The following is a precis of the message offered at TSA on Ash Wednesday based on Genesis 3: 8-21:
You are dust and to dust you shall return.
This was the day I was to use the quote that I offered up in church three or four weeks back. This was the day I was to share with you Garrison Keillor’s wisdom. Do you remember? Garrison asked, “Who else will tell you this? Commercials won’t tell you this, politicians won’t tell you this. The Church tells you at least once a year. They tell you that we are all made of the same stuff, no matter how much we prize our individuality… We are all headed in the same direction. Who will tell you this truth, other than spiritual people?”
I still love that quote. Who else will tell you openly and honestly, calmly, without fear or anxiety, without being morbid that we are mortal. We are dust and to dust we shall return.
It is an odd time in which we live when it comes to our understanding of death. We claim not to fear it but we don’t deal with it well. We insist on calling funerals ‘celebrations’ which frankly seems to be some kind a denial of grief. More and more people do not have any service and again that just doesn’t seem healthy.
You are dust and to dust you shall return. That need not be a morbid statement. That can be just the reminder we need to take life seriously and to focus on the right stuff.
What’s the New Testament line? “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
So what is heavenly, what lasts, what is worth investing in before we return to the dust from whence we came? How will our lives be measured? The story I read to you from Genesis I think has much of the answer. There are two things we are called to be about in the short, fragile existence we have. We are to bear children and we are toil on the earth. Now in the story it is neatly divided up by gender and assumes that all women are fertile and all men can drive a John Deere. But I think we can hear the story more deeply. All of us are called to bear the next generation, all of us are called to suffer to see children grow and flourish. All of us plant seeds before we wither and die. All of us toil, all of us tend the earth; you cannot escape your responsibility, your bond to the soil even if you move to Manhattan, even if you buy all of your food from amazon.ca. These are the two things by which we are measured – how we birth the next generation and how we tend the earth. That’s what life is about. That’s the work God assigned us from the beginning.
One more comment on the story. The Genesis narrative portrays that reality as a curse, it is a punishment for disobedience. I can understand how the writer came to that point of view. He was feeling overwhelmed, wondering why everything has to be so hard. We’ve all been there. But there are days when that same reality feels like a blessing. There are days when you hold a new born and are filled with love and gratitude. There are days when you sink your hands into the soil and feel the life therein. And so this story could also have been told as one of gift and blessing. It turns out that life is complicated. The same reality can feel like a curse or a blessing.
But that is why we have lent, so that we can ponder the complexity, remember our mortality and thereby live well.
You are dust and to dust you shall return. Do not waste the time in between. Tend the earth, tend the children. Weep when you are sad. Trust God. Do not be afraid. Amen.