Sunday Night Worship – 2/10/08

“By Every Word”

Matthew 4: 1-11

Ash Wednesday is a weird and wonderful way to begin Lent. The way it shows up in the middle of the week, on a different date each year, almost hidden between Sundays. Today may be the first Sunday in Lent, but Ash Wednesday always kicks the whole season off.

It’s a strange ritual, to gather in order to have ashes smudged on our foreheads – and then to walk around for the rest of the day like that. Weirder, perhaps, to be told when we gather like that: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

You started as nothing but the dust of the earth and one day you will die and be returned back to the dust. Remember that.

I’ve been reading Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss. He’s a reporter and a self-described grump who decides to set off around the world to find the happiest countries. He finds several unexpected trends, things like Denmark and Iceland turning up happier than warm island paradises. But one of the most interesting trends is how often the topic of death comes up with happy people and in happy cultures.

Places like the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. One of the local men Weiner meets is actually named Karma and it’s Karma who offers this as a prescription for a healthy and happy life: “You need to think about death for five minutes every day. It will cure you, sanitize you.” The typical middle-class American, Weiner responds by saying how depressing that sounds. Karma says, “Rich people in the west, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist” (The Geography of Bliss, p. 65).

Sounds happy, doesn’t it?

Advertisers and marketers and sometimes our own well-meaning family and friends can go to great lengths to “keep us happy” by avoiding all such topics, by keeping life sanitized and easy and comfortable, by encouraging us to forget or at least ignore for a while the cold hard facts of being human beings on the planet.

I remember being with my grandfather when he was dying. Along with my mom and my aunt and my step-grandmother, I was there for 2 days at his bedside. And it wasn’t like it is in the movies. Granddaddy, who had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for several years, had to struggle to die. His raspy breathing turned rattling and his lips dried out until they cracked and bled. His skin turned yellowish as his liver failed. He would seem restful for small bits of time and then vigorously struggle to get the covers off, to sit up, to do anything except the task at hand – dying.

At the time, it struck me how like birth the whole thing was. Like a woman in labor going through waves of pain and pushing, Granddaddy needed to work his way through that threshold into the next life. He was laboring and getting closer with each wave. It wasn’t like it is in the movies. He didn’t just shut his eyes and leave. And, though he seemed to be letting go, it was not a peaceful, quiet, interior process.

In the weeks after my grandfather’s death, I wrote letters to my mom and my aunt and my step-grandmother, telling them what a privilege it was to be with them in those holy moments. Don’t get me wrong, it was uncomfortable and sad and scary and gritty-real, but it was also so obviously the kind of thing we are put here for that I felt grateful for the experience. I felt thankful that I was able to be part of that labor and that we did not leave it all up to hired professionals.

There is an awful lot in our culture that would say it is better to remember “the good times” and to remember my grandfather in the days before he was diseased. There is an awful lot that would want to sanitize my experience. Even in the church, we sometimes move too quickly from the deathbed to the service of death and resurrection. Karma would tell us to linger a little and get a feel for death while we are yet living.

There is something of this in the conversation we begin on Ash Wednesday. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. In part we are reminding ourselves of how simple it is. No matter the bystanders, we each enter and leave the world on our own, crossing the thresholds alone. Are we living now so that we are ready for the next one when it comes? What are all these suitcases and storage boxes and where do I fit the plasma screen TV? Who is this friend and where is this relationship going? Why do I never find the time to tend it? Why do I never seem to have time for the most important things and people?

Jesus goes out alone into the wilderness for 40 days. Into the arid, lifeless, unforgiving desert, carrying nothing and accompanied by no one. And then the devil shows up.

And he’s like a traveling snake oil salesman, with a coat full of dangling watches and a trunk with extra compartments and something hidden under his hat. He’s determined to make his sale.

Step right up, young man. You look like you could use something to eat, perhaps a nice sourdough. Would you believe it if I told you any of these stones could be turned into bread? Go ahead and try it.

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But the young man from Nazareth leaves the stones in the dust on the ground. No thanks, I live by every word that comes from God.

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OK, a tough sell. That’s alright. The devil’s seen worse in the dust bowl days in Oklahoma. No one wanted to buy anything back then. He pulls out a dusty photograph of St. Peter’s. See this here dome? 446 feet high she is! Want to know how to jump off without a scratch?

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It doesn’t interest me, Jesus says.

He removes his straw hat and wipes the sweat from his brow. You must be interested in knowing what I know about the mountain yonder? he says, pointing in the distance. You can see all the world from there and, I tell you, whatever you seen you can have, if you’ll come with me.

Jesus glances into the distance and back again at the pitiful sweating man in the plaid polyester suit. I won’t come with you. And I’m not interested in anything you’re selling. Can’t you see I came out here with nothing? It’s God I’m after. Now leave me!

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That’s a rough translation.

It’s the rough, treacherous, deadly places that can reorient us towards life. Jesus doesn’t bring a picture of his mom or an iPod to pass the long hours. He faces the desert wilderness with nothing but a desire to seek God – even there. He goes hungry with only a taste for God’s Word.

Some of us feel like we are facing death when we give up chocolate or internet access or any of the myriad ways we distract ourselves from real life. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with most of them, but occasionally it seems we become a bit overloaded and need to clear out the excess, head into the wilderness and see how we do on our own again, with just God. With only the hunger for every word God sends our way. Word-itarians, you might say.

I quoted Jan Richardson in this morning’s sermon and here’s another one from her Painted Prayerbook blog. Jan’s a United Methodist elder, writer, and artist, and wrote this on her Lenten blog this week (www.paintedprayerbook.com): “The season of Lent beckons us to see what we are clinging to. The imagery of this season, therefore, is frequently stark. These days draw us into a wilderness in which we can more readily see what we have shaped our daily lives around: habits, practices, possessions, commitments, conflicts, relationships—all the stuff that we give ourselves to in a way that sometimes becomes more instinctual than intentional. Much as Jesus went into the desert to pray and fast for forty days, Lent offers us a landscape that calls us to look at our lives from a different perspective, to perceive what is essential and what is extraneous.”

Am I shaping my life around chocolate and television and Facebook? What is the shape of my life? Does it look sanitized and store-bought or does it look homemade and include messy things like relationship and death? When I return to the dust, will I be upset at all the crap I have to leave behind at last? Or will I recognize the threshold where I’ve visited, the place I’ve practiced for?

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Most yoga classes end with a restorative pose called savasana, “corpse pose.” It’s pretty much like it sounds: you lie on the floor on your back, palms up, eyes closed, and try to stay still for several minutes. Most teachers talk about it as restful and balancing after a hard and vigorous practice, and it is. But I had a teacher once who said something different. She said that the pose is what it sounds like: we are practicing for our own deaths.

The thing about any yoga pose is that all of your regular personality traits come to the surface as you practice. If you are impatient, you will want to come out of poses before the rest of the class. If you are uncomfortable with stretching yourself, you will pull back when it would help you more to lean into the stretch. If you are serious about your practice, you make note of these responses. They, too, are part of the practice.

That’s what the Lenten wilderness is like. That’s what Lenten disciplines can be to us. Places where we practice in order to live more intentional lives. Places where we rid ourselves of the extraneous and develop our Word-itarian tendencies. Maybe even a place we allow ourselves to remember that we are dust and that we shall return to dust one day.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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