As I was preparing to preach this morning, I looked back at sermons I’ve preached on this day over the past several years. They span the aftermath of 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crash of the stock market and plummeting economy, the long wave of unemployment for so many, the several presidential elections the most recent fueling acrimony and violence, the natural global disasters, and the emergence of the worst pandemic in one hundred years. It seems that on any given Ash Wednesday there are signs around us that point to our fragility and vulnerability. Maybe we don’t even need the reminder about ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Death and dying have been in the forefront for us almost every day for the past year.
Barry Lopez wrote in Arctic Dreams: “How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only on one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly an adult, it must be when one grasps the irony that is unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”
This is not any ordinary Ash Wednesday. Metaphorically, people’s lives are being reduced to ashes because of COVID-19, the loss of lives, family members and friends, of jobs, homes, dignity, and hope. The entryway to Lent this year is markedly different for me. People have been humbled in ways they never imagined and will no doubt continue to grow in humility as time passes—not by choice but by circumstance.
Typically, Lent has been perceived as a very boring time when we work in the negative that is, to say we “give up something” we otherwise enjoy. Some of these little fasts are, indeed, a good and healthful thing for us, like sweets or cigarettes or fatty foods. But I wonder if, given the somber tone of the day and the pall of gloom that has been cast over our world for the past year, we wouldn’t all like to give up Lent…for Lent.
Well, that’s probably a little too drastic and is surely an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The better alternative it seems to me is to reframe it. What I would like to suggest to us on this unusual and “ashless” Ash Wednesday is that we think in terms of an economic stimulus package—but not the kind being debated in the chambers of congress. I’m talking about a different economy—God’s economy. I believe that God’s plan would have us stimulate our minds during these forty days of Lent—expanding our understanding of what God wants to do for us and God’s world and our vision of what exactly is the dream of God for each of us.
In her book , Kneeling in Jerusalem, Ann Weems writes “Lent is a time to let the power of our faith story take hold for us, a time to let the events get up and walk around in us, a time to intensify our living into Christ, a time to hover over the thoughts of our hearts…a time to allow a fresh new taste of God.”
So, yes, we remember that we are but dust and we remember not just the limitations but the possibilities inherent in our humanity. We remember that we are dust and we remember the grace that has been conferred on our human lives. We remember that we are dust and we remember that God created us to live in God’s own image. We remember that we are dust and we remember that we are in a living, growing, unfolding relationship with God and with each other.
Let’s resolve tonight to do this Lent differently. We have 40 precious days to open ourselves up to God’s love, to examine ourselves in the presence of the one who created us, and to both expand our understanding of what God’s dream is for us and stretch our hearts in ways that will touch the broken lives of those who are suffering in these very threatening times. We are dust and to dust we shall return, but by God’s grace we can learn to live life more fully and be transformed by the stimulus package of God’s economy. So let us begin our 40 day journey, time to allow a fresh new taste of God, making our life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.