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“You are Dust”: Ash Wednesday

A sermon preached at St. Stephen Lutheran, at a joint service of Holden Evening Prayer, with the Imposition of Ashes

Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God,
which hatest nothing that thou hast made,
and dost forgive the sins of all them that be penitent;
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins,
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

[A prayer from the English reformer and architect of the Prayer Book, Thomas Cranmer]

An interesting phenomenon is that in that world outside that has less and less time for the Church, it seems that Lent actually has some cultural credibility. Everyone knows about Lent, even if it’s just the chocolate thing. Lots of people take on some sort of discipline — even if they never set foot in a church building.

And I don’t know about you, but there have been times in the past few years when I’ve personally felt a bit ambivalent about Lent. Because, I would wonder, should we really be dwelling on our mortality? The whole “dust to dust” thing seems kind of like the opposite sort of message that we, as Christians, generally want to convey? It kind of felt like taking out that extended warranty, but insisting on paying for the repairs yourself. It seems self-defeating.

But more recently I’ve come to terms with Lent. And I feel like I’m starting to get it. I don’t mind admitting to my own wretchedness. But I hold to faith in a God who is mercy, within mercy, within mercy. And I don’t mind being realistic about my own mortality. That I’m “dust to dust.” But dust into which God breathed life. And clay that God shaped.

But still, “dust to dust.” I accept that because the ancient Christian proclamation is Christ crucified and resurrected. Not that death is nothing. Not that because we’re Christians we can ignore it. But that because we’re Christians we can hold on to hope through it. As people who hold not to the immortality of the soul — which is a Greek concept that downplays death. But to the resurrection of the dead. That out of dust, God breathes life. And out of death, God again, will breathe life. And in a world that constantly struggles under the sundry powers of death: war, sickness, apathy, loneliness, lack of purpose, addiction, environmental devastation, radical class inequity… in this world of death, God rouses us to life, and concern, and action, at this time — through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, almsgiving, and reflection on our stories as people of God.

And so I’ve come to terms with Ash Wednesday and Lent. Because it’s the only path to Easter. Those words we hear as the ash is traced on our foreheads aren’t a denial of Easter, but a radical affirmation of it. Our proclamation as Church isn’t that our souls are going to keep on keeping on like the Energizer Bunny. And ideally we’ll spend that time in a good place rather than in the bad place. Instead, our proclamation is that on our own we won’t keep on keeping on. We’re like dust. But we’re dust that God calls by name and pulls from out from the power and sway of death.

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

All will be made alive in Christ. But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

So, may the next forty days bring us closer to each other, and to an awareness of our calling as Christians, and as Church. And may our recognition of our fallenness and our mortality bring us to a renewed appreciation for the miracle of life, and that great gift we’ve received by grace through faith: our participation through baptism in the dying and rising of Christ.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter