The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Ash Wednesday of 2018. Audio of this sermon can be found here.
Almost exactly two years ago on an Ash Wednesday like today, I made the walk from my former parish to the home of a young couple in our community who’d just given birth to their first child. It had been a tumultuous year for them, as this young mother’s own father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of liver cancer midway through the pregnancy. At a time when life is already measured in weeks and trimesters, she and her family were marking the passage of time along two fragile timelines — the number of days until their child would be born and the number of days until their father would die.
The cancer moved quickly, and the grandfather left this world weeks before the grandchild entered it. She was brought home from the hospital on Ash Wednesday, so I made my customary visit with the family carrying two familiar things: a book of blessings by the Irish poet, priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, and a small ceramic saucer filled with black ashes.
O’Donohue’s blessing for when a child comes into the world is one of my favorites, and I love to share it with families in those early days when the miracle of life is still keenly felt, before a sense of routine ordinariness has set back in. It goes like this:
As I enter my new family, may they be delighted / at how their kindness comes into blossom. / Unknown to me and them, may I be exactly the one / to restore in their forlorn places new vitality and promise. / May the hearts of others hear again the music / in the lost echoes of their neglected wonder.
If my destiny is sheltered, may the grace of this privilege / reach and bless the other infants who are destined for torn places. / If my destiny is bleak, may I find in myself / a secret stillness and tranquility beneath the turmoil.
May my eyes never lose sight of why I have come here, / that I never be claimed by the falsity of fear or eat the bread of bitterness. / In everything I do, think, feel, and say, / may I allow the light of the world I am leaving / to shine through and carry me home.
After reciting the blessing over this newborn child I asked about the ashes, wondering how they would respond to this sign of our inescapable mortality only two days into their daughter’s life. “Do you want her to receive the ashes?” I asked. “Yes,” they nodded. “It seems right.” So we prayed together, asking God to use these ashes to remind us of our mortality, not so that we might live our lives terrified of death, but so that we would be encouraged to wring every drop of joy out of the gifts of the lives that God has given us. “Anna,” I said, “our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” I made the sign of the cross on her tiny forehead with dark ashes in the place where soon after she was washed with water and anointed with oil.
Death and life are always this close together, whether we can bear to acknowledge it or not. I hear Ash Wednesday’s dusty reminder very differently this year than I have in years past, as I know many of you do as well. When we are young, or healthy, or very busy, these words may jolt us in a very different way than when we are old, or sick, or moving slowly enough to observe what time does to a tree or a tulip over the course of a year. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
On the day of our wedding, my parents offered Kerry and I a blessing of their own organized around four hard-won truths from their marriage: 1.) Life is full of wonder and miracles, 2.) life is often hard, 3.) relationships are messy and complicated, and 4.) life is short and precious. For our first anniversary I asked Megan Clausen, a recent graduate of this institution who came here from the same congregation in Des Moines, Iowa in which I also grew up, to set their words over one of her beautiful watercolors. The result hangs in our living room to remind us of that blessing every day, so that I cannot read the words “Life is short and precious” without also seeing the brilliant oranges flowing next to the rainy grays and the starry blues she painted.
Whether it’s “remember that you are dust …” or “life is short and precious,” the message is the same. You are alive and that is a gift. Live like you know it. Spend your days and weeks giving birth to the life you long to live. Spend your seasons building the world God calls us to inhabit. Spend your lives like they mean something, because they do. Because you are someone’s beloved child, you are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14), you are chosen, a royal priesthood, a holy community, God’s own people (1 Pet. 2:9).
This great love is the fuel that feeds the fire of Isaiah’s holy anger at the world’s injustice, not guilt or shame, but love set loose in public to name the harms that follow from all our chasing after things that rust and decay. Our world, which so quickly assigns human qualities to commodities while treating people like objects to be bought and sold, is diabolical in its efforts to get us to willingly spend the most basic currency we have — our lives — investing in the very things that tear us apart. Then the moment comes (and it comes more than once) when you realize that the things you’ve been chasing aren’t really life at all, and the moments you have left are precious and few. You come face to face with your regret and wish you had spent your days differently.
In that moment, as in every moment, God is waiting for us. It is not too late. “Then you shall call, and God will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’” (Isa. 58:9) Here I am.
Beloved community, we have arrived once again at this day which comes to us with the same regularity that brings new life to the tree, fresh flowers from the bulb. This is the start of the season that ends with our resurrection. It is not too late, it is never too late, to treasure each day of your life, to invest yourselves in the people and places that matter, to bless the world and our God who made it with the lives you have been given. It is never too late to live like you are really alive, which somehow is easier to do when you remember that you too are dust, and to dust you shall return.