In the name of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Each year at this time, we come out of the wintry world with spring promised soon or even in the slightest evidence – like we have today. We come out of a season of hibernation, where living things have taken cover and where we’ve gone inside to protect ourselves from the worst that winter can do, to this annual service, perennially well attended, to be reminded clearly and without hesitation that we will die.
From hibernation into today’s world we are faced with a good deal of hyperbole. We know of fantastic tragedies and hear of unbelievable acts of violence. What once we never imagined is now accomplished in the palms of our hands countless times every day. Huge amounts of money and distances to planets go far beyond our understanding. The potential outcomes from genetic engineering or the consequences of melting polar ice caps are simply un-grasp-able. Nothing seems real any more.
What’s real is Ash Wednesday. Coming to church, having ashes imposed on your forehead, that’s real. What’s real is death. Death is real – and most of us spend our lives ignoring that fact. We put off thinking about death because it seems to be something we can put off for thinking about another day, but not today.
But the liturgical year says today is the day. It is Ash Wednesday. The day when, in the middle of everything that is not real, we sit down and think about death. Yes, you will think of people you have loved who have died. Grief will spring up with the remembrance of them because you shared life and love with them – or you wish you would have. Yet that must not distract us from our purpose. Today we are talking about the death of others only insofar as it has to do with our own death, it is evidence that the end of life which we have seen others see – will also be seen by us. Every physical body expires and it will happen to us, too.
So, isn’t it interesting, that in the midst of this forced look at the reality of death, each one of the scripture readings today is entirely about how to live? By keeping death in view, we are being told how to do life!
Haven’t you ever known or heard of a person who has been given a terminal diagnosis? What is true about them? They know, not only with certainty that they are going to die, but they know perhaps with more accuracy than others, when they are going to die. People in that situation don’t live like the rest of us. When death is really real, some things in life which used to seem important disappear without a thought. Priorities line up in a very clear order – and there aren’t many of them. Death makes life very simple.
Imagine holding on to the knowledge of your own death in such a conscious way, that in fact, you find freedom. You could be free of all of the things that don’t matter to you or that you don’t care about doing. It just wouldn’t make any difference any more. If you were really convinced of your death, why would you waste a moment of precious life?
It turns out, the more you work at holding onto life, the harder you try to avoid anything life-threatening, the more time you pour into protecting yourself from death – the less life you will have!
Ash Wednesday. Charred remains on your forehead, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Looking at the reality of death is the best possible way of living.
Life and love are the only things that matter.
There is an adage which is more true even than we know. We reap what we sow. We get what we give. Only in really loving others will you know yourself to be loved. Only by allowing yourself to be really loved will you know the love of God. And once you know the boundless love of God, what is there to fear? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!
Isaiah tells us, don’t just go through the motions! It’s not enough to appear to be following God’s commandments while you aren’t. You can’t fool God and you can’t fool yourself. It is a waste of time, a waste of life. Get real. Do what really counts, then you will know what living really is.
“If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
Paul writes of the humility of love and how humble love does not lord it over anyone but is reconciled one to another. No holding grudges, resentments, anger. No longer seek to settle accounts or to exact revenge. Forgive. Have mercy and be reconciled. Then you will fully enjoy living.
“We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!”
Matthew – there is freedom in life with God. it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. As long as you are right with God, all is right with the world. Let go of caring how others judge you or if you have their approval. You are not here to impress people, but to love them and to love God. If you can let go of caring what other people think, then you will be able to live freely. Truly free of oppression.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Once again, returning to Paul, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Today. Right now. This is the way to the joy of eternal life right here, right now, and forever. Choose life!