Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
To listen to the sermon click here.
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Those are the words said as ash is rubbed in a cross shape upon your forehead. This Ash Wednesday service is an ancient liturgy of penitence and fasting, designed to draw our attention to our temporal nature, and remind us that life has a deadline. No one escapes this life without death.
We first hear “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” from the mouth of God spoken to Adam and Eve as they depart the Garden of Eden. The words mark a dynamic shift in the relationship between God and humanity. Prior to being expelled from the garden, Adam and Eve lived with God, they walked and talked with God. No one knows how long Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden; 50 years, 100 years, 1000 years, a million years. Time in the Garden of Eden had no deadlines; there was no death, which is why, while in the garden, Adam and Eve had no children. The idea of human continuity over time was unnecessary, if not unimaginable, in the world of the Garden of Eden.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is recorded in the book of Genesis, the third chapter. The scene leading up to this moment is vivid in our cultural memory…It begins when Eve, tempted by a serpent, eats the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam shares it with her. Suddenly they realize they are naked; they are exposed. God, walking in the garden calls out to them, as God always had, and they hid. God finds them and asks them: “Why are you hiding?” They respond that they are naked. God asks how they know, and they confess to having eaten the forbidden fruit. Suddenly life has a deadline.
The consequence of Adam and Eve’s action set in motion two, well three, things. First, God deals with the serpent by destining it to crawl on its belly (I guess serpent used to have feet). Then Eve is introduced to childbirth, and it is not a pleasant event. Childbirth is the consequence of the presence of death in the world.
“If you eat from the tree,” God warned Adam and Eve, “you will die.” They ate and they die…though not right away; God makes space for them to live and to love before they die, a reprieve if you will, so even though there is death there is also continuity of relationship and space for love, which was the reason God created in the first place; love.
Love is still God’s response to humanity, even when we live contrary to the patterns of the Kingdom of Heaven…God gives us time and freedom to love, after all, God is love, and God made the world out of love, to love, for love, so love could be shared; but there is also a deadline.
Against what? I do not know for sure. I talk often about God never putting an end to what God loves. I talk often about eternity being a continuation of our spiritual journey. But while I don’t know exactly what is on the other side; I do know that life on this side has something to do with life on the other side; and I do know: that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Adam, when cast from the garden, like Eve, is given a reprieve from death. His lot now, is to provide for the family by the sweat of his brow. In Eden life was full of joy and ease. I imagine there was beauty and games and things that stoked the mind and the imagination. Outside the garden is hard work for Adam, and hard work for Eve, then death. Blessed, hopefully, with some love in the intervening years…which was God’s original intent; love.
This is the story of the Garden of Eden, and freedom, and the reprieve of love, and death, and the consequences: child birth and hard work. Life has a deadline.
Ash Wednesday reminds us of this deadline. It applies to everyone. No one escapes; we all end up in the grave. And I am reminded of our Episcopal funeral service. I stand in the chancel, with my hand on the casket or urn, and say: “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of human kind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we rerun. 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… (and then I say)… Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
It is the Alleluia that remind us that the love of God continues on. It is the Alleluia that reminds us that God never puts an end to anything that God loves. It is the Alleluia that remind us that Eden is possible again because Jesus has come to walk in the garden, as God incarnate; God with us.
And yet, during Lent we put the Alleluia away. We forestall this part of the story, to focus on the reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return. There is an equity in this. There is an urgency in this…The equity is love, and the urgency is love. We have this time and this space, this life for however long it is available to us (and of that we are not sure). So, we hustle against the clock to love…to love God; to love our neighbor; to love our enemy. There is a deadline. And our only duty between now and then is to love as abundantly as we can.
Lent is the season where we ask: “What is getting in the way of love?” What is keeping me from loving God clearly; loving my neighbor more dearly? And so, we pair down, or we bulk up. We give something up or we take something on. Consider these questions when considering your Lenten discipline: “What is keeping me from loving God?” “What is keeping me from loving my neighbor?”
You have heard people say they are giving up chocolate for Lent. I say to that: “Excellent, especially if chocolate is the thing that is keeping you from loving God or loving your neighbor.” You have heard people say they are giving up booze for Lent. To that I say: “Excellent, if booze is the thing that is keeping you from loving God or loving your neighbor.” The giving up something for Lent is a task that purges from our life something that gets in the way of our love.
Taking on something works the same way. For me, I am taking on sleep for Lent. My lack of sleep is something that gets in the way of my loving God and loving my neighbor. I am tense, tired, wiped out, and I probably have been for years. I can be better if I am better rested, so, I have taken on the study and discipline of sleep. Which means a lot more than just staying in bed in the morning; I monitor my sleep; I consider when and what type of light I take in and when; I watch what I eat and when I eat it. Exercise a consideration, as is when I go to bed.
And while this going to make my life a little better, my prayer is that it is also good for those I love…That my patience goes up, and my prayer life is enriched, and my worship life is more robust, and more to the point, that I am more present, because this is the point, really, of the spiritual journey, that we are present, right here, right now. Because God is present right here, right now; here in the Kingdom of Heaven, we are most spiritually attuned and alive, when we are right here, right now.
My lack of sleep inhibits that. What inhibits that for you? Chocolate? Booze? Something else? What will you take on or give up that increases your capacity to love, right here, right now? We are working against a deadline. “Remember you are dust, and to just you shall return.”