Wednesday, February 18, 2015

We Are Mortal

Here is my sermon for Ash Wednesday:

They say that 19 year olds males make the best soldiers and the worst drivers for exactly the same reason.  They think they are invincible, that they are immortal, and so they do things that most of us who are older wouldn’t do because we think it’s stupid, although some of us might be willing to admit that we were prone to do exactly the same thing when we were 19.  But we don’t do it now because as we get older two things happened.  The first is that we got smarter and the second is that we became forced more and more to recognize the basic reality of death and realized that doing stupid things can put our life at risk.  And yet, even knowing that we mortal, for most of us death is still not something we necessarily focus on.  Sure there are times, like in middle age when it occurs to us that we are closer to 60 then we are to twenty, and so some people go out and get younger spouses, or they buy a sports car in order to feel younger, unless, like me, your wife won’t let you buy that car.  And I know that some of you are passed even 60, but bear with me.  Death is a present reality, something we know that’s there, but not necessarily something that changes what we do, our behavior, our actions, our thoughts, unless something happens that cause us to come face to face with our death.

Last year Bishop Bledsoe, who is the bishop for New Mexico, faced his own mortality after finding out that most of the arteries in his heart were clogged and his cardiologist said that he was lucky to be alive, and so he reports that he began to look at life different, to see each and every day as a gift, not to take anything for granted and to begin doing some of the things that he had always wanted to do.  In that, Bishop Bledsoe is not alone, because that is the response of many if not most people in a similar circumstance.  But I find that response a little strange, especially for us as Christians, because we should be facing or own mortality at the very least once a year, and that time is today.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent.  A time of repentance and preparation and a time to face our own mortality.  It was the time in the early church when those who had sinned against the community were given the opportunity to seek forgiveness and as penance would cover themselves in sack cloth and ashes and 40 days, and those who were seeking to join the community would receive their final teachings in preparation for both groups to join the church on Easter morning.  Indeed, in the early church it was the only time in which someone could join the church.  As part of that process the entire church would become involved in those activities of helping these members prepare, and would prepare themselves by repenting of their own sins and seeking forgiveness from others, so that they too could celebrate the resurrection.  Much of what we now associate with Lenten practices, with a heavy emphasis on sin and death, come to us from the middle ages, not exactly the high point of the church’s existence, and really negates the fact that Lent does not end at the cross and the tomb, but instead at the women finding the tomb empty.

And yet the idea of death, of suffering, of sacrifice are also part and parcel not only of Lent, but of Christianity itself, and perhaps it is best typified by Jesus’ call to pick up our cross and to follow, and to understand everything that goes along with that.  The cross is not just a piece of jewelry, it was a means of execution, something that brought death, and yet what the Romans and the others didn’t understand is that the cross also brought life, life eternal.  And that begins here tonight with the imposition of ashes when we are reminded of our own mortality.  The ashes come from burning the palm bracnhes from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, which is why we sang Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s ashes, and as they are applied we say “From dust were you made and to dust you shall return.”  “From dust were you made and to dust you shall return.”  We don’t need to have a brush with death to remind us of our mortality because we have that reminder every single year, right here.  “From dust were you made and to dust you shall return.”

Last year, Ash Wednesday came just a few weeks after Wyatt’s death, and there was certainly a darkness that surrounded our family along with the reality of death, and I thought I did pretty well on Ash Wednesday, but then Evelyn Lopez came forward, the same age as Samantha, and I nearly lost it.  But what that moment also reminded me of is that while this moment is supposed to remind us of our mortality, that I think more importantly it is a call to remind us about our lives.  Lent is properly, I think, not a call to death, it’s a call to life.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, but not just any life, but life abundantly.  That is not about eternal life, that is about the life that we lead here and now.  The season of Lent calls us to remember that we are mortal so that we don’t forget and think that we can put things off until tomorrow, to create that bucket list and then put it aside because we have other things going on that distance us and distract us from the things that are truly important.  Lent calls us to step outside of our normal lives, to take on new spiritual practices or to give up something, to deepen our relationship with God, but what those things really do is to allow us simply do something different.  To say we are not going to keep doing the same things day after day.  The things we do in Lent are not to make us pay for our sins because Jesus has already done that, nor should we be thinking that we too need to suffer by doing those things, because that was not what Jesus was meaning when he said to pick up our cross.  Instead, they should be making us focus on our life, our life with God and seeking to have abundant life.

We don’t need a literal brush with death in order to change our lives, to begin living life differently, to begin living the life that we want to live, and we don’t because we have today.  Today is the day we remember or perhaps realize that we are mortal, that we are not promised tomorrow, but we have today.  That God has given us life not to be monotonous and routine, but to have life and have it abundantly.  I pray that this Lenten season we will hear that message and that our practice might be to remember that  from dust were we made and to dust we shall return and to begin to live into that reality by beginning to live every day in the joy and love of God living as if it might be our last day, living a life of abundance, and that we won’t just talk about life abundant but that we will begin to live it for these next 40 days so that we can live it for the rest of our lives.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen

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