Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

Pouring out Love -Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year C

John 12:1-8

Anointing His Feet

12 1-3 Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.

4-6 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” He said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.

7-8 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s after shave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of our Gospel – the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments. Also, as a side note of trivia: It is also apparently a very attractive scent to cats.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil, this pure nard, and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely – of what she had and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads – give these two a little time alone – so intimate is this scene.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me – in fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed  – but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is.  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort – just savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

These are things at which we can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And Mary – the people around her might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible -and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts– this was a time to pour it all out – because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is – we have a need to do it.  It’s a great and true mystery – that generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it – it only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  As we recalled a couple times last week, that word “prodigal” actually means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father – who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home – loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity – the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly – that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours – it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet – yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

 

Lenten Discipline

During the church season of Lent, it isn’t uncommon to hear church-y folks talk about a “Lenten discipline”.  Well, at least I know some pastors talk about it and in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the congregation will often pledge to commit to the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of love as a sort of spiritual training period.

I love Lent and that during this 40 day period we are to take on special practices to help bring our thoughts back to God more frequently. I’ve preached about this in different ways over the years and it often reflects what I’ve been reading or thinking about. One year I encouraged my folks to add something to their routine instead of fasting – for example, add some devotion time or add more Bible study time to their week. Too many years I have engaged in fasting from different foods but it always seemed to turn into just another diet plan, disguised as being spiritually motivated, but ending  as most regular diets do – feeling mad at myself when I eventually got too hungry to continue. To tell you the truth, for the most part, over my years, I have not done very well at mastering any sort of Lenten discipline except to show up and preach and lead worship an extra time each week at the Wednesday night services – which I guess is something, but it’s also a part of my job, and I’ve always wished for more.

I have grand visions of a day, when my kids are grown, when I’ll take the forty days of Lent to engage in a retreat of pure silence or spend the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning on a long hike on El Camino de Santiago.

For now, however, I’ll stick to small things. I won’t write about what I have chosen to do this year because I just preached about how in Matthew 6, we are told that it is better to be quiet about our giving and our fasting and our works of love. It’s best to keep our Lenten discipline between us and God, let this season quietly and subtly transform us.

Whether or not we participate in a Lenten discipline, God loves us. However, we need reminders sometimes of how much we have and that we can’t be a slave to the many comforts that most of us have. This is the great value in fasting from a particular food or from any enjoyable activity: each time we reach for that sweet or that remote and remind ourselves that isn’t a part of our lives for the next forty days, the spoiled brat inside says, “why not?” Then, each time we get to answer, “because I was made for more than my belly and my own comforts. I was made to be a child of God. Now, what does that mean?”  What a great thing to be thinking about over and over again. Fixing our minds on these kinds of thoughts help us arrive at Easter morning a little more aware of who we have been, who we are, and how we want to be.

If you haven’t yet decided on a Lenten discipline, it isn’t too late. Here are some ideas:

  1. Prayer: set aside some special time each day for prayer. You could send a note each day to a different person and let them know you are praying for them. Don’t forget to pray for your pastor and the Sunday School teachers and church office staff!
  2. Repentence: Each Sunday in the Lutheran church services we say the confession together. Don’t forget to include confession to God in your own personal prayers. Remember that repentance means to turn away from our sins. Spend time contemplating how you can turn away from temptations and pray for God’s strength to live in Christ’s light.
  3. Works of love: Anything we do for others in Christ’s name is a work of love. Is there someone in your community who could use a little extra help? Does someone need a note of encouragement? Could you bring in lunch for the office or buy coffee for the person behind you in line? Committing to doing one work of love each day in Lent could change your life in beautiful ways.
  4. Fasting: fasting is quite simply, to deny ourselves something for a time and then each time we think of that thing, to turn our thoughts to God.  Many people in the Bible, including Jesus, fasted. This self-denial helps us to grow spiritually.  I like how Jen Hatmaker put it, “A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.”

