Sunday, March 1, 2020

Sermon: Ash / Stardust Wednesday

Sermon for February 26, 2020
Ash Wednesday
Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, MI
The Rev. Vicki Hesse

For readings, click here
“Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire
with love for You.  Amen.”

Listen here

Today is Ash Wednesday, when we
smear ashes on our foreheads,
officially marking the beginning of Lent.

The first time I had ashes placed on me,
I was struck by the grittiness of the ashes against my forehead
and the tickling dust on my nose. 
That surprise was followed by the horror that
I looked like someone who forgot to wash her face.  

And, the Gospel exhortation to
“beware of practicing your piety before others”
impressed on me to go clean up as soon as possible!

And, for me, *that* day marked a turning point.
That day, in this strange ceremony –
punctuated by scripture and steeped in tradition –
That was the day when, embarrassed by a dirty face,
the fact of my mortality knocked some sense into me.
That day I reluctantly became willing to become willing
 to accept my humanity.
That day I began to realize how we are all
utterly dependent on God for our very being. 

To accept mortality is to accept our humanity.
Today, we meet a God
who confronts our fragile humanity
with radical compassion.

Of course, there is an app for that. 
More than 10,000 people have downloaded the
WeCroak app.
“Find happiness by contemplating your mortality,”
says the ‘about’ clause.
Each day, the app sends five invitations, at random times,
to stop and think about death. 
This approach derives from a Bhutanese folk saying,
“to be happy one must contemplate death five times a day.”

But maybe just once a year, on Ash Wednesday, is enough to remember our fragile humanity, (gesture)
tenderly placed in God’s deep compassion.

Today, we offer to God who we really are:
human and vulnerable.
Because that’s what Jesus did.
Today, we meet a God hates nothing God has made.
Because that’s what Jesus showed us.

And – spoiler alert! wearing ashes might be
one of the most powerful accessories
we may ever wear. 
Because strange things happen
when we *publicly acknowledge our mortality. 

We might find ourselves free to have conversations
that might not otherwise take place.

By naming our mortality,
our blessedness and our falleness
in community,
we are be drawn together into the grace of God. 

By naming our mortality, with ashes,
God opens a way that
permits the proclaiming
God’s deep, faithful and everlasting love.

Last summer, at a rare gathering
of all my sisters and lifelong friends,
we reluctantly accepted our mortality.
Over a 3-hour meal,
we bravely answered several prompts
suggested by a book we all read before the visit,
“Talking About Death Over Dinner.” 

This experience, my wished-for birthday gift,
proved the grace of a difficult conversation held
with my closest circle of intimates
now that most of us are over 60. 
·        Maybe that’s the consequence of being a church geek?
·        Maybe we just all realized how only in that circle
could we muster the courage required.
·        Maybe we all longed for that deeply personal
and intimate conversation that is possible
only when we recognize the shortness of life
and we bumble our way through.
We named our mortality, that night,
As a gift to ourselves, so that conversation
can be less difficult when one of us dies.

Which we will.


Today’s psalmist echoes our place
as creatures, not the Creator
for God “knows whereof we are made”
and “remembers that we are but dust.”  
To accept mortality is to accept our humanity.
Today, we meet a God
who confronts our fragile humanity
with radical compassion.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,
Paul “wore” (airquotes) his “ashes”-- 
That list of “afflictions, hardships, calamities,
beatings, imprisonments, riots,
labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.”
In this letter,
Paul acknowledged his mortality, his humanity

…and in so doing,
he entered into a conversation
with his beloved friends from Corinth
that might not otherwise have taken place. 

Paul “wore” his embarrassing ashes
to teach the Corinthians
that faith was not a protection from
hard times or from challenges.   
See, the Corinthians had been called “imposters”
by society, and in response,
they began to argue amongst themselves.
That stress on the community led to more difficulties:
hardship, sleepless nights, calamities.
The people of Corinth, too, found that
faithful Christian living was not a protection from hard times.

So Paul encouraged them to turn their energy
away from each other and reorient their hearts toward God.

Don’t you ever find that
faithful Christian living is a daunting affair?
The Corinthians’ experience of difficulties, tension and anger
is not unlike what we face today:
an increase fear of people who are not like us and
a demonization of those who are different. 
All this negativity increases our grief –
that things are not the way they used to be.

Do you know someone afflicted
by the disease (dis-ease) of alcoholism?
Their families are hoping someone will see their ashes
and answer their cries for help.
To name powerlessness over alcohol
is to acknowledge mortality.

Do you know someone imprisoned
by shame, consumerism, or greed?
They are yearning to be free from society’s message
of image, things and more-is-better.
To name this imprisonment is to acknowledge mortality. 

Do you know someone
drenched in the ashes of exhaustion
as they work for justice,
witness to the needs of immigrants,
or feed people who are hungry or homeless?
To name this longing for sustained rest
is to acknowledge our mortality.

I wonder, what is your humanity right now?
What is the way that you “wear” your “ashes”?
How can you name your mortality
in order to be set free?

Christian living can be daunting.  
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in the Message translation, really brings it home,
naming the striking, human paradoxes.
Listen to the last line of today’s reading:

“We are …
true to our word, though distrusted,
ignored by the world, but recognized by God;
terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; …
immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy;
living on handouts, yet enriching many,
having nothing, having it all…” 

These are the mortal paradoxes we acknowledge today,
As we face with courage that tragic gap
between our appearance and our actuality. 

As Paul reminded the Corinthians, and us,
we are called to faithfulness, not to earthly success. 
Like the Corinthians, we, too, can reorient our hearts.
See, the Good News Ashes, today,
are not the end of our story.

These ashes mark the beginning of Lent. 
The beginning of preparation,
of reorienting our hearts,
of remembering our humanity and God’s Divinity. 

In confession, we state to God our reorientation:
that we no longer want to be that person;
we want to become a different kind of person.

This powerful confession affirms of our *becoming
and empowers us to proclaim God’s everlasting love.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist & author
was once asked in an interview,
“what is the most astounding fact you can share with us
about the universe?” (which he knew a lot about!).[1]   
He answered by teaching how
the same atoms that make us human
arise from the cosmic atoms of the stars –
Those stars that were formed from
crucibles of extreme temperatures and pressures
that collapsed and exploded all over the universe.
Then Tyson offered his most astounding fact. He said,
“when I look up at the night sky,
and I know that yes, we are part of this universe,
…perhaps [the most astounding fact is that ] …
the universe is in us.”
 “The universe is in us,” he says.
He concluded…
“We are stardust brought to life,
then empowered by the universe
to figure itself out—
and we have only just begun.”[2]

Today, we wear our ashes,
naming our sins before God and before each other.
Today, we name our mortality
on our foreheads and trust the promise of eternal life. 
Today, we proclaim God’s gracious re-membering of us. 

Because God’s universe, is in us.

In this world where we are stardust,
to stardust we shall return;

Can we place our trust in Jesus,
the One who brought
to our dusty world
the Cosmic salvation of God? Amen

[1] This quote arises from what is known as the “Most Beautiful Video.” “The Most Astounding Fact” is a video adaptation of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s famous answer to the question “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” read by Tyson himself. Found here:

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