Ring around the roses, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down. We have all said this nursery rhyme before but did we actually realize what it means? This rhyme came about during the Black Plague. A time when death was all around and millions of people died. It was estimated that 30%-60% of Europe’s population died, that is around 75 million people died of this disease. Ring around the roses, pocket full of posies, reminded people of the doctors who carried flowers in their pockets to breath in fresh or at least better smelling air instead of smelling the rotting flesh of their patients. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down; spoke to the fact that millions died and that we will die too.
With that said let me welcome you to your funeral. I don’t know if you have your funeral already planned or not. I do. In my computer there is a file that is labeled The Celebration of Life for James Carl Parsons. I have outlined my wishes for the service like hymns and scripture. I have done this in order to help my family but also to put in perspective that someday I will die. I hope and pray that is a long, long, long time from now but the reality is, I will die. Ash Wednesday is a yearly journey into the reality that we will die. We will all become dust once again. God promises this to Adam and Eve in the garden when he tells them, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” That is the moment that death entered the world and death is still here. Today, on Ash Wednesday we remind ourselves of this reality not to go away feeling morbid but to in the midst of our hectic life put it all in perspective once again.
We get very nervous talking about death because all those who have experienced it don’t come back to tell us what it feels like. Many people say that they are not afraid of death it is the dying that scares them. What will it feel like to have our souls being pulled out of our bodies? Will we understand it all when it happens? Will it happen in the blink of an eye? We will simply go to sleep and wake up with God? Will we suffer? Will we be in pain? We have tons of questions about what will happen at the end of our life and we have this notion that if we had the answers to those questions it would make it easier but the truth is it wouldn’t. Death is an inevitable and scary reality we live with.
On that happy note, how is everyone doing so far with what they gave up for Lent? How is the first 19 hours going for you? It is a tradition in the season of Lent to give something up. You do this in order to remind yourself of where God needs to be in your life. A person gives up listening to the radio on the way to work in order to concentrate more on the events of their own life and prayer, instead of being distracted and absent. A person gives up dessert in order to remind themselves that joy is found in God, not just God’s edible creation. A person gives up television to focus on reading God’s word and the gift of family instead of losing one’s self in mindless images. What you choose to give up doesn’t matter. What matters is that you place something in its place that is a constant reminder of who God is and our need for God in our lives.
Some people instead of giving something up give in to Lent. They give in by adding something to their daily lives. A person might keep a journal in this season where they dive into their own thoughts and find where God is working in their daily lives. A person might get up early each day to spend time with God to pray, read God’s word, and to connect. A person might take a walk each day to listen to sermons on their iPod or to spend time reflecting on God’s creation. Whether you give something up or give in to the season of Lent the reason is all the same; to remind ourselves of who God is and our need for God in our lives.
In the scripture today we receive some very wise words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He warns us to be humble in our spiritual disciplines. He warns us not to bring focus onto our selves as we dive into different practices. When we pray we should not stand on the street corner and shout in order to have the world look at us. We shouldn’t bring attention to ourselves when we fast, so we should keep up our appearances. We don’t need to walk around our work tomorrow professing our piety by gloating about what we are giving up for these 40 days. Instead we should be doing all this, as Jesus says six times in this passage, in secret.
The young seminarian was excited about preaching his first sermon in his home church. After three years in seminary, he felt adequately prepared, and when he was introduced to the congregation, he walked boldly to the pulpit, his head high, radiating self-confidence. But he stumbled reading the Scriptures and then lost his train of thought halfway through the message. He began to panic, so he did the safest thing: He quickly ended the message, prayed, and walked dejectedly from the pulpit, his head down, his self-assurance gone. Later, one of the wise elders whispered to the embarrassed young man, “If you had gone up to the pulpit the way you came down, you might have come down the way you went up.” The elder was right. Jesus reminds us to walk humbly in the season of Lent for that is where grace is found.
How many times have we thought we were doing the right thing and loved to tell people about it? In these verses today, Jesus is telling us be humble. To not let the left hand know what our right hand is doing. To fast, pray, and give in secret, where only God knows what you are doing. Jesus wants us to look at our Christian actions not as something to be bragged about but something common and done without the need of the approval of others. This is because the reward is not to be found here on earth but in heaven. Our reward for following a Lenten discipline is that our personal relationship with God grows. There is no social gain but there is potential for great spiritual growth.
Winston Churchill was once asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” replied Sir Winston. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.” We have to go through Lent with that type of humility because the season of Lent is not about us. It is truly not about what we give up or add to our daily lives. The season of Lent is about the journey to the other side of death.
Today we are reminded that we will all die because that is exactly what Jesus Christ did. In the course of the next 40 days, Jesus will walk down the mountain of Transfiguration and up the mountain of Golgotha. There he will be nailed to a cross and he will die. But the story doesn’t stop there, that is only Good Friday. Easter is the exclamation point at the end of this journey. What is found in the tomb on Easter morning is our promise of what awaits us on the other side of death.
While celebrating my father’s birthday last weekend, we were watching Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In the midst of the silliness of this movie I was struck by some great wisdom in one particular scene. During the part when Mr. Magorium says goodbye to Mahoney this is what he tells here:
When King Lear dies in Act Five do you know what William Shakespeare has written? He’s written, He Dies. That’s all, nothing more. No fan fare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of the dramatic literature is, He Dies. It takes Shakespeare’s genius to come up with, he dies. And yet every time I read those two words I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know its only natural to be sad, but not because of the words he dies, but because of the life we saw prior to the words. I’ve lived all five of my acts Mahoney and I am not asking you to be happy that I must go. I’m only asking that you turn the page. Continue reading. And let the next story begin. And if anyone ever asks what became of me you relay my life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple, and modest, he died.
Today, Ash Wednesday, the journey of Lent begins, we place the mark of the cross in ashes on our heads or hand. We are reminded that we are sealed with the same fate as everyone else. We will die. It is not morbid to think about it, it is reality. Yet we can look back at our lives with joy and beyond with excitement because our Savior did the same thing and yet so much more.
And all God’s people said…Amen.