Ashes, Dust, Life, and repentance

A sermon for Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

 

We have heard the readings for today. In just a minute I will recite the invitation to participate in the ancient rite of repentance and restoration to the life in the Church. The structure of the service comes from the fist BPC in 1549, with several revisions (Hatchett). Ove the years I have preached on the readings. I have used the time to teach about repentance which is more than giving up, some semi-desired good for 6 weeks; or taking on some temporary good. One thing I have never thought about is the central image of this evening – ashes: The prayer over the ashes includes the phrase you have created us out of the dust of the earth: The imposition of ashes includes the words: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. So, what are the biblical images of dust and ash that might help us in the observance of a holy Lent?

Well the first is obvious, Genesis 2:7

 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

God formed us from the dust of the ground. In this creation, story dust is associated with the desert wilderness, and its chaos and danger (Gaventa and Petersen) A bit later we read that all living creatures are created from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:19). As often as dust is associated with life or abundance, we never seem to be rid of the dust in our house, dust is also frequently used to represent judgment, humiliation, grief, or mourning (Sakenfeld). The writer of Ecclesiastes notes (Cross References Gen 2:7):

 all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:5-8)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians  (Cross References Gen 2:7)

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Corinthians 15:47-49)

You can hear the long complex use of ‘dust’ as it related to our lives, created, lived, and, died.

A similar word for dust is ‘ash’ In the bible ash is commonly associated with a personal or national crisis that provokes some ritual of fasting, indicating penitence. ‘Ashes’ designates a person or thing worthless, and symbolizes our mortality (Sakenfeld).

Some of the powerful uses of ‘dust’ and ‘ash’ in the church setting are at burials. In the Commendation, we hear:

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. (BCP 499)

And a bit later, by the grave we hear:

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our [beloved] N; and we commit [their] body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. (BCP 501)

 

In all this, we hear the deeply complex relationship between ourselves, made in the image of God, our lives, for better or for worse, and our dying.

So, let’s see if we can connect all this. Out of the chaos of barren wilderness, God brings life out of dust, and not just human life, all living animals. Throughout scripture when God’s people get themselves in a mess, which is a common story, dust and or ashes is a symbol of repentance, or the intention to change their lives. As we heard in Joel, whenever there is a prophetic voice pronouncing doom and calling for repentance, there also a voice that announces God’s desire for divine restoration. In the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, we hear the teacher proclaim all is vanity because in the end everything and everyone returns to the dust from whence it came. However, woven into the emphasis on vanity is the belief that really good can come from engaging in routines of life, for they are a gift from God (Sakenfeld). Paul tell the Corinthians

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49).

The burial rite acknowledges that at death we all return to the earth, dust, and ashes. However, the rite is grounded in Easter, which is why we proclaim

yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

and

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ

The linkage of dust and ashes to life is, from dust and ash to life; in dust and ash we repent of broken bonds with the assurance of divine grace; at death, we return to dust and ashes trusting that we will know eternal life in God’s glorious presence. It is this circle of dust and ashes and life to life that gives Lent a purpose and our faith meaning.

Charles Hoffacker’s thoughts on Ash Wednesday focused on giving alms. He writes:

… alms releases us from a poisonous focus on ourselves, … [as we] recognize the need of our sisters and brothers, people made in God’s image, … we are humbled because we realize that what we can do is but little. [But in doing what we can] … we recognize how, in the face of human need, we are poor yet privileged (Hoffacker) (emphasis mine).

So, I’m not going to worry about doing Lent right. I can’t. Nobody can. Therefore, I invite you to join me to choose a discipline because as Hoffacker notes doing what we can will be valuable. And then let’s do our best to do justice; love kindness and mercy, trusting that as we fall short God continues to walk along side by side in our humble journey.


 

References

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. book.

Hoffacker, Charles. “Give Alms! Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017.” 1 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.

 

 

Continue the Journey

It was blog by a colleague [i] who pointed me to water and sailing and a story I should never forget. I had just met AFM who would become my wife. We went camping with a group of friends. Someone brought a sunfish sail boat. I invited her to go sailing with me. As we set out I told her about tacking with the wind, and to be careful of the boom. We were having a good time. When the wind began picking up it was time to turn around and head back to shore.

