Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
I have been thinking about birth more than death these days as our second child is due April 4. My husband Rich and I also have a 16 month old daughter, Erin, and last year was her first Ash Wednesday service. It was a humbling experience to bring her forward to have ashes put on her forehead as well as mine – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the stark reminder God has for us today – God our creator formed us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life, but just as all of us are born, all of us will die. Even Erin, so young and full of life. The prophet Joel today instructs all the people to gather in a solemn assembly to remember this: the aged, the children, “even infants at the breast,” the bridegroom and bride leave their celebrations to fast, weep, and mourn.
The topic of death isn’t something we like to think about or talk about much in our culture today. We would rather think about babies and new life, attend a wedding rather than a funeral. As a pastor, I’m not surprised, but often saddened when I meet with a family whose loved one has just died and they have no idea what the person’s wishes were for what scripture or music they wanted at their funeral, whether they wanted to be cremated or have a casket, and so on. Only about 50 percent of Americans have a will or living will. It’s as if we think that if we avoid talking about death, we won’t ever have to deal with it.
Here’s what I’ve also noticed as pastor, though – Ash Wednesday is a popular worship service – probably more people who don’t attend regularly Sunday services show up for this service right up there with Christmas Eve and Easter! I know of churches who even do “drive by” ashes for morning or evening commuters who want to have ashes put on their forehead but don’t have time or don’t want to make time to go to church on Ash Wednesday because people value that reminder for some reason – that they are dust, and to dust they shall return. However, I have learned through my work as an evangelist that my generation, millennials, in particular, have said that they value genuine relationships and an authentic faith community above anything else about church– above the style of the worship service, sand volleyball pits or whatever other gimmicky activities churches try to come up with to attract young people. I think this is true for all of us, not just for young people. We want our relationship with Jesus to be real. We want our faith to be real! And it doesn’t get much more real than publically wearing a cross of ashes on your forehead.
This cross says, “yes, I will die, but I’m not afraid of that death.” We don’t have to be afraid to talk about the reality of death, because we also know the reality of life in and with Christ. We know that on that cross, Christ, God’s only son, died for us. We know that at our baptism, we were marked with that same cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman tells the story of fishing with his grandfather, who was a pastor and seminary professor. His grandfather looked at him and said, “Stephen, the only death you have to be afraid of is already behind you in your baptism.” And then he went on fishing. That means that while we will die, in Christ we will live as Paul says in 2 Corinthians. We have a treasure in heaven that no one and nothing can destroy. Our faith in Christ is not a false hope that sweeps the suffering, pain, and loss we have all experienced under the rug. We’re not pretending that because of our faith in Christ, everything is roses and sunshine all of the time. In fact, in the words from the prophet Joel we just heard, and in 2 Corinthians, we acknowledge that all of us go through really difficult times sometimes. “We’ve lost the heartbeat.” “I’m afraid he didn’t make it.” “We found a lump.” “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us have heard words like these: words that have made us reevaluate our priorities in our lives, or even doubt our faith. But the cross on our forehead reminds us that because of Jesus, we have nothing to fear, even death itself.
Joel asks us, “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Because Joel knows that it is in these difficult times of suffering, death, and loss, that God meets us in the ashes, on the cross. God is not absent during these times. God shows up and meets us wherever we are, in good times and in bad. God in Christ suffers with us. And God in Christ reminds us that suffering and death do not have the last word. Today, we enter into the season of Lent, which is a more contemplative, solemn time. But Lent also is preparation for Easter. We look forward to the resurrection – to the hope that God gives us of life after death. As Joel reminds us, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” This is the God we worship at all times, a God who is faithful to us at all times. Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That is the good news we have to share about God today as we wear our ashy crosses proudly, and every day. Amen.