Year B — Ash Wednesday

A Bonus Sermon for Ash Wednesday
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

A few years ago I was pastor in a church that was in the midst of a renovation. On the hall where I had my office there was a temporary wall with plywood door. On the door was a sign “Danger. Do not enter.”

And every Sunday after worship I returned to my office and observed the tell-tale dusty footprints on the hall carpet. People simply couldn’t resist going into the education wing to check out the progress.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Like dusty footprints in the hall we leave behind us traces of our humanity, signs of limitedness and imperfection for all the world to see.

We are human and prone to failure.

We are human, and unable to make of ourselves anything else.

Dust reminds us of the messes we make in life, the messes we sometimes make of life.

No matter how hard we try not to we leave bits of dust, of mess, behind us wherever we go.

That is why the Ash Wednesday liturgy has within the long confession. It is an invitation for us to own up to the inevitable messiness of our lives.

But, it is important for us to remember that confession always ends with absolution, with a declaration of forgiveness, with a word of grace and wholeness.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

These words themselves contain both confession and absolution, law and gospel in equal measure.

They echo the story in Genesis in which God took a lump of clay, a bit of dust, and breathed life into it, into us.

We are dust, but we are very special dust, we are dust filled with the breath, the spirit, the very life of the creator God.

And when we die, we in all our dirty dustiness will return to our maker, to God.

Far from being rejected for our dustiness, we will be gathered back to the one who gave our dust, who gave us, our very lives.
In the meantime, between birth and death, between dust and dust, we live in the world as imperfect human beings, as fractured angels, as what Luther called being a saint and sinner at the same time.

All too often we see ourselves and 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 an indulgent grandparent who excuses our every mistake on the strength of great love and ourselves as sweet, harmless, and innocent little saints.

And the truth lies somewhere in the vast empty space in the middle, both for God and for us.

Yes, God is righteous and holy. Yes, God does hate sin and demands justice and obedience. Yes, we do often fail to measure up.

And yes, God does love 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.

And the problem is we can’t find a nice middling image for God, halfway between these two extremes; there is no middle position, God is not either/or; God is both/and.

God is both judge and savior just as we are both saint and sinner.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

We are dust beneath God’s holy feet and we are dust that has had holiness breathed into it.

The God who condemns is also the God who saves, both, at the same time.

Our Lenten journey is a journey to the cross, to the place where the ultimate mystery of God’s eternal love is revealed.

The cross is the place where God’s judgement of sin and God’s forgiveness of sin merge into the form of the crucified Christ.

Luther said that there is only one place 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 can be clearly seen together. That place is Christ upon the cross.

So, please, please, remember that you are dust,

And please, please remember, to dust you shall return.

Amen and amen.

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