Ash Wednesday Sermon by The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, March 6, 2019 Rerecording
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Ash Wednesday 2019
The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo
You are dust and to dust you shall return. We are mortal. What a difficult reality we speak today as we recall our ancestors who sat in ash to signal their penitence.
You are dust. Mortality, penance, humility.
Why do people flock to church on a day like this? Why do any of us feel compelled to sit with these truths. Are we morbidly preoccupied? Are we mired in guilt?
If a person walked in here right now, a person who knows nothing of our belief system or rituals, what would they see? Would they find us excessively negative? Would they hear the undercurrent: “Oh woe is me, a sinner. I’m gonna die!” Would they wonder why we do not celebrate all the goodness that is life. They would be right to think that these rituals today are difficult and strange. However, what they might miss are all the glimpses of hope and glory that are not immediately obvious.
Goodness and glory can indeed hide or at least we can become blind to them. A long time ago, when I was a child and we had just gotten a puppy, my parents undertook the DIY project of painting the living room, and on top of the drop cloth they left the top of a paint can, paint side up. At which time, our innocent pup came along and sat on top of the wet paint. You can imagine that things got a little messy and the whole incident created some trouble. We had first named her Maggy Waggy, because Maggy rhymed with Waggy and she was forever expressing exuberance with that wagging tail. This is to say, we first recognized her as utterly magnificent. She also had a white tip on the end of her tail, so we put that in her name too. But we added another descriptor that day, and so she became Maggy Waggy Troublesome Tip-Tail Nelson. Now why would you add trouble to the name of a such a beautiful creature is was essentially good? She made one mistake, and she forever became known as trouble.
My point here is to raise the question of where we put the emphasis on the truths we are telling today. When we acknowledge our sinful nature, do we forget the goodness God tucked into us at our creation. Are we gloriously good or essentially sinful? Well it’s not an either or. We are both. But which came first? It’s not as difficult as the conundrum about the chicken and the egg. Goodness most certainly came first. We are to believe in original goodness.
And yet we push against this goodness, and sometimes we push so hard it feels as if we break it. We can hurt people we love. We can be indifferent to people who need us. We can fail to care for the earth. We can even find it hard to love ourselves. We are alienated in ways that we cannot fix. Alienated from ourselves, from each other, from God.
The Genesis story of the fall of humanity speaks of this reality. Adam and Eve sin. They chose their own way over and against God’s way. They must leave the garden, and so they find themselves separated from the richness of life they found there. And as they leave, God’s voice follows: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It appears death was never a part of God’s plan for them, until by sin, they apparently broke life itself.
But let us not forget what dust is. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” This is the dust of our beginning. It is the dust out of which God brings forth life: our life. Later we learn of the dust to which we shall return. This is the dust of finality, of ending, of death.
We come to life out of the dust only by the power and spirit of God. When we return to the dust, what then, what does God do with these ashes? The resurrection of Christ points the way to this mystery and so we make this proclamation at our burial services: “All of us go down to the dust yet even at the grave we make our song.” It there were ever a counterintuitive thing to say this is it.
Today you will let your priests press cruciform ashes into your foreheads and say, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” How dreadful. How glorious.
These words of humility speak what may be for some our most frightening awareness. Still they are words of wonder, and words of hope, and words of inspiration. To inspire: to breathe into, to animate the spirit. Only God does this. We are but human: wonderfully good and undeniably sinful; living yet headed for death. All the while God’s gifts continue to flow to us: forgiveness, new starts, redemption, life. Our glorious origin is God’s spirit breathing life into the dust. Our humble end is to return to this dust. But can that be the end when our hope is in One whose nature it is to breathe life into dust.
And so Lent begins. A time to sit for a while with dust. A time to recognize and acknowledge all sorts of things that are both difficult and true. A time to repent. A time to enter more deeply into our relationship with God and others through scripture, prayer, and alms giving. A time to prepare for Easter when we will affirm that because Jesus was raised, we too will be raised – not just in the life to come but in this life too as we struggle with everything that it means to be human. So we will sit for a while with these ashes. We will prepare for Easter, for that moment when God will reach down into the dust and yank us right up into resurrected life.