Ash Wednesday March 6, 2019
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Ash Wednesday–Origin Stories
Anne Lamott in her book Small Victories writes: “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full. You can change the world with a hot bath if you sink into it from a place of knowing that you are worth profound care, even when you’re dirty and rattled.”
When I read this I thought… ahhh, this is Ash Wednesday, not because that is what the author may have intended but because it is a simple way of describing the tangible longing for love and that from where we begin–born, created and whole–we can return–no matter how dirty we get along the way.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. These words, full of power and promise, repeated each year are reminders of our beginnings, our origins, and our ends, our death to come. They also are reminders of our life, our struggles, our victories, our pains our joys. The story we encounter from Genesis today, the wrestling of Jacob with whom–God, an angel, his inner self?–that question can remain because the story is about the wrestling itself and what it brings to him, and to us, from the experience. It’s about the encounters we have in our life that roll us around in the dirt… and even as we may come out limping on the other side, we come out reminded we are created, we are grounded, we are blessed and loved by a God who doesn’t stand apart, but engages with us in the wrestling of our spirits.
This Genesis story, like the other origin stories of the bible is there to connect to us a deeper truth beyond what we can always know or image. The book of Genesis was not written with the intention of being used as a scientific document to prove anything about origins to us in the 2019, but it was written as a way to engage the questions that ancient people had about God, what God’s relationship to us was like, and what God’s relationship to creation was from the beginning to the present to the end. Yes, we struggle and wrestle with ourselves, our questions, our experiences of life, and our God. The promise from our birth to the middle of our lives to our death is that God’s love and blessing remain, marking us and claiming us again and again.
Rachel Held Evans says it well in the book we are studying this Lent, Inspired: “God stoops. From walking with Adam and Eve…to traveling with liberated Hebrew slaves… to slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping and dying among us as a part of humanity, the God of scripture stoops, and stoops and stoops… Ours is a God perpetually on bended knee doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.”
God stoops close to us through stories of the ancient people that involve brith, life and death and through birth, life and death stories of today. We have a columbarium here, many people are not totally aware of that. It’s outside, behind this wall. It was conceived and created by a group of women in our congregation who desired a place for ashes to be placed, for loved ones to have a place to go, and for an outside space where anyone can sit and be reminded of God being close through the life and the ashes of a loved one. Or sometimes perhaps just to sit and be connected to a community who tells stories of life with a God who gets close.
We have countless stories of the people and experiences of life and death in the columbarium and they are beautiful. There is one story that I would I like to share just a piece of with you today. Elisa Sherman, is a member who leads the team that cares for the columbarium. She is also an author and has written a full, beautiful story about a young man who came to us by way of the columbarium. His name was Dakota and he used to come and sit in that space, He was a drug addict trying not to be, he was searching and lost often, and would come to this space to simply be. He also joined us in worship on occasion over a few years had a relationship with a few people here. Elisa met him after he died. She was caring for the ashes and the family who knew of this place he would go and wanted him to be placed where he had returned again and again to seek peace and the presence of God and community. Here is an excerpt from Elisa’s story–
When Dakota’s family left us his ashes, they left them in a little vial, gently placed on the stone next to the common crypt. I had removed the stone the day before, exposing a small white cap embedded in the ground, the opening of the common crypt, a large vessel already holding the cremains of 4 individuals. Once Pastor Michael had the cap off, I was relieved to see that it was okay down there, as if I wasn’t sure what we would find. And now we added Dakota. By then his family was gone. They were gone when we cranked on and off the cap to the crypt, gone when we replaced the stone, gone when Pastor Michael’s finger got caught underneath the stone and he had to shake it off. Gone.
“I guess the family could have done that part too,” I said, since I was the one who insisted that we inter the ashes after the service for the family, reasoning that it’s a bit messy and we can’t control all the variables like what we’ll find when we open it, and if someone’s finger will be smashed.
But afterwards it seemed like something they should have been there for.
Most people do not want to see their family member reduced to a fine, gray ash. Even though on Ash Wednesday at our Lutheran Church, we line up to be reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” Those ashes, black, sooty, mixed with oil, are nothing like the powdery gray that we become, but the black cross we wear on our foreheads is more than a symbol of our mortality. It’s a symbol of our intention to live out the gospel; of who we will strive to be while we can still be seen and heard. We do a poor job of loving one another. And so that is the real reminder. Not that we will be dust when we die, but how we’re supposed to be while we live.
What a profound and beautiful truth that is for us today. Ashes, oil, dust, from beginning to end are a reminder of being moved from cold to warm, lonely to held, empty to full– A promise of life. These ashes you are marked with today are the ashes of the palm branches from years past. They were branches that waved in life and hope and as they waved they began to wither and dry and eventually have become the mark of promise and life on your forehead today. It’s a cycle that involves life and death wrapped up together and entangled in the dirt as one.
This is our ash Wednesday reminder–that how we live and no matter what the mess is along the way, that where we came from, created in love out of the dust we are returned, each and every day, as dust to the promise of eternal love