“Beloved Dust”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 14, 2018 — Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 91; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


This year, the liturgical calendar seems to require of us a sense of humor.  For the first time since 1945, Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, and Easter Sunday falls on April Fool’s Day.  At first glance, it seems ironic, or silly, or counterintuitive, or contradictory to juxtapose romance and penitence, love and mortality.  But I think the two have more in common that we might initially think.

On Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.  It is a day that reminds us that we humans are a finite, fragile, fallible lot.  That we all make mistakes.  That we all fall short.  That we all break promises from time to time.  That we all experience suffering in one way or another.  That we all will, one day, die.

On Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love—the way it connects us, the way it strengthens us, the way it challenges us.  The way it unites us, the way it makes us unique.  The way it accepts us, flaws and all, and at the same time, inspires us to be the best versions of ourselves.

Today, on “Ash Valentine’s Day,” the combination of these two holy days reminds us that we are insignificant, infinitesimal specks of dust in the cosmos—and yet we are cherished beyond belief by the Holy of Holies.  We are beloved and blessed, not in spite of our insignificance, but in the midst of it.  Not apart from our mortality, but because of it.  We are loved not as some idealized, perfect version of ourselves, but as we are—sin and brokenness and mistakes and regrets included.

When we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we must also remember that the very first human being was formed from the dust of the earth and breathed to life by God’s spirit.  We must also remember that the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies have been cycling through creation for eons.  We are made of the same stuff as granite and quartz, oak trees and daffodils, bald eagles and red foxes, dinosaurs and dragonflies, meteors and moons and shooting stars.  To remember that we are dust is to remember that we are kin with this whole, broken, God-so-loved world.

And when we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we must also remember that Jesus, too, was made of dust.  Finite, fragile, fallible human life was so unspeakably precious that God could not bear to remain apart from it.  The word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Jesus shivered in the cold, sweated in the heat, skinned a knee, broke an arm, made mistakes, tried again, failed, was betrayed, felt pain, knew his own mortality—and infused every minute of it with love.  Dust, it turns out, is holy stuff.

If we can learn to see our finite, fragile, fallible humanity through God’s eyes, then perhaps we might learn a new kind of gentleness toward our own brokenness, our own mistakes, our own errors and regrets.  And perhaps we might also learn to see every other finite, fragile, fallible human being through God’s eyes, too, and to live accordingly—to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to satisfy the needs of the afflicted, to repair every breach.

Because if we are made of holy dust, that means that our neighbors—all of our neighbors, across space and time and species—are made of literally the same stuff as both us and Jesus.  And if we could see each other in that compassionate way, if we could live in awareness of that tender truth, then I suspect the world would look more than a little bit different than it does today.

And one other thing.  When we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we must also remember that even when things go wrong, even when things fall apart, even when it all burns down, God’s love endures, even in the ashes.  Human lovers may vow ’til death do us part, but God promises that even death is not the end.  Human promises are sometimes broken, but God’s promises are trustworthy and true.  Human relationships end; human minds fail; human bodies return to dust—and even then, love endures.  Even then, we will be cherished beyond belief by the Holy of Holies.  For where God’s treasure is—here, in our finite, fragile, fallible human midst—there shall God’s heart be also.

In the words of author, poet, and minister Jan Richardson:

All those days
you felt like dust,
like dirt,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners

or swept away
by the smallest breath
as insubstantial—

Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?

This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.

This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.

This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are

but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.



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