The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THINKING ABOUT THE UNTHINKABLE

Delivered 2/21/96
Text: Genesis 3:1-19
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I came home from work last evening, greeted the family, changed clothes, and began reading the mail. This week's Newsweek was there, so I began flipping through. Early on I came to this rather striking ad: it said, "It's 1998. You're DEAD. What do you do now? Just for a minute, think the unthinkable. Think about when suddenly you're not there." And then the ad goes on to try to sell life insurance. (1) Years ago, a friend of mine who was an insurance agent would approach potential clients on the street and say, "I had a dream about you last night...I dreamed you died...and you didn't have insurance!" The amazing thing to me is that is approach actually worked - he made a fine living.

Death IS a fact of life. One of the first sections in the newspaper many turn to is the obituary notices. Some figure, if their name is not there, all is well and they can begin the day. But everyone of us knows that, one day, our name WILL be there, like it or not. As has been said, the only things certain in this life are death and taxes. The difference is some people can cheat on their taxes; no one cheats death.

We know it is true, but we would rather not think about it. Some people take the opposite tack - they refuse to read the obituaries. They avoid going to funeral homes or attending memorial services. If they forget about death, perhaps it will forget about them. But it does not work that way.

Now we come to Ash Wednesday. Millions of people all around the world are gathering for worship. In the more liturgical traditions, they will silently move toward the front of the church, kneel before the minister or priest, feel the touch of an ash-covered finger on their forehead, and hear the ancient words from Scripture, "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." One after another: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

Strange words to the modern ear. They sound fusty, irrelevant, positively medieval. Why should we remember our death when all the world cries "Life" to us? We are urged to think positive, feel good about ourselves, reach for the stars, "Be all that you can be." Even Jesus proclaimed that he had come that we might have LIFE, and have it more abundantly. It is annoying to be reminded that this full life will someday end. No. Forget all this dust and ashes talk. Let us keep things in their places, simple and safe - life now, while there is life; death later, when there must be death. That is why, for all the millions who will hear those ancient words today and tonight about being dust and returning to dust, even more millions will stay away.

But then we pick up the paper or flip on the evening news. Suddenly something sounds like a broken axle in this smoothly rotating machine of existence. In the midst of cheerful stories about how various local restaurants sing Happy Birthday to their patrons, there are the ones about the atrocities of war in Bosnia, the continuing trial to convict the murderer of Michael Jordan's father, the wrongful death suit against O. J. Simpson, children shooting other children in street-corner drug battles. The ageless bell tolls.

One recalls the words of Jesus in the parable about the rich man who thought he had it made (Luke 12:16-21). He had done so well that he could tear down his barns, build some bigger ones, and think about early retirement, a life of ease. But then Jesus' words bring him up short. "Fool, this night is your soul required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? Fool, this is as simple as it gets. It is coming. You are dust, and to dust you shall return." As someone has said, "Death is something that happens while you are making other plans."

Why does it have to happen? That ancient story from the Garden of Eden makes no bones about it. In almost shockingly straightforward language, it says we have brought it on ourselves. Like Adam and Eve we want to be like God - we claim to know what is good and what is evil, and then act on those short-sighted, self-serving revelations. We make ourselves out to be supermen. We decide that death for our enemies is acceptable in defense of a political agenda, so we go to war. We decide that handguns must be kept available to all twentieth- century Americans (even teenage drug pushers) in case the British decide to invade again. We decide that the pursuit of illicit pleasure involves little or no risk - AIDS only happens to other people. Supermen, we think...like God.

In a way, it sounds vaguely like the ancient myth of Prometheus. Do you remember? The ancient Greeks thought of Prometheus as a hero, because he was a champion of humanity, a superman. It was Prometheus who came down from Olympus to teach us how to be better than the rest of the beasts: how to build, how to use tools, how to use herbs for healing; he even introduced us to fire. Prometheus would have made US supermen. But in the process, he aroused the wrath of Zeus, and was bound with chains to a rock where he was tormented by a vulture who tore at his liver by day, and tormented by the cold each night as the liver healed only to be clawed again in the morning. Zeus would not be challenged. There would be no supermen.

"Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In its own way, Greek mythology told that to the ancients. Scripture says it quite plainly to us. Like Prometheus, we too are bound. The Lenten journey which begins with Ash Wednesday is a NECESSARY reminder: we are NOT supermen - we are dust.

That would be terribly depressing if that were the whole story. No wonder some avoid reading obituaries or going to funerals. We do all we can to put death out of our minds, despite magazine ads screaming, "It's 1998. You're DEAD." But Lent only begins with dust and ashes. The story goes on. Those Promethean chains which bind us are not our final destiny. On a drab and desolate hill one day, someone loosed those chains - not some superman, but God in the flesh in Jesus Christ - something we are called to remember every time we gather at his table. Then on Easter morning, a spark appeared in the dust and ashes that lit an unquenchable flame.

The Gospel puts things into perspective - it allows us to think about the unthinkable. The Lenten story begins with an uncomfortable stirring of the ashes of existence and forces us to consider our sin, our guilt, to "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But it culminates in a glorious day of resurrection. The story affirms for us that, because of Jesus, neither ashes nor dust are the last word.

Amen!


1. Ad for the Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education, Newsweek, 2/26/96

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