Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37
I started thinking about tonight’s sermon a few days ago at the gym. (Sometimes I listen to sermon podcasts while I’m exercising—though sometimes it’s Lady Gaga.) Anyway, whenever I’m at the gym I’m surrounded by people working to build power, stamina and endurance. Body-builders honing the curve of their biceps or the square of their pectorals. Rugged women and men push around a metal “sled” with hundred-pound weights on it. Old men breathlessly battle one another on the racquetball courts. Personal trainers coach people of all body types to do just five reps more. And on the walls are giant murals celebrating strength and fitness. This modern-day temple to muscle and physique was a very strange place to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”.
But where does one go in our culture to reflect on death? Were it not for occasional funerals or driving by cemeteries, most of us could go years without much reminder of bodily decay and death. Indeed, our world actively promotes getting stronger, faster and more powerful forever. It’s not just gym culture or the physical body—“success” comes in many forms. As children we learn that what matters is getting good grades. While teenagers, we count the number of friends we have, or how soon we can get the driver’s license. Savvy professionals count our retweets, Facebook follows, blog posts and the development of a personal brand. Promotions at work and take-home pay become the measures of merit for professionals. If we are fortunate enough to reach the age and ability to retire, many feel the loss of meaning that often comes with being out of the workplace. We make up for it with cultural experiences, travel, the exploits of grandchildren, and our different areas of volunteer leadership, including here at church.
None of these are bad pursuits in and of themselves. But when they are the only things a person can dwell on, or when taken too far, they end up creating problems. Without a robust sense of mortality, our priorities get warped and we chase after ephemeral things. Those who lack “greatness” in the areas of physique or status or accomplishment live with feelings of insecurity. Those with medical difficulties feel they have to minimize or hide the trouble for fear of appearing weak. When we face the death of loved ones, if we have had little chance to encounter mortality, we can be frightened by its finality. Too many reach the end of our lives, and we resonate with the poetry of T.S. Eliot: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker; / and I am afraid.” Chasing after success in all the usual ways without holding these in tension with mortality leaves us fragile and fearful when our powers fail.
This is the gift of Ash Wednesday, then, and the Good News of this night. Jesus turns the measures of greatness on their head. Success doesn’t have to look like accomplishments, awards, promotions, or all the other accolades that we are taught to pursue. Nobody could collect all of those things in the first place, which means that even the most outwardly-successful person could feel like a failure. Instead, Jesus says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He brings a child into their midst, and says that welcoming a child is like welcoming God’s own Self. Remember that children of this time had no special status. Preacher Raquel Lettson explains, “The child is devoid of any legal rights and has no societal protection or maintenance except that which the parent can provide. The child cannot offer patronage or other critical social benefits. Ultimately, children are dependent on the goodwill of others. S/he is completely vulnerable. …To welcome one such as this is honorable. This is ‘greatness’ according to Jesus.” The point is summed up another way by Oprah Winfrey: “Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can serve.”
The greatness of faith will not look like the greatness you can read about in the Forbes 500 lists. It is a greatness of compassion, of daily life lived well, of embracing those who are least and lost and left out. And we start to see this, paradoxically, when we encounter mortality. The surgeon Atul Gawande wrote a book several years ago called Being Mortal: Medicine and what Matters in the End. Gawande suggests that instead of running away from the truth about death, or hiding the mortification of the body with another dozen pushups at the gym, there’s much to gain when we face the facts of life and death. He suggests that “acknowledging your mortality is a tremendous gift. It reorders your desires. It narrows your focus, and gives you a new perspective that’s rooted in reality instead of vain hope for a medical miracle.” Mortality is our reminder that we do not have forever on this earth, and that what matters most is how we serve and welcome Christ in young and old alike.
Can I let you in on a little secret then? Every year on Ash Wednesday, I hear something that scrambles my brain. As I’m marking the cross on someone’s body, someone is bound to say a gentle, whispered “thank you.” It strikes me as odd, but it happens every year. Perhaps, though, this is a quiet acknowledgment of the mystery which God is able to work through ash and dust. “Thank you” for reminding us of death, because we can thereby focus on what really matters in life. “Thank you” for acknowledging the reality of pain and loss when it seems like no place else will. “Thank you” for making space for wounds and hurts alongside worldly success. “Thank you” for the promise that even as the body declines, the spirit grows ever greater. “Thank you” for the reassurance of our faith, that nothing is too fearful for God, not even death.
Let us pray: Holy God, giver of life and conqueror of death, you know that none of us will make it out of this life alive. Open our eyes to the wisdom of Christ, that we may wear his cross of ash and join him in the great service of his way. Amen.
 Raquel S. Lettson, “Commentary on Mark 9:30-37” posted at WorkingPreacher.org. Available at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2581.
 As described by Dan Clendenin, “To See Death Daily” post on the Journey with Jesus website. Available at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150216JJ.shtml.