Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
When I went to Israel and Palestine, I had many experiences that I can only describe as having blown me away. I mean, it’s awesome enough just being outside of one’s own country—it really helps give you a perspective on one’s own culture, society, and beliefs when one gets to experience an entirely different set of beliefs in a different culture and society. It’s an experience I highly recommend for anyone who can find a way to visit another country.
But one of the experiences that really transformed me was the realization of just how old things are over there. I remember being a kid in eighth grade visiting Washington, D.C. and looking at the White House and Capitol thinking, “Wow, this stuff is old!” How little I knew.
I used to go backpacking with groups from Capital University and Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Zaleski State Forest in Ohio. There’s an abandoned railroad line that runs through the forest that passes by an old mine that once existed in the area. Where there were mines, there were mining towns, and as we hiked along the trail we could occasionally catch glimpses of foundations and walls sticking up out of the foliage. It’s been less than 200 years since the town was abandoned, and already it’s almost completely taken back over by the forest.
And there’s more than just old, abandoned buildings in Zaleski State Forest. If you look really hard, and know where to look, you can find a few burial mounds of the prehistoric Adena people who lived in the forest between 1000 and 200 BCE, almost 3000 years ago. Now we’re talking about old.
Over here in this country, we have very few remnants and monuments of the cultures that lived here that long ago. But in places like Israel and Palestine, we could walk off of a recently paved, modern road onto an old cobblestone road that has existed for hundreds if not a thousand years. We visited churches that were almost a millennium old. The Church of the Nativity, built over the sight believed to be the place where Jesus was born, has stood for over 1500 years. And then you have the ruins. Scattered all across the countryside are historical archaeological sites: Bethsaida, Tel Dan, Tel Arad, Capernaum, places mentioned in the Bible from well over 2000 years ago. The most fascinating was the old fortress of Meggido, a city-state with 26 layers of ruins that had been occupied as early as 7000 BCE, 9000 years ago.
It’s almost impossible not to see these ruins everywhere and feel one’s overall place in history. Many of these places, especially the tels, were hugely important sights. Meggido was instrumental in protecting the trade routes. Tel Dan was one of the two most important ritual sites in the northern kingdom of Israel 3000 years ago. Now they sit abandoned, all of their importance and majesty gone. No one who has visited these sites can deny the splendor they once had—they had temples and courtyards, thrones, palaces, all the trappings. Now, they have nothing but stones and a few walls. It really makes one wonder about one’s place in the great wide world.
It gets me thinking about our readings this morning, on this Ash Wednesday. Both the reading from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Matthew have to do with our outward acts of righteousness, our piety. They’re about “looking good” for God. And let’s face it, we all try to look good for God.
We come to church on Sunday morning (or Wednesday morning, or even Thursday evening) dressed in our nice clothes. We behave ourselves for maybe that only hour of the week (parents especially notice this!). We pretend that everything in our lives is going well so that those around us will see the perfection in us we so wish we actually had. We make sure we look “good”.
And it’s not just as individuals—we as the church do this, too. We maintain our buildings to high standards so that others won’t look at them and think badly of us. When we raise money for a good cause, we make sure to have our picture taken and our names in the newspaper so everyone else can see what we did. We want to make a difference in the world.
Everything we do, we do to look good for God and for others.
Now, I’m not saying that all of that is necessarily bad. Isaiah wasn’t saying that fasting was bad, or that being humble before God was bad. Jesus wasn’t saying that giving money to the poor was bad, or that praying out loud was bad, or that our personal pieties—like putting ashes on our heads—were bad. Trying to make a difference in the world isn’t bad. These are all good things to do.
No, what Isaiah and Jesus had a problem with was the way in which we sometimes use these things to hide our dirtier sides. It’s as if we think that if we shine a bright enough light on our righteous and pious acts, people—God—won’t see the stains that we all have and we all carry.
Unfortunately for us, today is Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season begins with a day dedicated to turning off the bright light of our external pious and righteous acts and letting the stains show. It’s a day meant to remind us that no matter how hard we try to appear so, we are not perfect. We are broken people, a community of gathered, broken people.
We are a people who on some level oppress our workers, who quarrel and fight, who perpetuate injustice against our neighbors, who let the hungry go without food and the homeless without shelter. We are a people who try so very hard to be good and hide our brokenness, pretending it doesn’t exist. We think our grandeur and majesty warrants a higher place in life than we have.
But unfortunately, today is Ash Wednesday, a day that reminds us that not only are we literally dust of the ground, fated to return to that same dust when we die, but in the grand scheme of things we are less than a speck of dust compared to the universe. The universe as we understand it, according to current models, is probably about 14 billion years old. Our planet is only 4.5 billion years old. Humanity has been around for roughly 200,000 years. Our oldest ruins are maybe 10,000 years old, and that’s just what we’ve found—I’ve already talked about the ruins I’ve seen, most of which are only a couple thousand years old at most. There are whole swaths of history, cultures and peoples we simply don’t know about and probably never will. And we have the audacity to believe that we can fool God enough to rise above all of that. We have the pride to think that we can hide enough dirt to be remembered in a good light forever, that we can truly make a lasting difference in the world.
Ash Wednesday is the day on which we gather to recognize this reality: that we are dust, fated to fade away. We can’t overcome that, we can’t outrun it, we can’t make ourselves look good enough to be remembered forever. It’s not good or bad, it just is. This is our reality.
But, fortunately, it’s also Ash Wednesday. On this day, when we lament our shortcomings and our attempts to hide them; on this day, when we lay bare our spirits and our souls before God and put ourselves at God’s mercy, we hear these words: “Remember that you are dust, but you are my dust. To dust you shall return, but you shall return to me.”
Because no matter what we’ve been through, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how much we’ve tried to hide it, God knows our dirt. It’s like when you try to bleach that stained white shirt clean, but there’s always a discoloration left behind; God sees our stain and our attempt to cover it up, to wash it away on our own, to make ourselves presentable. God sees it, our imperfect righteousness, and pulls us in anyway. “I know you’re not a perfect child of God. But you are a child of God.”
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; we say these words at a funeral and are reminded of them today. We are dust. We are dirty. We are foolish and self-righteous. But we are God’s dust. We are God’s dirt. We are God’s fools. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Featured Image: The excavation of the abandoned fortress of Meggido photographed by the author.