 

 

Ash Wednesday

There were a few chores I really enjoyed while growing up.  Feeding the chickens and ducks was always fun, and hanging up the laundry on the clothesline was also something I never minded doing – but the one chore that my brother and I actually fought over getting to do was to carry the trash up to the big old burn barrel at the top of the hill, dump it in, and light the stuff on fire. I liked burning stuff. I liked creating that little spot of warmth on a dead cold winter day.  I liked watching the sparks rising into the evening sky.  I liked the smell of the smoke that would hang on my old wool coat for days afterward.  And as I got older I remember the ritual of tossing things into that old burn barrel as a rite of passage of sorts…a bad exam or two that I felt my parents didn’t need to see, some of the tattered magazines that we cleaned out of grandma’s house when she died, old clothes and dolls, and as the years of high school and college unfolded, even some old love letters met their fate on top of that hill.  There was something ceremonial about throwing things in that burn barrel and tossing a match on top.  Sometimes they had to be coaxed into catching fire – but then they would burn brightly until finally all that was left was just glowing cinder and ash. Of course the leftover ash wasn’t nearly as fun as the blazing fire.  A chore we didn’t like was emptying out that burn barrel when it was full of ashes…we had to shovel it into a big wheelbarrow and wheel it to a specific spot that my dad had designated as the place where the ashes and other remains of the burn barrel went.  It is in that spot where still today you can see the unburnable bits of the our history – the metal zipper from my favorite 2nd grade jacket,  the nails that held together an old picture frame, parts of my brother’s toy fire engine. No, the place where the ashes went wasn’t the fun place.  It wasn’t warm and light-giving like the fire on top of the hill.  The ashes were cold and grimy.  The ash place was full of forgotten, dead, and unwanted things. Of course I have been thinking a lot about ashes as this Ash Wednesday approached.  “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” are the words we each hear spoken to us when we have ashes placed on our foreheads.  This is a day that we choose to think about the dead and unwanted things in our own lives – the things we need to repent. The broken parts of our lives that require God’s grace and mercy.

This is a reflective day in our church year – the scripture uses words that promote that idea of quiet – in fact, the word secret is used 6 times just in the nine verses of our Gospel reading.  Jesus uses it to express how our giving and praying and fasting should be done – and also to express God’s presence even in the parts of our lives that we think are most secret. Do you have any secrets?  Oh, I think most of us have a few.  There are many kinds of secrets.   

Some secrets people keep are wonderful secrets – I think of couples I have known who didn’t want to share what they were going to name their baby that was on the way because they just wanted to treasure that information for themselves and not be getting everyone’s opinion on the name beforehand. Secrets can be sweet – an engagement ring being hidden away until just the right time, a surprise birthday party. Those kinds of secrets are fun. 

Another kind of secret is the one we keep just because we don’t know how others will react if they find out the truth.  Until we know if others are Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative, mean or nice, we often keep our true feelings about certain things to ourselves.

At the first church I served in New York, I had been there a few years when one of the older gentlemen in the church invited me over for coffee.  I had spent a lot of time with him over the years I had been there – sitting in the hospital room with him and his wife, Evie, as she was dying; and later as he was helping out with different projects at church.  I felt I knew him pretty well.  But this particular day as we had coffee he was telling me stories – amazing, stories – and not all of the stories were about good church-going sorts of behavior. They were the sorts of stories you tell a friend…not necessarily your minister. And at the end of the afternoon before I left I said to him, “Pete, thank you for telling me stories about your past.  I’ve known you three years and you never mentioned any of this before. I had no idea what a colorful life you have led.”  And he smiled and said simply, “Well, now enough time has gone by that I know I can trust you with my secrets.” It’s true, isn’t it – we don’t share our secrets with people unless we know they will treasure those secrets, keep them safe like we do.  It is a privilege when you are entrusted with someone’s secrets.   

