Who will claim these ashes?

A sermon on Ash Wednesday, 2011

Matthew 6:1-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Children’s Time: Introduce “Walk by Faith” theme and handout footprints… Do you like to walk? What if you could imagine Jesus walking with you, every day? In front of you (have someone stand in front) to point the way… behind you (have someone stand behind you and give a little push) to encourage us to grow… beside you (link up arm-in-arm) as a trusted friend… and, when it seems you’re all alone… inside of you, over you and under you, with a peace that no one can understand except BY FAITH!

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The first funeral I ever presided over was when I was 6 years old. We were playing in the back alley of our home on Main Street, in Albert Lea. And we found a dead robin. Our home was built onto the back of the gas station, so dad had a short commute, you might say, to get to work. At that time, my older brothers were the only ones allowed to pump gas; but we could all help with squeegie-ing the windshields, or seeing if a customer wanted cigarettes or a dozen eggs with their gas. And we all carried a grease rag in our back pockets, just like dad. And we let them hang down a little, ready to grab for a spill, or to check the oil, or shine a hubcap.

And so, we wrapped this little robin in a grease rag (as his funeral pall), dug a hole under the lilac bush, and buried him there, placing two sticks over the grave in the shape of a cross. I can’t remember if any prayers were prayed, but I do recall laying that lifeless bird to rest. It’s a memory that has stayed with me nearly forty years later.

Something in that six-year-old Stiles’ boy couldn’t let that robin’s death go un-mourned. Who would claim him? We can’t just let him lay there. Who will claim me when my time comes?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
You are a child of dust, child of God.

In yesterday’s paper, there was a front-page story about unclaimed ashes at funeral homes. Many families are opting not to have a funeral right away, but postpone it (sometimes 6 months later) for a time when the whole family can gather. Generally, I’m willing to work with the family on planning a memorial service; but I always encourage them to have the deceased’s ashes present, if at all possible. Or, I offer to meet with them at a later date for a graveside ceremony – or sprinkling of ashes.

There is a grand drama the people of God take part in when one of their sisters or brothers has fallen in death. That is, to bear them on, singing them through the gates of heaven. Walking by faith to the edge of that grave and declaring VICTORY over death, by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Who will claim these ashes?

One funeral director, in this story, showed the reporter a whole cabinet filled with unclaimed ashes, some dating back nearly 50 years! “Ours is the first generation where the presence of the deceased at their funerals have become optional,” says Tom Long, noted author and preacher. It’s a disturbing and growing trend in society, when a funeral that is intended to bear our brother / sister into God’s everlasting care – both body and soul… becomes overly focused on the mourners gathered for a memorial service instead.

To be sure, we must grieve the loss of loved ones, and provide pastoral care for the family. But not at the expense of losing this significant last step in a person’s journey from this world to life everlasting.

Who will claim these ashes? Who will claim me when I am dead in the way I treat others? When I am dirty in my heart, thinking bad thoughts? Who will claim us when no one else seems to care?

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
You are a child of dust, child of God.

We claim our ashes because we walk by faith. As Jesus said, in our lesson for tonight: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What have you got that no one can steal? Where do you put your faith? You may know a lot about the faith, but how do you put it into practice? There’s the story told of an old Jewish man who once prayed, “God, I have been a devout worshiper and I have kept the Law as best I could. I’ve been a good Jew. Now I’m old and I need some help. Let me win the lottery.” Well he prayed, and prayed…. One month went by, then two. Then a year, then 3 years…until in desperation he cried out, “God, give me a break!” God replied, “Give me a break yourself! Buy a ticket!”

How do you claim your ashes? How do you store up the treasure that doesn’t spoil, rust or become moth-eaten? Our theme this Lent is based on Hebrews, chapter 11: Walk by Faith. And my hope is that we will learn how to put that faith in a treasure chest and keep it close to our hearts, by putting one foot in front of the other.

Walking shows movement. It’s good for you!
Walking shows a journey. It doesn’t have to be in a straight line
Walking can be done together or alone
When we walk we never know what we will see along the way
We see our neighbors, we see the sky, we see creatures great and small
When we walk by faith there is something more to be said, and there are all kinds of Lenten disciplines that can help here. Not all are going to work for everyone. You must find what works best for you.

I had a refresher course on this from Bishop Margaret Payne (of the New England Synod of the ELCA) last month. She reminds us of a few tried and true practices of the faith: repentance, forgiveness, catechesis (learning the basics of the faith), fasting, and almsgiving.

Repentance: what is it in your life that is an obstruction / getting in the way of you truly living? Can you sit in quiet long enough to LISTEN to what God may be telling to you do about it… or to receive about it?

Forgiveness: Can you let go of one grudge and one should? A grudge is nothing but a “junior version of forgiveness” We sometimes cover it up well, like a sliver of glass just under the skin, but it’s there… until we deal with it. Shoulds, too, are there, and we beat ourselves up over them all the time.

Catechesis (learning the basics of the faith). We have Bible studies at Holy Cross, and even a new young adult (20s, 30s, 40s) study I’m pulling together for the season of Lent. We all need to go “back to the basics” from time to time. Legendary golfer, Jack Nicholas, the only player to have won 3 of each of the major tournaments, was noted to have… at the beginning of each season, go to a small golf club in Florida and take golf lessons as if he’d never golfed before.

Fasting: Some people give up chocolate for Lent – or a meal each day – or, hopefully not: a bath! Maybe you’ll commit to eating only locally grown/produced food, or “take on” something for Lent. The point is about learning & regaining control over our physical appetites. Might it be limiting your screen time (for all you techno-philes). Whatever the case, you’ll know you’re on the right track if you commit to it and it drives you crazy.

Finally, almsgiving: Is there a special monetary gift you might consider – or cause you would support? Rather than think: “give till it hurts” think “give till you notice.” That might mean just simplifying your life, using less energy or stepping outside your normal field of operations.

However you observe this coming Lent, remember faith holds us in our walking. Walking by faith means hoping for what we do not yet see.
It means doing one’s part for others – getting up, getting out, and showing up when it matters.
Walking by faith means believing there’s more to this life than we know.
That our bodies and souls matter to God in this life and in the life to come.
Walking by faith means dying each day to our sins, and rising again in the waters of baptism to new life.

That’s why we wear ashes. Because we’re not afraid to claim them. No one of us can avoid death. We can put off talking about it, or deny it’s going to happen. We can live in fear of it, worrying about what it might be like. We can smooth it over and never shed the tears necessary for watering the soul.

Or, we can claim these ashes,
knowing that in baptism we ourselves are named and claimed.
hearing both promises loud and clear:
“You are a child of dust.
You are a child of God.”

Amen.

An ancient Coptic prayer:
Let the shadows of darkness be full of light.
Let the angels of light walk before him.
Let the gate of righteousness be opened to him.
Let him join the heavenly choir.
Bring him into the paradise of delight.
Feed him from the tree of life.
Let him rest in the bosom of our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in your kingdom.

(Quotes from Tom Long, author of Accompany them with Singing: The Christian Funeral)

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