“For out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
This is a central concept on Ash Wednesday, the day when we begin our 40-day journey to the darkness of Good Friday and the light of resurrection joy on Easter. On Ash Wednesday, as we receive our ash cross on our forehead, we hear our priest say: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Last week, we talked about searching this Lent for a practical kind of Christianity. One that enriches our spiritual life and allows us to life as Christians. We are asking how our practice of a spiritual way of living help us with all those things which make daily life real and too often ugly or painful – or dust? Our call this Lent is to search for specific resources and ideas that help us life such a life as Christians.
Awhile back, Jane Shaw served as Dean of Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco. Today she is The Rev. Professor Jane Shaw and serves as the Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Either way, we still get to call her Dean Sahw. Back in 2002, Dean Shaw published a series of meditations for Lent titled “A Practical Christianity.” On Sundays in Lent, we will be considering her ideas on how we can develop our own authentic practical understanding of how to be a Christian. Much of what I will be preaching this Lent is drawn from her ideas and arguments.
Dean Shaw points out that dust is a Biblical metaphor, one that speaks to our beginning and our ending as well as our place in the world and the practical ways we may choose to live our life. “Dust is the most democratic of substances,” wrote philosopher Alain de Botton. Dust is,. Dean Shaw continues, the stuff from which we all are created.
And, she asks, “did we all come from the same place, the same substance, and are reduced back to that substance at the end of our lives,” what is the significance of our accomplishments, achievements, or material possessions?
“Christianity forces us to realize, to finally realize, that for all our achievements and riches, human beings are created equal, and from the same substance, and, mush more than that, in the image and likeness of God.”
Perhaps this is why the Jewish scripture we call the Old Testament reminds us “For out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Perhaps this is why Jesus reminds his followers that they are all created from dust.
Perhaps this is why Jesus bent down to wash the dust off the feet of his disciples on the day we call Maundy Thursday. Washing the dust from his student’s feet was a radically democratic act, reflecting the revolutionary egalitarianism Jesus both taught and lived.
Today we in America are becoming a less egalitarian country. A 2017 study found the three richest Americans held more wealth than the bottom half of this country. But Jesus lived in a more sharply divided society, split between free and slave, where women had neither voice nor vote and society was organized on a rigid structure.
Jesus and his followers lived lives that were a stark contrast to their rule-bound culture. Early followers of the Christ ate together – free and slave, women and men, aristocrat and beggar, pious Jew and tax collector. Is it any wonder some saw the first followers of Jesus as little more than desperados, the dregs of society, the poorest of the poor. And on top of that was the Rabbi Jesus teaching people to upend social order as he washed the dust off the feet of his followers. Is it any surprise the Romans crucified him?
Yet as the Christian faith evolved, as centuries slipped by, some focus more on the dust – or sin – instead of the egalitarian communities Jesus called into being. Theologians developed elaborate ideas – like the doctrine of ‘original sin’ – and based them on a tortured and twisted reading of scripture. Looking back across almost two millennia since the ministry of Jesus, we might conclude that it is impossible to eradicate sin. As anyone who has gone camping with a family knows, the dust always wins. You can sweep and sweep and sweep but there will always be dust in the tent. Remember: we’re not just talking about dust, we’re also talking about those things we do which keep us from being the person God intends for us to become. You can call that dust or sin or mistakes. For the purpose of this discussion, it is all the same.
“If we cannot eradicate dust and sin, there must be an alternative path, some way to grapple with our faults. Shake off the effects, and continue on our journey,” Dean Shaw tells us. In fact, she notes, the church offers the sacrament of reconciliation – or of confession and repentance.
The work of setting things right begins with telling the truth. We need to identify the dust which we need to wipe away. Unless we tell the truth to and about ourselves, we cannot begin the process of reconciliation. And that’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals.
Lent offers us 40 days which we can choose to spend in self-examination and careful consideration, listening to learn who God is calling us to become. Jesus can guide us on this path. He calls us to forgive others, for only by forgiving others can we free ourselves from the power of those who have hurt us in the past. And Jesus gives us a clear picture of the kind of people God wants us to become.
Jesus calls us to become a people who love one another, are peacemakers, care for the sick, visit the prisoners, shelter the homeless, protect the alien residing in our land, and care for widows, orphans, and all children. In coming Sundays we will continue our walk towards fashioning a personal Christianity, a spiritual path that we can follow one our way through this world.
Lets us pray. God of our salvation, your bow in the clouds proclaims your covenant with every living creature. Teach us your paths and lead us in your truth, that by your Holy Spirit, we may remember our baptismal vows and be keepers of your trust with earth and its inhabitants. Amen.
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