Sermon from Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes
Ash Wednesday; March 2, 2022
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I hope you noticed how matter-of-fact Jesus is in his instructions about giving alms, prayer, and fasting. He doesn’t give an argument about why we should give alms, pray, and fast; he assumes that we will in fact give alms, pray, and fast and then gives instructions on how to conduct ourselves while doing so.

I wish people were as matter-of-fact when it comes to talking about death. A person who was looking into moving to a new place asked one of the locals, “What’s the death rate here?” and the local replied, “One to a person.” We use euphemisms, avoidance techniques, and double-speak to avoid talking about the inevitable so much of the time. You may have had to deal with a friend or relative who acted as though they would never die: refusing to make a will, to talk about estate planning, to share their funeral wishes. Or you may have dealt with someone who seems to obsess on it, putting post-its on the furniture or talking about the music they want at their funeral every time you try to have a conversation.

Honestly, I’ve been blessed, for the most part, in both my work and my personal life to be surrounded by people who are honest and intelligent about their inevitable death while taking it all in stride. When my Mother made the choice to discontinue her chemotherapy, she knew what the result would be and had a pretty good idea of the timing. Each of my brothers and I had some high-quality time alone with her and she got to attend a Major League baseball game with her sister before the end.

The ashes for Ash Wednesday have a variety of symbolic meanings, and the one I’m focusing on today is that they remind us of our mortality. Our mortality is not the result of two human beings eating a piece of fruit they should have avoided; our mortality is part of being the creatures we are. Bacteria do not die a natural death, and neither do cancer cells, but pretty much everything else that lives eventually dies. The story in Genesis is a beautiful description of how we at some point in our prehistory became aware of our mortality; “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” the Lord God says to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:19).

Those are the words we say as we place the ashes on our foreheads. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Psalm 90 says, “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals’” (v. 3). This isn’t easy for me to say. When I put ashes on the forehead of a church member, someone I have come to love and to care about, and look you in the eye and say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” something in me breaks. I would rather not do it, but I do it because I have come to believe it is valuable. Maybe you and I think we don’t need to be reminded once a year – every Ash Wednesday – of our mortality, but it is too easy to breeze through life, forgetting that it is temporary. I see two benefits of the annual reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Perhaps we shall remember to treat each day as the precious gift that it is. Every morning I thank God for the gift of being alive. To be able to eat a plate of fresh-cooked eggs; to be able to greet the sunrise; to receive a text message or a card from a friend; to play a board game with Kathleen; to run down the hall with my dogs: these are a precious gift, not to be taken for granted. As much as I look forward to many things – this year we may get to have an Easter brunch! – I don’t want to waste my day dreaming of the future. There is so much to appreciate about today. Mae West said, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” Remember you are dust and enjoy today while you have life and breath.

And the other value of remembering we are dust is that we then live grateful for the gift of eternal life in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why we do this on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent: we know how this story concludes, at the end of Lent. Over the next forty days we will remember the Cross of Jesus and what it means to us and what it cost him. We will mourn our sin. We will study and will work on spiritual discipline. And at the conclusion of Lent will be a new sunrise and the celebration of the awakening of eternal life.

Remember you are dust. Our God breathed life into the dust and humanity awakened. Our God still breathes life into the dust so we may awaken to eternity in Jesus Christ.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska