Psalm 51; Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Well here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent, the somber season. That’s what they call it in the news stories. The somber season of Lent. And we do get off to a pretty somber start here, don’t we. Years ago in another parish, I asked a parishioner who was usually very faithful about attending worship why she didn’t show up for Ash Wednesday services, and I was a bit taken aback when she said, “Oh, I don’t do Lent. It’s so gloomy.”
I suppose it can be. We do start the season with this very stark reminder of our mortality: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. It does kind of suck the sunshine out of things. We can end up feeling a little like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the moody, morose Prince of Denmark, as he stalks around the stage in Act II:
“I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical root fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)
And that’s how a lot of us see Lent— a time to lose our mirth and forego whatever it is we’re giving up for Lent and maybe to be reminded that life is serious business and we really don’t have all the time in the world. Remember, you are dust. A quintessence of dust, perhaps, but dust nonetheless.
The Ancient Church in its ancient wisdom has given us this season of 40 days as a time to get our act together. It’s a time to fast, to give up something that has its hooks in you one way or another and think about how and why it does and what it really costs you. It’s a time to be reflective. It’s a time to renew and improve our practice of prayer. It’s a time to reevaluate our priorities.
We get some good guidance in all of this from our scripture readings. It’s hard to beat David’s prayer from Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin…
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
The reading from Isaiah reminds us that in the middle of this season of self-assessment and introspection we’re not supposed to get all wrapped up in ourselves— that the real sacrifice, the real spirituality that God wants from us is supposed to have a payoff in the real world. Fix your heart so that you have a heart to fix the world.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
St. Paul takes us in the same direction in the epistle reading from 2 Corinthians when he reminds us that…
“we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us;”
and for that reason he goes on…
“we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2)
And so we have Lent. This season when we get very deliberate about sorting ourselves out and being “reconciled to God” so that we do “not accept the grace of God in vain.” We take extra time to pay attention to our spiritual disciplines. We take another look at our giving. Maybe we fast from something. We pray.
Apparently, though, just keeping the disciplines of Lent can also lead us into trouble if we do the right things the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. That’s what Jesus is trying to tell us in our Gospel lesson from Matthew…
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
Anne Lamott in her wonderful little book Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers writes: “Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.”
The pathway of Lent is pretty clear. It’s a time to get your house in order. It’s a time to reassess who you are and what you are doing and what effect that has on everything else here on God’s green and blue earth. And it’s also a time to remember that we don’t have all the time in the world.
And that’s the hard part. That’s the part we don’t want to hear: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Even when we try to get it right, even when we try to align our lives with what the prophet Micah has told us God wants— “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”— even then we are remembering that he starts with “God has told you O Mortal what is good…” and those words “O Mortal” hang in the air like the sword of Damocles. Remember that you are dust.
It’s kind of hard to get past that, isn’t it? Dust. It’s hard to get past dust and ashes. And maybe we shouldn’t try. It doesn’t have to be bad news. We are made from the stuff of the earth and our bodies will return to that. We will be recycled. That’s the economy of nature.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle he created a fake religion called Bokononism. There’s a lot to like in Bokononism; for one thing, Bokonon, the fake prophet who creates the fake religion, tells you right up front that both he and the religion are phonies. When Bokononists talk about what God is up to they simply say, “Busy, busy, busy.” There’s a little calypso hymn they sing: “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly, man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; man got to tell himself he understand.’” But one of my very favorite things about Bokononism is the Last Rites:
(Each line in the rite is said once by the person leading and then repeated by the dying person.)
God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”
“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.
I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.
Nice going, God.
Nobody but you could have done it, God!
I certainly couldn’t have.
I feel very unimportant compared to You.
The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.
I got so much, and most mud got so little.
Thank you for the honor!
Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.
What memories for mud to have!
What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!
I loved everything I saw!
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait.
Yes, we are dust. Lucky us. Lucky mud. Think of all the mud that didn’t get to sit up and look around.
We are the mud, the dust that got to sit up and look around. And we get to keep looking. Colin Morris in Starting from Scratch says that God brought the entire universe into existence so we could be here. Think of the generations that have gone before you so that you could stand here today to receive the mark of the cross on your forehead and be reminded that your time is precious. It is not an accident that you are here.
Jim Holt is a science writer, a physicist who has written a challenging book called Why Does the World Exist. He’s looking at this question purely from the standpoint of science, of physics, but his thinking sounds a lot like theology in some ways. He points out that if you go down and down and down inside things, down inside to the level of the atom, the atom, itself, is almost entirely empty space. If you enlarged the nucleus of an atom to the size of a baseball and put it in the center of Madison Square Garden, the nearest orbit of electrons would be as far away as the exterior of the Garden. Using Quantum Field theory, he points out that particles, themselves, are essentially unreal; they are temporary properties of fields, and fields are distributions of mathematical quantities through space-time. He poses an interesting question here: Is reality, in reality, an ethereal mathematical poem?
Now I know that all sounds more than a little esoteric, and I won’t pretend I even begin to understand it all, but one of the things Holt points out is this: when you really get down inside it all, when you get down to the particles inside the particles, when you get down to what it is that holds it all together, to what is the stuff of stuff… there’s nothing there. There’s nothing there except intent. Matter seems to be held together by intent. Dust is dust because something intended it to be dust. You are you because something— let’s say Some One— intended you to be you.
You are here because you were intended to be here. Yes, you are dust. And to dust you shall return. But the dust, the stuff of the cosmos that made you, came together by intent. That’s not just theology or biology. It’s physics. And that stuff that came into being by intent came together to form you by intent. You are the intention of intentions. And here’s more good news: when you return to dust, when the stuff of you returns to the stuff of the earth, the essential you that came together will continue on, because that, too, is God’s intention.
Lucky us! Lucky mud. We got to sit up and look around.