February 17, 2021
A couple of nights ago I did something strange. I’m not even sure why I did it, but I had grown fascinated by the icicles hanging from the edges of my roof. I stepped on to my small front porch, broke off one of the largest icicles, held it for a moment, and then hurled it like a spear into the snowdrifts. Turns out it didn’t go that far. (I might need to brush up on my ice spear skills.) But it disappeared into a hole in the snow.
By early afternoon yesterday, there was nothing left there except an almost empty hole with a small ice cube in it. That was all that remained of an imposing ice weapon. Meanwhile, last week the boys next door had built an impressive snow fort from which they had waged some epic snowball fights. But part of their fort collapsed in yesterday’s balmy 47 degrees.
Snow teaches us about what is temporary, doesn’t it? Even with piles and piles of it all around, we trust it won’t be here in July. At least we hope not.
Ash Wednesday is one of those days in the church year when we remember that we, too, are temporary. This life does not last forever, and from the moment we are born we are in the process of dying. That’s probably not a reminder we really need this year. We have spent the past eleven months trying to avoid catching or spreading an invisible, deadly virus. We are heavy with the accumulated grief and worry of a year in which it felt like the threat of death was all around us all the time.
If you are feeling the weight of this last year in an especially acute way tonight, know that you are not alone. You are part of a Christian community connected through time and space that acknowledges our shared frailty. A community that understands – though we sometimes forget – that it is God who sustains us. Not our gumption or grit or our own manufactured fortitude and brave face for the world. God formed us out of the dust, God shapes that dust each day that we walk through the world, and when these mortal bodies return to the dust, God is there to receive us into eternal life. In the meantime we do not have to be superhuman. We are allowed to be fully human.
Each year Ash Wednesday calls us to confront both our mortality and our sinfulness. Most of us don’t relish a thorough self-inventory of our sin. I’ve noticed over the past year that it has grown increasingly easy for me to point out other people’s sins than to reckon with my own. In our horribly fractured political and social climate, it’s far easier to say “Look at the awful things that person has done!” or “That group of people is terrible!” or “Can you believe what he said this time???”
To be clear, God does call us to work for justice, which inevitably requires the naming of injustices. But naming injustices is different than demonizing other people in a general and pervasive way.
In reading the scripture passages for Ash Wednesday this year, I was struck by how they summon us to an individual accounting of our sin and a communal thanksgiving for God’s mercy. Emphasizing that individual call to confession does not negate our need to confess the systems and structures of sin that keep so many of our neighbors held captive by oppression. But an individual call to confession does mean that looking into our own soul is more vital to our faith than speculating about someone else’s.
We remember tonight that each of us has sinned and falls short of how God wants us to live. We cry out, in the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”
We remember that God is always ready to hear us when we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
We remember that God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, relents from punishing. God hears our cries, and God forgives.
We remember that God calls us together as a community. Call a solemn assembly, God says through Joel the prophet. Gather the people. Assemble the aged. Gather the children, even babies. We’ve had to do that gathering in all kinds of new ways this year, but God reminds us that traveling these difficult roads is best done in community. To reckon with our own sinfulness, to face up to our own mortality – that is difficult work. It’s work that demands the company of others. The prayers, the support, the empathy, the encouragement of others who are on the same journey from dust to dust.
We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And we gather with others who will remember us after we’re gone. We trust in a God who forgets nothing and forgives everything.
It’s time for a particular confession of my own. This is as far as I made it in tonight’s sermon without any idea about how to conclude it. I sometimes struggle with endings. I suspect most preachers do. I like for an ending to make sense, to feel like a helpful place to pause so that you can keep reflecting on your own.
But for this one I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come up with a neat and tidy ending. I thought at first it was because I’m tired and haven’t slept well recently. And I’m sure that’s part of it, though I’ve written plenty of things in my life while tired. But I also realized that Ash Wednesday marks the final significant day of the church year that we’ve had to adapt because of the pandemic. We’ve come full circle, and something about that breaks my heart.
I decided not to force it. I decided it was OK for this sermon, like our entire lives, to be open-ended. We don’t know how or when our own endings will come – simply that they will come. And the end is not always neat and tidy. That’s part of what being dust means too – that we don’t know when it will all be blown away.
What we do know is that God is here. God loves us. And that is more than enough.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