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ash wednesday sermon on dirt


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the breath of God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
And later on, the Lord God said, “Let there be dirt”; and there was dirt.
And then the Lord God sculpted a person from the dirt
—scripture says “dust” but we all know
that’s a pretty way of saying mud—
and the Lord God breathed into the dirt-creature’s nostrils
the breath of life;
and the mud became human.
Every one of us is dirty—that is, made of salt and carbon and bits of things
         We are not so different in our essential makeup from a potato or an earthworm
The dust in our houses is, in fact, dirt.
skin and dirt from our shoes and bits of food and hair.
Sure, we’re made of star-stuff like the astrophysicists say
and that’s beautiful but you know what star-stuff is?
Dirt only dressed up in it’s Sunday-best.
         And this is not meant for you to beat your breast
and cry “I am a worm and no man!” as the Psalmist does
         nor is this about a false sense of humility:
                  you know the old joke of the woman who prays to God,
“I’m nothing, I’m nothing!” and another woman hears
and says “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”
         This essential dirtiness is about recognizing where we come from
                  It’s about knowing that God’s breath in our lungs
is the only thing holding us together:
not our 401Ks or stock options,
not our nice house in the suburbs,
not our kids who mostly meet our expectations for goodness,
not the amount of work we do for pay or not
                  we are, in some literal and poetic way, made entirely of dirt and breath
of course, we all know about our essential dirtiness in the other sense
         not just our sexual appetites but all of our dirtiness
         the Episcopal Ash Wednesday rite includes
an extensive Litany of Penitence and lists those dirty parts of us
we’d rather keep hidden
                  our unfaithfulness, pride, hypocrisy, and impatience
                  our self-indulgent appetites and exploitation
                  our anger at our own frustration, our envy of those more fortunate
                  our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts and our dishonesty
                  our negligence in prayer and worship
                  and my favorite, my most favorite one
                           because it’s about our failure to recognize
our innate blessedness and giftedness
                  we confess our failure to commend the faith that is in us
I don’t really want you to see those parts of me.
I hide behind a sparkling clean wall of competence
so you won’t see those parts.
Have you got that wall, too?
         Every one of us is made of dust and to dust we shall return.
         Every one of us is made of dirt
and we spend a lot of time shellacking it so that we won’t return to dirt.
And we spend a lot of time examining the folks we meet
for chinks in their shellack armor,
looking for their innate dirtiness
—this is called gossip, this is called self-righteousness,
this is called prying
This dirtiness we try to hide is the very same stuff that grows our vegetables.
         The dirt that we’re made of is the very same stuff
that supports our feet and houses.
         The dirt that is us is the very same stuff
that children build forts or make clown makeup with.
         The dirt that we try to sweep out of the living room for the umpteenth time
is a reminder of whose artwork we are.
God chose that dirt,
God scooped it up and mixed it with water and made us
and so we’re both the most humble, dirtiest creatures imaginable
and also the most beloved.
In a bit, we’re going to smear some more dirt on your foreheads.
We’ll call it dust and we’ll tell you to remember your mortality,
remember that it’s only God’s breath holding you together.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Maybe you’re not really ready for that.
And maybe you’re listening to me now and thinking
“it’s no big deal, just a smudge of ashes”
or maybe you’re thinking “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” as did Thomas
no matter where you are right now,
I invite you to begin releasing your hold on that clean wall
keeping the rest of us out
         sit comfortably in your pew
         maybe close your eyes
         and rest your hands on the tops of your knees, palm up.
Close your eyes and clench your hands up tight.
Imagine all the pressures and worries and tensions
you are carrying as you sit here now.
in your own time
gently turn your hands over so that they are facing down.
Imagine God’s hands underneath yours
and slowly open your hands
so that the things you are carrying
fall into God’s hands.
         Allow your dirt-self to show.
You may wish to repeat this several times.
Then turn your hands face up,
but this time with the palms open
and ask God’s Spirit,
God’s breath,
to fill you afresh.[1]

Be gentle with yourselves.
Remember that your dirt-self is both a blessing and a challenge.
Remember that you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

[1] Stolen from the SOS community and then modified.