ASHES AND STARDUST
The First Sunday of Lent – February 17, 2013
A sermon by The Rev Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
There is a kind of reverence surrounding the movie “Lincoln,” a story about the 16th president’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. In a performance close to perfection, actor Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic, nuanced portrait of the man and the politician. Director Stephen Spielberg’s efforts towards historical authenticity include exact reproductions of White House wallpaper and a reproduction of the actual sound of Lincoln’s watch ticking, based on the real one in the Smithsonian.
However, some historians have come down on the movie for important inaccuracies. Eric Foner, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book on Lincoln and slavery, says this:
“Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of slaves themselves to acquire freedom…. Slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation, yet Mr. Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.”
A movie is entertainment, sometimes a work of art, and its creators can decide what to put in and leave out. But in the minds of most of the public, this type of movie will become a definitive understanding of what happened during this time period. Most people don’t read a lot of history or “alternative viewpoints” so for these devout moviegoers, Moses will forever be Charlton Heston; Mozart (Middle name Amadeus) an obnoxious brat; and John Kennedy assassinated by the CIA. None of these based in fact. We have given the media immense power to articulate truth and shape our reality.
So we have to ask when is it important to separate fact from fiction, reality from illusion, truth from wishful thinking. In the spiritual realm, I think, it is especially important because our conclusions will dictate how we will live our lives.
The Gospels for last week and this week provide a sharp contrast as how to approach this question.
Last week’s Gospel was literally a mountaintop experience with visions and voices. Having gone with Jesus up the mountain to pray, the breathless Peter, James and John are transfixed as they see Jesus, suddenly shining with rays of bright light, transfigured into a dazzling figure in white. This is so intense and so real that the always-emotional, impetuous Peter is swept away and he says, “Master it is good that we are here—it is so good!” He’s ready to put up permanent housing and stay there forever. But it is not the nature of mountaintop experiences – for Peter or for us—to last.
This week we could not be further from that mountaintop. Now we are in the desert with Jesus: blistering heat; blowing sand; scorching sun; and hunger. The desert does things to your perceptions; it is a place of mirages and oases that seem closer than they really are—if they’re there at all. We’re in the desert this first Sunday of Lent and the voice of God is replaced with the voice of Satan.
The desert can be a wilderness of the mind and heart, where we wander for months or decades (40 years for the Israelites), trying to decide what is real enough to trust, to believe in, to live by.
Sometimes we go to the desert willingly; other times the desert comes to us.
We go to the desert when we decide to speak the hard and painful truth in a family or relationship; we go to the desert when we decide to move out or move in; when we leave a job that is destroying our soul, without a fall back; when we stop smoking or drinking or gorging on food or simply step up.
The desert comes to us with a medical diagnosis, a car that runs a red light, a divorce; a shooting; a persistent fear of getting older; a tornado or flood that couldn’t happen here; the stock market raiding our retirement funds.
It is not only our individual task to find our ways through the desert; it is our collective job as well. And we are up against masters of illusion: every image we see airbrushed so that even supermodels don’t really look like supermodels yet young women measure themselves against this standard anyway; athletes real abilities enhanced by doping; violence masquerading as entertainment, desensitizing us to the realities of human suffering. As citizens, our ruthless determination and honesty in separating illusion from reality will determine the kind of world in which we and our descendants and will live.
Each of the clergy is going to each preach about a Lenten practice during the next four weeks. The practice I hold up for you today is that of silence. Intentional, measured silence during each and every day. Time to sit quietly, turn off the car radio, look out the window, unplug, pray, walk, think, breathe. Silence to help discern reality from illusion.
This is no small challenge. The clatter of our culture is relentless, the noise around us intrusive, our public spaces polluted with televisions in waiting rooms and countless forms of “background music,” our ability to be without our electronics so compromised that silence becomes a radical suggestion, almost frightening.
However, this past week there was an extraordinary pairing of events which should have reduced us to silence. And I’m not talking about the Pope.
On Wednesday millions of people around the word had ashes paced on their foreheads as a reminder of their mortality. Usually these ashes are from burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday, a sobering symbol of what happened to the hosannas and hallelujahs of that day. Of all the days in the Christian Church I think that Ash Wednesday is probably the one freest of illusion, the most grounded in reality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But this year, two days later, a 10-ton meteor exploded over the Ural Mountain s and the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, unleashing a shock wave that smashed windows, collapsed roofs and injured 1,200 people.
What a dramatic reminder that we are living out our one precious life in an enormous context, not just in St Paul Minnesota, USA, but on a relatively tiny planet in a cosmic sea of galaxies, suns, moon, stars, meteors, black holes and infinite space an silence. And that everything we hold dear—our families and friends, art and music and history and flowers and fields are all here on this blue and green ball, spinning in space. Last Friday we were reminded of the cosmic environment, the real context of our lives, as we go about our daily routine here on planet earth.
Carl Sagan said that “our planet, our society, and we ourselves are built of star stuff.” In fact, 93% of our bodies are made up of the same elements as the stuff that was generated 13 billions years when the world exploded into being. So the ashes placed on your forehead last Wednesday were stardust, that of which we are made and that to which you return. The same stuff as that ten-ton meteor exploding in space and raining down upon planet Earth. Ashes from the priest; ashes from the sky.
Einstein once said, “I didn’t come to my appreciation of the universe using my rational mind alone.” And neither do we. So many turn to religion.
Christians believe that the mind of God, the heart of the Creator of all can be discerned. For us, it is in the logos – the Word God gave us through the historical person of Jesus. Of course, it’s impossible if not incredibly arrogant — to believe that God’s word God’s expression of God’s self—is not in other forms in other faiths, other time periods, or other galaxies. The poet Alice Meynell wrote this:
“In the eternities doubtless we shall doubtlessly compare together a million alien Gospels, in what guide he trod the Pleiades the Lyre the Bear.”
Why ground ourselves in a specific faith and not just walk a more general “spiritual” path? Historian Joseph Campbell said that a religious faith is “a shortcut into the mystery,” providing stories and traditions and rituals and community to guide us on a path to the holy.
There is a romantic element to stars, a poetic quality. We wish a star; stars bring our gaze upwards; stars silence us with all we don’t know, all that is “out there,” all that is in here, and the intersection of the two where God Who Is Love awaits.
Lincoln once said this: “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.”