All that glitters is not gold
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
ASH WEDNESDAY, MARCH 1st, 2017
One of the biggest delusions of the modern church is that it has to be ‘relevant’. And by that I don’t mean that the church shouldn’t strive to interact with people in ways that are meaningful to the reality of their lives but, rather, I mean that the church should not feel under any kind of pressure to be cool, hip or zeitgeist-y in order, apparently, to appeal to people.
Unfortunately, I do read about – and over the years have seen – my fair share of things offered by churches in this vein that make me want to cringe, but one thing that really takes the cake I read about this morning. And that is this: mixing glitter into the Ash Wednesday ashes.
Yes, this is a real thing. And in a moment I’ll say a little bit about why I think it’s a really bad idea. But, first, the facts.
A priest down in New York City came up with the idea. Now, fundamentally, it was a somewhat well-intentioned idea. The idea is that because glitter is a cultural phenomenon in the LGBTQ community, you could make a statement about supporting LGBTQ solidarity whilst also making a statement about your mortality and demise being in the hands of your creator. So, mix the glitter with the ash and you get to do both things at the same time and, also, it looks kinda cool and well, you know, glittery, and everyone likes glitter, don’t they? And then people will see your glittery ash and will respect you more deeply.
Let me say, upfront, that I absolutely agree with standing in solidarity with those who are LGBT or Q and, indeed, so most emphatically does the Episcopal Church. But to mix glitter into the stark, plain ashes of Ash Wednesday only serves to confuse the message of both the ashes and the glitter.
Ash Wednesday has a specific purpose. It is a day of the year above all other days on which we focus specifically on our essential earthly mortality. It is the day of the year when we intentionally take time out to reflect deeply on the profound implications of this fact: that we, and every other person every other creature, every other item, article, artifact and entity is comprised of elemental dust. Every atom of every thing was made in the heart of a star in a distant galaxy and perhaps a distant universe and one day that’s where all those atoms will end up again. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return’.
Dust. That’s all what our earthly lives amount to. A handful of dust and ashes.
Ash Wednesday is the day when we can hear this stark truth and yet, also, be reassured that, beyond the dust and ashes, there is life.
In the face of the fundamental enormity of this, isn’t it more than good that we should, at least on one day of the church’s year spend some time just solemnly thinking about that? After all, there’s more than enough in that fact to occupy our thoughts without them being distracted by other thoughts.
And that is why I say that putting glitter in the ashes ends up cheapening both the message of LBGTQ solidarity and the message of our elemental mortality. In attempting to conflate the two messages, neither message is really heard.
But there are other reasons why I think it’s a bad idea as well.
When I was very little, we had two TV channels in the UK. The BBC and the independent ITV. Then, in about 1973, the BBC introduced a second channel, called, unoriginally, BBC2. Then in around 1980 a second independent channel was introduced, so we had four channels. Woo hoo! I honestly don’t recall feeling deeply deprived by this, because, I realize now, there was something fundamentally good about not having too much choice. Now I have 600 channels to choose from. But today, we don’t watch TV to see what’s on, we watch TV to see what else is on. We graze from one channel to the next, reduced to perpetual state of indecision, and hoping that the next channel will be better than the previous, and never feeling satisfied but, instead, craving a newer, more appealing viewing sensation. Too much choice is actually not a good thing. It's a paradox, and it leaves us feeling perpetually unfulfilled. It’s not just me that thinks that, by the way. I have heard many people express a similar sentiment. You know, when I only had 20 vinyl records, I listened to them all the time. Now I have Spotify and iTunes and I listen to music so much less: because I am offered so much choice that it overwhelms me and I cannot think what I want to listen to, and it becomes too complicated, and so I end up listening to nothing.
And what has this got to do with Ash Wednesday?
Well, it brings us back to the glitter. As I said at the start of this sermon, one of the modern church’s fallacies is that it needs to hitch its wagon to the cultural norms of the everyday world in order to be seen as ‘relevant’ and to therefore attract people to its services and so on.
Big mistake. What people are really looking for in the church is a bunch of people who are unapologetic about sharing their ancient and precious treasures with the world around them. We have the very words of life in this place. The words that we say this evening might no longer be in Latin, and might have undergone a little modernization along the way, but they are fundamentally unchanged for the most part in almost two thousand years and, in the case of our first reading and psalm for as many as three thousand years. Day in, day out, week in, week out, year in, year out, century in, century out, Christians have said those words, heard those words. It stands as a metaphor of God in the midst of the sea of impermanence around us. It stands as a beacon of unchanging-ness in an ephemeral world. It stands as something dependable in the morass of overwhelming uncertainty we face. And that, in itself, is more than enough to be attractive without misguided attempts by some people in the church to feel that they need to spice it up a bit in case people get bored and decide the services aren’t offering them a bit more excitement.
At the heart of it, the fallacy I am talking about is this: a misunderstanding about what the church is here to do. Is the church here to entertain, or is it here to enlighten?
If it’s here to entertain, like a TV channel, or a new phone app, except with more silk brocade, then it will never be able to compete, and it will always look uncool, and it will always be destined to fail.
But if it is here to enlighten then, although it does of course have to communicate in such a way that it is connecting with people, it is released from the prison of having to always be chasing after the latest thing, or anxiously seeking approval, or desperately shouting ‘look at me, look at me, everyone’, and instead can get on with the much more important task of simply being a faithful witness to the unchanging, steadfast, ever-faithful love of God.
In a sense, that distinction is what Jesus was referring to in the gospel reading we heard a few minutes ago from St. Matthew, when he talked about the people who went out in the streets to trumpet their piety, or made sure everyone could see how painful it was for them to be fasting. Fundamentally, that kind of attention seeking is a sad act, an act of desperation by people who want to be loved, and who feel so unsure of themselves that they need constantly to be told how great they are, or need to prove that they are in some way equal to, or better than, some arbitrary human standard. And, in that respect, Jesus could have been talking about people we know. Perhaps at some level, Jesus could have been talking about us.
And that’s why those two upcoming little smudges of carbon on our heads are so important: because all of what we see of us, and all of this, is interstellar dust. And that ash reminds us of this truth: that all that glitters is not gold.
That all sounds very final, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. The fact that this elemental, earthly existence comes to an end in dust and ashes is, paradoxically, also not the end. Being reminded of the perishable also reminds us of the imperishable. When we say the creed at a Eucharist, we say that we believe in the ‘resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting’. What we believe is that although our earthly life will come to an end in dust and ashes, we are to become transformed, transfigured in some way, beyond our understanding, into the bodily existence we were given by God, yet in a way that will transcend pain, suffering, disfigurement and physical limitations. This is very important. These bodies that we inhabit are a gift from God and when we say that the power of God has conquered death, it means that everything about death is conquered, including the degradation of our bodies. We do not and cannot know what that existence will look like, but it does mean that everything that we know and love, and everyone that we know and love in this physical, earthly world will be restored by God into something beyond our wildest hopes and aspirations, something more glorious and transfigured than we can even begin to understand.