During a joint Ash Wednesday service with and at St. Francis Lutheran Church today, my colleague Pr. Bea Chun preached. Here are some of my reflections from last year (update).
It is one thing to learn about history and important figures in history from a book, a class, or even a TV documentary – but it is a totally different experience to actually be in the places where history happened. Three years ago, my husband and I went on a trip to Germany; for the most part, we were retracing the steps of the Reformation.
In Leipzig, we visited the churches where the great composer of the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach, worked and played music. Bach is buried in one of those churches, St. Thomas Church. Seeing his grave reminded me that Bach was a real, living, breathing person. For only who lives can die.
Then, in Wittenberg, the birth place of the Reformation, every step I took was steeped in history. I walked the cobble stone streets where Martin Luther and his fellow reformers once trod. I touched the doorknobs they touched, I walked through the rooms where they worked and discussed and prayed and changed the world. I can’t describe how amazing that was.
And I was also able to see the graves of Martin Luther and his right hand man, Philip Melanchthon, in the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and once again was reminded that they are not only phantoms of history, but actually lived. And they died, like all living things.
They, like everyone else, were dust, and to dust they returned. Even they were mere mortals.
So why do we remember people like Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther, and Johann Sebastian Bach to this day? They made an impact, they left a legacy that, in a sense, made them immortal. The daring theologians and reformers of the 16th century, the extraordinarily gifted musician and composer of the 18th century – we remember them because they left something behind that rust and moth cannot destroy, something that cannot be stolen. Words and thoughts and deeds inspired by the Holy Scriptures, heavenly music written for the glory of God, these are the treasures those people found and shared with the world. None of those great minds was looking for fame and fortune, but for beauty and truth. Needless to say, none of them died rich.
In the end, they were people like you and me, with their flaws, foul moods, and tempers, with their personal blind spots and actions we just cannot comprehend – one just has to look at the elder Luther and his violent verbal outbursts against the Jewish people.
In a sense, they are like us – and we are like them. In need of forgiveness, but amazingly forgiven by a loving God who died for us and for all on the cross.
Yes, we are dust, and to dust we shall return – but we, like Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, like Johann Sebastian Bach, are gifted. Well, maybe not quite like those guys, but we all have received something that is special, a treasure that maybe still needs to be discovered, something we can share with the world. We all have the potential to make an impact, and to leave a legacy. Just think of all the saints here at St. Matthew’s, who have died, but their memory lives on in so many ways.
And, yes, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But even though our bodies will disintegrate at some point, there is something in all of us which rust and moth cannot destroy, and which cannot be stolen from us: God’s love, which is the greatest treasure there is, and which gives us life eternal. This is what we remember during the Lenten season. Yes, our journey takes us to the cross – but ultimately to the empty tomb. Praise be to God!