On Ash Wednesday, Sara Miles walks into the Mission District of San Francisco with about a dozen others, all dressed in black cassocks; offering people the imposition of ashes. Since 2010, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church has joined with other churches to offer an Ash Wednesday service outside; at the corner of 24th and Mission.
A mother unwraps her week and a half old boy and holds him up. Sara crosses his forehead with ashes and says “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The mother says “Thank you” as does everyone else who receives ashes that day.
“Why” Sara wonders “Why would people say ‘thank you’ after being told they are going to die?”
“Because” she decides “it is the truth. And ashes on the skin show that despite all the lies a culture tells, nothing is hidden or pretend or made-up anymore. We are walking, the Gospel tells us, in the light.” (Christian Century)
The sooty mark on our brow boldly proclaims death and resurrection, darkness and light, ashes and flame; all at the same time.
We long to turn away; for life’s ashes haunt us. Darkness, cold and death have power; power beyond our control. We despair over love rebuffed or withheld; lost hopes and shattered dreams; families and relationships, communities and nations broken; seemingly beyond repair.
And yet, even as we despair, with brilliant self-deception, we fail to see our part in it all; fail to acknowledge our own ashy wake.
Consider God’s people Israel. After ending the long darkness of Babylonian exile, they rejoice in homecoming. Hopes high, they anticipate a restored and vibrant Jerusalem. Seeking prosperity, they expect God’s blessing.
And frankly, God disappoints them. Conforming their worship to the letter of the law; fasting and praying, putting on the guise of humility; God’s people expect a reward.
God sends them Isaiah: prophet, speaker of truth. God urges Isaiah towards boldness. “Shout out …do not hold back. Announce to my people their rebellion; to the house of Jacob their sins.”
Falseness permeates Israel’s worship; extinguishing the bright flame of God’s justice. Isaiah speaks: “Your pious prayers do not distract God. God sees the way you oppress your workers, keeping them pressed down in poverty. Your misdirected fasting does not cause God to look away. God sees your economic exploitation of the hungry poor. Do not be mistaken!” says Isaiah. “God has an eye for false humility. And God will not bless your sin!” Not exactly the reward the people had in mind.
God sees what Israel refuses to acknowledge, and God will have none of it! For God is out and about in the neighborhood. God knows what the neighborhood needs: shared bread, shared housing, shared clothing. Justice and compassion and mercy: real, deep, true kinship.
“Share life’s necessities” the prophet tells Israel. “Wed your work to your worship. Then your Lord will answer you. Then your light shall break forth like dawn. Then your healing shall spring up quickly: then. Then God will satisfy your needs as well; like water in parched places.”
Jesus deepens the conversation. He also tells God’s truth. He despises hypocrites; actors who play at kingdom living. For Jesus, as distressing as it is that God’s people feel good about their goodness; what troubles him even more is the pride we take in expressing our remorse. Showy prayer; giving and fasting with an applauding audience in mind; will not sustain the flame of faith. It turns quickly to dust and ash; rust and moth eaten cloth.
We cannot manipulate God or turn God to our own advantage; no matter how much we might wish to do so.
According to Jesus, true devotion arises as gratitude; the gratitude of a heart turned radically around by the love of God. We cannot make this turning happen; we can only open ourselves to God’s saving grace and welcome it. And then, in faithful prayer and praise; in obedience to God’s call to acts of justice and mercy; blessing God with our whole hearts, we discover that every truly holy impulse arises from one desire and one desire alone: to cleave to the love of God with all we have and with all that we are and with all that we ever hope to be.
Truth be told, and Ash Wednesday is a day for truth telling, our human love will always be a mixed bag; never exactly right; never completely pure, never fully true. And yet God invites us to place it all—death and resurrection, darkness and light, ashes and flame—before the throne of grace. And when we do, God will give us what we truly need: a humble heart, a contrite heart, a heart aflame with the holy energies of compassion and mercy, goodness, and grace, love and justice.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes a radio interview with a Port Authority policeman many, many months after September 11. You could hear the hissing and popping of cutting torches turned towards metal as he spoke. Thirty of the policeman’s friends died at Ground Zero. He could not stay away from the site.
Asked to describe the scene for the listeners, the policeman spoke of the relief workers; sifting through the debris on the ground; carrying two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human.
“What strikes me most” the policeman said “is their reverence for what the carry in their hands. It’s nothing but ashes, and yet you should see how they touch it.” (Taylor)
Ashes bear the truth of how it is between us and God; and as such they have sacred worth; they deserve our reverence. For in them flickers of God’s image remains; the hint of God’s breath waits to breathe into them again the flame of faith; of light and life.
So remember, dear friends. Remember. Remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It is the truth. Nothing is hidden or pretend or made up anymore. We are walking in the light of the Gospel, even in the dark days of Lent. Thank you, Lord Jesus. And thanks be to God.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
“Witness to the dark”, Sara Miles, Christian Century, 2-5-14
Untitled news item, Christian Century, 3-17-11
“Dark to Dust”, Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, 3-27-12
Gina Gilland Campbell, unpublished sermons, 2-4-14; 2-13-13