The Crosses We Wear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for Ash Wednesday:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 + Psalm 51:1-17 + 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 + Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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Please pray with me this evening:

Holy and Almighty God,
Return us to you tonight.
Remind us that you are God,
And that we are not.
And give us hearts that ache with the same love
And life that you first breathed into the dust.
Amen.

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I have a curious relationship with Ash Wednesday. For a couple of reasons, I think.

The first is that I’m a pretty high empath. That is, I feel things quite deeply. And so I enter and walk through Lent not only with a heightened sense of my own failings as it relates to living close to the heart of God, but I’m also more aware of how, on a larger societal level, our shortcomings feel greater and more vast. I tend to get quite introspective during Lent, and usually what I uncover doesn’t bring me much joy.

Secondly, is that it’s curious to me that every year we hear these same cautionary words from Jesus about practicing our piety before others, and yet, here we are, gathered together among friends and family, to be smudged with dirt, to then file out through those doors very publicly displaying these badges of mortality.
As you walked around today, did you notice the dusty crosses on the heads of some of your co-workers or neighbors or strangers? Did you give each other a knowing look or wink or nod? There’s a collective relationship with Ash Wednesday that doesn’t feel present with almost any other liturgical day.
And it makes me wonder why.

Part of me thinks that there’s a sense of cultural expectation with Ash Wednesday. Most of us grew up going to Ash Wednesday services, but even if we didn’t, seeing all these people walk around with smudges on their forehead…well, it kind of feels like the thing to do, doesn’t it?

But there’s another part of me—the more hopeful part, I suppose—that thinks that maybe…just maybe…there’s something so undeniably compelling about being told the truth about ourselves.

That for all our complexity and brilliance, we’re nothing more than the dust of the earth traced on our brows.

That’s a hard truth to hear, I think. Because so much of our lives these days are focused on what anthropologist Ernest Becker calls “immortality projects.” We avoid death at all costs. On average, we’re living longer than ever before, but we consume ourselves with running away from death.

But what if we reframe what it means to be dust?
What if instead of running away from death, we imagined ourselves as running toward life?

Dust and dirt are precious, church. It’s out of the dust that life was brought forth. It’s out of the dirt that life springs up from the ground.
Hands Holding SoilYou’ve heard that the dust in your homes is made up mostly of skin cells, right? Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t clean our houses, but think about that…dust contains DNA…the very foundations of life are contained within those balls of dirt.
Dust is holy. Dust is precious. Dust is life.

And you know, when we’re baptized, the pastor marks this very same cross on our very same foreheads, and declares to us, “Beloved, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Baptism—this act of joining our very selves to Christ, so that, even in death, we are united, through Christ’s resurrection, to Christ’s life.

These crosses, that are so familiar to our foreheads, are identity markers for us.
They’re touchstones for us when we feel distant from the One who crafted us from the dust.
They’re guideposts helping us find our way back to the Source of our life.
They’re hallmarks reminding us who we are and whose we are. That God is God, and we are not.

And that’s Gospel, church. That’s Good News for us who are consumed with our immortality projects.
Because it means that we don’t have to have it all together, and still God redeems us.

This cross of ash on our heads does serve as a reminder to us of how far away from the heart of God we’ve drifted.
But it also shows us the extraordinary lengths that God goes to bring us back.

And if you’re wondering, it’s about the distance from one outstretched hand to the other.

I don’t think Jesus in our Gospel for tonight is admonishing against religiosity, so much as he is explaining what a life steeped in spiritual practices looks like.
The three traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. And I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding these practices, I think he’s resetting their direction.
See, piety had become a display. In ancient Jerusalem, the religious people were making a show of their prayer and fasting so as to be seen and noticed by others.
But Jesus says, these practices aren’t about you. The spiritual disciplines we undertake during Lent aren’t about making ourselves feel better or more holy. Their function is to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to turn our focus outward, away from ourselves, and to give of ourselves, for the sake of others.

Rather than avoiding death, embrace life, church.
Plant, and grow, and give, and cultivate life where life is needed.

That’s what this mark on your forehead is.
Not a sign of death, but a reminder of the life to which you are called.

Stardust

* a homily given at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on February 18, 2015 *

Text: Matthew 18:1-9

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A prayer:

Mortality stares us in the face, O God.
Hold us, and comfort us.
Amen.

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When I was a young boy, I was fascinated by things I didn’t understand. I’m not sure where this sensibility came from, but I had a highly inquisitive mind and a deep desire to figure stuff out.

And that fascination has held over into my adult years. I’m still mesmerized by things I don’t understand. Pretty perfect dovetail with theology and pastoral ministry, don’t you think…? But over the years, and certainly since beginning seminary, and more specifically, since being involved in parish ministry last year and this year, I’ve felt my need to explain everything begin to wane…

See, so much of this life, so much of our life with God and our life with each other, defies explanation. We feel it, viscerally, but if you ask me to put words to it, my mouth goes dry and words escape me…

But the fascination remains for me… I want to know so much more about what I don’t know…

Last Tuesday, the Adler Planetarium hosted what has come to be an annual event, Clergy Day at the Adler. It’s a day when area religious leaders and students are offered free admission to the planetarium in the hopes of elevating the dialogue between science and faith. It’s a truly phenomenal event and certainly a conversation that needs to be had. It was also my first time to visit the Adler. Wonderful place…

Everything about space fuels this fascination inside of me. What is it? Where did it come from? How big is it? On and on and on and on… And one of the exhibits in particular is still sticking with me. It highlighted the timeline of the universe, as far back as science can take us, billions of years, back to what many consider the origins of the universe. And it talked about how scientists think the building blocks of the universe came into being; how energy, through gravity, formed into atoms, and then into molecules, then into matter, so on and so forth to become the universe and galaxies and planets, and ultimately, us.

Tracing our existence all the way back billions of years to the first bits of matter… Nothing more than stardust… Fascinating stuff… And leaving me with a whole lot more questions than I started with.

“You mean, I’m just a complex series of molecules and atoms that have their origin somewhere in space? Huh…” It makes one feel quite…insignificant…

So, then I totally get where the disciples are coming from today. “Yes, but tell us which one of us the greatest. Tell us how to be seen as great in the eyes of God.” Tell me I’m special, Jesus. Tell me that I matter. That I’m more than just stardust…

“Unless you become like a child,” Jesus says… A child… Filled with wonder and awe and the endless pursuit of discovery… Everything is new and interesting. Nothing is mundane. Each moment is filled with amazement. Every speck of dust.

“And woe to you who put up stumbling blocks. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks!” Jesus says. We just can’t seem to get out of our own way… In our relentless pursuit of discovery, somewhere along the journey, I think we’ve forgotten how to be amazed. Everything is dust. Nothing is magical. And so we look to Jesus for affirmation and assurance. “Who is greatest? Who is special? Is it me? Please tell me it’s me…”

So much of our world, and certainly of our western culture, is what I’d call hyper-individualized. “Absolutely everything is about you,” we’re told, “About what you want. About your interests and concerns.” Lofty praises and acclamations, pumping ourselves up until we’re floating among the planets and the stars…”

And then today, we get a frank dose of reality. Brought back down from the sky, we are humbled. We smudge our heads with dirt and hear, “Mortal, you are dust. And to dust you will return.” Nothing more than the stardust from which you came.

And……it is in this childlike humility that we understand what it means to inherit the kingdom of heaven. In humility, we are made great.

Because God has numbered even those grains of dust.
All of the stars in the sky.
Every grain of sand in all of the oceans of the world.
Every last speck of stardust in the universe.

All named, and loved, and cherished by God.

Even you, mortal. Especially you.