As a little boy, when I would misbehave (notice I said “when” and not “if”), my mother would often call me “a piece of dirt.” Well, she actually called me “a sod.” For example: “Whenever I said an ugly word she would say, “Why you little sod! I’ve got a good mind to wash your mouth out with a bar of soap!”
And she was not always angry or even disappointed me when she would call me “dirt.” When (again “when” and not “if”) I played practical jokes on Mom, like that time I drove home from college my freshman year for Thanksgiving and greeted Mama at the front door with a big, fat, smoking cigar in my mouth: “Why you little sod!”
But here’s the thing: Mama always graciously let me know that I was her beloved sod.
What I never thought about though was how accurate Mama really was— physiologically and theologically. In the first creation story of Genesis we read that God formed us “from the dust of the ground and breathed into [our] nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). And in the second creation story we read that we have life “until [we] return to the ground, for out of it [we] were taken; [we] are dust, and to dust, [we] shall return” (Genesis 3:19). The Psalmist also declares that when our breath is taken away we die and return to dust (Psalm 104:29).
Lent is a time of reminding all of us that we are just a bunch of little sods. It is a time of reminding us of our mortality. It is also a time of reminding us that, because of our earthiness, none of us are above reproach. The Apostle Paul asserts that because of our lowliness, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
I often hear people say, “Love the sinner and hate the sin.” I have always had problems with this, for it implies that the sinner is somehow separated from the sin. Sin is understood as specific action that can be avoided instead of an integral part of our earthly DNA.
The Jewish people once believed that sin could be avoided if 613 laws were obeyed. Not only is that a formidable task for any human, I believe Jesus would say that even if one obeyed all 613 laws, they would not be any less of a sinner than the one who broke every one.
I believe this is why Jesus said that those who have lust in their heart are just as sinful as those who commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). This is also why the Bible-believing, religious people of Jesus’ day dropped their stones before the woman “caught in the act of adultery” when Jesus said, “Let those without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
The good news is, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, though our sin was serious, in Christ, “grace abounded.” We could not do right by God, so God, through the love revealed in Christ, did right by us.
And one day, when we our lives come to an end and our bodies return to this earth as dust, we have the hope in Christ that we are God’s beloved dust, and God’s grace will continue to abound.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent: the day Christians mark themselves with ashes, or dust, reminding ourselves of our mortality and our sinfulness. We remember that we are dust, but we are God’s beloved dust. We are sods, but we are God’s beloved sods.
Ash Wednesday is important, for it is only until we understand that we are all sods—imperfect, limited sinners saved by grace—that we can begin to live as God has created us to live, by loving others as God loves us: with abundant mercy and boundless grace; forgiving, accepting and including others as God forgives, accepts and includes us.