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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, WI 54703
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“We Are Alive!”
Sermon, Year A, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: < href="http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=23">Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“From ashes you are made, and to ashes you shall return.” So we say on Ash Wednesday night. That’s the cycle. That is the cycle. One that is billions of years old through uncountable circles of birth and death and rebirth and death and rebirth and death and so on and so on. A cycle which I like to think that ends ultimately with rebirth.

“From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return.” But we are not just any old dust. I was thinking about this this morning. Not just any old dust. We are star dust. Star stuff. As Carl Sagan liked to say. We are not made out of nothing. We are made out of that which makes all the cosmos. We are made not out of nothing, but of the cosmos. We are the remnants of stars that gave up their lives after they completed their life cycle unto death, creating the atoms that make us. The atoms that created planets and new stars, lakes and mountains, and trout and cockroaches. All this is. All that is. Including us. We are part of the cosmos. Not just in it, but part of it. We are made of the dust of the stars, and also of the dust of this planet Earth. Made of the dust of this earth to return some day to the ground or perhaps returned to the waters, whichever you may prefer. Then from there to become dust for someone or some thing else. Some other life form, like a plant or a person. Probably many of them, really. Someone else to be born, something else to be created, from our dust. The dust of our bodies, for we are incarnational physical beings as well as spiritual.

It is fun to consider who else or what else might have possessed the atoms of our bodies. Perhaps we have a little bit of George Washington in us. Or King David. Or Roman emperors. Who knows? Or the food that we eat – where else might those atoms have been over the eons? Or the air we breathe, who else might have breathed it? Or the water that we drink that someone else famous has consumed as well?

Lent is the time to remember that we are mortal beings. We are finite. We are limited. We don’t get to live forever. Even stars and galaxies die. Mountains eventually are eroded to nothing. Everything has an end to it. We are reminded in Lent that we are finite and limited impermanent beings. At least our bodies are. Our souls live on. At least as long as God lives on. But our bodies are finite.

And I hope that when we remind ourselves that we will die, and get into the ashes and say the words “From dust you are made and to dust you shall return”, that we are not doing that in a sense of hopelessness or futility. It is not meant to make us feel down, or go into the doldrums. We don’t say these words to depress one another or make us feel awful, bemoan our fragility, or experience lifelessness already. Those words can be taken in ways to make one feel that you’re already dead and so wonder “What is the point?” But that’s not why we do this. It is not make us feel bad and drive us down, it is to remember our mortality – at least it is for me – and find inspiration to live! To know that I don’t get to be this person, this being that I am, forever. I have a limited number of years, so let the words inspire us to life. Because God is the God of Life! God wants us to be alive. Wants us to know the joy and the happiness of being fully alive. Not to be miserable and suffering. To live!

And so all this penitential repentance stuff that we talk about on Ash Wednesday is not meant to make us feel bad, or to hate ourselves, or to kick ourselves for being imperfect. We’re all imperfect. God knows that we’re imperfect, and God accepts that. We are not here being asked to kick ourselves for making mistakes, or remind us what useless terrible lumpen clay we are. But a chance to remember, and to look within through introspection at our lives and our dark places that are not enhancing our lives. Our bad habits, bad attitudes, whatever it is that is keeping us from fully enjoying life, from fully living, or what affects others negatively and keeps them from fullness of life. Lent is a time to look at the dark parts in our life and let Jesus’ light shine into them. To identify, to name it, and say “There it is! There is some darkness.” And then to let it go. Let it go. I’m not going to be that any more. I’m not going to let that bother me any more. I’m not going to do that any more. To name the parts of ourselves we don’t like or that keep us from life or being in relationship with God or our neighbors, and offer them to God. To give them to God. “I don’t want these any more, God. Take them from me.” Give it to God who carries our burdens. Who forgives. Who loves. So that by getting rid of those parts we make room to grow the parts that are life-enhancing. To grow the parts that bring us life. To grow more parts that are life-generating.

That, I think, is the real gift of Lent. It can be, sometimes, that Lent feels like a time that we’re supposed to beat ourselves up and feel awful about ourselves. That we have to give up all the things that make us happy, like chocolate, or meat, or bacon. Whatever it is that makes your life worth living. Feel free to give them up as a spiritual discipline, so long as you do so with the thought of giving them up not to be miserable, but to remind us who we are. Because the gift of Lent is that we know how it ends: it doesn’t end in death, it ends in life. It ends with Easter. Resurrection. Jesus rising from the tomb. New life. So there is nothing to fear, nothing to be afraid of in this time of repentance. That’s not a scary word. “Repent” simply means to turn around. To change direction. To sin means to miss the target, and to repent means, in a sense, “I’m going to aim better from now on. I will try to aim better.” That is all that it is. It is not an awful thing, or a scary thing, or a terrible burden. Lent is a time to look at our compass and look at God’s compass and see how close in alignment they are and try adjust our path to be in more line with God’s.

Realigning ourselves with God however we need to do so with the assurance that is what God wants from us. That God will not only accept, but it’s what God wants us to do! To turn to God. To turn back to God and be closer. God’s not going to say, “Oh, it’s too late for you. You waited too long to turn around. You waited too long, offered too little, to change your life.” God’s not going to say that. God will stand with arms open wide and say, “Welcome back! I’m glad you turned around. This is wonderful news! I was worried about you for a while. I wasn’t sure if you would. I thought you would, but wasn’t really sure, and I am glad that you have. And even if you hadn’t, you know what? I would have kept waiting and hoping and loving you anyway”. That’s who God is. That’s the God of scripture. The God who became Jesus. The God of love who calls us to repentance not so we beat ourselves up or feel miserably guilty, but to turn back to the source of joy and life so we will know more life.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. A reminder that we will die, yes. There is no way around that. Not yet, anyway. We will die. But the words are far more a reminder that we are now alive. We are alive! Alive in God’s grace. Alive in God’s tender mercies. Alive in God’s relentless love that desires nothing more for us than life with God. To dust we shall return, but today – today! – we are still alive. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to the risen Christ of Easter. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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