Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1 “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. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Welcome to Ash Wednesday. It is that strange and foreign night where we sit in the dark and talk about death. Where we will be marked with a cross of ashes in the very same place a cross of water was marked just weeks ago. The marking of ashes on our foreheads is not Catholic. It is human. The most human truth we can speak – we are dust. And to dust we shall return. It’s speak of our inevitable death. As the one doing the marking, it can feel like giving a death sentence. Old and young. Every one gets the same stamp on their forehead. The children are the hardest. Which is to be expected, I guess.
Needless to say, it’s kind of a downer of a night. But it also has been called the most honest night of the church year. Because it speaks of the reality of death, which we so often don’t want to speak about.
I’ve been reading a lot about death recently. In particular, I have been reading a lot about funerals. How throughout history humanity has cared for its dead. No reason in particular. I guess there is something about death and dying that has always intrigued me. Not so much in an intellectual, cold-hearted kind of way, but in a deeply visceral, bodily kind of way.
I’ve also been reading a lot about loss and grief. In particular, I’ve been reading memoirs of fathers whose sons have died. One was of a father who lost a son at 4-months to a debilitating birth-defect. Another – a father who lost a 30 year-old son to cancer. I’m clearly living out my greatest fear through literature. Lauren thinks I’m a little crazy.
But there is a common thread throughout all I have read. How undoubtedly important the body is. To those who have loved them. But also to the community in which they lived. Throughout human history, “no human society has ever dealt with their dead as if taking out the trash. Every human society has always recognized this as a sacred task. It is in our human DNA.” Deep in our bones we know that there is something sacred about the human body.
Bodies matter. Our flesh and bones, so vulnerable and broken, young and old – they matter. They connect us. They bind us together. I don’t think it’s a mistake or a coincidence that God chose to send his son in human skin, in a body that could be broken. In a body that could die. This is why I think it is so important that we bless each other. That we lay hands in blessing upon those leaving us or those in need of prayer. It is one thing to hear blessing and prayer; it is something entirely different to feel it with your body. Deep in our bones we know that there is something sacred about the human body.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what happens when you die. I don’t know. Does our Spirit escape and go to heaven? I don’t know. Does it stay with the body until the end of days when we all will experience a resurrection like Jesus’? I don’t know. But deep in me, I have this burning of truth that our bodies are more than simply a shell for our soul. More than a vessel that gets us from here to there. Our bodies are inseparable to who we are as children of God made in the image of God.
When we hear those spoken words, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, they echo part of our funeral rite. At the graveside, just before the casket is dropped into the ground, the pastor utters the words, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.”
Dust to dust. It’s a frightening thing to hear. But it is also quite beautiful. In the story of creation, dust is what God sinks God’s thick fingers into. Dust is what God breaths the spirit of God into. And as a result, creates human kind. You. In God’s very own image.
Us and our bodies – it all may be dust. But there is something sacred about this God-breathed dust.
From time to time, people’s cremated remains are left unclaimed at the funeral home. No one comes to pick them up. Funeral director Thomas Lynch realized that his funeral home had accumulated several dozen boxes of ashes. They sent out letters and made phone calls. Cousins and step-children, widows long since remarried started coming out of the woodwork to claim their loved ones. One person in particular stood out. It was an elderly woman who came to claim the ashes of her younger sister. When she left the funeral home carrying her sister’s ashes to the car, she first went around to the trunk and opened it up. But then she paused. And then closed it up. She went to the back door of the blue sedan, but then closed that up too. She finally walked to the front passenger seat and carefully placed the box there. She paused again for a moment before finally putting the seatbelt around the box, getting into the car, and driving away. There is something inherently valued and respected about the body. About dust. We know it deep in our dusty bones.
A couple of weeks after 9/11, a Port Authority policeman was interviewed on the radio. As he spoke, one could hear the groaning of dump trucks in the background, the hissing and popping of cutting torches turned on steel. Thirty of his friends had died in the attacks, the policeman explained, which was why he could not stay away from the site. When the reporter asked him to describe the scene for those who were listening, he talked about the relief workers who were sifting through the powdered debris on the ground, carrying two handfuls at a time over to a tarp where they searched through it for anything recognizably human. What struck him most, the policeman said, was their utter reverence for what they carried in their hands. “It’s nothing but ashes,” he said, “and yet you should see how they touch it.” There is something inherently valued and respected about the body. About dust. We know it deep in our dusty bones.
Our gospel for tonight, at first, seemed a little out of place. I didn’t know what to do with all of the concern about how we pray, fast, and give money. But then I realized that it asks us to turn our attention to God. To pray and to fast and to give with our focus turned toward God. And that is often what the season of Lent is about. Turning, or returning, our attention to God. And here is the thing, God is always, always, always turning God’s attention toward the world. God so loves this world that God would die for this world. And so in Lent, we turn our attention to God and God turns God’s attention to the world. So when we turn toward God, we turn to the world that God loves so much. Not to impress, but to love as well. To fall in love with the world. To believe and trust that God is hidden within the world. That all of the people here tonight were made in the image of God. And to have faith that in the face of family and friends and strangers, in that face is hidden the image of God. It is there. That is the promise. Now your job is to go and find it. To search and to search until we see the face of God in one another.
The good news of today is not about the weakness and limitedness of our flesh so much as it is about the holiness of ashes. It was God who decided to breathe on them, after all, God who chose to bring them to life. We are certainly dust and to dust we shall return, but our bodies, these dust particles held together by the gluey breathe of God, are how we get around. Our bodies are how lovers embrace and how friends play. Our bodies are how we sense pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is the back of my son’s body that I rub each night to sleep, and it is the hand of one lay dying that I hold to comfort and connect. Our bodies are how we recognize each other. And they are how God gets to us, how God reaches us, at the most intimate and universal level of all people. 
Bodies frighten us too, of course—not only when they are sick or dirty but also when they are passionate or demanding—which may be why we are so often tempted to think of ourselves as essential spirits instead. Our bodies are so much more than simply vessels for the spirit. Our bodies are not like a glass jar that contains water, but are more like flour and water mixed together into a doughy mess, that, when breathed into by the warm breath of God, rises to life.
As believers in the Word made flesh are called to resist the temptation that we are just spirits, even as we have ashes pressed into our foreheads. Those ashes are not curses. And while that may sound like a death sentence – it is. But it is also a blessing. A blessing that announces God’s undying love of dust no matter what kind of shape it is in. AMEN