Ring Around the Rosie

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March 6, 2019. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This Ash Wednesday evening, Pastor Stephanie preaches on the meaning of the sign of the cross of ash on our foreheads, of Jesus calling us forth to honesty, and on what we do in Lent.


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I wonder if you remember the nursery rhyme “Ring around the rosie / A pocket full of posies / Ashes, ashes / We all fall down.” Anybody remember that one? Yes? One explanation of the origin of this nursery rhyme connects it with the Bubonic plague, a deadly plague that happened during the Elizabethan era in England. People were succumbing to that plague left and right, by the thousands everyday. Drawings from that era include pictures of bodies being loaded up in carts or wagons. The art portrayed the reality of grimness during that plague. The rationale for connecting that nursery rhyme with the plague stems from the fact that one of the symptoms of the plague was a red rash, which is often found in circles on the body. That was thought to be the ring around the rosie. I certainly never knew that. There was widespread thought that the plague came from bad smell that existed everywhere. And so, people would carry packets of nice-smelling posies to ward off the smell. “Ring around the rosie / A pocket full of posies / Ashes, ashes / We all fall down,” was simply a description of what was happening every day, all the time, for these people. If that is truly the origin of this schoolyard chant, it’s a far, far cry from the way I remember singing it, and saying it with laughter with my friends on the schoolyard playground. This may or may not be the true origin of the rhyme. Sometimes we don’t know about these things. But regardless, there is truth in the last sentence: ashes, ashes, we all fall down.


For here we are on the Wednesday that signals the beginning of the season of Lent, the day we call Ash Wednesday. At the lunch meeting that Katie Ciorba and I had with our recent confirmands, we shared around the table our favorite church holidays, as an icebreaker while we ate lunch. Not surprisingly, Ash Wednesday was not mentioned by a single person, although Lent did get a favorable comment at one point. And yet it’s such an important day in the life of the church, because it calls us to honest assessment, something rarely asked of us anywhere else. Ashes, ashes. We also come to death at some point. We prefer to dance around the roses. We prefer to ward off anything that confronts us with our own mortality, don’t we? Our society supports that, in doing everything we can to avoid thinking about or preparing for our own deaths. So, we have our own ways of carrying around pockets full of posies to ward off the reality of death. Now, there’s certainly nothing at all wrong with seeking the greatest health we can enjoy. We should do that. But at times, we are unrealistic about the effects of aging and frailty that our bodies will eventually display. That unrealistic bent leads us to denial of the truth of the matter because the truth is, in the end, each one of us will succumb. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.


Tonight you’ll be invited to come forward to receive the sign of ashes on your forehead, a sign that will be made with ashes that were made (as I told the children) from the burning of Palm Sunday palms. The words you hear as you receive the ashes, if you choose to come forward, will be, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes in the form of a cross will be placed on your forehead with this reminder of mortality. Some would say this is depressing. It can be. But the words are meant to remind us of the temporary nature of life. The words are meant to sound the trumpet for us, the loud alarm, that announcement that our lives do not last forever. We are formed from dust and one day we will all return to dust. To remember that our lives are temporary, is to remember to use them well.


Prayers at the end stages of life often ask God to help us to live as those prepared to die, so that in our living and in our dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord. The words from Joel speak about fasting and mourning and returning to God. All of these are called forth from God. But Joel is quick to remind us that it is the intentionality of our hearts that needs assessment. Otherwise our outer exhibitions of mourning can belie a mockery of what God wants to see, as an inner commitment of hearts tenderized, opened up, rent apart by the truth of our need for God.


Matthew says the same thing in different ways: get integrated, bring the disparate parts of yourself together. The words in Matthew’s gospel call us out on our tendency toward hypocrisy. Jesus’ instruction about prayer, like so much of what Jesus says, is a bit hyperbolic, exaggerated simply to make a point. His point is not to put down the act of praying in public, but to correct those who use prayer to pretend that they are religious, and to help themselves bolster up the idea that they are among the most faithful of all. And so Jesus says you might be better off giving up the showmanship and becoming humble, and doing the very hard work of prayer — the hard work of daily prayer in a closet, if that’s what it needs to be. He is speaking like Joel to the issue of hypocrisy and superficiality.


I suspect that each one of us has come to this Ash Wednesday service for different reasons, but all of us are looking for something. Perhaps for a definite start to the Lenten season, a way to set the season apart. Others, perhaps, have come for inspiration and ideas. Some of you might be seeking a chance to think, to get centered, to decide will you give up something, or will you take on a new habit? Others come to services like this to try to get closer to Jesus, to try to identify with what he experienced. My hope for all of us is that no matter what we do this Lenten season, we will try to get honest — honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with one another. It’s honesty, shedding our pretenses in the ways in which we fool even ourselves, that will be an antidote to our individual and collective hypocrisy that creeps up at times.


Say what you will about the vast sins of David that preceded his prayer of confession that we read responsively from Psalm 51. His sins were indeed grievous. But this prayer speaks of the great truth proclaimed by David that relates to us all — that his offense is primarily against God, and so it is to God that he appeals in his recognition of his frailty. To the best of David’s ability his confession is honest. He admits his brokenness. He allows himself to be humbled. He is ready for a journey like one he’s never really taken before — one where God is now the primary leader of his life. His own pride in what he had accomplished, up to this point, is seen for what it was: a disaster that led to sin and heartache. He is ready to throw himself on the mercy of God to begin anew. And that is what we do in Lent. We are beginning the journey of Lent together, and it’s always wise to start out with honesty. We are told in Luke’s gospel that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. He knew that he was heading toward the week we now call Holy. Along the way, on that journey, his disciples had many reality checks. Jesus loved them too much to allow them to continue in their own self-deceptions. He called forth honesty and he spoke the truth to them with love, for their benefit. And he does the same for us.


The ashes we will receive on our foreheads can be a reminder of his call to exhibit honesty. They can remind us that we are human, and in the end our struggles and sins and accomplishments and skills all turn to dust. We are mortal, and we easily sin. The shape of the cross that we made from the ashes will also be imperfect. A nice, even cross of ash is hard to make with fumbling thumbs and fingers. So the crosses will be imperfect too, because we are human. But the crosses will remind us that despite our sin, despite our humanness, we are sons and daughters of God, forgiven and freed from the weight of our failings, forgiven and loved in our mortality, invited into a journey of walking more closely with God toward the deeper life.


Thanks be to God for his good word to us.


*** Keywords ***


2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, cleansing, pardon, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, treasures, Luke 9:51