So, this is probably the most morbid way I’ve ever started a sermon, but here goes: I’ve watched a lot of people die.
I started my ministry as a hospital chaplain, and I’ve worked as a trauma chaplain and a hospice chaplain, and so I’ve watched a lot of people die. I’ve watched people die peacefully of old age with a loving family gathered at the bedside when they’ve gone, saying goodbye with both tears and laughter, and giving thanks in the end for a life well lived.
And I’ve watched people die other ways too. I’ve watched a young man bleed to death after being shot, his mother sobbing at his side, and I’ve gone home and washed the blood out of my shirt and I’ve struggled to make meaning of it all.
So, if that story, and all this talk about death, makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone. It makes me uncomfortable too. And there’s a part of me that thinks that talking about death, something so obviously depressing, is the wrong move for a pastor. Ministers are often told that we should preach only about happy things, and that if we don’t people will stop coming to our churches.
And, maybe that’s true. And most of the time I do try to preach sermons that focus on the good and hopeful parts of life. But the reality is that if that’s all I do, I’m doing you a disservice as your pastor. And that’s because my job as a minister of the Gospel, particularly in the pulpit, is to tell the truth.
And there is one big, uncomfortable truth you can’t avoid: Sooner or later, no matter how we try to stop it or delay it, we are all going to die.
So that’s the first uncomfortable truth, but there’s another. You know how there’s the joke about how the only two things you can depend on are death and taxes? I think it’s really more like this: the only two things you can be sure of are death, and the fact that while you live you are going to mess up.
To me, those are the two uncomfortable truths of being a human being: we are mortal, and we are fallible. And Ash Wednesday speaks to both of those two things.
Today is the day when we put ashes on our foreheads and say “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. It’s also the day where we repent of all the things that we aren’t doing right. We confess our sins and we say that over the course of the next forty days we are going to try to do better. We are going to turn ourselves around. We are going to set a new course.
And, as you can see, the crowd here today is just slightly smaller than Easter Sunday. Okay, it’s nowhere close to Easter Sunday. And given what we are talking about, that makes some sense. Death and sin aren’t big draws.
And add to that this strange little ritual we do. We burn the palms from last Palm Sunday, and we grind them up, and then we take the ashes and we put them on our foreheads in the sign of a cross. And then we walk around and people are so disconnected from this tradition that they think we have some dirt on our faces. It is an utterly foreign experience, and maybe one that we participate in only out of obligation. One that we don’t look forward to at all.
I get all that. When the ashes go on someone’s forehead and the dour minister or priest intones, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return” it feels like a morbid ritual. It seems like we are all being marked for death or something.
That’s one way to view Ash Wednesday; as just a reminder that we are all sinful and going to die. But there’s another way too.
What if on Ash Wednesday, when those ashes went on our head, we saw ourselves not as marked for death, but instead as marked in a different way? What if we understood that cross to mean that we are marked as God’s own? And what if we saw the ashes as a sign that we are marked not for death, but for new life in Jesus Christ?
The reality is that that is what those ashes really mean. Yes we are mortal, yes we are fallible, but no, we are not hopeless. No we are not doomed. We are, in fact, claimed by something much larger than ourselves. Those ashes are a sign that we are claimed by God, and if God lays claim to us then nothing, not even our own mistakes or the end of our own life, will ever be enough to destroy us.
There is hope rising out of these ashes. There is new life that a phoenix could only dream of here. There is a promise of resurrection that comes only from the one who has been resurrected. And so maybe tonight there isn’t the pageantry of Easter Sunday. Maybe there aren’t flowers and eggs. But maybe in these ashes there is hope for even our darkest nights, and a glimmer of the joy that is to come.
But it’s not just enough just to put the ashes on your head and wait for forty days. Because our faith is never just about waiting. Our faith is also about moving, and it’s about making a journey with God.
Tonight, after we receive our ashes, we will be invited to be participants in the holy season of Lent. We are invited into a journey of new life. The closeness with God that can come in this season doesn’t necessarily come with giving something up, or even taking something on. It comes first with this: the willingness to be marked as Christ’s own, and to find your hope in his own story. The ashes are just a visible signal that you are ready to start a journey that can change everything. They are signs of hope on our foreheads. And you can choose tonight who you will put your hope in during these forty days.
May God bless us with new life tonight, and through these Lenten days. Amen.