Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
Ashes are such a powerful symbol. They can represent destruction, loss, and grief. They can also represent great possibility, like volcanic ash that makes soil bountifully fertile. Ashes can be the result of a good time, like the smoldering embers of a bonfire. They can also represent the simplicity of existence, the very essence of createdness, the silt of the universe. It can also be a symbol of decline, or fading, or something that has simply been around long enough for dust to accumulate near it. In a culture that’s always trying to sell or celebrate agelessness, it can be very counter cultural to acknowledge that nothing lasts forever, especially by putting it on one’s forehead.
But why would we do this very public counter cultural act when we also hear Jesus exhorting us to “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Are we jumbling the message by saying not to practice piety for show but then smudging ourselves for others to readily see? The heart of what Jesus is saying here, which is an echo of what we hear from the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, is that it’s not about practicing so as to be seen, it’s about practicing so as to participate fully in God’s recreation of the world.
It’s fair to stop there and ask what it even means for God to recreate the world. Everything’s been created already, why does it need recreation? Wouldn’t that also destroy the world as we know it? Why do we have to go through a whole process like that, can’t God just make things better?
This is where I’ve got some good and bad news. Yes, God can and does choose to actively make a more harmonious world. Jesus’ incarnation is proof of that alone, no to mention all the things Jesus is still trying to teach us. The even better news is that Jesus has conquered death. The bad news is that because Jesus teaches us to live and act more harmoniously, we are then responsible as cocreators in this recreation effort.
Just as God formed each of us from the dust of the universe through the fusion of stars and nebulae like a cosmic ceramics master, Jesus shapes us to be the hands and feet of the holy, in turn asking us to help mold a world that is more just, equitable, and compassionate. And, Jesus knows that we cannot help but mess it up more often than we choose to admit. But isn’t that the beauty of getting permission to cocreate with God? We get to be messy, we get to have fun in the sandbox of life, even as we attempt to be vessels for God’s love and mercy, dust and all.
We of course repent today, and throughout Lent, of our misdeeds, known and unknown, of omission and ignorance just as much as those we darn well intended to do. Ultimately, to play in the sandbox with God we have to acknowledge the sand box and what we’ve done in our corner of it. Sometimes we build sandcastles and help others have joy. Other times, we make and leave unpleasant messes, unwanted surprises for those who enjoy the space after us. Whatever we’ve done in our part of the sandbox isn’t wholly good or bad, we are more complicated than any binary we conceive. It is once we reflect on our use of the sandbox, our role in it, that we can begin to repair the things we are able to, with God’s help. We can play with the dirt like God would do, with gentleness and joy.
You see, the ashes need not only be a reminder of our perishing reality, finite beings though we are. They can be a reminder of the invitation to help shape this life, even if only for the little while we are in the sandbox. For Jesus and Isaiah, this humbling of ourselves in view of our finitude and beloved-ness in relation to God is the point. We don’t live God’s love to be seen doing it, we live God’s love so others can feel it. To put it another way, we don’t play in God’s sandbox for others to follow or admire us, we play in God’s sandbox so others can enjoy it too, through sharing and coordinating playfully.
When I contemplate a symbol of God’s playfulness and care as it relates to our repentance in the Lenten mold, I often think about the lotus flower. They are flowers that grow in the grimiest, muckiest places, too filthy for most of us to venture anywhere near. And yet, out of these seemingly fetid pools of dust we get a nearly universal symbol for the transformative power of life. Out of the filth and dust of our lives God can bring forth the most wonderful displays of beauty. The dust, it turns out, is the very recreative substance by which God molds us and the residue of our lives into more and more life giving and affirming opportunities.
Inevitably, we will mess up, and will need to repent of those things which we ought to seek forgiveness. But repentance is the beginning, not the end. Out of the soot and soiled stains we sometimes leave, God creates powerful reminders of tenderness and care that serve to remind us that like the rainbow after the Flood, vibrancy and creativity also come from the ashes of what we left behind. Lotus blossoms can only appear where the grime gathers. It takes sandbox for life to sift us.
I hope this Lent is the sandbox it needs to be for us. I hope we’re not afraid to get a little grimy, to be creative and playful with God in the potent ashes of our lives. I hope we’re willing to risk, to fail, and to learn. I hope we repent not merely to make ourselves feel better, but to show others that they too can come to the sandbox, with all their soiled, beloved selves, and help cocreate whole new adventures and ways of being with God. May we playfully enter this sandbox of Lent with ears perked, open eyes, embracing hearts, and ready hands, unafraid of the soot that emblazes our foreheads. Play in the dirt, you never know what God will bring up from it. Amen.