Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday Sermon -- Impermanence

John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011

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

Throughout human history spiritual teachers and generally smart folks have been telling whoever would bother to listen that life is impermanent.

We are born. We fall ill. We grow old. We die.

Not only us, but every living thing and everything we build goes through a cycle of birth to death. It is not as if anyone would deny that, except it always seems to come as a surprise. It can happen to others, maybe, but if it happens to me or to the ones I love it is somehow unfair.

Maybe it is unfair. Nevertheless, it is life. Life is change.

Both Buddha and Jesus taught that if we cling to that which is impermanent, we will suffer needlessly and cause others to suffer needlessly as well.

Let it go they tell us. Let it go.

We will be happier if we accept our mortality and live in this moment.
Our wise ancestors taught us this same thing. Those pithy sayings of common lore remind us of our mortality and the futility of agonizing over it. Sayings such as:
“There is no use crying over spilled milk.”
“This, too, shall pass.”
Those are wise grandmotherly sayings that remind us to “keep our chin up” and get back to work because those “cows won’t milk themselves.”

Many religions and philosophies don’t think it is quite right or quite enough to say that life is impermanent and leave it there. So many religions have fostered doctrines and beliefs suggesting that something will be permanent, “God” perhaps or the immortal soul. Reincarnation and Resurrection are put forth as solutions to the impermanence of life.

I don’t find any of these speculations particularly convincing, but I don’t know. I don’t insist. Whatever the case, this life, this particular incarnation if you like, appears to be a one-time ride around the track. We may get another ride or we may not, but this is the one we are on now, so we ought to take notice of it.

I have to say, though, that I do need to be reminded of the simple truth of impermanence. When I am not cognizant of my mortality and when I am not reminded that I am impermanent, I tend to
  • Take things (and people) for granted,
  • Wish precious time away,
  • Worry over things that will pass,
  • Take myself too seriously,
  • Not take Life seriously enough,
  • Spend too much time on things that are not that important,
  • Spend too little time on things that are important,
  • And cry too much over spilled milk.
That is why the Ash Wednesday service and the imposition of ashes is a ritual I find helpful. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Remembering that forces me to take responsibility for the breath I have now. There are things I cannot do much about.

I cannot stop myself from dying.
It will happen.
I can’t make myself live forever,
no matter what I believe.
I cannot stop myself from aging,
no matter how many anti-aging products I buy.
I cannot stop myself from becoming ill,
no matter how healthy I eat.

The best I can do is prolong life a little bit, and even then longevity for the most part is the result of genes and luck.

I can’t keep civilization on its endless quest for growth.
Everything that is born eventually dies including civilizations.
Then, something new is born. Such is life.

The mark of the cross on our forehead is a simple reminder of what is real.
It is also a reminder of what we can do. It is a summons. It is a calling and an invitation to live with full awareness.

The Christian tradition has made much of the word, “sin.” It is not a bad concept, but it has been misused in my opinion. It has been used as a weapon against others in order to control or exclude them. We call others sinners or reduce sin to a list of peccadilloes that others commit or if we have internalized religious abuse, we turn on ourselves and heap on the guilt and shame.

I think of the word sin as a synonym for clinging or grasping. It isn’t something to beat ourselves up over, but it is something to name and to own. When we grasp on to those things that are impermanent, we are unable to love others as they are and life as it is. That is sin.

We grasp on to a way of life that is destructive to ourselves, others, and our planet because we want our lifestyle to last forever or at least as long as we are around. That is sin.

We cling to our possessions and worry that we won’t have enough and in so doing neglect the lives and needs of others. That is sin.

We all are in this together. Life is not easy. We learn as we go. We do things and we say things we wish we hadn’t. That is all part of clinging and grasping too. That is sin.

But if there is sin and grasping, there is grace. Our failings, real and perceived, are impermanent too. We can let them go.

Ash Wednesday is also a ritual of forgiveness. The ashes remind us that each day is new. This day won’t come around again. Grace allows us to let go of old stuff and embrace what is before us.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to start again. It is an invitation to a courageous life.
A life that knows it is not here forever and doesn’t need to be. A life
  • that soaks it up,
  • that embraces,
  • that gives,
  • that cherishes,
  • that preserves,
  • that loves,
  • that blesses,
  • that laughs.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
And that is as it should be. Amen.

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