Beloved Dust to Dust

Ash_Wednesday

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.

Advertisements

Lent: A Time to Tell the Truth

lenten_cross

A few years ago an Episcopal church in a coastal South Carolina town created a ruckus as when it placed three crosses on the lawn adjacent to their church. They draped them in purple for Lent. After a week or so, the church received a call from the local Chamber of Commerce.

They called complaining, “We hate to cause any trouble, but Spring Break is right the corner, and the tourist season is starting to crank up. And we think those crosses that you’ve erected are just sending the wrong message to visitors on the beach. People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.  On vacation, people want to be escape from all of the unpleasantries of life and relax, be comfortable.”

Well, after much debate, the church stood its ground, and the three crosses stayed.  “It’s Lent,” said the church. “People are supposed to be uncomfortable.”  William Willimon calls Lent “the season of unpleasant uncomfortability.”

Willimon says that one of the reasons this season we call Lent is so unpleasant is that it forces us “to confront so many of those truths about ourselves that we spend much of the rest of our lives avoiding.” Here, during this Lenten season, “we try to tell the truth about ourselves, and sometimes the truth hurts.”

Lent is a time to honestly say, “I am a rotten scoundrel. I do things that I ought not do. I know they are wrong, yet I do them anyway.  I don’t do things that I know I should do. I think way too better of myself than I ought. Even my best deeds are tainted with pride and selfishness.  Sin is so much a part of my life that I cannot escape it.”

Yes, this is the season of telling the truth, even if it pains us a bit.  But here’s the good news.  The truth will set us free! No matter how hideous, disgusting, and abominable our sins are, the God’s honest truth will always set us free, because in Jesus Christ, we have been loved, forgiven and accepted.

On Ash Wednesday, we will gather together to worship. During this special service we tell the truth, and then, we will hear the truth.  We could not do right by God, so God, in Christ, did right by us.

A Brief History of Ash Wednesday and Lent

ash-wed2

Early Christians observed Good Friday and Easter Day—separated by a fast—as a singular observance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  However, this approach to the culminating events in the life of Jesus quickly changed.  By 100 A.D., Christian writings mentioned a period of fasting and praying called Lent.

 The season of Lent developed as people recognized the importance of Easter celebrations.  Christians developed a period of preparation to adequately ensure a proper observance of the resurrection event.  To truly prepare for Easter, Christians originally believed that a “tithe” or a tenth of the year should be given for such preparation. Forty days, which is roughly a tenth of the year, was chosen.  This is also the number of days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.

In most churches today, the Lenten season is the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, excluding Sundays. Since the resurrection of Jesus, Christians have regarded every Sunday as “a little Easter.” Services were moved from the Sabbath to Sunday to celebrate the resurrection, thus, the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter are referred to as Sundays in Lent rather than Sundays of Lent.

One of the most important ways to prepare for Easter during Lent is to recognize one’s sinfulness and need for God’s grace that is fully revealed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Throughout history, both Jews and Christians have used ashes to symbolize their sinfulness.  Wearing ashes is an Old Testament symbol of grief, penitence and mourning.

This Wednesday, First Christian Church joins Christians all over the world in this simple service. We gather to express sorrow for our sin and our mortality and to acknowledge the necessity to repent and accept Christ as our Lord and Savior.  Together, we recognize our need for the salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Christ.  The service on Ash Wednesday has been very common among Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Lutherans.  However, since the 1990’s, the service has been adopted by mainline denominations including Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and moderate Baptist churches.

Mainline churches believe there is an increased relevance for this service in light of the contemporary church movement to exclude signs of the faith that people may find offensive.  In an age where many churches have removed crosses from their sanctuaries and potentially offensive language such as “repentance,” “lost,” “sin,” “blood” and “death,” First Christian Church proudly and humbly embraces these basic tenets of our faith.