In his book Telling Secrets Frederick Buechner writes about a difficult secret in his own life and the relief he found when he finally began to share a story he had kept secret for a very long time.  He says, “One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room, and then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him.” Buechner continues, “Except for a memorial service for his Princeton class the next spring, by which time we had moved away to another part of the world altogether, there was no funeral. He was cremated, his ashes buried in a cemetery in Brooklyn, and I have no idea who if anybody was present. I know only that my mother, brother, and I were not. As far as I can remember, once he had died we rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or anybody else. We didn’t trust the world with our secret, we hardly even trusted each other with it”  

In the years that have passed, Buechner has since written many times about his father’s death. He says that for him, carrying the burden of that secret was too much. He needed to share it – and that he found that each time he shared it – it somehow gave permission to others to share their secrets as well. And the surprising thing was that once those terrible things that people kept inside were spoken out loud, admitted, looked at directly, they weren’t so frightening anymore. When they were brought out into the light of day those secrets lost their power.  

Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent – we spend time in confession. We dare to take a look at our secrets – those things we have done or have left undone and by offering these things up to God along with our heartfelt repentance, they lose their power over us. The darkest sins, the blackest stains on our hearts – they will never be as strong as the light and love of Christ. 

God knows who you are. God knows what you need. Don’t bother to bring anything with you to receive the ashes on your head tonight except your real self and your repentant heart.    

Tonight the ashes that will be put on our foreheads will remind us that we have fallen short, that we have failed in much, that all dies – even us.  But thank God, there is one who can take ash and dust and make something new.  That is what our journey over the next forty days is all about.

 

 

Ashes

It’s been over four years now since the first time that I went back to our home place over by Henning after the new owners had bought it and taken down all the old buildings that were the setting for most every memory from my childhood.  I knew it would be strange and hard to go and see the place but like a magnet it draws me -If I am anywhere near those green hills and oak trees of Folden township in Minnesota then I find myself winding down the country roads toward home.

It was late afternoon as I turned the corner off highway 65 onto Lost School Road.  That was the fancy name they gave our road sometime while I was growing up.  Before that it had no name, it was just the road that the Hetlands live on or the road past the Hendricks place.  There was an old school building just past our property.  It had been decades since it was used and then a couple from California bought it and renovated it into a beautiful home.  Anyway, that’s where our old road finally got its’ name.

As I turned the corner, I caught my breath.  Every time I had turned that corner my whole life the first thing I would see was the white building at the top of the hill, about a quarter mile in the distance.  It was where we parked our cars.  The house was next to it, cloaked in trees.  There was a light post next to it that mom would always make sure to leave on if we were coming home at night.

Now there was nothing there.  My car crept closer down the road and finally to the driveway, up the hill and came to a stop right in front of where the house would have been.

It was the oddest feeling.  Haunting and solemn and sad and empty.  The sidewalk where my brother and I had played marbles, gone.  The garage with the basketball hoop where I had played for hours, gone.  The clothes line where we hung our clothes, the chicken coop where I raised the hens, the house where we had been a family, gone, gone, gone.  I was struck by how small the clearing really was now – that space where all my memories had been – it had always seemed so much bigger.  How could it possibly be erased clean now of the life we had lived there?  I found myself thinking strange things, grasping at remote hopes – wondering if the trees would remember us at least, if it could even be remotely possible that if people lived and loved and shared life together in a place –if some essence of you did indeed live on there even after all physical evidence showed otherwise. 

I noticed that on the apple trees which had been behind our house – on one side of several of the trees, the leaves were shriveled and brown.  As I walked closer I realized it had been from intense heat – and I knew what had happened.  That’s how they took down the house.  They burned it, let the ashes of the place descend into the basement below and then they covered them up.  Voila. 

It had to be done, of course.  The house was falling apart.  The wiring was bad, there were bats and mice, all sorts of disrepair.  It had been a very old house.  It needed to be torn down.  My brother and I had known that, had talked about it many times when that property was still in our names.  But we both knew that we couldn’t be the ones to do it.  Those walls had not held a perfect family – there had probably been as much tears as laughter.  But it had been our family.  And then before we knew it time went on and we buried our father and then we buried our mother and all that had been left was an empty old house that we loved, but we knew it would not be our home again. 

So we signed some papers and now someone else would make the decisions about the buildings and the future of those eighty beautiful acres.  It was good really.  I knew that.  Someone else would build a home or a cabin there.  Someone else would make memories with children and grandchildren there now.  Someone else would go sit by the lake, watch the sunrise over the meadow, listen to the breeze through the branches of the poplars and see how the noontime sun could make their leaves glimmer like silver coins.  All those things were so good.  Life was going on.

So why did it feel so much like death?

Because of course it was that as well.  I bent down and scooped up some of the dirt beneath my feet that was mingled with the ashes of all that used to be.  I wept big sloppy tears for my mother and my father and the finality of death.  I wept for my childhood home, burned to the ground, and that I’d never again be just a little girl sitting in her pink bedroom daydreaming about the future without a care in the world.  I wept the big sloppy tears that I had to cry, and then I put down the dirt and ash and dusted off my hands. 

I took some pictures then before I left – pictures of the trees that mom and I had planted in the front yard and the lilac bush we had grown from a clipping taken from grandma’s yard.  I looked one more time down toward the valley where the deer pause to drink from the pond and up toward the hill where mom used to take us sledding.  Scores of memories every direction I turned.  It would always be this way here.  I sighed and slipped back into my car and drove away.

We all have our stories of ashes, don’t we?  Mine, I think of a home that once existed – now just a memory.  Yours might be the ash and ruin you found your life in after poor choices made.  They could be the ashes of dreams you had for a relationship or the ashes of the prayers you prayed that a cure would be found or the ashes of a loved one whose body finally gave up its spirit at the end of a long life.  Ashes are the sign of something that once was – but no more.  We sweep them up and toss them away, we bury them, scatter them, or store them away and try to forget about them. 

Yet today, we are marked with them.  We choose to be marked with this sign of death and endings.  Why in the world would we do such a thing?

We do it because it is only through death that there is the possibility of new life.  We do it because it is only through the repentance of Ash Wednesday, this season of lent, pondering the last days and words of our Lord Jesus, and remembering his last supper he shared with his disciples on Maundy Thursday and kneeling at the foot of the cross where he hung on Good Friday and then was shut in the tomb that we can truly experience the joy of the resurrection on Easter morning.

On Ash Wednesday I am always struck by the power of the ritual of this day.  There’s nothing quite as powerful as putting ash in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of the smallest children to the oldest adult in the church and speaking the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The first time I marked a baby with that cross, the words were stuck in my throat and I had to push them out.  Ashes are a sign of endings and the blackness of sin and death, it felt so wrong to place them on the pale, smooth, perfect skin of an innocent baby – and yet, I knew that we are all born into the blackness of sin, and the only hope for any of us, from the youngest child, to the eldest matriarch or patriarch – our only hope is in Jesus Christ.

Without him, the ash places and the death places in our lives would be the end of all of our stories.  Without him, the cold tomb really is the end.  Without him, without grace, there no peace, no forgiveness, no second chances, no hope for our home beyond this one and life eternal with the ones we love.

And so we learn to love the ashes because they stand for far more than endings.  Because we find our home in the heart of a Savior who is making all things new.  Even you and me.

Blessing the Dust

A Blessing for Ash Wednesday

by Jan Richardson

All those days you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face toward the wind

and be scattered to the four corners

or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial-

Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?

This is the day we freely say we are scorched.

This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning.

This is the moment we ask for the blessing

that lives within the ancient ashes,

that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth.

So let us be marked not for sorrow.

And let us be marked not for shame.

Let us be marked not for false humility

or for thinking we are less than we are

but for claiming what God can do within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff of which the world is made,

and the stars that blaze in our bones, a

nd the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear.

In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.