Several years ago someone said to me, “One day I finally realized people were not spending nearly the amount of time thinking about me as I was spending thinking about them thinking about me, and wondering what they saw when they looked at me, what they said about me, and what they thought about me.”
The man who told me this story was a good friend, a mentor and spiritual teacher. When he finished talking I nodded my head and said quietly, “I understand. I get it.” “I thought you would,” he said.
What I understood was that even though he was telling this story about his life he was talking about my life. I had become way over invested in being validated, approved of, and recognized by others. In the language of today’s gospel, I was investing in earthly treasures, and with every investment I was unmaking myself and recreating myself in the image and likeness of all those others. I got what he was saying and I’ll bet you do too.
Haven’t there been times when you desperately wanted and worked hard for the recognition and approval of others? When have you lost yourself to the opinions of others? Have you ever spent some time wondering what others are saying and thinking about you, wondering what they see when they look at you?
I think we all come to that place in our lives at some time and probably many times. As usual though it’s not really about the others, it’s about us. We look at our life and ask, “What have I done with my life?” We want to know if we are enough. We’ve experienced our own fragility and we want some security. We’re not sure who we are and we want others to tell us. We’ve lost the connection to the original beauty of our creation, the transfiguring presence of God, and all we can see is our own mortality.
When that happens life is diminished for us and for others. We turn to some seeking more than what they can give and we set ourselves against others with judgment, comparison, competition, envy, and jealousy. We have, as Jesus said, received our reward but I don’t think it’s the reward we really want. It’s certainly not the one God wants to give us.
Everything about today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) suggests we too easily and quickly seek and settle for less than what God desires for us. Over and over again Jesus tells us not to seek our validation, recognition, and identity from others but from God.
I’m not saying that what others think or say doesn’t matter but, rather, that they are earthly treasures that cannot last and in the final analysis do not change us, our mortality, or the fragility of our life. Yesterday’s praise can quickly become today’s condemnation. Today’s recognition and adulation give way to tomorrow’s question, “What have you done for me lately?” It’s not us who changed, but the opinions of the others.
Others simply cannot give us the life we want. It’s not theirs to give. Our life is not found in or determined by their recognition or their approval. Ironically, it is found in recognizing and accepting our own mortality, the very thing we seek to escape through the praise, approval, and recognition of others. Ash Wednesday holds that truth before us.
Today we not only face our mortality, we mark ourselves with the ashes of mortality. Think about what we are doing. This year’s ashes were last year’s palms. We carried them in celebration and triumph last year on Palm Sunday. They were once green and supple, a sign of life and victory. Then they became dry, brittle, and brown. Today they are gray ash, remnants and remains from the fire of change.
That’s not just about the liturgy, that’s about our lives. It’s the reminder that our past accomplishments, successes, and triumphs will fade, grow old, and become ashes. The voices of praise will one day grow silent. These earthly treasures will, in Jesus’ words, be consumed by rust, eaten by moths, and stolen by thieves. Yesterday’s palms are today’s ashes.
The ashes of our mortality are not, however, the end. They are the beginning of a new story and the way forward. They open us to the life of God, a life others cannot give us and we cannot give ourselves. Until we know ourselves as mortal we have no need of the Immortal One. And until we know our lives and ourselves to be connected and linked to the eternal life and presence of God we will always demand the world give us its recognition for what we think we have done or possess.
Marked with the ashes of our mortality we are freed to become more fully alive. You see Lent is not about escaping our humanity but the freedom to become more fully human. And that begins with facing and claiming our mortality and the fragility of our lives.
The man who told me the story that began this sermon has since retired. We don’t see each other nearly enough but we still talk. Several months ago he told me another story. This time it really was about him but I hope one day it will also be about me.
He said he was in a program to become a master gardener. “How’s it going?” I asked. He said, “The teacher doesn’t like me. He said I have a bad attitude, I’m not serious enough about the class, and he’s disappointed with my participation.” He went on to say, “I told the teacher I thought he was mistaken about something.” The teacher asked what he was mistaken about and my friend said, “I think you think that what you think about me matters to me; and it just doesn’t. It really doesn’t. I don’t care. I’m almost seventy years old, I’m having a great time in this class, and I won’t let you take that from me.”
That’s a man who has experienced the fragility of life and embraced his mortality. That’s a man who has sifted the ashes of his life and discovered the freedom to be more fully human, more fully alive. That’s a man who knows himself through the life and presence of the Immortal One.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.