The Dust Matters: A Sermon

 I preached this sermon today, Ash Wednesday 2019, at Christ Church, Alameda, CA. The lectionary texts are Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

It’s been almost seven years since my father died, quite unexpectedly, and one of the clearest things that I remember about flying home for his funeral was the shock of seeing the little black box that held his ashes, and looking in at them, and realizing that, physically speaking, this was all that was left of a man who had been so full of life and humor and compassion. And how surreal it was that the man who cradled me in his arms when I was a baby, I was now cradling in my arms as a box of dust. It defies my comprehension, even to this day.

And I was, then (and often still am), tempted to say—as I think we often do when someone dies—no, he’s not in there. This box of ashes is not actually him. This little box can’t contain the man whom I loved and admired, a person who lived so deeply, so fully, and so well. I am tempted to say these ashes are nothing but a shell, that they have nothing to do with that person. And yet…I took those ashes home with me, and for the longest time I would take them out and look at them, and I couldn’t let them go.

Why is that?

I ponder the same thing when I walk by columbariums like the one here in Christ Church, which holds a lifetime’s worth of love and memories in each quiet chamber, with a name engraved on the front. We stand before these rows of names and ashes, and we ask, “where are you? are you here in these chambers? Are you in my heart? Are you in a place beyond this place, somewhere I can’t even begin to imagine?”

The dust of our loved ones gives no answer to these questions. They rest, silently, like those ancient ruins mentioned in Isaiah, the foundations of many generations, placed lovingly in columbariums and cemeteries, scattered across land and sea. But while the dust does not answer us, it does bears witness, both to our own impermanent bodies and to our enduring bewilderment about what becomes of us, when we are no longer *this*. The Psalmist says, “God remembers that we are but dust,” and on days like today we try to remember that too, even as it remains inconceivable that all of our vitality and memory and longing could be so shockingly reducible, so small and earthbound.

But as inconceivable as it might be, we can’t seem to escape the dust. As much as we might like to, we can’t shake it off. We are drawn back to it, over and over again, because we know, intuitively, that whatever happens after death, this dust that was once our flesh somehow still matters. It is not easily forgotten or discarded.

I bring up this meditation on flesh and dust so that we might deeply consider the meaning of these ashes we are about to receive, and the fullness of what they symbolize. Too often in our tradition they are treated only as a sign of death or penitence, and we wash them off later in the day and move on until next year. If we leave it at that, I think we miss something beautiful. And this is especially important because our scripture readings warn us against practices of empty, unexamined piety.

Isaiah, for example, tells the people that true humility and repentance is found in loving each other, not just putting on sackcloth and ashes. And in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that fasting and praying should be about an intimate connection with God, not a big gesture to show off to our neighbors. These texts starkly reject showy displays of piety…on the very day that we receive big dark smudged crosses on our foreheads and wear them out into the world.

So we must reckon with the significance of what we are doing here today, Ash Wednesday, to articulate why these ashes–and those ashes in the columbarium–matter, and what all this talk of ash and dust conveys, not just about the tradition of the church, but about our lives.

Our faith, as we often say, is Incarnational. That word, incarnate, literally means “into the flesh”. We affirm that God came into the flesh, human flesh, and lived among us as Jesus of Nazareth, himself a mortal man of dust, and somehow in our union with Jesus, God seeps into our dusty flesh, too. Through Jesus, the love of God has not just redeemed a “spirit” or “soul” within us, but has permeated our very bodies; we are like that watered garden of which Isaiah speaks, drenched in God, nourished by the spring whose waters never fail.

And this incarnational movement of God into our unremarkable flesh reveals something crucial about the language and symbol of Ash Wednesday: that this dust of which we are made—it MATTERS to God. The dusty remains of our loved ones, which seem so far removed from who they once were—they MATTER to God, too. Our bodies, mortal as they are, all matter to God, because they are caught up in the divine story of God, the divine story that is revealed and enacted  in our bodies, in relationship with one another.

We might be made of dust, but it is beloved, holy dust.

This dust makes up the fingers that we use to caress the face of our beloved;

This dust makes up the eyes that behold our children and grandchildren for the very first time;

This dust makes up the ears that we use to listen deeply to one another.

These small perishable parts of us MATTER to God, they are part of God’s indwelling in the substance of creation, and they tell a story of the goodness of being alive, of being human, of being part of one another.

From this perspective, the ashes we wear today are certainly not an empty act of piety, and they are far more, even, than a mark of penitence. They are a reminder–an affirmation–of what it means to be that which we are: a body that is at once dying and yet imbued with eternity, at once broken and yet redeemed by love. A body, as Paul says, which appears as having nothing, and yet possesses everything.

When I receive the mark on my forehead today, I will remember my father, whose ashes I finally let go and scattered into the ocean about a year ago, so that the dusty remnants of his kind eyes and his quiet smile might be carried on the waves, to dwell with God in the uttermost parts of the sea. With this smudge of ash, I am anointing myself with the dust of his memory, and with the conviction that his mortal life, his mortal body—and mine, and yours, and all the people who have come before us—will always matter to God. We are beloved, we are not forgotten, even when we become the silent dust, even as we wait, in hope, through the quiet season to come.

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The Ancient and the New

It’s been one month since I arrived in Mirfield; as such, one quarter of my time here is already done. I can already sense little shifts in the landscape. The dawn is brighter as I walk up the hill to morning prayer; dusk lingers a bit longer in the church as we chant the psalms at evensong. There are changes inside of me, too. A bit less disoriented, a bit more confident of how I fit into this place.

So much has gone on since my last post. There was the somber and beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy, when the priest drew a cross on my forehead with cool, damp ashes that had been sprinkled with holy water. A day of silent contemplation at the College to usher in Lent, during which I alternated between stillness and dizzying anxiety. A weekend trip to the ancient city of York, where I wandered alone through the medieval streets looking for a glimpse of a ghost or two. At the massive and magnificent York Minster I was stunned into silence, not simply because of its visual grandeur, but in recognition of the centuries and centuries of prayers that have been offered up into its lofty heights.  I felt alone, and yet deeply connected to that never-ending litany.

This journey thus far, with its ample opportunities for reflection, have made it very clear to me how I am still learning to be a disciple of Christ on the most basic levels: to look kindly upon myself and my flaws, and those of others; to trust that God actually loves me, personally, and not just as an abstraction; to recognize that grace is imbued into everything, whether I see it or not, because God is far more than I can see, or feel, or guess at. These are simple, incomprehensible truths. I know how much I still have to grow, and yet I am also seeing more clearly how becoming a priest is less about growth and more about fully inhabiting myself as God made me. We are not asked to be perfect as priests, but we are asked to be deeply, authentically ourselves, and that is the hardest thing of all sometimes. That goes for non-priests, too, of course.

Lest you think my entire month has been pensive introspection, there have been tons of joyful moments, too. Case in point: on Sunday afternoon I went to lunch with a classmate; we drove out into the countryside and the hills were so green and vast I wanted to cry. Afterwards we drove up to the Victoria Tower, an old observation structure perched far above the town of Huddersfield, and the wind was blowing and the clouds were scudding across the sky and I thought, yes, to be alive is a very good thing. To be here, breathing and breathless and crying from the wind and the wonder is exactly as it must be.  Come, Lord. Come, spring. I am broken open, and I am ready.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo