workings of the church and liturgy more than ever before. Not to be too melancholy, but Ash Wednesday is actually one of my favorite holy days in our liturgical calendar. When our priests put the ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms on our foreheads and remind us “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I find it consoling. It’s very healthy. It re-centers me in my smallness and humanity, and gently reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect. The psalmist says, “God remembers that we are only dust.” We are the ones who forget and need this reminder. The Ash Wednesday liturgy allows me to see myself truly in my humanness,and allows me go on to receive the resurrection of Easter with all its overwhelming glory and strangeness.

But this year, five months pregnant at Ash Wednesday, terrible thought occurred to me—my son is also dust, and to dust he shall return. That, I cannot accept. That thought does not free me or bring me peace. I can face the spiritual practice of reckoning with my finitude, but not with his. I need him to be perfect and healthy and strong and live forever, right? So this year, as A. and I prepare to watch our hearts wander out in the world in this boy, Ash Wednesday did not feel centering, and Easter didn’t offer the final consolation that I wanted.

And as I find myself called upon to preach texts of two women, widows, with dead sons, and I can’t help but think about Ash Wednesday and the son I’m carrying, no matter how much I really don’t want to. I have to and I hate to entertain empathy with these women, to put myself in their position. No matter how the story ends—and it ends really well—that’s not quite good enough, is it? When I begin to meditate on and enter imaginatively into these tales, I enter into every new parent’s new greatest nightmare.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “Preaching is not something a minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.” Now that’s a lovely idea. I like that preaching happens in the world, and is something we all do together—but I don’t know what we might do with it here. When I think about these stories of death and resurrection, first in the Hebrew Bible, and then echoed throughout the gospel passage, it is surprisingly difficult for me to glean God from the text. I can connect to fear and grief, but it’s difficult for me to translate the good news when these miracles are so far removed from our lived experience, so different from what I’ve seen—painless and miraculous bodily healing is scarce, and such an instance of bodily resurrection is unknown to me. How do these narratives fit into our lives, and how can we make sense of them in a way that doesn’t cheapen either the truth of the gospel or the suffering of our bodies and the suffering of our grief? It’s hard to walk into these texts, but we must. They are part of our community story and I think this strange, sufficient insufficiency of this gospel, of a perfect, eternal life that is already here, but not quite, and waiting for us in fullness farther along—that is the heart of the Gospel. It is what we mean when we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

These two stories—the widows, the sons, the resurrection from death—are more than just a coincidence of our lectionary. They’ve been paired together on purpose, as scholars of the New Testament see a thread of Elijah in Luke’s descriptions of Jesus—Luke’s early audience would have seen the set up of this story and thought of the prophet immediately. So in reading the two stories together, we know that Luke wants to show that there’s something about Jesus that’s different than what past prophets and bearers of God have shown us.

To start with the Hebrew Bible, and keeping this in mind, I feel pretty bad for Elijah. Do you think he was bluffing? I’m not so sure that Elijah knew what was going to happen in this situation, that he had any certainty that this was going to turn out alright. (We do, of course. We read the bible with subheadings, and we can see the formulas unfolding in the story) He seems like someone who is desperate, haunted by the weight of his past suffering.

The poor guy keeps getting out of bad situations by the skin of his teeth. He finds refuge with the widow and her son. Seeing the miracle of replenishing oil and flour—but oh, you know they worried every single day whether it would be there, who wouldn’t?—maybe he is finally getting a sense of God’s presence and provision when it all comes crashing down with an untimely death and the widow’s accusation: You brought this! She is falling apart, rightly so, at the death of her son. Elijah isn’t doing much better. He takes the body of her boy away into the other room and is praying frantically. I’m struck by the word calamity. “My God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow?” There is so much overwhelm and anxiety in his speech. He stretches his own body against the son, crying out, and to me this seems less like some kind of formula or conjure, some form of healing prayer, and more the desperation of encountering untimely death, wanting against all odds for it not too be true.

And we’ve been there, right? When you get that phone call that knocks the breath out of you and crumbles you to your knees? When you feel so broken and grieved that you would lay your own body down if it would make any difference? We hope against hope, like our desperate prophet here, and fling ourselves into the grace and power of God.

Then we move to Luke and see that Elijah’s desperation, his need for something bigger in that moment, points us to Christ. In the gospel reading, we see a different posture from Jesus. Elijah comes into the story solitary and depleted, perhaps anxiously anticipating a different sort of reception and provision from God, perhaps disappointed that his provision comes from a poor woman with barely enough oil and flour for breakfast. But Jesus has just healed the centurion’s boy and comes upon the grieving widow as part of a joyful crowd.

Just as he weeps at the death of his friend Lazarus, he is moved by the broken hearts. He is human with us, has compassion on this woman and suffers with her. And in confidence, rather than distress, Jesus addresses her boy: “Young man, I say to you, rise!” then gives the son to his mother, gives both of them back to the land of the living.

Can you even imagine what these mothers and sons might have talked about over breakfast the next morning? How long would it take to wrap their minds around what had happened, if they ever could? People would line up outside to peek in the windows and see whether the rumors were true! And one day, these widows’ sons’ funerals would happen again, another afternoon years later, and the mourners would tell this wild story of a young boy and his grieved mother, given a new lease on life by the prophet, by the strange Galilean.

And that’s just the thing—there will be another funeral. These stories don’t show us an impartation of immortality or magic. They show us perfectly imperfect resurrections. Both of these boys and their mothers go on to die and grieve another day, and we aren’t told what joys and sorrows wait for these families over the rest of their lives. This miracle doesn’t show us a squeaky clean resolution to all suffering. It is both overwhelmingly enough, abundance and life, and it is also a delay of the inevitable. It’s an imperfect resurrection that points us back to Christ, whose resurrection from the dead shines in ten thousand places, giving hope for life eternal, both after death and in the present moments of life.

Rowan Williams writes that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ “is the abiding sign of God’s presence in the world. The empty grave, that strange and ambivalent sign, stands as our reminder that the life of Jesus is not over, not limited and defined and tidied up. He is with us. In every extremity, every horror and pain, Jesus is accessible as the one who continued to make God’s loving presence wholly present in the depth of his own anguish and abandonment…This is the Lord, God in flesh, God made known in history, God fearing, struggling and suffering; the only God we know or can know, the glory of God in the face of Christ, love and healing in human hands and eyes—how else could we grasp it?”

How else can we gasp the resurrection but in these imperfect and fleeting ways? We find God’s loving presence wholly present in the creation of new songs that Becca called us to last week. In those Easter wildflowers in front of the A-Frame, taking root and taking over those garden beds. There is a small, imperfect resurrection in asking the forgiveness of our partners and children when we’ve failed, and starting over again the next moment or the next morning. And there are cruel, serious resurrections: the family I worked with as a pediatric chaplain who, after losing their little girl, courageously chose organ donation—a small spot of resurrection in the midst of grief and death. There is an imperfect resurrection in the work of an amazing cellist, Vedran Smailovic of the Sarajevo orchestra. He sets up his music stand at the scenes of terrorism and bombing in his community and plays beautiful music in tribute and grief—a small but powerful act of resurrection resistance to suffering and death. All of these small resurrections, incomplete moments of hope in the the midst of our human condition remind us that against all odds, God’s grace is sufficient. The imperfect resurrections point us back to this larger story: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.


gentle baby and myrrh