Identity Theft

These days many of us have learned to worry about becoming the victims of what is called “identity theft.”  The term is something of a misnomer, because the perpetrators of identity theft are not primarily interested in your identity; they are interested in your money, and your credit.  They could care less who you are; what they really want is what you have.

Of course, very little frightens us as much as someone who has access to our stuff, our bank accounts, our credit cards, our treasures.  It is no coincidence that we have all gotten good at remembering various passwords, or that many of us probably have our own document shredders at home.  We don’t want people rifling through our trash, or hacking through our computers to gain access to our money and our credit.  Oh, it’s easy for people to find out our identities – we don’t so much mind that: just look me up on Face Book!  But we don’t want people getting the stuff that really matters: our financial information and assets.

But tonight we have come to get a smudge of ash on our foreheads and be told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  And this custom is something of an affront to our identities.  Is it true that all we are is dust in the wind?  Do our identities mean nothing more than that, not even to God?

Interestingly, many people come to church on Ash Wednesday who don’t normally make it a habit to be in church.  There is something like a homing instinct on this day that leads us to this old ritual, to these ashes, and to this strange declaration that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  And that instinct is not activated because our souls fear that in God’s eyes all we are is dust in the wind.  Quite the contrary; our homing instinct kicks in because we suspect that most of the time we have not been living the lives God means for us to live, we have not grown into the selves we hoped to grow into, and our identities have somehow become confused, lost, or stolen among all the demands of our daily lives: from raising the kids, to paying the bills, to caring for the house, and everything else.

Somewhere deep inside us lurks the suspicion that even though our financial records are in order, we have been the victims of identity theft, and it doesn’t have anything at all to do with our credit or our money.  Somehow we suspect that our identities have become overly entwined with our things, our stuff, our bank accounts, our credit cards, or our social status.  And we may begin to wonder if anybody cares about us not for what we have, but for who we are.

So we home in on church on Ash Wednesday.  We may come for a lot of reasons, or no reason at all, but when we get here, we are going to be confronted with the truth of our identities.  Because most of us have been victims of identity theft: somehow the person we meant to be, tried to be, were raised to be, always knew we could be, is nowhere to be found.  The ideals, and hopes, and talents, and brains, and principles and even the looks we once held onto have slipped away.  Hope has been crowded out by depression.  What’s more, we have developed bad habits, forgotten what it was like to exercise self-discipline, and gotten too accustomed to being selfish.  Look in a mirror, and what do you see?  Is it someone you recognize and like?  Or is it a victim of identity theft?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Like so much else in religion, these words are not as easy to understand as at first they seem.  All we are is not dust in the wind.  It is true that our bodies and all we have (even our credit cards) will return to the ground: dust to dust, ashes to ashes, as the saying goes.  Most of what we guard so carefully in life cannot be saved.  And the church is compelled to remind us of this because we have tended to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.  We have tended to value all those things that are inevitably perishing (including our bodies), and paid no mind at all to our souls.

But we were made to be more than bodies passing through this world for a while; more than the accumulation of our wealth; more than the sum of our credit.  We were made to be citizens of another kingdom: the kingdom of heaven - to which God calls all people.

In the kingdom of heaven our lives take on new meaning; we work for the benefit of others; the poor are not disenfranchised; the rich do not have special privileges.  Justice is accomplished in the kingdom of heaven; the sick are made well without a thought of health insurance.  Peace is the watchword there.  In the kingdom of heaven you are worth more than your credit score!  And in the kingdom of heaven no one can steal your identity, because you are most perfectly and beautifully yourself, your own true identity.

Jesus talked about the moth nibbling away at what does not belong to it and ruining it; about that little trickle of water that causes so much rust over the years and ruins what should rightfully have been yours.  Do we have to name the moths?  Do we have to prove that there is rust?  Isn’t it true?  Is some of it your own fault?  Probably.  Was some of it beyond your control?  Probably, too.

There is a secret about Ash Wednesday that is not at first apparent.  The secret is a white lie in those words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  For, the truth about Ash Wednesday is that God wants you to have your real self back: the lovely, true, and holy identity that could only ever be yours alone.

Have you strayed like lost sheep?  Have thieves broken in and stolen?  Have moth and rust consumed what was not theirs to take?  Have you let them do it?  Have you let your life turn to so many ashes? 

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  But remember this too: you are more than you seem to be.  Saint Paul saw how easily our true identities are taken from us.  And he reminded his fellow Christians in Corinth about the truth: “we are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything!”

Like everyone else who has ever languished in prison, Paul knew what it was like to face losing everything – even your own identity.  And he knew the marvelous truth that when your identity is rooted in Christ, no one can ever take it from you!

Because the kingdom of heaven is not a faraway place or in the distant future.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand – this, Jesus came to teach us.  And you and I were made for that kingdom.  There are treasures of unimaginable bliss to be found there that no one can ever take from you.  And you begin by coming here and believing for a moment that little white lie – that you are dust.  And then you begin to ask God to lead you in a new way, and to give you your identity back.  Which it is his joy and glory to do, since he made you in the first place, and rejoices to see you returned to your rightful, beautiful self.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 18, 2010 .