O Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto thee, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. But Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The forty days that we anticipate began this past Wednesday. And it begins with a reminder of our human origins and of our human endings. It begins with dust and ashes. Young faces, old faces, little faces, big faces, meticulously made-up faces, cleanly shaven or bearded faces, brown, white, yellow, black, red faces–all presented themselves to be smudged with ashes. With black carbon–ashes–not only the sign of death, but of decomposition, of deterioration, of that which is the residue of something consumed by fire. Ashes are the most dramatic form as a sign of death. And that is why there are so many, even in our society, who dread cremation because it is so dramatically a reminder of how life can be reduced to ashes.
We work very hard in our society not to think about death. We refer to it as morbidity. In fact, most of life’s routine is lived ignoring our mortality. Our career goals, our professions, our social activities, our cultural interests, our various forms of entertainment, they all in some way distract us from the reality of our mortality. Even funerals present us with some opportunity to distract ourselves. Even when we are “paying our respects,” it can often be done without considering our own mortality as we focus upon the comfort of others, or pity for the deceased, or being cheery at the reception, or simply tolerating the religious and social rituals which accompany paying our respects.
I’ve noticed especially at great public funerals that when the tribute ends and the sermon begins, there is often uneasiness among those who have gathered. And if the minister refers to the fact that we will all die someday, there is a rather irritated look on the face of some that says, “I didn’t come for that; I’m here to pay my respects.”
But Ash Wednesday is different. For at the beginning of Lent, we present ourselves personally to have our lovely faces smudged with the mark of death and to hear the words spoken poignantly, “Remember, thou art dust, and to the dust thou shalt return.” And whenever we are starkly faced with death, liturgically or in the social course of life, we find ourselves all asking one important question, “Is life only about ashes?” “Am I worth more than a pile of carbon?”
We receive answers from many sources. Science sometimes reminds us, especially physicists, that there is a high mathematical probability that the molecules of the very carbons that build life may have come from the farthest reach of the cosmos, that in the air that we breathe are those molecules that the most ancient of peoples may have breathed, and that all of these particles that build and become the blocks, are the particles of burnt-out stars. Sociologists tell us that we live in generations. We live in our children and in our grandchildren in our genealogical course. And political culture tells us that we can live on if we contribute significantly enough that there will be some monument to our life, that some building or street or statue will be named for us. Or there will be a pew or a stained glass window that will keep us alive at least as a memory.
But religion always points us to God, where Lent is the journey to find and deepen our Christian understanding of the worth of life; to find a spiritual answer to the question, “Are we more than dust and ashes?” In Lent, and through our Lenten discipline, through a greater commitment and rigor of prayer, of study, of spiritual retreat, or of spiritual direction, of worship, of acts of service and charity, we are submitting ourselves with greater discipline before God to find and understand our worth.
We are Christians, and therefore the search for any spiritual meaning always begins with Jesus. We begin with Jesus, the story of his life and the power of his presence. Where he began his pilgrimage, we begin this first Sunday in Lent. Where he began with his baptism, we begin with our baptism. Where he began his Lent, his forty days, we begin, and that is with an openness to hear the voice of God which in Mark speaks to Jesus saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” To know that we are owned and loved is, indeed, the greatest gift of life. In this vast universe, in this complex world, in the press of humanity around us daily, to know that we are loved and owned is more powerful than anything a smudge of ash might imply. For it is, after all, more than busyness of profession, of career or of status or achievement, that we are loved that makes life not simply bearable but makes life joyous.
I have a grandchild, I am very proud to say. He’s my wife’s grandson also, but I have a grandson. And I don’t get to see him very much. But I remember on a trip once during a time that was very trying for me in my ministry, and it was a business trip that took me to Philadelphia where he lives, and the schedule was very tight. But I was determined to etch out some time to see him. And it turned out that the time that I could see him was to go to his school with his mother to pick him up. He was just about four years old. I was quite excited, and as I approached the school it suddenly dawned on me that young children don’t like surprises. You don’t know exactly how they are going to respond. And my anxiety began to rise as I walked through the hallway. As we entered the classroom I allowed his mother to go first, and then I came behind. And he looked up, and he saw me, and he said, “Oh, Pop. Pop.” And oh the joy that filled my soul, the burdens of cathedrals and business meetings and fundraising and everything just pealed away. And it did not matter that I might be a lump of ash. It didn’t matter that my name may be on a tombstone. All that mattered for that moment was the joy of life: that I was loved.
But we are also people of faith. And we also know no matter what love we receive from family or loved ones or friends, we know that to be loved by God is not only the ultimate but the most essential love of life. For we know that believing in this, that when we are loved by God it touches places in our lives that not even a grandchild can touch. The love of God when we are forsaken, the love of God when we find ourselves unacceptable to others. The love of God when we find ourselves having lost a spouse to death or separation or divorce, when we have lost our professions. When we have lost our work, when our careers are faltering. When sickness, grief or misfortune is our only companion, when we need the courage to go on. It is the love of God that matters most. When we, like Jesus, find ourselves driven into the wildernesses of life’s harsh realities and the fears of life bear down upon us, when the beast of life would consume us. Like Jesus in his wilderness, it is knowing that God is present, that God somehow sends the angels of love to minister to our broken souls and our weary spirits. It is a message that says to us, “I am more than my obituary. I am more than the tributes of my memorial. I am loved by the Eternal.”
Lent is the time for us to find and deepen that knowledge that God loves you, and you, and you. And God loves me.
Jesus also heard the words that said, “I am well pleased.” Not only do I love you, but “I am well pleased.” If you are like me, you are a sinner. With all that I would seek to do to please God, I know that I fail. How can I be pleasing to God? Why would Jesus be pleasing to God? At this point Jesus had not healed the sick. He had not raised any dead. He had not preached the great Sermon on the Mount. He had not even gone to the cross. How is it that God would say that, “I am well pleased”? But it was because Jesus had submitted himself unto God. By his baptism he was willing to say to God, “Yes, I offer myself, I open myself. I do not know what the cross will mean. I do not know what acceptance, what rejection is ahead, but I offer myself. I submit myself to the protection of your love.” And that is, indeed, what pleases God. Not our perfection, not that we get it right each time or all the time, not that we utterly fail, but that we seek to please God.
I remember a conversation with my spiritual director when I was struggling with something. I said, “You know, the problem is I really don’t want to do it. I don’t feel good about that.” And she said to me, “Can you pray to ask God to tell God that you want to want to do it?” And I said, “Yes, because I really do want to please God. I just feel like I can’t do what I think God is asking me to do.” And so it helped me to understand that the desire to please God pleases God.
There is a prayer that I love. And I offer it to you as I close this sermon. As we stand at the beginning of Lent, seeking to deepen our understanding of God’s love and to find a way to hear the voice of God tell us that we are beloved, God finds pleasure by us. It is a prayer by Thomas Merton, and I believe that it speaks to the hunger that we all feel.
Let us pray.
“My Lord, God, I have no idea where I’m going. I cannot see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know and understand myself. The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe, God, that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope, God, that I will desire in all things to please you. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, will I trust you God. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are ever with me. You will never leave me, God. You will never leave me alone to face my perils. Through Jesus Christ, my Lord. Amen.”