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Ash Wednesday Sermon, 2023

Grace to you and peace in God our Creator, who formed us from the dust of the earth. Amen.

Billions of years ago, a star exploded. It became a supernova. Its energy was so great, it's light so brilliant that for a brief time, it became the brightest star in the whole galaxy. And in that brief moment, in that heat and pressure of that explosion, all of the elements that we know today were formed. Iron, magnesium, sulfur, phosphorus, sodium, calcium, potassium, and zinc. All of these elements were fused together at the heart of that star. And then it exploded. And all of these elements were scattered throughout space.

This stardust drifted through space until another star started to form. And around that new star, the ancient stardust – the iron, the magnesium, the sulfur, the zinc – it all started to swirl. It swirled and coalesced, and over time, started to form into planets. One of these planets – the third from the star – found itself in the goldilocks zone – not too hot, not too cold. Its crust cooled to form continents, and its water pooled to form oceans. Over billions of years, that stardust was shaped into mountains and deserts. Out of that stardust arose microbes, then algae, then swimming creatures, then creeping creatures and flying creatures. Finally, after billions of years, human beings were formed out of that ancient stardust.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

God spoke these words to Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, after they ate the forbidden fruit. God spoke these words, to remind Adam and Eve of how they were created, formed by God from the dust of the earth. Adam from adamah, humans from humus.

On Sunday, I got together with some pastor colleagues of mine, and we made ashes. We gathered all of our dried-up palms branches from last year’s Palm Sunday, and we burned them in the fire. From several boxes of palms, we got maybe a cup or so of ashes. And today we will use these ashes to make the sign of the cross on one another’s foreheads, with those ancient words: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

We are dust – stardust, really, formed from those ancient elements fused together in the heart of that ancient star. To me, that is miraculous in its own right. But we are also more than dust. If the only ingredient God had to work with was dust, perhaps God could have made a fine rock, but that’s about it. Or if God had some water handy, perhaps God could have made a piece of pottery. But God took that stardust and added living water, and then formed and shaped it into bones and sinews and muscles and organs. And finally, God breathed into it the breath of life. And we became alive – living human beings, formed from stardust, and living water, and made alive by God’s very breath.

We are dust, and yet, by grace, we are more than dust. By grace, these mortal bodies of dust have been made alive through the breath of the living God. And day by day, by grace God sustains us with the breath of life, until the moment when our breath finally returns to God, and our bodies return to the earth.

Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us of the reality and the consequences of human sin. Today I am reminded of the southwestern United States – California, Arizona, Nevada, and the megadrought that those states have been experiencing for more than a decade now. How human-caused climate change and the overconsumption of water are threatening to return the land to dust and desert. I also think about Ukraine, where the bombs and rockets of war have not only reduced cities to rubble but have turned forests to ash and grain fields to mine-filled no-mans-lands. The reality of human sin threatens to transform living lands and living people into dust and ash.

So these ashes that will mark our foreheads this evening remind us of many things. Of the miracle of life. Of our connection to the Earth. Of our mortality. Of the reality of sin. And of our utter reliance upon God’s grace to sustain us in every moment of our lives.

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

As we begin our Lenten journey this evening, will these words, and these ashes teach us to be mindful of the fragile miracle of life?

Will they remind us of our deep connection to Planet Earth?

Will they move us toward greater humility?

Will they call us to confess and repent of the ways of sin that draw us from God?

Will they remind us that we live each day, utterly dependent on the grace of God?

Beloved children of God, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Amen.

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