Image

The turn went fine. On the next tack, the boom moved quite quickly, hit me on the shoulder and knocked me off the boat.  When she saw I was okay, AFM almost rolled off the boat in laughter. I couldn’t decide to swim after the boat, now drifting away, or swim off into the middle of lake and obscurity. 34 or so years later, I’m glad I swam after the boat.

The wind, the Spirit, does choose where it blows, and when we choose to follow God’s call … to the land that I will show you. [ii] it is very much like sailing. And occasionally you will find yourself if not off course, perhaps off the boat. And in such cases there is always the choice, to swim away into obscurity, or get back onto the boat, back on course. Abram’s and Nicodemus’ stories both show us folks who choose to get back on course; perhaps not as fully as one could imagine, and perhaps to face another decision the leads on off course, but never to final obscurity. We are always welcome to continue the journey.

 

A sermon for Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

The stump, the brood of vipers, unity, and repentance.

Isaiah opens with the image of a stump. Until today I’ve always seen the stump from the illustration in The Giving Tree, cleanly cut. No longer, the stump is what’s left after the tree has fallen because it rotted from the inside out, and could no longer stand. It’s fallen so long ago, the stump is all that’s left. It’s desolate. It’s an image of death. And yet, for Isaiah, for Judah there is more, there is hope, there is a shoot, tiny, fragile, but green, full of new life, full of hope [i] for a future as grand as a perfect image of its predecessor.

For John the Baptist, it’s a brood of vipers. Until today, it’s been a like the scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusades with all the snakes slithering around all over the floor of the hidden chamber. Now it’s a vision of the common room of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, whose members put all their trust in “pure blood heritage.” [ii] It’s ego centric, exclusive, it could not see what may be for its focus on what was.

For Paul it’s unity. Until today it has been a utopian image, of all kinds of folks, who all agree on everything, who walk in perfect harmony, enjoying a magnificent banquet, where one eats all the fatty salty food imaginable, with no health consequences. Now, it’s a group of very different people, where no one is quite comfortable, where everyone is at risk, while everyone shares a diverse but common faith in Jesus’ promise of life in the glory, the presence of God. [iii] 

For the Psalmist, well it’s a psalm, perhaps a poem, perhaps a song, perhaps a liturgical setting. Until today it’s been a crucible expressing the values of days past. Psalm 72 enthrones a king; not very relevant to democracy, we elect leaders; not very relevant to Christians, Christ is King. Now it’s repentance, it’s a change in how we envision political, elected leadership, and what we expect of them. Now we ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through our secular elected representative leaders. [iv] 

What might all this look like? Think back to the early 1990’s, recall South Africa, ruled by an oppressive minority by the principles of apartheid. Apartheid is Afrikaans meaning being apart. It is a corrupt racist political philosophy. It was a stump, morally deficient, it was dead. It had its supporters, a brood of vipers, pure bread of Slytherin house, in South Africa, and in the United States. But from that rotted stump there was a shoot, actually many, one we remember today is Nelson Mandela. Born in 1918 to a royal tribal family, he actively fought Apartheid, until his arrest, conviction and sentence to life in prison in 1962. He was granted release in 1990, elected President of South Africa in 1994, and unlike other  African revolutionary leaders served only one term. [v] Think back to the 1990’s to the brood of vipers, dedicated to true blood heritage. There were voices from around the world crying in the wilderness for repentance, for a change of behavior; naming South Africa’s leaders for what they were, ego centric, exclusive, oppressive leaders of a stump. All heard, some listened, at least one caught a vision of what can be nothing less than Christ centered unity, at least one repented, truly repented, changed his ways, and lead his people to justice and righteousness in rejecting apartheid and accepting a more democratic system of governance. F.W. de Klerk was president of South Africa when Mandela was released. He engaged with Mandela in negotiations for peaceful transition to freely democratic elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. [vi] 

A stump, a brood of vipers, a vision of unity, true repentance.

We live in a world of stumps; in a world full of institutions that because of their own actions, or inaction, that because of rapidly changing context are rotting away, are failing are dead. It’s easy to be depressed. Today’s scripture readings call us, to see and name the stump, and then, to see and nurture the shoot, the possibility for new life.

 

We are surrounded by broods of vipers, with Slytherin House commitment to pure blood, to true ideology, of all stripes. They are cleaver, speaking in language of security, and prosperity; in truth, they are egotistic, self-centered oppressive thinkers. And we to one degree or another are in their midst. We hear the prophetic voice, and we cringe at its biting truth. Today’s scripture readings offer us the hope they offer the invitation to repent, to change; and we know, the one who calls us, will walk with us through all the challenges that journey will bring.

