Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
It was a cold, cloudy day in southern England. Maggie and I were walking around the ancient city of Canterbury. Did I mention that we had been walking? Like so many pilgrims and tourists, our feet were weary and our legs were tired.
Our walking pilgrimage took us to St. Martin’s Church in Canterbury. St. Martin’s is the oldest church in England. Christians have been praying and worshiping on that hallowed ground since the sixth century. The earliest recorded worship of the Lord Jesus took place there in 597.
And on that cold, cloudy day in southern England, Maggie and I took a rest at St. Martin’s. We sat in the chilly graveyard of that ancient church. We rested our bones among the bones of Christians who have been buried there for the last fifteen hundred years.
As we sat, and as we prayed, we noticed something. We noticed that graves were on top of graves. Centuries ago, the members of St. Martin’s church had run out of room in their graveyard. So they started stacking their deceased brothers and sisters. Over a millennium’s worth of bones were squeezed into a quaint little English graveyard. Grave on top of grave on top of grave on top of graves.
All completed with masterful indiscrimination. Saints on top of sinners. Men, women, boys, girls. The infamous with the unknown. The noteworthy on top of the nobodies. Criminals and cops, priests and parishioners, soldiers and villains. Stacked, squeezed, and crammed into that holy little space.
Psalm 103 came to mind: “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust. Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more.”
We are dust. You are dust. Through the course of our short lives we may rise to prominence. We may even rise to greatness. We may attain holiness. Or we may remain blessedly anonymous. More likely, like me, you’ll struggle with sinfulness. But regardless of what you are, you are only dust. Heroes and kings. Cowards and losers. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. All of them dusty.
We may flourish like a flower of the field; like one of a great carpet of bluebonnets on a scenic Texas highway. Magnificent and yet dainty. But when the summer heat comes, the flowers wither and die. The ground dries up, the sun is unrelenting, and the hot southern wind from the Gulf of Mexico blows them away. All of them dusty. And their places are remembered no more.
Like the bluebonnets, like the thousands in that little graveyard, your time will come. You may have many Ash Wednesdays left to you, or this may be your last. No one knows.
This is the somber reminder on Ash Wednesday. That we all go down to the dust. Centuries from now, our names will not be remembered. We will be forgotten among the lips of humanity. We are all just ashes, and we make our way down to dusty death.
Yet with the somber reminder of this day, comes an everlasting resolution: God will remember. As Psalm 103 promises, “The merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him.” God will remember you – not because you were a prince or a pauper. God will not remember you because you were buried in a special graveyard or because you had riches, or because you died penniless. The promise of this day, the firm resolve from our Savior, is that God will remember us because he is the very one who created us. And redeemed us. God is so great, that even ashes like us can be loved and remembered for all eternity.
A final reflection from the St. Martin’s graveyard: not a soul buried there took any earthly possession with them beyond death. All the earthly treasure they had worked for and accumulated over the course of their lives was forgotten in the dust of the grave.
During this holy season of Lent, I implore you to reflect on this question: what is really important? Is it that job, that new car, that bigger house, that 401(k)? Or is it the love you share with the church, the love you receive from God, the love you give to your neighbor? All of us will go down to a dusty death. And what we think is important here on earth, will have no meaning once we are buried. The grave is the great equalizer, for wealth and possessions and titles have no meaning there.
During this holy season of Lent, I challenge you: start living like you are dying. Remember that the love you share is more important than the treasures you hoard. Live as if tomorrow will find you in the dust of the grave.
We are all dust, and to dust we shall return. We were all created by God, and to God we shall return.