a sermon for Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5:20–6:10
In her very short poem, “Take Your Kids to the Funeral,” American poet Michelle Boisseau, who herself died from lung cancer in 2017, pleads the case for bringing even young children to church funeral services, even though they might not understand what’s going on. Their presence will lighten the mourners’ moods as they play with the bulletin, and let their legs dangle back and forth over the pew’s edge but will also introduce them to a world of mystery and power beyond themselves.
She describes the sounds of a church sanctuary filled with grieving people, and kids can be such an unexpected gift in such a place. Often when we are often worshiping as a body, no matter when that is but especially at a funeral, our attention can’t help but be drawn to children as they squirm and find ways to pass the time. They bring life and curiosity into places of death and sadness.
Take Your Kids to the Funeral
Let them stretch out on the cool pews
and listen to the valves of the church
pump with coughs and foot scrapes.
Let them discover the pleasing weirdness
of pressing your belly against the seat edge
and swinging your legs. Let them roll
the bulletin into a telescope, stare a hole
into their hands and heal it.
The liturgy won’t hold them, but the furtive
dabbing versus sudden bursts of tears
will foster a curiosity about powers
and exponents. Rock, paper, scissors—
luck leaps in your fingers. Bring your kids
to the funeral and let us smell their heads. 1
Today, Ash Wednesday, we bring ourselves to the funeral. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered about what this day and this worship means, it is about having the chance to show up at your own funeral. We step forward in a sanctuary with its coughs and foot scrapes and receive ashes, admitting our finitude and coming to terms with the darkness of our souls once again. It is reminiscent of one of the actions pastors perform at most burials—dropping a handful of dirt on the casket in the sign of the cross.
Just as the prophet Joel issued a call for the people of Israel to bring everyone, even the babies, and assemble in the sanctuary with weeping and fasting and mourning in order to look the fearsome destruction of death in the eye, so we assemble ourselves today and have fearsome destruction smeared between our eyes. I doubt there will be any sudden bursts of tears, but there is a somberness to this beginning of Lent, the kind of somberness we almost think is inappropriate for children to be exposed to.
We are very much alive! We may even wonder: do we even belong here? Do we need to stop and think about these things? What good could it do? Someone hand me bulletin so that I can make a telescope or play Tic-Tac-Toe. We are so filled with life. And yet are dying, and this is our funeral.
I’ve been thinking so much recently, as we all have, about the situation in Ukraine, but I’ve also been haunted by what is going on in Moscow, and in the small towns across Russia where tens of thousands of 18- and 19-year-olds have been conscripted by the Russian army and placed on the front lines, apparently without much food and without much fuel for their tanks. I think of how scared and confused they must be, how terrified and sad their parents probably are. Some of their text messages to their parents from the war in Ukraine that I’ve seen on social media are heart-wrenching to read. Ukrainian soldiers are receiving praise for their courage and flintiness, and rightly so, but what about the ones who are just miserable in their sorrow, who feel there are fighting a lost cause they did not even start? War, like funerals, to some degree, contain extremes—the brave and the fearful, the determined and the aimless, the well-resourced and the hungry. They will not need ashes from palms this year in Kyiv. Or Kabul, for that matter.
This is the world that God looks upon: The children in the pews who seem too young. The soldiers with AK-47s who are too young. The refugees with skin considered too dark. The cities with streets that are too empty. The mothers and fathers with tears they weep too soon.
And tonight, at our funeral, we hear that God does not just look on this world. God reconciles himself to this world. God himself walks into this world that contains all of these stark opposites that don’t seem to go together. Tonight, in the midst of our funeral, we rejoice because our day of salvation has come. “For our sake God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God does not distance himself, like child left at home. God brings himself to this funeral, and makes the first move. God does not keep himself separate from what we’ve done with the world and with ourselves. God does not distance himself. God, in Christ, comes to reconcile all these things with each other and with himself in steadfast love
And so in Jesus Christ, with his cross marked on our heads, we remember that plenty of total opposites now belong together: Our sinfulness and God’s mercy. Our hard-heartedness and God’s compassion. Our inability to finish the things we start and God’s truthfulness and drive all things are complete. Our desire to hide from and ignore our call to care and God’s insistence in seeking us out and letting us try again. Our attraction to violence in solving problems and God’s standard for peace. All of these things are brought together, just as at a funeral we share our sorrows and sing with hope. And just as at a baptism we drown the old self and raise the new one up to life eternal.
Therefore we should not be surprised that the life of faith, for now, is one with so much tension between opposites. This is precisely how Paul describes it in his letter to the Corinthians, a church so caught up in their own divisions and drama that they had started to turn on him. He says that he has undergone all kinds of afflictions and hardships in order to bring this message of hope to them. He is treated as an imposter, yet is true. He is treated sorrowful, but yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing everything precisely because Christ has accomplished it all for him.
When a world still does not fully acknowledge yet, or grasp that it has been died for, that unconditional love really has been poured out for it, or that God has truly conquered death and sin on the cross, faith will often be a struggle. God gives us courage to face that struggle, in ourselves and in the world around us. But God gives us the strength to move ahead knowing that the times of sorrow will have joy mixed in, and the times of hardship will have peace mixed in until the day when all it will be is joy and peace.
So we are soldiers, or a kind of fighter. Paul saw himself as one, as did some of the great figures of the Hebrew Bible—Esther, David, Miriam, Ruth, and Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego— Like them all we are called to embrace the pain and suffering and hard decisions that come with the life of faith, confident that God’s life and love is victorious in the end. Over the course of these Lenten Wednesdays we will look a little deeper at their examples of courage—whether it is in how they use their voice, or their action, or their compassion. They are people who trusted that God’s day of salvation was at hand, trusted that though death and sorrow surrounded them, God was merciful and abounding in steadfast love.
So bring yourself to this funeral tonight, and trust you may look your death right in the eye. Hear the words of sorrow and loss amidst the valves of this church’s coughs and squeaky pews.
But also know there is promise and life for you, and it has the final word—life and love of a risen Lord who claims you and lead you forth in courage.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.