Sunday, February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17,
2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10 & Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To many, smudging our foreheads with ashes may seem as though we are reminding ourselves that we are nothing more than dust or dirt. Nothing could be further from the truth. While these crosses of ash remind us of our mortality, and our need to acknowledge and confess our sins, the words that remind us that we are dust are not words of condemnation. These are words of promise.
You may wonder, “How can calling someone dust, be a word of promise?” After all, what is dust? Some might answer that question with “that horrible substance that seems to get everywhere!” or “That stuff we want to be rid of!” It makes our list of chores longer, and no sooner do we get rid of the dust, but it’s right back again. Dust is relentless. It causes allergies too, some effected so bad that allergy shots are needed. We buy filters to get rid of it, and we shake it off our shoes. Dust is not something people usually put on their list of top ten favorite things.
In fact, as we gather here tonight, we might recall that these words were first spoken by God to Adam after he and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. God was angry – disappointed really – and told them that because of their sinfulness, they would endure hardship in life – not because God was inflicting this punishment on them, but because they had brought it on themselves. And humans have been doing that ever since. God was disappointed because God only wants the best for us. Even the prophet Joel tells us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” After God had finished lecturing Adam, he spoke these words, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” While these words reminded Adam of his mortality, they were also words of promise and hope. They are words that remind us of where we began, and with whom we are connected.
God created us out of the dust of the earth. To God even the dust is sacred, especially the dust. God exhaled and breathed into life the first humans from the dust of the earth. God exhales and breathes new life into us each and every day. God wants us to remember that the breath of God’s Holy Spirit changes dust into something holy and sacred. Whenever God exhales and breathes and divinely speaks, things are no longer ordinary. They are holy. Like water, and bread, and wine, and humans made from the dust of the earth.
It’s not just humans that are made of dust. The clouds in the heavens are formed when water droplets attach to …..dust. The beautiful comets that dance across the night sky are formed from ice, and gas, and …..dust. And according to the Big Bang Theory, scientists tell us that this big blue ball called earth was created from …..stardust. Yes, even the planet itself was formed from dust. God breathed life into the dust of the universe. God thought dust was that useful and that important.
It certainly changes the way we think about dust, and the way we care for all of creation for we share the same substances, the same particles. True, we’ll still sweep those dust bunnies out from under our beds. We’ll still wipe it off the furniture, and the things we have in our homes. But dust is more than just the stuff we want to get rid of. Dust is the substance of life. So when we hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are being reminded to draw closer to God who first gave us life from the dust of the earth. We are being asked to return to the Lord with all our hearts. We are being reminded to remember that our very lives exist because God breathed us into existence, along with the rest of the universe. To God we are that useful and that important. And even more so, we are treasured.
Lent – and particularly Ash Wednesday – is a time when we are asked to return to the very beginning of our lives – to empty ourselves of all that we’ve accumulated along the way – the sin, the hatred, the prejudices, the worries, the fears, the hard hearts – and let God breathe new life into us again. Lent is a time to return to God, to be re-created, and to allow God to create in us a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit back within us. That new spirit will cause us to rejoice always even when we experience sorrow. That new spirit will create in us generous hearts, knowing that if we have God in our life we possess everything. That new spirit will bring our hearts back to God, “for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also.”
The reason we receive ashes on our foreheads is not a false piety to be seen by others, but a reminder that we were made out of dust. Dust made sacred from God’s holy breath – dust that God made and treasures. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Return to the God who loves you. Return to the God who treasures even dust. Amen.