Posted by: dacalu | 23 February 2012

Remember You Are Dust

Dear friends,

Here is the sermon I preached tonight for the ecumenical Ash Wednesday service at UA.  God is with you.    – Lucas

 

Readings:

Isaiah 58: 1-12

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

I went to the Veritas Forum last night; some of you may have been there.

The topic of the night was “Is Science Enough?” and

one question from the audience stood out for me.

A sophomore asked the panelists:

How do you reconcile the heat death of the universe with hope?

Given the laws of physics as we know them,

the second law of thermodynamics suggests that entropy increases,

the disorder in any closed system will tend to a maximum.

More prosaically, cosmologists think the universe will continue to expand and cool

until nothing remains, but cold specks of hydrogen,

too far apart to interact.

This young man seemed to think that was a cause for despair.

It’s been brought up a few times in recent debates on science and religion,

and, while at the surface it may seem silly,

I think there’s meat there.

In fact, I think it speaks critically about the Christian worldview.

How do we have hope in light of our knowledge that the universe will end?

Don’t we want something better?

Yes and no.

We want something better in terms of wanting something different,

and not in wanting more of the same.

Christians have long understood that this life ends in death.

We don’t look forward to the resurrection

because it will be more of the same;

We look forward to the resurrection because we believe

it will be a fulfillment of this life,

and the beginning of a new one.

Why should it be any different for the universe?

 

Don’t get me wrong; I am not a dualist.

I do not believe that we are spiritual beings trapped in physical bodies.

That the one will be sloughed off to make way for something new.

That leads to all sorts of nonsense about mortification of the flesh.

The sort of thing that Lent is – unfortunately – known for.

No, I chose the word “fulfillment” intentionally,

because I believe we will discover our flesh to be the jumping off point

for something far more wonderful.

I believe we will discover that we were made flesh,

as Christ was made flesh,

for a reason.

God chose that we, and he, should be

earthly, fleshly, physical.

God chose that we should be dust and ashes.

We are the very stuff of the physical universe,

flesh and sinew, nerve and bone.

We are biochemistry and thermodynamics.

We are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

We are matter.

And that matter has a lifetime.

We will die.

And Christianity has never had the slightest illusion about that,

from the death of Christ,

to the earliest martyrs,

to Martin Luther King, Jr.,

we have never denied death.

What we said was, yes we will die,

but “death shall have no dominion.”

Death is not the final word,

and our stopping point is not our purpose.

 

God breathed life into the dirt.

God animated the ashes.

And that is you:

not just the stuff of the earth,

nor just some ethereal soul that will slip away,

but both.

You are life breathed into the matter.

 

This is the unique occasion we find ourselves in.

We have the opportunity to feel,

to express, to participate in,

that spirit that enlivens us.

In God, we live and move and have our being.

We have the opportunity to share that love,

by acts in the physical world.

God’s Spirit is not an abstraction,

but the movement of soul to soul

in giving bread to the hungry,

in sheltering the homeless –

in doing with our hands what our heart desires.

 

That love, that breath of life,

it was never ours to begin with.

It is not something we own,

nor something we could hold onto a second longer

than God allows.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The breath of life cannot be owned or hoarded,

but it can be lived in.

We can live in fear of death,

or we can participate in the life we are given.

To remember that we are dust is not to denigrate the dust,

but to praise the wind that stirs it up.

We are life made manifest.

We are both stuff and interactions,

but we do not belong to ourselves.

Dust owns nothing.

We are God’s because every good gift –

every pleasure, every hope, every joy –

comes of the wind stirring ashes.

The question of ownership isn’t even meaningful.

The question of action is,

be it the movement in our hearts

or the movement in our hands.

We have the chance to dance with the wind while it blows.

We have the chance to reach

not into the future, but into eternity,

into the love of God that ever, always, and constantly

stirs the embers.

We have been promised another dance,

a resurrection, not only in spirit, but in flesh,

but that is a question for another time.

Our daily bread is the now, the moment,

the delight in each and every breath breathed into us by the Spirit of God.

 

In Lent we, ask the question of how that happens.

We ask how we might engage more fully in the life we have been given,

but no,

I should say the life we are being given,

for none of us can save a moment,

none of us can add a second to our life or the life of the universe.

 

 

Paul says: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true;

as unknown, and yet are well known;

as dying, and see—we are alive;

as punished, and yet not killed;

as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing;

as poor, yet making many rich;

as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

So let’s break it down.

“We are treated as imposters, and yet are true,

as unknown, and yet are well known.”

It is not renown that drives us,

whether or not our truth is recognized,

we stand up as witness

that death is not the end of life

but an event in it.

“We are treated as dying, and see—we are alive.”

Don’t let that one slip.

You know very well that some people are more alive than others.

We must strive to live in a way that no-one could mistake us,

for less than living, breathing souls.

“As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

Don’t deny death, or the forces of nature, or the forces of the world.

As Christians we recognize all these things,

and give them their due,

just no more than their due.

The light shines in the darkness,

and the darkness does not overcome it.

“as poor, yet making many rich;

as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

And here lies the crux of it all for me,

the true test.

Knowing that we do not own,

are we able to give?

That bounty of grace,

that wind that stirs the ashes.

It cannot be hoarded, but it can be shared,

the great and final paradox of Christianity,

that we have no life of our own,

but God’s life may flow through us,

into a barren a world.

 

In Lent, we look within ourselves,

so that we might remove every obstacle

to the breath of God flowing through us

to polish the window of our hearts,

so that the light can shine through.

“by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness,

holiness of spirit, genuine love,

truthful speech, and the power of God”

Mark these things, for this is more than life giving,

it is life itself,

to refine the image of God in yourself,

to comprehend creation,

to bear and bear with one another,

to give,

to care for the sake of one cared for,

to genuinely communicate and share the truth that is in you.

 

(from the BCP Ash Wednesday Service:)

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the [Universal] Church,

to the observance of a holy Lent,

by self-examination and repentance,

by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;

and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

And, to make a right beginning of our repentance,

and as a mark of our mortal nature,

let us now [bow] before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

 

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth:

            Grant that these ashes may be to us

a sign of our mortality and penitence,

            that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift

            that we are given everlasting life;

            through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

 

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