Thursday, 23 February 2012

Beloved dust: a sermon for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday 2012

Ash Wednesday is good news – in some ways it is the service in the Church’s year which I think is the most hopeful of all. I know it might not seem like it on the surface.  It’s not a cheerful occasion, to be sure. We are reminded in no uncertain terms in our readings and in our prayers of the darkest realities of human life – our vulnerability and fallibility, the sheer scale and complexity of the mess we can get ourselves, each other and our world into, and how hard it is to get ourselves out of those messes on our own.  We are reminded of our own mortality too. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” are the traditional words that accompany the imposition of ashes.

So why is it good news?

It is good news because when we accept those truths we discover that there are a whole lot of other truths which come with them. 

When I accept the truth that I have done wrong, I can also discover the truth of God’s reaction to my sin  – not condemnation and abandonment, but love and forgiveness and healing. There’s no way to know that while I am still pretending to be perfect and hoping no one will spot what I am hiding.

When I accept the truth that I don’t know it all and can’t do it all, I can discover the truth that, actually, I never needed to. I don’t need to be superhuman. I don’t need to be God. Someone else has that covered.

And when I accept the truth that I am dust, and will come in the end to dust, I can discover that I am part of the earth, part of creation. That is good news, because, when we look at the Bible we discover that this creation of his is God’s delight. He declared it to be good, he loved it so much that he sent his son to be part of it, alongside us in our vulnerability and frailty, to suffer and to die with  us.  I may be dust, but I am beloved dust, dust that God breathed his own life into.

This week we have all been reminded in the starkest way of the fragility of life as we have heard of Malcolm Fox’s sudden and unexpected death. When such a thing happens it tends to make us all feel a bit more insecure than usual, if we are honest. We like to feel powerful and in control – immortal and above the vagaries of disease and injury - but the truth is that we aren’t. Ash Wednesday reminds us, though, that in our powerlessness, in our weakness, even in death, we are held by the hands of God in absolute and ultimate safety. Yes, we are dust, with all its limitations, but we are beloved dust and that is truly liberating.

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