The Rev. Jennifer Adams – February 10, 2016
So we are about to do one of the most challenging and probably one of the bravest things we do all year. And so I want to talk about it a little bit before we do it.
Now we tend to be a group that stretches ourselves somewhat regularly, setting goals of various kinds and reaching toward them, feeding hundreds whether there be rain, snow, sleet, or high winds. We are on to Feed America tomorrow night! We wrestle with issues social and theological. Many here have taken up the challenge of learning a new tradition, since for most folks at Grace the Episcopal Church was not where they were born. We’re a relatively hearty group for the most part; we don’t tend to shy away from a challenge and yet today is one of the days that calls us to muster all of the courage we have, or to let go of some of the strength that we show (depending on how you approach this.)
Because today is the day on which we receive ashes on our heads. And we set out together on a journey that will lead us to the cross and beyond it. Bluntly put (and you’ll here it in the words of the liturgy in just a few minutes) today we’re asked to acknowledge our own mortality and to face death in a way that even the most hearty among us aren’t naturally inclined to do.
And it’s even harder because our society, our culture does everything it can to keep death at a distance. And we who are privileged in this world have that option of distance until it hits us close with ourselves, a family or friend. And that is unlike many in this world who live face to face with the reality of their own mortality and that of their entire family and community on a daily basis.
So here we Episcopalians are beginning a new season with ashes on our foreheads. It’s stark and it can be quite challenging to we for whom this strips away any illusions we’ve been privileged enough to adopt. And so there is something brave about coming forward today. “Remember that you are dust,” we are told as the ashes are put on our foreheads, “and to dust you shall return.” And honestly of all the things we do as clergy, I find this to be one of the hardest.
But this is where we start the season of Lent. With our own humanness and our own limitations laid bare. And then when the ashes are barely gone from our faces we follow the one whom we call Savior to the cross. His own mortal nature out there in the open for all the world to see.
So why would any of do this? So why come to church today? And while we’re at it, why not stay home this season? It’s only forty days and forty nights for heavens sakes. Why would we inflict this season on people whom we love. Of all the messages we offer one another and proclaim to this world why this one: “Remember that you are dust?”
Well don’t worry, there are a couple of reasons I can think of. So let’s go there.
First, one of the gifts we can give one another in the church is authenticity, just very basic honesty. We can be real here, in fact we are called to be real here and it doesn’t get much more real than this. And especially for those who are aware that their own death is near or who deal with their own limitations on a daily basis, having a community that isn’t denying those realities comes as a comfort. It comes as grace. And that’s part of what this season offers us – a touch of our own real.
But there is more than that because there is more than this. We aren’t in this place this season only to acknowledge our dustiness. That’s a starting place and theme that runs throughout the entire season, but we’re also here because there is more than that, there is more than dust to all of this. And that’s why this season is so important.
Atul Gawande is a surgeon who has done brilliant work around medicine, meaning, and living life in community. He has spent his professional life dealing on many levels with human mortality and he wrote a book recently called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.
In that book he says this, “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments. . .For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”
Then Gawande continues, “Unlike your experiencing self—which is absorbed in the moment- your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. . . .And in stories, endings matter. . .When our time is limited and we are uncertain about how best to serve our priorities, we are forced to deal with the fact that . . .the peaks are important, and so is the ending.” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End)
I think we’re here today at least in part to find meaning. And “life is meaningful,” Gawande says so well, “because it is a story.” In this place we believe that life has been breathed into the dust that we are. We have a beginning. And we believe that that life that is you that is me matters to us, to God, to this world. We have an arc. We believe that the significant moments of pain and joy become the story we share, the story we tell, the story we are. And each of those is part of a bigger story, one that gives us “a purpose larger than ourselves” and gives us an ending that offers hope, and joy, and that peace that passes all understanding.
Sure we begin in dust and return to dust but that isn’t how this story ends. Sure the gospel began with an annunciation and takes us to Jesus’ final breath on the cross, but even that isn’t how this story ends.
He rises you know, and so do we.
We are dust and it is so very important that we remember that. And we are so very much more than dust, and we need to remember that too. The story we tell is an honest one where people follow and betray, where they hide and come back out, where they gather and scatter, they break and heal, they die and they’re given new life. And in all of that the real of ourselves and the larger than ourselves meet. Allowing that meeting to happen is the work of this season.
“The Body that is broken shall rejoice!” the psalmist says. “When you care for the weak, the hungry, the lost,” (those who where their humanity and sometimes their mortality on their sleeves,) “your light will break froth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly,” Isaiah told us. “Then you shall be called the repairer of the breach.”
We are dust. And we are so very much more than dust. May we find the courage and faith this season to let it be so.