An Ash Wednesday Meditation
February 26, 2020
We’ve been looking at Mark’s gospel the past month or so. And we’ve noticed that Mark keeps saying things like “let those with ears to hear, hear” or “let those with eyes to see, see”.
Jesus understands that not everyone will understand Jesus, or his mission, or his messiahship. We’ve also noticed that often, the people who understand Jesus the least seem to be his own followers.
In this passage, Jesus is again talking to his disciples about what is to come.
Jesus had just told them something similar on the other side of transfiguration, before he went up the mountain. They didn’t want to hear it then. They don’t want to hear it now.
And god bless those poor disciples. They seem to understand enough about their incomprehension to be afraid to ask him about it. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him”, we’re told in verse 32.
Maybe they remember Peter being rebuked, and are like “nah, we’re good”.
Then they walk to Capernaum. And after they’ve unpacked, Jesus turns to them and says “what were you arguing about on the way?”
He says it the way my mom used to ask my brother and I what we were doing in the back seat of the car, even though we knew she had eyes in the back of her head and that she knew full well what we were doing back there, bothering each other.
What were you arguing about on the way?
In this particular situation, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them, and they knew enough not to say that out loud.
If this is the trial run for how they are going to do after Jesus is gone, I’m not all that sure it is going so well.
Jesus tells them:
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
The image of Jesus holding up a little baby is great, although I have no idea where he found a prop baby to use right at the moment he needed one. But I love that he answers their question about who is the greatest, by handing them a child. I love the image of Jesus handing a random baby over to James or John and saying, “here, be great with this. And he needs a diaper change”.
(At this point, someone handed me my prop baby, Pim, and they helped illustrate my sermon).
It’s hard to think you’re amazing when a kid is spitting up on your shirt and you’re trying to figure out where to throw away the dirty diaper you just changed.
Kids focus you on essentials. Are they safe? Are they hungry? Are they cold or warm?
When you’re caring for a child, you don’t ask if they are famous, or if they are important in the world of finance. You don’t wonder if they can get you a job.
We like to think about the innocence of children, but in this context, I think Jesus is reminding the disciples, reminding us, about the powerlessness of children.
That’s how Jesus answers the question of who is the greatest. To go from being first to being last, and servant of all. To welcome Jesus as if he’s a powerless child in need of our care and protection.
These refrains, and the refrain of Ash Wednesday is “from dust you are and to dust you shall return” are at odds with our American culture.
Jesus’ instructions, and the work of Ash Wednesday call us to not deny death, to give up dreams of greatness for the work of servanthood, and to embrace powerlessness.
Ash Wednesday is a powerful counter claim to our search for greatness, and a powerful claim of faith.
We are created. like Adam and Eve, out of the dust of God’s creation. At the end, we return to the earth. And in between it all, we live as beloved children of God, reminded that we did not create ourselves and that we cannot live forever.
One of my friends today shared the words of his mentor: We wear ash to remind ourselves that we are dust.
We wear it in the shape of a cross to remind ourselves that God is quite skilled with dust.
If we can remember Ash Wednesday throughout the year, it might be easier to not be the disciples who get caught arguing along the way about which of us is greatest. If we remember that there is a God and we are not God, we can approach our own successes and our failures with a different perspective.
Let’s be clear. God is not confused about which one of us is God. Our mortality is not something to overcome or hide. It is something to acknowledge and live into.
In Lent, we return to God. And not because dust is something of no value. We wear ash in the shape of a cross to remind ourselves that God is quite skilled with dust.
Listen to these words from the poet Jan Richardson:
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
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, a
nd the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
I confess this night is my favorite night of the year as your pastor. Marking your foreheads with ashy crosses calls to mind the foreheads of the people who have died in recent years. This is the night when I feel most surrounded by their presence and their memory, and most uplifted by your presence here in our community. As I remember our common humanness, our frailty and finitude, I also get a glimpse of our glory, a glimmer of the something bigger than us that connects us.
This is what Jesus calls us toward when we’re distracted by greatness. Jesus calls us back to each other, in servanthood and in support. We are connected in the dust and God is quite skilled with dust.
May we be shaped and formed and smudged into servants of God.