a sermon for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Matthew 5:1-6, 16-21
Today is Ash Wednesday but, as it happens, March 6, 2019, is also the 150th birthday of the Periodic Table. I know that’s probably not on everyone’s radar, but it’s on mine! And, plus, I think it’s good to talk about the gift of science in the church. In any case, it was on this day in 1869, that a Russian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev presented one interesting invention he had come upon almost by accident to the Russian Chemical Society. He had realized that all of the chemical elements they knew about, ones like Oxygen and Hydrogen and Sodium and Silver, could be arranged very neatly according to their atomic weight because he saw a pattern in them that no one else had seen.
It immediately revolutionized science, and the Periodic Table has been called one of the crowning achievements of the human mind. In fact, Mendeleev’s discovery was so accurate that his Periodic Table could be used to predict the existence of elements that hadn’t even been located yet as well as what their properties would be, too. The Periodic Table on its 150th birthday contains 118 elements, 94 of which occur naturally on earth.
I realize that for some of us, the Periodic Table might cause painful flashbacks to high school chemistry classes and memorizing equations and different things about the elements. For others, the Periodic Table may be a glimpse of God’s beauty and design, an example of how there is actually a lot of order in the midst of what we perceive as chaos in creation. Tomorrow, for a science project, my fifth grade daughter will essentially dress up as the element Lanthanum, atomic number 57—a rare earth metal that is used in some medicines, telescope lenses, Hybrid car technology, and swimming pools, and is soft enough to be cut with a knife. Tonight she and the rest of us will walk around wearing mixture of calcium carbonate, potassium chloride and a smattering of phosphates on our foreheads in the shape of a cross, because today is Ash Wednesday.
It’s so fitting, this neat little birthday and liturgical event happening together, because, after all, the Periodic Table is a list of all the elements, and today is about getting elemental. The Periodic Table map of dust of the smallest kind, atoms, and today we come to terms with the fact we’re just on that map somewhere—that each of us is just atoms which have come together for the time being and will one day unbind themselves from one another and dissolve back into the stuff of the universe.
Mendeleev did not come up with that idea 150 years ago, of course. God’s Word had revealed that to the ancient Hebrews millennia ago. “You are dust, and to dust you will return” is what the Creator says to man at the beginning of existence after the disobedient nature of humankind rears its head. Humans had tried to put themselves in the Creator’s place, to reach for a position that wasn’t theirs, and God had to remind them of their true element, that they depend on God for all things. Tonight we bear a symbol of that reminder. It the period to remember our life has a period.
But that’s not the end of it tonight, really. If we’re going to contemplate the elements of creation, and our own complicated place within it, we also must call to mind the elements of our Creator. This is not just a chance to reflect on our mortality, on how death will eventually put an end to all our creativity and love, but an opportunity to understand more deeply who this God is. What are this God’s elements? What constitutes his nature?
For that we look to his story, and we hear he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God creates in us clean hearts and renews a right spirit within us. God’s nature is to give himself to creation, in all its brokenness not stand distant from it and watch it crumble. The apostle Paul writes “for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” God’s basic elemental desire is to love us, to breathe life into us, over and over, to form us into beautiful, extraordinary people.
Yesterday, as Pastor Joseph and I prepared to make the ashes for tonight, we made a snap decision to issue an online invitation if anyone else wanted to join us. In past years we’ve undertaken this smoky task alone in the kitchen, but this year we thought it would be fun to include others. I had wondered where outside we could burn last year’s palms if more people came. Joseph suggested the columbarium, which was a brilliant idea. Four people—all women, as it happened—turned up and took charge of igniting these dried palms from last year’s Palm Sunday. The wind was whipping around like crazy and it was a bit chilly. Huge tongues of fire leapt out of the little metal pot Beth Barger had specially purchased for us to use. Dark smoke swirled into the air.
I felt like it was a little out of control for a minute or two there, but I suppose that’s to be expected when working with the Spirit, the breath of God that brings life to dust. It was almost like we were re-enacting Easter and Pentecost at the same time: women at the tomb, in a holy place surrounded by the remains of our brothers and sisters, standing around and sharing their faith in the presence of a mighty fire and roaring wind. It was a picture of this mighty God who can take the ashes of our lives and raise them up to something new. Today those ashes the women made form crosses on all of you.
And if today’s gathering is about remembering or celebrating a Table, it is the Lord’s Table, the Table where all things really start to make sense, where order in our universe is finally achieved. That is where we meet the One who is Behind it All. And there he offers himself again. There we see that basic desire to be with us once again—to have his own body broken and his own blood shed. And at that Table we find ourselves forgiven, restored, reconciled to him, sent back out into the world with another chance. We will return to dust at some point, yes, but we can also return to the Lord our God who is gracious and holds out mercy to us.
As we return to God, know that Jesus gives his disciples the elements of strengthening that relationship: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus outlines the basic structure of how we can grow in the life of faith. We learn to give of ourselves like God does through the sacrifice of money and possessions, freeing us up from materialism and allowing us to realize our responsibility to care for those who have less.
We grow in our dependence on God by abstaining from something we do on a regular basis that may be unnecessary, or by changing a habit in a way that we reoriented away from infatuation with our own powers.
And we grow in our ability to communicate with God by focusing on our prayer and using the language of Scripture to form our language to God.
We hope that this Lent can be a time of growth, of realizing that God takes our finite lives, our numbered days, and fills them with the life of his Son Jesus—that though we are nothing but atoms, we are God’s atoms and that the God we meet on the cross has a love for us that makes all things new.
That is, in the cross of Jesus we meet God is in his element.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.