A Sermon for Ash Wednesday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A few years ago the church I was serving went through a major renovation of the Fellowship Hall and Sunday School space. Just past the door to my office there was a plywood barrier with a 6 foot tall – 2 foot wide entry hole covered with heavy plastic. It had a sign on it that said “Do Not Enter.”
So, of course, every Sunday all the men ignored the sign and went through into the construction area to check out the progress. And every Monday I came into the office to see a trail of dusty footprints from the plywood barrier past my office and out the side door.
Now, being a preacher my thoughts on this matter turned quickly from floor cleaning to soul cleaning and lessons we can learn from dust.
In the first place: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return is a reminder of our humanity.
In the movie Rudy, the hero is an undersized young man from a steel town who wanted to play football for Notre Dame. He faces almost impossible odds in trying to make his dream come true. During one of his worst days, he goes to see a priest at the College chapel; asking him all those “why?” questions we are prone to in moments of disappointment.
The priest smiled and said to him, “Son, I’ve been a priest for over 40 years and there are only two things I am absolutely certain if: There is a God, and I’m not him.”
THERE IS A GOD AND I’m not him,
We are human and we are therefore less than perfect.
We are human and prone to failure.
We are human, and are incapable of making of ourselves anything else but humans.
Dust reminds us of the messes we make in life, of life.
Like dusty footprints in the hall, we leave behind us traces of our own humanity, signs of our imperfection for all the world to see.
No matter how hard we try not to, we leave bits of dusty failure and frailty behind us, wherever we go.
That is why the Ash Wednesday liturgy contains a long confession; it is an attempt to own up to the inevitable messiness of our lives.
But is it important that confession always ends with absolution, with a declaration of forgiveness; and that this promise of forgiveness is contained in the Ash Wednesday refrain:
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
To dust you shall return; this is an echo of the story in Genesis where God took a lump of clay, a bit of dust, and breathed life into it.
Indeed we are dust, but we are very special dust, we are dust that has been filled with the breath, the spirit of the Living Creator God.
And when we die, our dust will return to its maker, to its God.
So, far from being rejected because our messy dustiness; we are gathered back to the one who gave us, who gave our dust, its very life.
In the meantime, in the interval between birth and death, between dust and dust, we live in this world as imperfect human beings, as fallen and fractured angels; what Martin Luther called being a Saint and a Sinner at the same time.
All too often, we try to see ourselves or our God at one end or the other of the Holiness spectrum.
Either we see God as a stern and unbending judge and ourselves as miserable sinners, or
We see God as a sort of indulgent grandparent, excusing our every cute mistake on the strength of the divine love, and we see ourselves as sweet, harmless little saints.
And the truth lies somewhere murkily in the middle, somewhere in the vast empty space between those two extremes.
Yes, God is holy and righteous. Yes, God does hate sin and demands justice and yes, we do fail to measure up.
And yes, God does love us, all of us, with a complete and unconditional love, a love that casts our sin deep into the sea, as far from us as the east is from the west.
Now, the thing is, we can’t place God somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, there is no diddle position, no “sort-of” nice, “sort-of” stern God.
The truth is God is, at one and the same time, both of these seemingly opposite extremes, just as we are both saint and sinner at the same time.
God is the inexpressible mystery that lives in the empty space between God as judge and God as savior.
In the temple, in the holy of holies, atop the altar, cherubim and seraphim, nothing there: God is in the empty place.
Remember that you are dust, that you and you and you and me, all of us are a speck of us dust beneath the feet of a mighty God.
And remember to dust you shall return. Remember a loving God calls you back to the place where you were created.
In that mysterious space is where God waits to receive us, and the only way to be ready to be received is, in the words of Psalm 51, with “A contrite heart and a broken spirit.”
Our Lenten journey is a journey to the cross, the place where the ultimate mystery of God’s love is revealed.
The cross is the place where God’s judgment of sin and God’s forgiveness of the sinner merge in the form of the crucified Christ.
Martin Luther used to say that we tend to look for God in all the wrong places, in feats of power or stern-ness of purpose.
Luther said there is only one place that we can look and be certain that we are seeing God,
There is only one place where God’s terrible justice and God’s steadfast love are both clearly revealed, and that place is Christ upon the Cross.
So, this night, and every night, remember that you are dust,
And never forget the promise that to dust you shall return.