Sacred Soil

Infinite & finite
March 5, 2014, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

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

This is the night we gather to formally begin our Lenten journey. We walk through these next 40 days, marked by the cross of Christ, seeking a deeper relationship with God. This is a season that acknowledges that we let too much, far too much, get in the way of our really knowing God. And so we set aside these days to begin again. With great intentionally and hope, we wipe the slate clean and turn toward our God.

We do this near the end (oh, I hope it is the end) of a winter that has been hard. Really hard. And with the rush-hour snow this morning, I found myself longing for the simple beauty of dirt. All I want is a bare patch of ground. As the snow continued to fall, I found myself longing for the sweet smell of soil, warm and ready to give rise to crocus and green grass. But with this long winter—it feels a bit impossible to believe that spring will come. It feels like the ripe warmth of an August tomato is too much to ask.

The dust of the ground. The dirt. It is so beautiful in its possibility, in its hope.

Which is the joy of tracing that cross on your forehead tonight. In a few moments, you will be invited to come forward, and I’ll dip my finger in a small bit of dirt—dust from Palm branches long ago—and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead, saying “You are dust.” And I will rejoice in the dustiness of you, as God does even more so. God rejoices in your hope and your creativity, in your presence. Even when it seems all that is good is buried under far, far too much snow. Even when it seems hope is distant and foreign to yourself. I know that God rejoices in the dust that is you.

But it is the next phrase that catches me short. The next phrase sticks in my mouth, and I can barely bring myself to say it. Because just after I declare to you that you are dust, beautiful dust, I remind you that you will again return to dust. That you are mortal.

A friend of mine, whose father is gravely ill, said today, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust… is more like a punch to the gut than a sign on the forehead when there’s a hospital bed in the living room.”

We will all return to dust. This is our human condition, and God did not take away the truth of our mortality. We live and we die.  And for all the beauty of spring, the warmth of summer, the possibility of dirt—winter will come again.

Though that does not keep me, nor, shall I say, any of us, from wanting to keep winter at bay. I’ve seriously considered taking a heater to my back yard, to see if I can kick start a little spring. It is this same impulse in me that makes it so terribly, terribly hard to trace that cross on your forehead. I don’t want to be reminded of your mortality, much less remind you of it.

But the truth is in breathing and in life, we inhale. And we exhale. Were we to idolize one, it would be our death. Neither can we hold our breath, or keep blowing out. Life rises in our lungs, and then we press out the air, so that we can keep breathing. Keep living. Keep loving.

And so we set this time, this Lent,  apart to seek a greater connection to our God. The God who wants an intimate and authentic relationship with us—not the kind that sets us apart from our fellow travelers, but a relationship that acknowledges we are dust—both infinite and finite. In our passage in Matthew, Jesus begs us not to sound the trumpets as we give money away, or call attention to ourselves as we pray, or to make everyone else miserable as we fast. No, rather the God who loves us, we who are made of dust, wants to know us as the dust we are—full of possibility, and mortal.

This is the God we seek in these 40 days.

So let us set aside those things that get in the way of knowing this God. By that I do not necessarily mean chocolate (though give it up if you must), but rather, set aside the things that make you long for those trumpets, the things that draw you to haughtiness or judgment. Set aside the things that make you forget that you are dust, beautiful and messy dust.

For this cross of ash traced on your forehead is a reminder, oh beloved child of God, that you are dust. It is at once a statement of infinite possibility, and our inescapable finite mortality. But do remember, neither can cancel the other out. For ours is the God that raised the dead to new life. Easter will come. This is a sure and certain promise.