The Very Rev. Tom Callard – February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday
How many Ash Wednesdays does this make for you – 20, 50, 70? How many times have you come to church and participated in this service? How many times have you had this experience of standing before someone as they dip their thumb in the ash and puts it on your forehead? How many times have you heard these words– remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return?
And yet do we remember? Today we say remember, but do we remember? Do we remember this moment, these words on Thursday or Friday toward the end of the week, where we are out doing whatever we do? Do we remember these words in a couple months, after Easter has come and gone and the Lord has been resurrected and the party’s over? Do we remember these words in June, on a warm sunny day, when we are in our back yard drinking iced tea or lemonade, and we suddenly think, just kind of out of the blue – you know what I’m dust. And to dust I shall return.
I think, depending on who you are, this message can either sink in or it can be just another thing that you do because it’s part of what the church asks of us. And its meaning will disappear sometime tonight and we look in the mirror and we see that there are still ashes on our forehead, and we say: oh yeah it’s Ash Wednesday, I’ve got to get those ashes off before I go to sleep.
But my hope, and my job as the preacher, is to help make sure this message sinks in and that somewhere along the way we do remember. And that Ash Wednesday makes an impact on our lives even when it’s not Lent. For the message of God is not just for the times like this when we have decided that we want to come here to hear it. But the message of God is for those other times, the normal times, the rest of the time, when it’s not Ash Wednesday and we really need to hear it.
As I’ve gotten older and have more Ash Wednesdays under my belt, I’ve become more convinced that the message of God and the meaning of what we do at church are not meant for days like this. But that these moments and the work of our faith are meant for times and places far away from here.
What we do at church and what we hear on Ash Wednesday and this reminder that we are dust is meant to touch us on those days when we are miles away from here and we’re so deeply worried. There is this thing is gnawing at us: maybe it’s those bills we cannot pay, or this health issue that’s going on with us or with someone we love, or perhaps there’s some other thing in our life that’s just consuming us.
And I wonder if you would, imagine right now something that you are really worried about, and invite that thing into your mind. And if you feel comfortable, close your eyes and feel it there.
It’s something that could consume you if you let it. But don’t let it. Because imagine that from somewhere deep within you, from some place you don’t even know about in here, you suddenly get this thought – you know what: I’m just dust. And to dust I shall return. So why would I worry? Dust does not worry. Because life is short, so why should I worry? Why should I spend so much time consumed about that which I cannot control. For my life is this big, impermanent swirl of dust. So I am going to give this one to God.
Or maybe it happens that come the Sunday after Easter – and what do we call the Sunday after Easter– low Sunday? No, it’s momentum Sunday. So it’s momentum Sunday and you wake up relatively early in the morning and you are still in bed. And you can see outside and the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day, because it’s the end of April, and it’s probably going to be 60 degrees out there. And of course you’re not going to church. Because it’s low Sunday. And you went last week. Or maybe you went last year. Or maybe you haven’t been to church for a while. And it’s gotten kind of away from you.
I so invite you to take a moment and if you feel comfortable to close your eyes and just picture yourself on this day in April, the Sunday after Easter, which is April 20th. Low – slash – momentum Sunday. And you’re in your bed. And church and God and Christian community are the furthest thing from your mind.
But then suddenly, from somewhere deep within you, from some place you don’t even know about in here, you get this thought – you know what, I am going to church, because I want that. And moreover, I need it. Because without church and without the faith God gives me and without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life, I am just dust. And without that I am just this thing which will blow away when the winds come. And there are strong winds. And church and faith and my relationship with Jesus Christ are these things which strengthen me, and give me shape and form to my dust and help me carry on. Without them I am just nothing. So I’m getting up. And, yes, I’m going to church.
Or maybe this happens. As we all do, you find yourself facing one of those moments we all dread – a moment of temptation. A big temptation, not some little disappearing temptation, but one of those big ones. So, if you feel comfortable, I invite to take a second and if you like close your eyes and pull up in your mind a moment of temptation. It doesn’t matter what the temptation is. If you’re like me, you’ve got a few to choose from. And you see yourself there. And imagine you are almost falling into the temptation. But imagine perhaps you’re not. Or perhaps you’re on that line, that knife’s edge between falling and not falling.
And then this thing comes to you, from somewhere deep within you, from some place you don’t even know you have in here, and it is this thought – I’m not doing it. I thought I might, I fantasized about it, and I may love to do it. But I’m not doing it, today. Because God has created me. God has made me out of dust. And I am meant to be more than this, to be better than my simple, dusty nature. I am meant to glorify God despite my dustiness. And so you don’t fall.
Maybe because of this, because of what we do today, maybe because of our years of Ash Wednesdays, we go forth from here and we treat some clerk at a store a little bit better, or we are patient with a driver who cuts us off. Or we give someone in need something of our own, we just give it away. After all, we didn’t need it. Or because of this, we enjoy the sunset more. Or we appreciate our loved ones more and hug them extra tightly. Or we don’t give up. We see all the challenges of the world, all the things we hate that we would like to make better. And because of this, because of the preciousness of our time, because God has made us dust, we don’t give up but vow to fight even more.
The list is endless of all these things which can change because of these ashes, and almost none of them will happen here or now or even in the next few hours, but these things will come to pass.
Ash Wednesday means we are repentance. It means we are mourning. We are wailing. We are the lost. We are the sheep without the shepherd. And the children lost in the woods. We are those sailors at night on the stormy sea who just hope to make it home. We are those who wander at night looking for a light in a window to call us back. That’s our nature.
And because of God in Jesus Christ there is somewhere within us, from some place we don’t even know about most of time, a well, or a source of goodness, this fount of every blessing, this light which is itself a city on a hill. There is this blessing, there is this shape. Deep within. And we learn about it at church, and it is fed by what we do today, and it is nourished every time we come here. And it is touched by these ashes.
And it is here all the time. For is Jesus Christ within us. And something about what we do today awakens him and he responds when we turn our flesh and our will and our life over to ash. That we die so he may live. For God is best when mixed with ash.
So let them sink in. Don’t just wash them off the second we’re done today, but let them be on you for a while, and get in your blood, and in your eyes, breathe them and in let them go down within you, so you have them for times when you really need them.
This is for tomorrow. This is for the next 40 days. This is for forever.