“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!” The words make me think of Genesis and the creation story. God forms man out of the dust, lovingly giving him shape, breathing his spirit into him, and filling his entire body with life. God then looked at what he had made and declared that everything was “good.” This creature we remind today of the dust-nature of his being was lovingly molded to rule over God’s creation, and as creation is declared “good” so too is man declared “good.” As it is common in Holy Scripture, however, a creature that starts well (is deemed “good”) often turns away from God, loses focus, and forgets the mission for which God has created him or her. Adam and Eve hide from God and the shame of their nakedness; after killing Able, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jacob, aided by his mother, steals the birthright from his brother Esau; the brothers sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt, on and on we go, until we are introduced to the Messiah.
Even at the ascension, the disciples of the Messiah ask when the “glorious revolution” will commence. “Is today the day you will vindicate Israel?” Three years with the Prince of Peace and they inquire about insurrection and political struggle. They still do not understand. They still doubt. Their dust-nature fails to realize that God walks among them and sends them out to preach love and peace. Soon, “The Way” will become the institutional church and it will begin a journey towards structures, buildings, hierarchies, dogmatism, and organizational discipline. Soon, the institution will drive future disciples even further away from the Messiah’s intent. The future dust-nature of the Church will call for armies, crusades, invasions, and empires. Human power will take over and the Gospel will become a commodity easily traded in the world’s markets.
Today we are reminded of our dust-nature once again. We are reminded that “The Church grows by division” as Philip Jenkins once said. Schism is the order of the day. Church and seminary boards are busy building fences and declaring that “effective immediately, by general agreement, fully supported by our own unique interpretation of Scripture, we declare that God will reside within these walls, and only those who dwell herein will one day be saved by the Messiah.” They arrogantly wave the flags of intolerance, comforted by their belief that only they have access to the combination code that unlocks truth. Their orthodoxy is more important than grace, and Christ’s death is efficacious only for those who agree with them.
On this cold week when Christians around the world are celebrating Ash Wednesday, we are all reminded that we are dust and to dust we will return. At the last day, history will not remember the strength of our convictions but the love we freely shared with the world. Did we make a mark? Did we build God’s kingdom? Did we love the sinners God placed in our lives, or did we build fences to separate our respectable group from them? At the last day, our orthodoxy without love will not increase the size of our cemetery plot by even one inch. The strength of our conviction and the shouts with which we silenced others will be forgotten soon after our death. Unless we are C. S. Lewis, most of our books will remain covered in dust, aging mercilessly in old bookcases. Even our arrogance is ephemeral. The Christian souls I remember the most fondly did not build fences but bridges. They reformed the church at the local level by befriending and serving “the other.” Rather than pontification, it was service that showed the world the power of the Gospel.
This coming Sunday we will be reminded of our dust-nature. Sadly, we will have to move the imposition of ashes to the first Sunday of Lent because of awful weather. But we will remember our dust-nature nonetheless. This will be a reminder about the finitude of our days. We are just passing through and our journey is very small indeed. Our life is seconds long when we compare it to the life of the universe. It sounds so incredibly foolish to spend that infinitesimally small amount of time building fences.
May we remember today to love with all our heart. It is love and not “the right way of thinking about things” that characterizes a Christian. We are disciples of the one who loved us all the way to the cross and we are called to love the same way. If Christ had died only for the respectable right-believing residents of Jerusalem, all of us would be doomed. He did not require a litmus test from anyone before he died for us. May the Church be as generous in its hospitality and Grace as our Messiah was and continues to be.
May he bless you today,