I like to work on our cars as much as possible on my own. There’s something good about working with my hands. And mechanical problems are problems that have solutions, unlike many of the problems I encounter day to day in this job.
So recently I went to change the oil on Dana’s car. I could not, for the life of me, get the housing off to replace the oil filter. I tugged and tugged, I used everything I knew. After two hours, three broken tools, one of which was metal and literally split in half, I gave up.
It was hard to confess, but I did, that the work of my hands would not, in this case, prosper. I had to get someone else to do it. So I put oil back in the car and resolved to drive in the morning to get it fixed.
Well, turns out I had loosened the housing just enough to have it leak. When I turned on the car, it sounded like the car had major digestive issues. Quickly, a puddle of deep brown liquid about a yard across and two feet deep formed in our carport. After walmart confessed they could not get the housing off, I had it towed to Pitts Toyota, where they changed the oil and replaced the housing broken by the previous oil change place.
It was a disaster of an oil change. And I couldn’t help but think of it when the psalmist pleads with God, at the end of our scripture this evening, “prosper the work of our hands!”
Let’s hear our scripture for this Ash Wednesday, Psalm 90.
Prosper the work of our hands. It reminds me of the Home Depot slogan: never stop doing. As well as their older slogan: you can do it, we can help.
Our hands find many things to do, some of which are frustrating, like disasters of an oil change, some of which are wonderful and meaningful, like when I break the bread and lift the cup during communion. Or this evening, when my hands will put ashes on your forehead; that, too, is a work of my hands in which I find great meaning and purpose.
And every year, when I place ashes on the foreheads of my family, our mortality always hits home. It’s a different experience, more personal, to look at my sons and say “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s hard to consider the mortality of my children, especially because they are so much the work of my hands.
The Psalmist doesn’t just mean those things we can actually make with our hands when he pleads with God to prosper the work of his hands. The word in the Hebrew, translated here as prosper, means something more like “establish, make firm, make lasting,” the work of our hands.
The desire of the Psalmist is to have the work he does, and the work of the Israelites, be lasting work, work that matters, work that has meaning, work that will remain when they are gone from this life.
And what parent doesn’t want exactly that with their children? To have their work of parenting, the work of their hands, be prospered, be established, be made lasting and firm. That is, perhaps, the greatest desire in my life, for many, many, reasons other than our children. So I can hear myself resonating with the Psalmist: prosper, establish, make lasting, the work of my hands.
For we want our work to matter. We want what we do to matter. We want meaning out of life. So does the Psalmist. And the Psalmist realizes that life is not forever. They, and we, have limited time to get things right, to move away from work that doesn’t matter or work that is against what God would have them do. To move into work that does matter, that God will prosper, that will be established like a firm foundation, lasting for generations. So the Psalmist prays to God, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”
Mortality is setting in. The Psalmist knows that most around him don’t make it to their fiftieth birthday. Life expectancy in the ancient world at this time was in the 40s. Consider that for a second: imagine if you only lived to be 46. I would have nine years lift. This sanctuary would be absent many familiar faces. Life for them was much shorter than it is for us.
But even for those who live the longest in ancient Israel, to their seventieth or eightieth birthday, the Psalmist says that even those only know toil and trouble. He sounds like Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, who says that life is havel, vapor, here for a second and gone, a wisp of wind.
Life is, we would say, precious, but not the Psalmist. Life is incredibly short, full of toil and turmoil, full of strife and division, full of hardship. God looks down on us, blinks his eye, and a thousand years worth of human history goes by.
That’s Qoheleth’s message in Ecclesiastes. That’s what the Psalm says. Doesn’t it seem foolish, then, to work so hard in this life? To labor so hard? Trying to prosper the work of our own hands? We will be forgotten, faster than we would like to admit. We might feel like big stuff now, but all too quickly people will move on with their lives and we will be forgotten.
And yet, we do try to prosper the work of our hands. We labor and labor over our work. We are consumed with being busy, with being hurried, with things to do, schedules to keep, obligations to fulfill.
And we don’t stop to consider whether or not it’s all worth it. We check email frequently, seeing if we’re needed, trying to keep up with the demands of work. When we have a free minute, we feel the compulsion to fill it with something: more work, writing reports, calling people, or maybe household chores of dishes, laundry, yard work, or some repair around the house.
We never stop. We’re trying to prosper the work of our hands. Or maybe we’re just trying to keep up with the work our hands have found to do.
Tonight, we stop, briefly, from our work, for this service, to consider the bigger things of life.
Or maybe you haven’t stopped yet. Maybe you’ve checked your email during the service or during the sermon. Maybe your mind has wandered off to some stressor, something that needs doing, thinking about work or obligations or priorities in your life.
Stopping is hard, but that’s what Ash Wednesday asks us to do: stop. Consider your mortality. We will all die. We are only human. Our lives are here but for a moment, like the grass of the field that fades and withers in the evening. We are dust, blown about by the wind.
But this isn’t bad news. This isn’t something to be depressed about.
No, it’s truth that should orient our lives.
Consider that what makes Christmas so special is that it only comes around once a year. If it was everyday, it would cease to be special. The same is true for Easter, what our hearts and souls yearn for and eagerly anticipate during the Lenten season. Our lives are like that. What makes our lives special is that they are limited in time. Finite. Mortal. If we lived forever, our lives would not be special.
And so we must, then, be careful with how we manage our time here on this planet. The Psalmist speaks a deep and profound truth when he says, “teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Wisdom comes from recognizing that we have a very limited amount of time here. That’s the truth around which we should orient our lives.
Much of the time, we spend our days striving to just keep up with demands on our lives. Tonight is a chance to ask ourselves this question. It’s a hard question. It requires courage to face it and answer it honestly. But it’s the question of wisdom and the gateway to living a life of wisdom, It’s how we live into the truth that should orient our lives; the truth of our mortality: do those demands, these obligations, really matter?
Many things in life are a wisp of wind, vapor, havel, here for a moment and then gone. Someone doesn’t like you? It’s a wisp of wind. Your boss is terrible? It’s just vapor. Your finances are a mess? It’s havel.
And then, when we do get focused on the things of life that matter, we so often find our work futile. We can’t make our children who we want them to be; they simply grow up in ways that are mysterious. We cannot make our lives have meaning through our own work; somehow, we impact people for good or ill. We cannot force others to regard us the way we want them to. They make up their own minds about us. We can’t make our family peaceful and loving. We have far less control than we think.
The hard truth of life is that we cannot, on our own, prosper the work of our hands. Any sense of control is an illusion. Working harder to try and make meaning out of this life is beyond us. The psalmist is right when he prays and asks God to prosper, establish, the work of his hands, to make meaning out of his work and to make it matter. Only God can do that.
Only God can do that. And yet, we play like little gods, believing that we can make a difference. It’s a seductive lie but it’s still a lie. A lie that entraps us in hurry and worry by saying if we’ll work harder, double down on our efforts, we’ll make a difference, we’ll make our lives matter, we’ll build an altar to ourselves that generations beyond us will remember. A lie that ensnares by telling us that we can create, when only God can make something out of nothing.
Most of us are like me: we already drive ourselves hard enough. We already work hard enough. There’s freedom in knowing that it’s God, not us, that makes our lives matter, that creates meaning out of our work, that prospers the work of our hands.
Freedom in knowing that God will make us matter. Freedom from the serious, keep you up at night, worry and fear that comes when we’re not sure if we matter, if what we do matters, if we’re making a difference. Freedom that comes from no longer pushing ourselves into a life of hurry and worry, thinking that it will pay off in the end.
But how can we gain that freedom? It begins first, tonight, by confessing our mortality. We have limited time on this earth. If we try to make meaning and prosper the work of our own hands, we are doomed to failure after living a life of toil and trouble. But if we will yield to God by confessing that we have limits, we cannot make our lives matter on our own, God will make meaning out of our lives and prosper, establish, the work of our hands.
This requires not only confession but also ongoing practice. We must give up some time, regularly. We need a regular reminder that we cannot make our lives matter; only God can do that. We need a time set aside to ensure that we’re communing with God so that the things we choose to do are actually things that matter, are things that God would have us do.
We need time. It won’t sound practical, it will sound like the opposite of what we’re all trained to do, which is to fill every moment of every day. But we need to take time, weekly, to rest, to cease work. That time is called sabbath.
We’re going to hear much more about sabbath in coming weeks, so suffice to say for now it is purposefully giving up time, weekly, to cease work. When we do so, we remind ourselves that we are not little gods, we cannot create meaning on our own, all our striving will come to nothing without God. All the works of our hands will matter not, without God. All our prosperity will rot to dust without God.
We need sabbath time to be healthy, to be available to others, and to hear from God about how God would have us live our lives. We need sabbath to remember that we are God’s servants, not god. That we are God’s children, not cogs in a machine. That our identity is found in God, not in what we do, nor what we produce. This why my family has an almost eight year habit of sabbathing. It’s essential to our lives.
So here’s the call on our lives this Lent: give up some time. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. Yes it sounds impractical. It is actually impractical. But religion is usually impractical. At least, if we’re doing it right!
So give up time, once a week, for sabbath. I’m not going to define that for you. At least not now. You and your family should prayerfully consider what that looks like. Hurry, being busy, is the single greatest threat to both your relationship with God and a meaningful life.
We all want the work of our hands to be prospered, to be meaningful, to matter. So stop. Embrace your mortality: we are dust and to dust we shall return. Choose sabbath practice. This Lent, give up your time to rest and be with God to experience the freedom that comes from confessing, with our time, that we are not god, and we cannot create meaning on our own.
So confess your limits. Embrace sabbath. Life is too short to do otherwise.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.