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The Blessing of Dust

A sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, and Isaiah 58:1-12

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]

Ash Wednesday is one of my absolute favorite moments in the church year.

I’m not kidding. There is something deeply cleansing for me about standing at the front of a church sanctuary while a minister of God smudges ashes on my forehead and reminds me of my mortality. Those ashes are a gift of profound grace. The words that name me as dust and remind me that to dust I will return are words that genuinely heal my soul. The ritual of ashes is a sanctuary for me, a space removed from the incessant cultural pressure we all face, day-in and day-out to be invulnerable.

Our society is built around the myth of invulnerability.

We are daily bombarded by the lie of physical invulnerability in the form of ad campaigns for the latest beauty products or the latest miracle drugs that will make us look or feel like our death is not inevitable.

And we are supposed to be invulnerable to financial pressures too – whether those pressures come in the form of just paying the rent and utilities, or worry if we are saving enough for retirement, or struggling to keep up with whatever standard of consumption will prove we have made it.

We are also pressured to be invulnerable to mental health concerns – able to just COPE with the stresses of life and our particular genetic lottery, and never admitting above a whisper that we have a therapist, or a prescription antidepressant that might just be saving our lives.

And, of course, in our bitterly divided society, we MUST be invulnerable to the political arguments of “the other side”, whatever side that is. We need to armor ourselves with moral outrage and with scorn for anyone who disagrees, and loyalty-forbid that we ever have a conversation in which we might actually LEARN something, or see things from a new perspective.

Daily life can sometimes feel like a performative gauntlet of defensiveness. And the chance to step out of that gauntlet is the gift of Ash Wednesday: the permission to let down our guard, to set aside the weight of impossible expectations, to confess our inadequacies and our brokenness and to hear the reassuring proclamation that all we are is DUST.

Of course, we can’t really be invulnerable. It is our Creator’s design that in the end we will return to the dust. So why not lay aside our armor, and with it our fear?

I’m not saying this is a comfortable or easy thing to do. But there is a healing that happens when we embrace the discomfort of confessing our brokenness. Because, when we can admit the truth about ourselves and our lives, we step out of the performance game. We stop trying to prove our strength, our admirability, our goodness to everyone else, and even to ourselves. And that is what frees us to stand before God without fear. In the full consciousness of our need. Open to the love and grace of our Savior.

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we just heard, Jesus warns his listeners to “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1), and he then goes on to apply this warning to the core spiritual practices of charity, prayer, and fasting.

Now, clearly, Jesus does not object to fasting, prayer, or helping the poor. His concern is with undertaking these spiritual practices as pieces of our performative armor, as evidence to bolster our reputation of righteousness. Because, when we turn religion into a competitive game, we lose. Our spirituality becomes just one more lie of invulnerability. A lie that we have to maintain. A lie that turns our eyes away from God, and instead focuses all our secret insecurity on trying to convince others of our worth.

And we can never win that game. Even if we DO play our role convincingly. Even if people see our displays of piety and praise us for them. We still lose! Because that fleeting praise is our only reward.

And we are left trying to maintain the lie… trying to pretend like we are something much shinier, and more durable, and more impressive than dust.

We are also left with the frustrated complaint of the people addressed by Isaiah’s prophecy. The people who cried out to God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3).

When we try to impress God with our performative religion, with our shows of righteous invulnerability, it will not work. God is not impressed. Convincing others or ourselves of our own perfection will not bring us close to God. Because invulnerability closes us off, when what we most need is to be opened up…. To find the freedom of confessing our need, of depending on God, of owning the truth that we are dust, and to dust we will return.

When we can embrace the discomfort of our own vulnerability, it opens our hearts… and not just to God, also to others. When we shift our patterns from performance to confession it also shifts our perspective from entitlement to compassion.

The prophet describes this openness as “the fast” that God chooses: the openness of heart that drives us to efforts of release and care-giving for those in need:

freeing the oppressed and mistreated,

feeding the hungry,

housing the homeless,

protecting those left exposed.

These activities are the fast that God chooses. Because these activities are not about proving our own righteousness. They are about acknowledging our common humanity.

They are about caring just as much for the well-being of our desperate neighbor as we do for ourselves, recognizing that we see ourselves in them. Because we know we are no less desperate for mercy.

Thus, in a way, we ARE fasting in these acts of compassion and justice. We are fasting from an obsession with our own righteousness. We are refusing to feed the lie of our invulnerability.

But if opening our hearts to our own need and the needs of others is a fast, it is also the means of our healing. It is when we open our hearts and our arms in this way that, as the prophet promises, “your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:8-9)

This is the great irony of our culture of invulnerability. We have been trained to keep our armor on as a means of self-protection, but it is the armor that wounds us!

Walling us of from our fellow-humanity and from God… teaching us to be afraid of error, and weakness, and shame, and need, and, ultimately, of death.

But the truth is that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. And this is not our condemnation. It is our hope! Because if we are dust, then we are beloved dust into which God has breathed life. And if our death is inevitable, it is also our death that will finally remove every barrier that keeps us away from God.

And while we wait for that final release, we will experience the presence and the healing of God when we confess our brokenness and reach out in compassion to the other broken people around us.

After all, as Leonard Cohen - another broken but beloved person of dust – has sung:

There is a crack… in everything

That's how the light gets in.

Thanks be to God.

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