Ash Wednesday, February 26, 2020 “It’s Amazing What God Can Do with Dust”
The message for Wednesday, February 26, 2020, “It’s Amazing What God Can Do with Dust” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 7:00 p.m. Worship service.
It’s Amazing What God Can Do with Dust
(reprised at University Village and Holy Trinity Feb. 26, 2020)
It is not easy to hear that you are dust. It is not easy to be reminded of our mortality. It is hard to admit our weaknesses. It is hard to admit our failings. Ash Wednesday stands in stark contrast to our death-denying culture. It dares to name our fragile existence and strips us of our self-important attitudes. It brings us to our knees to humbly confess that we are creature and not Creator. It stands as a powerful corrective to our tendency to overreach our limits and it holds us accountable when we would want to avoid our shortcomings.
But even as we rightly step back to acknowledge the pervasiveness of our sin, we must be cautious not to confuse self-examination with self-loathing. The call during Lent is not to dive into despair or depression but to deepen dependency on God. It is not about self-hatred, but about self-discipline in order to weed out distractions for the purpose of more fully focusing on our faith. It is about emptying our hearts of all the things that promise falsely to bring fulfillment so we can be opened to receiving the gift of new life in Christ. It is about remembering that we are dust, but it is also about remembering that God can do amazing things with that dust.
Remember, it was dust in the garden of Eden that God collected in order to form Adam…Ah-Dahm..a word literally meaning red dirt. God molds the dirt into the first human… a word connected to the word humus, or soil, and God breathes into that soil so that there is life. Yes, we may be dust, but the very breath of God blows through our bodies, the very image of God resides within us, and to disrespect or degrade these bodies is to disrespect the very image of God in ourselves and each other.
Remember, it was out of the ashes of the exile that God continued to fulfill God’s promise of renewal. Jerusalem had been burnt by the Babylonian armies. The city walls had been crushed into dust and many of its people carried off to serve in a foreign land. The Israelites wondered what had happened. Why hadn’t God saved them? Where was God at this time? Then, in the midst of their exile God sends prophets like Isaiah with both challenging words, but also words of comfort. Through Isaiah God tells the people that beauty will come from their ashes. Eventually the people do return and the city is re-built. The promise is kept. This promise continues to sustain for when we feel crushed and burnt out, God comes to also bring beauty from our ashes.
Remember, it was out of the dirt of the tomb that God revealed the hope of resurrection. As Jesus climbed the road to Golgotha the filth of sin weighed down upon him like the weight of the cross on his back. The anger, hatred and violence of the world clung to him like his blood, sweat, and the dirt from the road were caked upon his skin. After his death he is laid in a dusty cave, but in three days the stone was rolled away and from that place of dust arose a new hope of eternal life—a new message of unconditional love and forgiveness for all times and places.
This is the message St. Paul brings to the church at Corinth when he writes in his second letter to them, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ he or she is a new creation, the old has gone, the new have come! This means that we have been promoted to be Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making an appeal through us.” God can do amazing things with dust indeed, and that’s why Paul tells the people, “as God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” It is true that we as humans are like clay jars, vulnerable, sometimes feeling cracked and broken, but we are clay jars who contain a treasure of grace. This treasure gives us purpose and meaning. God did not give us grace so we would continue to wallow in sin and guilt, but rather so that we might rest in the security of salvation and have the courage to be sent—sent out to share this good news in word and deed—sent out to be ambassadors as if we were God’s very hands and feet.
If we are to have the energy and focus to be God’s ambassadors, then we need to be able to tap into the source of our strength. This is what Lent is about. So when you hear the Lenten admonitions to practice prayer, fasting, and sharing our money, don’t just hear them as law, but hear them also as Gospel. Don’t just hear them as “should-do’s”, but as “how-to’s”, ways of how-to connect to the power of God that sustains us on our journey.
The ashes we will receive serve as a reminder of this connection. This dust upon our foreheads is not just about accepting our mortality, but it is also about linking us to the legacy of life that traces back to the dawn of time.
What do I mean by this? In the early 1980s, astronomer Carl Sagan hosted and narrated a 13-part television series called “Cosmos” that aired on PBS. On the show, Sagan thoroughly explained many science-related topics, including Earth’s history, evolution, the origin of life and the solar system. In one episode Sagan famously stated, “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”
Chris Impey, professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona says, “This famous statement sums up the fact that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff. It’s a well-tested theory,” Impey continues. “We know that stars make heavy elements, and late in their lives, they eject gas [and dust] into the medium between stars so it can be part of subsequent stars and planets (and people).” All life on Earth and the atoms in our bodies were created in the furnace of now-long-dead stars.
So we might not just say “remember you are dust” today, we might say “Remember that you are stardust and to stardust you shall return.” Remember that you are connected to the long line of creation, and life is re-created through you. Remember, the power of a thousand suns is still a tiny part of you, and most importantly, remember, the power of God’s son, Jesus, is within you. For it may be true that we are dust, but when placed in God’s hands, mere dust becomes something marvelous.
-Pastor Erik Goehner