Sermons That Work

You Are Dust…, Ash Wednesday – 2001

February 28, 2001

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It is one of the most ancient phrases of Scripture, coming right out of the early chapters of Genesis. As we are about to be reminded by our tradition, it forms the central theme of what we’re about here today on Ash Wednesday. We’re being reminded of our mortality and our need for penitence.

But there’s another theme at work deep within this sentence that we might do well to ponder as we enter the period of self-examination and renewal we call Lent. Part of our journey as people of God in this season is about re-energizing our spirituality, setting aside time to be with the divine light in our lives and to truly stop for a moment and allow it to do some of its transformational work in us. To re-emphasize, we need to truly stop, perhaps two of the hardest words to hear in our fast-paced always-in-motion culture today.

On a day like Ash Wednesday, it seems appropriate to pause and take a hard, honest look at what drives us. Many of us are being run to exhaustion and near breakdown by fear. If it’s not fear that we might lose our jobs if we don’t perform well enough, it’s the fear that we’ll lose our profits or our investors, or that our stock portfolios will begin to drop in value. Many of us have a passionate, and not all that unwarranted fear about where our next meal is coming from, or how we will be able to pay our bills next week or next month. And if these fears weren’t the subject of some of the deepest soul-searching in the latest political adventures of our country, what was?

The assumption that has been made, rightly or wrongly by all sides of the debate, is that the answer is to keep “moving forward,” or in financial terms, “moving upwards.” So we work harder, driving our bodies to the edge, shortening our tempers, and stripping the earth of more precious resources. But no one seems to be asking the question, and certainly no one seems to be answering, “Where are we headed? Upwards: towards what? Forwards: to where?”

In perhaps one of the most ironic statements of our market system today is a billboard advertisement that reads: “Those who have the most toys still die.” The advertiser, strangely enough, is a national investment firm. Even the market itself seems confused about what its goals really mean and where this all is supposed to be headed.

We are guilty, in so many ways and at so many levels, of the corporate sin of “chasing the wind.” And, like most corporate sins, it’s a societal ill that each of us has a very hard time finding a way out of. Our businesses fail if we don’t pay attention to the bottom line. Our tables and plates are empty if we don’t compete and work hard.

Fortunately for us as Christians, the reminder that we hear today, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” was not written by a market strategist. In fact, it is one of the earliest scriptural statements directly attributed to the voice of God. Like so many things on Ash Wednesday, it seems a grim reminder about our own darkness, our own mortality. That indeed may be true. But there is also a great hope here, and perhaps even the beginning of an answer to our wrestling with our own corporate greed and even our fears.

We in the West have somehow forgotten that we are people of the earth. Remembering that we are dust is a call to return to an ancient wisdom that we are as much physical people as spiritual people. Spirituality and physicality are at root connected. It’s a wisdom found in many Native American religions, in the spirituality of slaves yearning to breathe free, in the ancient practices of the Celts, and in the work of many mystics in the Christian tradition. The ancient Hebrews knew this too, and so, of course, did Jesus himself.

Jesus was not born, after all, into a sterile environment, cleaned and sanitized for his arrival. He was born into all the smells and grime of a barn, reaffirming the sanctity of even the dust and dirt that make us up and the rest of the natural world, too. He understands the need for physical discipline, but not for the forwarding of wealth or status of self, but out of a fundamental need for balance and spiritual strength. As he says in today’s Gospel, running around with our faces disfigured, or parading our discipline in public will gain us nothing spiritually. Rather, it is the care for our bodies, the washing of our faces, and the quiet, gentle acts of mercy and kindness to the needs of others that will nurture us as whole physical and spiritual beings.

The writer of Isaiah, in one of Old Testament readings for today, knew this wisdom well when he wrote that true fasting is not about destruction of the body, but instead is about bringing justice to the hungry and the oppressed. For the prophet, physical justice was spiritual justice. There was no distinction. In the same way, the Psalmist writes that God understands our physical nature and honors it; it is an intrinsic part of who we are, even if it is as short-lived to the divine as the grass is to us.

Part of our Lenten discipline, then, should be reclaiming and reaffirming our physical selves and the physical selves of others. Seeking balance with our neighbors, the earth, and our well-being is really where we ought to be headed. Taking care of the physical world rather than exploiting it is, in fact, a spiritual discipline that can help lead us out of the constant upward battle and into a more wholesome existence. And while the market forces driving our lives will not go away anytime soon, at least then we have a way, affirmed by God in Christ, to mediate competition’s effects on our lives. More importantly, we take another step towards the justice that ushers in the promise of God’s true prosperity as we hear so magnificently promised in Isaiah.

So, fast this Lent from some of the frenetic desperation that rules our lives. Fast from lack of rest. Make time to find the sleep that is necessary, to spend time with the people and the God whom we love, and to give energy towards helping those who are in need. Next time the tap is running or the computer is on, ask where the resources come from, and wonder who worked to bring them to us. And remember to take off the shoes and feel the grass between your toes. May our reconnection with who and what we really are be our truest and best Lenten discipline.

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Christopher Sikkema


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