Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b- 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The British biologist and author Richard Dawkins stoked quite a bit of controversy when his book entitled The God Delusion was published. In that book, Dawkins argued that a supernatural creator does not exist, and that religion itself is a delusion. Some Christians found the premise slightly disturbing, however I think it’s a really interesting book, and one I think would be an interesting Lenten read. But that’s not the book I want to talk about today. It is another of Richard Dawkins books, entitled Unweaving the Rainbow, I wish to share with you today. Published in 1998, the book has been warmly received by people of faith, agnostics, and atheists alike. I would like to share the opening sentences with you now, in which Dawkins writes:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
I have written many sermons for Ash Wednesday, but none of them, in my opinion, come close to matching the power of what Dawkins says in these few sentences. How many of us ever viewed death as something reserved for the lucky ones? I never had.
Ash Wednesday is a day in which we all recognize a familiar truth about all of us: we’re all going to die someday, sometime. Can we laugh about that? I mean really, can we celebrate our dying as much as our living?
Fifteen years ago I was scared of death. The reason I was scared was because I couldn’t be certain that heaven or any kind of afterlife existed. There was no way that I could prove it. And if I couldn’t prove it, then I couldn’t really feel safe trusting it. This went on for some time. In seminary I continued to struggle believing in life after death. I took a class on the resurrection, hoping that in the class I would discover some undeniable proof that would substantiate for me, once and for all, that death is not the end.
I read a lot of books in that class, listened to a lot of lectures, but there was nothing in all that heady academic work that could satiate my desire to know that after death I would be ok. That all changed for September 3, 2007, the day my mother died. Her death was something I and my siblings knew was coming. She was in hospice care, her body slowly shutting itself down, ravaged by an auto immune disease.
In the days leading up to her death, I was so scared of losing her. When she died, I wept and wept. Grief was a constant companion for months, years, and if I am honest, now almost ten years later, I grieve her loss frequently. I lit a candle for her today.
But something I never expected happened in all this. It didn’t happen overnight, and neither did I realize it immediately after it happened. But sometime after mom died, I stopped being afraid. No longer did I feel this need to prove the existence of some kind of life after death, because it stopped being so important to me. I realized that heaven was something I could never prove, but I found myself strangely comforted about its presence.
That’s the paradox of her death – in losing her, something I was so scared of, she gave me something greater than I ever could have imagined – trust. Trust, and knowing deep inside my bones that it’s all going to be okay. So when Carissa puts a blackened ash cross on my forehead, I don’t feel sad, I don’t feel depressed – I feel grateful. I will smile the smile I saw on the faces of our community neighbors who received ashes earlier this morning.
I think the reason I will smile is because I finally learned to stop believing in the resurrection, and instead began to know it. I never knew there was a difference, until I lost my mother, and that was the moment where a peculiar trust and grateful hope were born within me. Our lives are gifts given to us by God, and the fact that we are here, as Richard Dawkins writes, that is one of the greatest miracles in the world. We are just dust, and one day we will return to the dust again. What a gift that is. What a gift that our return to dust from which we once came marks not the end of our journey, but just the beginning. In our dying, and in our living, we are the lucky ones. AMEN.