Now is the Acceptable Time (to hear “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”)
I had a passport before I was able to walk. Traveling the globe to see all its glory remains among the great joys of my life. That’s probably why I resonate to the suggestion that the church season of Lent is a journey, a pilgrimage that takes us more deeply into the world, into ourselves, and into the heart of God. As with any trip, the journey more meaningful if we are willing to adopt certain local customs and practices on the way. In church lingo the three biggest ones are known as the “disciplines of Lent”: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor.
Lent is an invitation to put our lives on “airplane mode” for awhile, the way we are required to do with electronic devices when we fly. Don’t bring along too much baggage on this trip. This is a time to willingly surrender some of what we have so we are better able to appreciate what is right outside our window. Who knows what valuable things we might find if we leave room for something new? Lent is a perfect time to view prayer as the flight attendant’s instructions to put on our own oxygen masks first, so that we are better able to help others in case of trouble.
I frequently hear people talk about what they are giving up for Lent—typically alcohol, caffeine, or chocolate. Those can be noble and worthy portals to a deeper mode of reflection on the journey for some people, but if those sacrifices simply result in misery and resentment every day, choosing them may be detrimental to your spiritual growth—not to mention harmonious relationships. As your flight attendant on this journey, my key travel tip is to adopt whatever Lenten practice or discipline best answers this question for you: “How will doing this (or not doing this) bring me closer to God and my neighbor?”
We may answer the question differently from our seatmates. Our answer may be different from the one we gave last year or might give next year. Perhaps you’d find more nourishment in abundance than in fasting this year. In that case, maybe your path should focus on giving generously as your Lenten discipline—writing nice big checks to the Ailanga or EGH or some other cause that tugs at your heart, or spending afternoons with someone who’s lonely. Whatever paths you sense might bring you closer to God and to your neighbor, “Now is the acceptable time,” as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
Significant journeys often begin with a bon voyage party. It might strike you as strange that we kick off the beginning of our trip by acknowledging its end. Today we hear these words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They are words meant for each one of us and for all of us collectively. Why? What is the point of announcing to ourselves and to one another that everything and everyone is going to die? Why is NOW be the acceptable time for such an observation?
Sometimes being reminded that everything and everyone is mortal encourages us to pay attention to right now. As we embark on our Lenten journey of discovery, maybe this reminder of our common fragility will help us focus on what we witness on our trip. Tasting food while thinking, “This is the last time I will eat this particular meal” might help us to savor it. Listening to someone’s story with the awareness that, “This is the last time I’ll have an opportunity to meet this person right where they are today,” might nudge us to listen behind the words. Knowing we will not pass this way again may help us contemplate what we experience and see as we go.
It is helpful to acknowledge at the outset that our journey will not always be smooth. There will be delays and mix-ups and communication failures and turbulence and lost luggage. No one escapes the wear and tear of human living. The good news is that there can be great freedom in admitting that we have limitations, that we don’t have our acts together, and that we are unlikely to do so any time soon. In such moments we can thank God that God does NOT have limitations—that God is perfect and infinite.
We are not able to rise to every need the world has, nor even address our own needs adequately. On our own, we are incapable of altering even our own hearts and minds. Now is the acceptable time to recall that we are made of dust, AND now is the acceptable time to recall that God can do amazing things with dust! God can breathe life into dust and create an entirely new being. On Ash Wed. we remember God’s creation is fragile and temporal, but God is not.
The prophet Joel begs God’s people to “return to the Lord” with our whole selves, to “rend our hearts.” Joel is inviting us to be aware that we are the work of God’s hands and not gods ourselves. “Rending our hearts” is not intended as punishment, but as a pathway to the truth, which may not be easy, but ultimately will set us free. On our pilgrimage toward God and neighbor, let’s look ahead and back as well as looking around.
As preparation for liftoff, we are invited to “rend our hearts.” As we do so, let us pay attention to the places where our hearts are already broken. Where are the wounds? How have we been shaped by the people or choices we have turned away from or who have turned away from us? How have we been shaped by those we’ve turned toward? What scars have been left by the paths we chose to take, as well as the paths we didn’t? How have the things we have done and left undone brought us to where we are today? How does our pain and our hope shape our tomorrows?
Answering these questions may produce a bumpy ride. It is not always fun to excavate our interior lives, especially the painful parts. But on Ash Wed. we face our own fragility so that we can more fully appreciate God’s strength and protection. We embrace our vulnerability and our brokenness, admitting that it’s useless to rely on our own goodness, and necessary for us to trust in God’s. We are just dust, it is true. But the Good News is that God is not. And while we may encounter turbulence while looking into our torn hearts and checkered pasts, admitting how we’ve deviated from God’s dream for us, God is busily working in exactly those damaged places, healing us and making us whole.
Now is the acceptable time to return to the Lord our God. Now is the acceptable time to embark on this adventure, knowing that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We may only be dust in the wind (thank you, Kansas), but God takes ordinary dust and turns it into a living, loving, sentient being. We are God’s own dust creations, no matter where we’ve been, where we are, or where we are going. The ultimate destination? Back to where we first began: now is the day of salvation. New life for all is God’s design. Fasten your seatbelts.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 3-6-19” name of the sermon.