Sacred Soil


Ash
February 13, 2013, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Joel 2:1–2, 12–17
Psalm 51:1–17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

This night we begin a strange season of the church year. We move from the exulted light of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate that overpowering awe of our God revealed even in the smallest moments. This after we have celebrated this Christ, the human one, coming to us as a child at Christmas.

This night we move from the Light, to dirt. To simple and ordinary and ubiquitous dirt. Ash really. Dry dirt, dirt without nutrients. Dust, fragile to the whims of wind, by its very nature, dirty. Unclean. We move this night from celebrating the light of the world revealed in our midst, to recognizing that we are all dust. Fragile and unclean. All mortal, and subject to the powers of destruction.

It is a strange season. Strange that we choose it. Strange that we gather this night and willingly bring ourselves forward to be reminded that we are human. That we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Yet I believe there is some brilliance in our strangeness. Christ did not come and declare: I came so that you might be normal, and blend in. No, rather he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. But the thing about life, the thing about abundance, is that it is not always simple, it is not always easy.

Life, in its fullness by definition means the fullness of human experience. The fullness of hope, and the fullness of devastation. The fullness of light, and the depth of disappointment and frustration and pain.

Now to be sure, God does not will us to experience pain. I believe our God wills and desires life. But the reality is that pain exists and pain happens in the midst of our seeking life. The path to fullness of life always includes the cross.

Nelson Mandela desired life for the people of South Africa, so he endured 27 years of prison, the pain of isolation, so that he might speak truth to the powers of destruction. Snatched up by the police as he participated in a protest, Mandela knew that the apartheid government had the power, and even the will to take his life. Darkness surrounded him. Yet he knew that this was the same darkness that surrounded his people. They were all fragile, fragile as dust, which the government wished to blow away.

Desmond Tutu writes that while in prison, Mandela allowed the suffering to ennoble him, and found himself “able to be gentle and compassionate towards others.” This was a gift of his faith. A gift of the scriptures he had memorized the hymns that had burrowed into his heart. The gift that allowed him the capacity to experience the abundance of human depravity and yet walk out of that prison, convinced that God desires life. That hope will yet be born. That the ashes of our existence yet hold fertile ground.

He walked out of that prison and led his people toward Easter. Toward possibility. Even knowing the full truth of our human frailty.

Now lest you begin to say to yourself, well, this is all well and good, but I am no Nelson Mandela, may I ask, who are you to suggest that you are not? Who are you to say that God cannot work through you, through your own dust and dirt? Who are you to say that you are powerless to the ways of death and destruction?

The same God that lives in Nelson Mandela dwells in you. And while that may seem far fetching, let me assure you, I have seen this.

I have seen this God alive in you, rising up from the ashes of disappointment, of frustration, of anger, and despair. I have heard you declare: these people need safe shelter. These children need a good education. These home bound deserve to know they are loved. I have heard you declare that no one should go hungry. No one should fear the night. No one should fear for their lives at the hands of another. But not only have I heard you say these things, but I have seen you take action to move toward life. Life for yourself and others. Witnessing fully to the dirt and ash of our existence, you have claimed your faith, and believed that life might still blossom here.

In 1980 we lived 150 miles away from Mount Saint Helens. One morning in May, my mother woke up with a start at the sound of a loud explosion. She rushed to the living room, afraid to see the havoc my brother and I were creating. We blissfully looked up at her, the sweet young kids that we were…

Little did she, or any of us know, that the mountain had exploded. That the entire north face of that perfect little peak was now rocketed into the sky, raining down ash for miles and miles.

The devastation was immense. The land which was once thick with trees and vegetation, animals and rivers, was now barren. Stripped of all life. Interestingly, the forest department set aside most of this area as a preserve. They did nothing in this area, but let nature take its course. No replanting, no effort to rebuild. They just left it alone and watched.

This pile of ash sat for a long time. Nothing much grows in ash. But soon came the dandelions, and other things we might imagine as weeds. They’re known as nitrogen fixers, their presence adds nutrients to the soil. Soon other weeds blew in or were carried by birds, and the ground began to heal. Lakes and rivers began to reform. Trees took root. It is a stunning geography, once merely ash, now host to new life. And apparently some of the healthiest frog populations on the planet.

It is apparent to me, that no amount of ash is too great for our God. No depth of human brokenness too much for hope and healing. No place that can bear to stand apart from the courage to stand on our faith and feel the presence of God yearning for life.

And so this is why we do this strange thing tonight. This is why we mark ourselves with ash and oil. Why we enter into this season where we get intimate with our dusty selves. Because we know that we are but dust. The dust that holds the seeds of new life. The hope of the very world.

Amen.


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