March 2, 2022, Ash Wednesday, Check the Expiration Date, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
When I reached a certain point in my 50’s, way back when, I found myself doing a new and strange thing. We were subscribing to the Watertown Times back then, and every day, besides the NY Times crossword, the one thing I would always read was the obituary page. It wasn’t anything I thought about or decided to do, I just realized one day that it had become a habit for me. Every morning I scrolled down through the names of those who had died. I checked to see if there was anyone I knew, of course, but I also checked for their ages. I noticed when there were people who had been younger than me, sometimes much younger than me, whose lives had came to an end. I wasn’t obsessing about death, I don’t think – I had just reached a point in my life when I began to notice it, when my mortality became much more of a present reality to me.
Fast forward to the Coronavirus pandemic. I imagine it is the rare person among us today who has NOT become much more aware of their mortality in the past couple of years. With a click of my mouse I can see the Covid-19 death toll every morning when I open my laptop. We see a lot of pictures of cities in Ukraine, smoking and in ruins from the assaults of the Russian military. Very recently we have even had the rare and terrible experience of a murder in our quiet little North Country – the senseless death of a young woman who was barely getting started with her life. And for many of us, death has come much, much closer to us than the news reports. For me, personally, in the last three years I’ve lost both a sister and a daughter. As a church family, we only need to look around us to see so many empty spaces where the people we loved used to sit: Joan, and Alice, and Joe, and Ruth, and Dot.
So, today we come for our annual, official reminder that we are mortal creatures. We come to receive the mark of the ashes on our foreheads. We come to hear the words, “Remember – remember – remember that you are dust. And to dust you will return.” And what good does that do us? Why do we do it? Why should we subject ourselves to meditating on such a depressing, demoralizing subject? There are a lot of reasons why, but the first one of all is that we remind ourselves that we are creatures of dust because it is true. It is the truth that our human lives have an expiration date. It is the truth that unless Jesus returns first – which is always a possibility, and will absolutely happen at some unknown moment – but aside from that, you, and everyone you know is going to die. It is the truth that each of us only has a certain number of years and days and minutes to live on this earth, and that the end might be ten years from now or ten minutes from now. That is the truth, and it’s always essential to keep a firm hold on the truth.
And secondly, because our finite-ness is an unarguable reality, we need to live our lives in the light of that reality. If it is true that your life might end next year, or tomorrow, or tonight – and it is true – then what you do today, right now, is of the utmost importance. In fact, it’s the only important thing. David says, in Psalm 95, “He is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…”
Understand, God is not calling you to get your whole life straightened out and in order right this very minute, but whatever it is you hear God calling you to do now, now is the time to do it. If you hear God’s voice speaking in your heart to reach out to someone with a word of encouragement or to offer forgiveness…if you are feeling God’s urging you to give away something you’ve been holding onto, or to write or draw or make something that you’ve been putting off for some imaginary time in the future when you have nothing else to do…today is the day to hear God’s voice. Today is the day to do what the Spirit is encouraging you to do. Most of us are professional procrastinators. We like to be very funny and say, “Why put off till tomorrow what you can put off till the day after tomorrow?” But the truth is, we only have today. Today is the day to listen. Today is the day for soft hearts. Today is the day to do what really matters.
And the third and last thing that is both important and true is this – when we do die, we won’t find ourselves outside of the compass of God’s love. God formed us from the dust in the hollow of his own hand. And when we die, we die in his loving hands. “Precious in the sight of the Lord,” says Psalm 116, “is the death of his servants.” He called you by name before you ever began to develop in the body of your mother. And he will know and continue to love you even when you have passed out of this world. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?,” David asked. “Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, the place of the dead, you are there!”
When we smudge our foreheads with ash as a reminder of our mortality, we smudge them in the shape of a cross. We do that for a reason. We do that because on the cross Jesus robbed death of all the power it had to separate us from God – the power of condemnation, or of fear, or of despair, or of meaninglessness. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is ours in Jesus Christ. Not even death. And this also is truth. The very best truth.
So, we come tonight and we smudge our foreheads with the sure and certain sign that these bodies we inhabit are going to come to an end, sooner or later. But we wear our ashes in hope, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are Christ’s own forever, and that nothing, not even death, will separate us from him. +
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