Ash Wednesday: Returning from Dust

(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, 2012)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the LORD God chose to make a human being, the story goes, he knelt down in the dust of the earth. The LORD God shaped that first person with his own two hands out of the earth. Into this new creation the LORD God breathed the breath of life, and the man stood, a living being, on the earth from which he was taken. We call that man “Adam,” but Adam is just the Hebrew word for man. And more than that, Adam comes from the word for earth: adamah.

We know more than the first writers and readers of the Bible about how human beings came to exist. But the picture in Genesis is true in the ways that matter. We are children of earth, made of the same stuff as the plants and animals and the stars. We are dust and earth.

Yet we are brought to life with the mysterious breath of God, the spark that animates us.  It is hard for me to even imagine anything more beautiful than the mere fact that we are here, living, breathing, working, loving, sharing, being human together. And as much as we may have learned about physics and biology and evolution, we are not even close to having the human mind figured out. It is still what the writer Marilynne Robinson calls the masterpiece of creation.

But it is a fragile masterpiece. The spark of life can be snuffed out so easily. The miraculous electrical signals that make our brains such a workshop of ideas and imaginings and feelings can be shut down in an instant, and we can’t bring them back. This, too, is part of our human nature. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread,” God tells the first man in punishing his disobedience. “Until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear these hard words again, reminding us of a simple fact that we would perhaps like to forget: we are living, breathing dust, and we will stop living and breathing some day. Our lives are short and precious, unbearably short and unbearably precious.

In a way, the whole Bible flows out from the fact that we will die, and from our unwillingness to honor the preciousness of life. Cain slays Abel. Jacob’s brother tries to kill him, and Joseph’s brothers try to kill him. Pharaoh won’t honor the lives of the Israelites. The prophets rail against rulers who kill, or powerful elites who make it impossible for the ordinary people to earn a living. When you get down to the bottom of every commandment, every truly damnable sin, what we find is a refusal to treasure this precious little spark–this faint breath of God that turns a lump of earth into the glory of all the universe. If you want to find the root of all evil, look for it here: that we humans do not acknowledge and reverence the image of God that we see in each other.

This, I think, is why we shy away from the reality of death and destruction in the world. We don’t want to know–I certainly don’t want to know–what happens in war zones or in places where our luxuries are made. I want to deny all of it–deny that my choices cause avoidable pain, deny that my life is short, deny that everyone I know and love will die just as I will. I want to deny it, too, just like the people the prophets warned.

I want to deny these things, and yet here we are today to hear God’s words snap us out of our denial: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It is my hope this year that we will find a blessing in these difficult words, and in this image of a cross in ash on our foreheads.

Jesus, after all, saw through our denial. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus tells the people in today’s Gospel. It’s as if he’s saying, stop fooling yourselves. Stop living like you’re never going to die. Stop pretending that what you hoard up could be the difference between life and death for someone else. Stop piling up goods that you will not need and can’t use after you’re gone.

Instead, Jesus says, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not consume and were thieves do not break in and steal, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In other words, look beyond your own life. Be free and generous with your gifts. Practice your faith without trying to get points from anyone who happens to be watching. Almost everyone can discreetly give up a luxury and send the money you would have spent to Lutheran World Relief, or give it to our disaster response project. Everyone can pick up the phone and try to mend an old rift. Live, to the extent that you can, in the Kingdom of God, and put your treasure there.

Because the breath of God will return to God. Dust returns to dust, but the image of God is eternal. I am no expert on life beyond the grave. But what we learn from our faith is this: life is the point. Life is to be cherished, honored, protected, and celebrated. The ones who do that here and now will know as much as any of us can–as much as anyone ever has–of what the word “heaven” means. Amen.

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