 

We are surrounded by clusters of common identity, racial, political, economic philosophy, religious, you name it there’s a group claiming to be the [quote] true believers. They all promise acceptance, security, and a whole host of worldly values, if we look like, think like, worship like, act like, the group’s definitions. Today’s scripture calls us to unity in Christ, while feely acknowledging that to truly invite others in, or to accept another’s invitation into requires us to risk, because we will be changed. That is the truth with our now very different neighbor; it’s the truth with Jesus.

It is Advent; we are surrounded with the language of repentance. We’d shake our heads in agreement, and leave church headed to the nearest special sale, so we can check off one more box on our pre-Christmas to do list. It is Advent, we are surrounded with the invitation to change, how we see the world, shoots not stumps, neighbors not others hope not despair, a divine presence here and now not out there some day. It’s a vision that can change the world, that begins with one new shoot that begins with one transformed person, that begins in our common bond in the incarnate God, whose dynamic presence is continually emerging.

 


[vi] ibid

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Center for Excellence in Preaching cep.calvinseminary.edu http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php
New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, 2010
Walter Harrison, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003

Change how we smell

Last week a colleague of mine tells the story of a food pantry. The weather was terrible, wet and cold, many of the patrons were severely under dressed.  As is their custom after the distribution was over they reviewed the process for improvements. Someone commented on the patrons being in the cold. Another said we could let them in, but where? Someone else suggested the sanctuary. After a time of silence the minister said no. After the review broke up in a select group of people, the minister noted his decision was primarily based on the fact that the public is … well dirty.

So that evening I am reading the lections for Sunday.  N.T Wright notes that Isaiah 11:3  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. ‘delight’ actually means smell.  Wright goes on to note the custom of having people posted at the doors of churches and mosques who refuse entry to people who carry a scent of evil. [i]

This has got to connect.

This morning I got to thinking about walking into my mother’s kitchen and always taking delight in the wonderful delicate aromas swirling about when she was cooking. That reminded me that an origin of burnt offering is the smoke carrying the delicate delightful aromas to God.

As I finished my sermon, which includes John’s call to repent, his call to change, the idea of our need to change how we smell popped into my head.  To Change how we smell. has both a verb and adjective implication. In following John we change how we smell by turning from our sinful, evil ways. On the other hand would change how we smell by changing the odors we are searching for, to those that delight God.

 

[i] Tom Wright, Twelve Months of Sunday, Morehouse, 2012

Change is coming

It is Advent; we are preparing the greatest change since creation, God becoming incarnate in humanity; we are preparing for the greatest change since Jesus’ ascension, Christ’s return. Change is coming. Isaiah prophesizes about change, John calls the people of Jerusalem and Judah to change, and Paul calls the Gentiles in Rome to change. I believe those who observe Advent, as best we can in a Christmas obsessed land, realize Advent is about change. However, I am concerned we’re focusing on the wrong sorts of change.

For those who are drawn to the feast of the incarnation, I suspect our efforts are to more or less be the misplaced Kings bearing gifts, and through some sort of gift giving, to family and friends, those in need in our community, or perhaps through a charity like Episcopal Relief and Development or Heifer Project, or one of the many good charitable organizations around the world.  For those draw to the return of Christ, it’s a bit more Lent like, and the focus is attaining a status of purity, of which similar generosity would be considered a sign. But it’s a phrase from Paul and a chance story that catches my attention.

Paul writes a prayerful petition to live in harmony with one another. [i] It is Paul’s belief God wants us, indeed empowers us to live in harmony with each other, and gives us the gifts to do so.

Thanksgiving is thought of as a family time; though some families do not gather because they are divided. There is a family that has been divided for some nine or ten years. Members have not even spoken to one another. Facebook cracked the shell of separation. But this thanksgiving, disparate family members, of differing faith traditions, took a common teaching of their faith, God wants to reconcile broken relationships, seriously, and their division was healed. Thanks be to God.

At the heart of the family’s healing is a change of behavior, on everyone’s part. That change is what repentance is all about. The healing such change brings about is what repentance is all about. Healing of broken human relationship is the greatest gift one can offer God. There can be no purity if there are any broken relationships.

 

[i] Romans 15:5