"Who do you think you are?"

Ash Wednesday.B.24
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

“Who do you think you are?” I don’t know your experience, but generally, when I hear these words, and even imagine saying them myself, they are not uttered with a feeling of good will. “Who do you think you are?” This is what we say to the able-bodied person who parks in a handicap spot with impunity, or the individual who takes something from the store without paying. We reserve this question for the driver who runs the red light, the other who writes in library books, and still more who vandalize, bully, disregard and disrespect others. “Just, who do you think you are?” And yet, despite the baggage with which the question comes, it remains a good one to ask. “Who do you think you are?”

However…before this question is answered, take a moment, and excise from it, if you can, any pre-conceived notions of judgment; eliminate whatever you have heard others say about who you are in a negative light—and simply ponder—perhaps with a sense of wonder. “Who do you think you are?” Because, ultimately, this is a fine question to ask of ourselves—in its deepest sense.

The historian, James Truslow Adams, once made a wise suggestion: “Perhaps it would be a good idea, fantastic as it sounds, to muffle every telephone, stop every motor, and halt every activity for an hour one day to give people a chance to ponder for a few minutes on what it is all about, why they are living and what they really want.”

The Rev. James Albert Paul writes: “A glance at the society in which we live tells us that too many people are struggling for petty aims and shallow satisfactions. The true measure of life is not quantitative, but qualitative…we get caught up in the excitement of what everyone else is thinking and saying and doing, and are subtly persuaded to choose the temporary over the permanent, the tangible over the intangible, the material over the spiritual.”

As we embark upon this season of Lent we are encouraged to seek not only our answer to the question “Who do you think you are?” But to consider the answer given to us by Jesus. Who does our Lord and Savior think we are?

To begin, Jesus was no sentimentalist about humanity. Our Savior knew how even the most pious among us could err and stray like lost sheep. A reading of the Scriptures tells us that Jesus could blaze with indignation against human deceit, selfishness and evil—recall, if you will, him driving the money changers from the temple. And make no mistake, his words are not soft and compromising when it comes to evil and wickedness. In Matthew’s gospel he says: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Jesus knew that people were capable of crucifying Truth to protect their own selfish interests. All of this our Savior freely acknowledged. Any of us harboring in our minds a picture of a soft and insipid Savior should read the Scriptures.

Yet there is also this—always, always beneath Jesus’ realistic appraisal of humanity’s unruly and unworthy ways, he saw something in us that was divine. Jesus never doubted the presence in ourselves of an inner spark, something that love could restore to its lost self-respect. It’s a teaching he passed on to his followers so they could hand it on to us. Listen to these words of St. Paul’s that he wrote to the fractious and querulous community in Corinth: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). I don’t know about you—but these are words of hope.

Today, Ash Wednesday, we might be tempted to answer the question “Who do you think you are?” with familiar words from our liturgy: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On the one hand, it’s difficult to hear these words without judgement. After all, ashes are a symbol of mourning, of loss—of death, bereavement and even of failure. We think of ashes—and images of dust from bombed and burned buildings in the war-torn regions of our world rise in our minds. Yet, from the perspective of God, the creator of the universe who called all things into being and named them “Good”, ashes are so much more than the cumulative effect of our failures. Ashes are made of stardust and moondust—they are the dirt beneath our feet from which so much grows. Ashes, seen from the perspective of God, speak less of death than they do of life—because ours, is a God both of love and of life.

There is a story about Gutzon Borglum, the distinguished American sculptor, who was once working on a bust of Abraham Lincoln. Each day he chipped away the stone, and each day it was the task of a very simple woman to sweep up the pieces and carry them off. With wide-eyed amazement she watched the head of Lincoln emerge under the sculptor’s skilled hands until at last, when the work was almost finished, she could contain her wonder no longer. “Mr. Borglum,” she said, “How’d you know Mr. Lincoln was in that stone?”

This is what the spirit of Christ can do with human nature. Jesus removes the sharp edges and unshapely elements. And the Holy Spirit blows away the dross. God helps us to answer the question: “Who do you think you are.” so that we can respond with a heart-felt answer found in the catechism of our faith. Who am. I? I am a member of the body of Christ. I am a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” We may be dust (this much is true)—but we are the blessed dust of God, through whom all things are made. Embark upon this holy season of Lent by casting away whatever accumulation of remorse and grief you may bear—and carry your cross with hope, knowing that in following Christ, you are journeying toward the person you are meant to become. In Jesus’ name. Amen.