"We are but dust"-Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2016
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” are the familiar words that greet us each year in this Ash Wednesday service, which call us to a holy Lent and inaugurates our journey through the last days of Jesus’ life, his passion, death, and burial…all setting the stage for the Easter that faithfully follows. We can, and are not wrong in doing so, to think of the image…the sign and symbol…of dust as representing our impermanence…even our mortality…dust is easily blown this way and that by the winds that move across the face of the earth…dust is easily scattered recalling perhaps the spreading of ashes of a deceased loved one. Dust is swept up from the floors of our homes and poured into our trash bins or swept under the carpet…removed from our lives almost like a nuisance…something to be discarded. And so again we can think of the symbol of dust…our very claim that we are but dust…as almost nihilistic…life is short…life is impermanent…life comes to an end…swept up or blown away by the greater realities of time and space. I certainly know the names of my own grandparents…and I have memories of each…even memories of my father’s father who died the year I was born through pictures and many stories shared with me about the person he was…but my great grandparents stand almost like ghosts behind them…like images written in dust that are quickly blown apart becoming unrecognizable…I know a few names…mainly family names…and perhaps have a few memories rooted in stories told to me long ago by my own grandparents when they were still living. But still…our memories are limited and pictures are lost and fade over time…past lives seem almost unreal…like dust caught up and dissipating in a gust of wind. Sort of emphasizing that we are indeed impermanent…here today and gone tomorrow…like dust swept under the carpet.
And yet I think there is at least one other way to think about the sign and symbol of dust…one that perhaps has a deeper connection to the faith we live, the lives we share, and the God we love…for dust is made up of the very same indestructible atoms, the stuff of life, that make up the building blocks of all that is…everything that is made…every rock and tree…every cell and organ…that form life as we know it…all created by God out of love and for the purposes of love…and all is again utterly indestructible. Science tell us so…matter can change…but matter cannot be destroyed…and our faith tells us this as well…for as Paul reminds us…we, our very lives, only grow from one degree of glory to the next from the beginning of all things and forever…and, further, that all of creation waits with eager longing for God’s ultimate and final redemption…where all that God has made, us and each created thing, lives and exists fully within the purposes for which it was created and instituted by God. This is the ultimate story that Jesus’ death and resurrection so powerfully underscores for each of us…that life…that living…that life and living forever is the ultimate reality for us and all things…life wins, love wins…death as a permanent reality has no hold, no power over us or anything God has made. In a sense, one could argue that death, as demonstrated in Jesus’ resurrection, doesn’t even exist. It is instead a sort of human construct to speak of transformation…as a change of matter…for death only leads to our next form of existence…our next experience of glory. As CS Lewis muses in “The Last Battle”, the seventh and final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, this life is but chapter one in a book that has no end and each chapter only gets better than the one that came before. So in this sense, dust, which contains the most basic elements that form life, can remind us that nothing is impermanent…that nothing comes to an end…that nothing…however little or however easily forgotten can be destroyed…even dust…even the dust that makes up the very atoms and cells that come together to form you and me…they are infinite…they are indestructible…they are everlasting.
And I take great inspiration and profound encouragement in this truth…for I know at times my own life feels smaller than at other times…more susceptible to winds blowing me off course…lacking gravity or gravitas. I have wondered if the life I live and things I do will have a lasting impact on the undiscovered future…if I indeed will be remembered. And so as we come to Ash Wednesday and the seasons of Lent and Easter that follow…I am blessedly reminded that dust does matter…that it includes the very stuff of life…that is indeed everlasting…and thus all of my life does matters…that it does and can make a difference…that it is indestructible…that God who loves each of us entirely and forever has made me and has made us this very way…as eternal and infinite as love its very self. And this indeed provides wind in my sails to dig into the dust of my own life…to unpack and lay open the dirt that makes up my life to create and grow and serve in the most meaningful ways possible…in this life of glory I now lead and live.
You see dust comes together with other dust and forms dirt…something weightier…with more substance…full again of the stuff of life…minerals and compounds that feed and nurture life. I imagine God breaking open the ground digging his hands into the dirt like a gardener and beginning to form something…something full of the potential of life…something recognizable…indeed something beautiful, and then with his very own breath…breathing life into that which he has made…filling it with wisdom, creativity and inspiration. I imagine God lovingly crafting everything that is made, full of life, even you, even me…all from the very dust of the earth. I imagine this almost like my own young children working alongside Ashley and me in the garden, as we will together very soon, digging into the dirt…getting down to the moist earth…bringing nutrients to the surface…planting seeds just below the top soil…almost giddy with excitement as they imagine the new life that will soon emerge through their own time of playing in the dust.
I similarly see Lent as a creation like invitation to reacquaint ourselves with the dust, the building blocks, of our own lives…to dig into our own dirt…to find there the nutrients that God has imbedded deep within us…to find there and bring to the surface moisture…sometimes in the form of tears…that offer our lives refreshment and deep feelings…to plant seeds in the form of meaningful disciplines and habits…that lead to growth and a deep desire to serve others. I will leave it to you to determine what this work looks like in your own life…maybe seeding each day with prayer…or trimming a dying limb that represents an unhealthy habit…or watering your week with scripture study…or fertilizing your life with more and intentional nurturing time with friends and family. But whatever it might be for you, Lent is a blessed invitation to get our hands dirty and our lives dusty…reveling in the stuff of life…through the life giving work of formation…of planting and nurturing and growing and enjoying the fruits that are thus born. And the good news is that when we live into this holy work…we find a sense of permanence…we are reminded that our lives do matter and we can make a world of difference…and most of all we find a deep and abiding connection with the one, God in Christ, who made all this dust in the first place…out of love and all for love’s sake.
So my prayer for each and all is that in this holy season of Lent we find ourselves deeply rooted in the garden of life, Eden its very self, that has no end and can never be destroyed. Changed…indeed…thanks be to God…for I surely hope the thing growing here…in my life will change into something more glorious than it is today…so changed…yes…but never destroyed…never tossed out…never swept under the carpet.
Dust is such a little thing…that promises so very much…it is the very indestructible, glorious stuff of life…and we do well to remember this…today and each that follows. Amen.