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Sermon: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Homily preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016

Year C (RCL): Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Each Ash Wednesday, I am reminded of the words of Committal from the Burial office in our Book of Common Prayer, when the Celebrant says, "...we commend their body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

       A form of those words are spoken for the very first time in the garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says to them, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19c)

       Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. This is a stark reminder of whence we came and to where, all other factors being equal, we shall return. We are by nature and deed a walking, talking, thinking, doing package of dust and ashes.

       There is not much value in dust and ashes. Gardeners understand that it can be used to help grow plants, but it is worthless. It is often less than worthless. It can be a hindrance and a liability. You can't make it pretty by painting it, and you can’t make it smell good by spraying perfume on it. Dust is dust, and ashes are ashes, and the plain fact is they both are largely to be avoided.

       That goes for us, too. When all is said and done, our righteousness is like rags upon us; our virtue is but a spray of perfume upon thoughts and feelings and deeds that are best buried and forgotten.

       So why do we take time to smear ashes on our foreheads? Why on this day do we gather and remember what we are?

       The answer is that while we gather to remember who we are, we gather also to remember who God is, and what God has done for us, in and through Jesus Christ.

       We gather because, as devoted people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, all other factors are NOT equal.

       God has given us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It is the way of the Cross. The death of Jesus Christ at Calvary was God's way of placing a sign of infinite value upon that which would otherwise be worthless. This day, this Ash Wednesday, which starts our holy and penitential season of Lent, is for us to know and realize that God has chosen to give us some other life than that which leads only to dust heaps and ash pits.


All that God asks of us in this is that we accept the mercy of God, that we remember we are sinners and that we repent and believe in the Son of Man, the very Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord.

       God asks us too that we try to embody a life or service and devotion that is based on the love demonstrated by Jesus. Instead of being motivated by thoughts of human praise or reward, God asks that we try to show a righteousness that is based on the goodness of God manifest in the life of Jesus. Rather than being motivated by thought of demonstrating our own virtue, God asks that we remember that spraying perfume on ashes doesn't make them anything smelly ashes. Let's try to let God work in us instead of us working God.

       The liturgy of Ash Wednesday invites us during the Exhortation after the sermon to observe a “holy Lent.” And, later after we recite the Litany of Penitence, the priest on behalf of the congregation prays, “that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy ...” We are mindful, especially on this day, that we are called to be the holy people of God.

       In the first letter of St. Peter, we read,

                   “ ... gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the

                   grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ ...

                   do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,

                   but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your                        
conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy ...”


       So, we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to observe a “holy Lent?”

       The Litany for today gives us some definite direction:

       We are commanded to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves ... This is Jesus’ summary of all the law and we often hear it at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist (in Rite I).

       We are exhorted to forgive others as God has forgiven us ... Again this is a direct teaching of Christ and we pray daily, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

       We are called to serve others as Christ has served us. Surely all our efforts at pastoral care, outreach, mission and ministry should be service ‘as Christ has served us.’

       We are invited to be honest, truthful, patient, and humble ... honestly - I'm gonna tell you truthfully, I find it hard to patiently work through Lenten disciplines. This is surely a way that God keeps me humble!

       We are encouraged to practice a disciplined life of prayer and corporate worship on Sundays and every day ... I'm not saying we're taking attendance - but we do hope to see you.

       We are instructed to care for ourselves, our health in body, mind and spirits, to care for each other, to care for this planet earth, “our island home.” We should be attentive to the myriad efforts to be environmentally responsible, to reduce our waste and increase our recycling, to live more simply so others may simply live.

       We are urged to practice our baptismal vows ...

       * Continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the


       * Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the


       * Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;

       * Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves;

       * Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the     

       dignity of every human being;

       And, finally, we are to see the Kingdom of God breaking into our world and to hope for the Kingdom of God in the eternal life to come.

       God is committed to us - and God has given us a sign of that commitment - it is the cross. Today we come to take upon ourselves that sign - we come to commit, or to recommit, ourselves to God and the way that Jesus has shown us.

       We come to remember the committal words of burial, not just as words speaking to the physical end of life in this world, but to remember and embrace the wider context of promise and new life which says, "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend their body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

       These are words we should always remember - for we are born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ - a hope that comes to us because of the mercy and the love of God for God’s people; a hope that comes because God has acted in and through Jesus Christ to open the way to new life for any and for all who repent of their sinful ways and trust in the Good News that is proclaimed.

       Today’s ashes remind us that we are created out of the earth and that we will return to the earth when our physical life ends. Holiness comes to us in fullness when we have passed from this life into God’s heavenly Kingdom. We begin to live into this eternal holiness now, in this life, right where we find ourselves.       

       Thus, as a dear friend of mine likes to say, ‘we are dust, BUT we are Dust Bound For Glory!’

       Our souls will move from glory to glory in the fullness of holiness that is promised to all who know and love and follow Jesus Christ. It starts again. Now.

       Thanks be to God who gives us the victory. Amen.