Holy God, You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we
return. For so did you ordain when you created us, saying,
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song of hope and praise.
It is striking to me that as we hear the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” the smear of ash across our foreheads does not stop with a horizontal smudge — but continues with a second vertical line to form a cross. Perhaps that reflects the two truths the Church trusts that you hear tonight — that your life will end, and God’s love for you is endless.
Oh, we know that first truth well enough. Well enough to do everything we can, consciously or unconsciously, to avoid facing up to it. The life of my friend Cassandra ended too soon by a car accident while we were in high school, and I remember realizing for the first time that there’s no reason that couldn’t have been me instead. It was a terrifying thought for a teenager convinced of his invincibility! The clarity of the realization faded in the weeks that followed; the truth that “we are all terminal cases” is difficult to bear in the conscious mind.
Even more bracing was my first experience taking our then three-month old daughter Robin to the Ash Wednesday service at our seminary. When the priest told her that she too was dust and that she too would return to the earth, I got angry. If my perfect baby daughter wasn’t going to live forever — well. Maybe something was deeply wrong about this entire project, experiment, whatever you want to call it — life — that God placed us into.
Sitting in the NICU at UCSD Medical Center with our second child, Jem — seeing the tiny, tiny babies around us living only with the help of machines, fighting to stay alive — I found a new gratitude so close to the edge separating life from death.
But are we ever that far from the edge ourselves? How precarious is the ledge we’re standing on? And we don’t live in Raqqah. Or Mosul. Or South Sudan. Remember that you are dust. Your life will end.
And yet. Even at the grave, even at the edge of our existence, we make our song of hope and praise. Because God’s love for you is endless. You! I know, it doesn’t make any sense. We don’t deserve this love. We turn away from God time after time after time, forgetting who made us with tender thoughtfulness and affection. We disregard, often willfully, God’s wise guidelines for right living, and reap the consequences of these poor decisions. Even worse, we fall into bad habits and addictions that strip us of our free will. We become slaves to our desires, our insecurities, our fears. Have mercy on us, oh Lord! And God does. I don’t know why, but God does.
As most of you know Laurel and I are working at St. Luke’s in North Park now — missing y’all though! (I’m still pastoring the Cathedral’s 1 pm Spanish-speaking congregation, too.) Last night St. Luke’s held a Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner — which not one of our Sudanese congregants attended, incidentally — I guess we missed the cultural memo on that one — but was attended by some of our early morning service parishioners. Beautifully, at least a dozen of the participants of our Tuesday night AA group came early and enjoyed a meal with us. The scene was unlikely and strange and perfect in a way that only the Holy Spirit could orchestrate. With only a few minutes before the start of their meeting, I invited a tall, 50s something man looking for the group to grab a plate and dig in. With some Zydeco music playing on my phone in the background, he said hello to our pancake flipper, asked about the syrup, grabbed a couple sausages, and found a napkin and fork. He turned to go, then hesitated, suddenly looked me in the eye as if answering a question I’d just asked, and spoke in the voice you’d use if you were asking the love of your life to marry you, “I’m 412 days sober. This is new life.” And he walked out of the room, taking my breath with him. I didn’t even know his name. But I know his God.
412 days of new life. God has mercy on us, and God loves us every single day of our new lives and our old lives. Your life will end. God’s love for you is endless.
Ash Wednesday marks day one of a “searching and fearless moral inventory” that you are invited to pursue through the forty days of Lent. During this time of courageous introspection we will be following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. He is walking toward his cross, and the crowds that followed him in Galilee are thinning. Fewer and fewer are ready to make that trek, especially when they find out Jesus’ final destination. But what about you? Are you ready to follow?
You don’t need to know for sure. Because you don’t have to do this alone. We’ll be walking together — so take the next step and join the Wednesday night inquirers class, or the community-wide book study, or make a habit of attending church each week and staying afterward to meet someone new.
You are infinitely treasured by the Creator of heaven and earth, and you were made for relationship with Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Though your life will end, God’s love for you is endless. Make these days count for good.
The Rev Colin Mathewson