Each year on Ash Wednesday we remember our mortality. As pastors make the sign of the cross on foreheads, we say, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As a lay person, I recall going to worship and hearing those words spoken to me, and having a momentary twinge, thinking, “I will die some day.”
But now that I’m a pastor, I’m the one who looks parishioners in the eye, I’m the one who says those words, I’m the one who makes the sign of the cross in ashes. And I’m the one who recognizes with each person that I could be doing their funeral between now and the next Ash Wednesday. It’s an especially chilling moment when children are among those to whom I speak those words.
This year in particular, we have two specific reminders of our mortality, as we say good-bye this week to Bea and Evelyn. We never know when it will be our time to die. Several among us in the congregation are seriously ill, and many more have had recent brushes with potentially fatal diseases. The other day, as Mike and I headed south on I-75, we narrowly avoided a major crash, as a dozen cars ahead of us slammed on their brakes, probably to avoid a reckless driver.
Since we don’t know when our time will come, it makes sense that we want to live every day the way God wants us to. We know that our behavior does not determine how much God loves us, but our behavior is one way to demonstrate our relationship with God.
We get recommendations on how to behave from our Scripture readings. The Prophet Joel and Jesus both urge us to turn our hearts to God. Joel repeats the frequent refrain of the Old Testament: “Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” And Jesus says, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
These two comments sound to me like the First Commandment, which can be summarized as “Put God first in your life.” If we do that, everything else in life falls into place. If we put God first, we remember that God gives us life, and God receives our life when we come to the end of life – when we return to dust. We remember to spend time in prayer, when we put God first. We remember that God is the source of everything we have, when we put God first. We remember that God cares about all of creation, and we remember that God cares about all people. So, if we put God first in our lives, we will want to care for ourselves, for creation, and for each other, the way God would.
Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Since we do not know when our time to become dust will happen, it’s important to try each day to put God first in our lives. It’s important to store up our treasures, not in banks, but in heaven.
Yet, most of us lose focus on God. We get sidetracked, we forget to keep the first commandment, we forget that God is the source of all that is, and all that we have. We put our trust in how much money we have, we put our trust in our jobs, we put our trust in planning out our lives and in believing we are in charge of our futures. In these ways and many more, we lose our focus in life, and we wander far from God.
And so we need also to remember Joel’s call: “Return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” When we realize that we have strayed from God’s plan for our lives, and return to the Lord, God welcomes us back with Jesus’ open arms, stretched out on the cross in love.
This is one reason why people fast during Lent – to have a tangible reminder of the intentional focus on our mortality and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, to remember God’s steadfast love, to keep the focus on storing up treasures in heaven for the entire 6 weeks of Lent. The constant reminder that we can’t have something we are accustomed to enjoying constantly forces us to repeatedly commit to the fast, and to the reason for the fast.
If you do choose to observe a fast, make it something you will really miss, so it becomes a serious effort each day. Make it something that helps you remember God gives you everything you need each day. Make it something that forces you to remember God even gives you life.
Make it something that reminds you that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen