Originally preached on February 26, 2020 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.
You can listen to a podcast recording of this sermon here.
And check out relevant lectionary readings here.
This day is a peculiar one in the church calendar. Today is the day where Pastor Erin and I will look at each of you, dear beloved people made in the image of God, and we tell you a hard truth.
All of us are going to die one day.
The bishop I used to work for would set aside this day each year to review his file containing his funeral plans and final wishes. It is the sort of day in the liturgical calendar that we use to ponder our mortality. This is the day that we are reminded that as young and wild and free as we might feel (or not), as far off as death may seem or as near as death may be, that there is no way to stop the inevitability of death. It truly is the great equalizer.
There are a lot of different reactions to that, the fact that we are all going to die one day. There was this Mexican artist during the second Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s named José Posada who was most famous for creating variations on La Catrina, a satirical depiction of a bourgeoise skeleton in a fancy hat which has become iconic. For Posada, depicting aristocrats as skeletons was a reminder: no matter how much stuff you have, no matter how much you try to assimilate to European norms, no matter how many airs you put on, guess what? Just like the rest of us, you are going to die someday. So for some people, days like Ash Wednesday, reminders of our collective mortality, are vindicating, if not liberating.
Sometimes I feel that way. I spend a lot of my life feeling like I have to hold it all together, to be perfect, to have everything under control. Ash Wednesday is a reminder to me that no matter how hard I white knuckle it, I am just a human being. I am frail and weak and deeply flawed. I am not God. I can’t be. I don’t have to be. I am mortal. That release from my own impossible expectations, that moment to remember that that I am made of fragile flesh frees me to let go.
And even more liberating, I don’t have to keep up any kind of act with God. God knows. God sees me, my dirtyness, my dust-ness, and astonishingly still says “yes,” to me. God says, “I can do so much with a little dirt,” and God breathes God’s spirit into it and brings marvelous things to life. And so because of God’s strength, not my own, God asks for my partnership in building a coming kingdom. God reminds me tonight of my inherent belovedness, apart from works, despite my weaknesses, and God gives me that reminder as the ashes are traced over the baptismal cross on my forehead. Ash Wednesday’s reminder of my own mortality brings with it grace in the form of relief.
There are so many ways we react to contemplating mortality. Liberation and the end to unequal systems. A reprieve from perfectionism. “You are going to die,” in its own way can be Good News.
But that’s not true all the time. Some of us don’t have to be reminded of our mortality. For some of us, death is so close, so real, that a reminder is just salt in the wound. For those of us who are grieving, who have survived suicide attempts, who struggle with substance abuse and have ODed and been brought back, for those of us who are targeted and hunted and profiled and killed, for those of us with a target on our backs, death does not feel far away. We are enshrouded with its presence. It stalks us, haunts us. When we hear, “Remember you are dust,” we remember, too, the funerals of the ones who didn’t make it. And days like this might not feel liberating, they may not feel like a relief. In light of the ever-present stench of death, days like this can feel cruel.
I bet Sybrina Fulton doesn’t need that reminder about death. 8 years ago today in Florida her baby boy Trayvon was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman who claimed self-defense even though the teenager was only armed with a hoodie and some snacks. Trayvon became my generation’s Emmett Till, his death ignited a movement of streets filled with hoodies and echoing chants of “Black Lives Matter!” But for Sybrina, Trayvon wasn’t a symbol. He was the child she birthed and rocked and nursed and loved. His death was more than an indictment of the state of race relations in our country. 8 years ago today was the worst day of Sybrina’s life, a day that brought the reality of death and the truth about the fragility of life and imprinted it permanently on top of her wounded, broken heart.
Black women, who bear the weight of generational trauma, who have long had their children taken away from them – by slave masters, by violence, by the state – have long known the reality of death.
A day like today is complicated. Life is complicated. Death is too. It is relief. It is pain. It is liberation. It is defeat. It is release. It is trauma. It isn’t resolved, all neat and tidy. It just is.
Ash Wednesday is all of these things, all of these feelings. And wherever you are today, however a day like this makes you feel, God is with you. If you feel like a failure, lower than dirt, there is absolution for you. If you need to be freed, there is liberation. If you yearn for a reminder of your baptism, it is here. If you need to be around other people feeling the sting of death, to know you are not alone, that too is Ash Wednesday. Let this table, this eucharist, be the meal train, the mourning food that God brings to you to comfort you in your grief.
Whatever your story is around these ashes, whatever you’re feeling about life and death, your story is true and it matters. To us, and to God.