Dust (Ash Wednesday)
We don’t like to hear that we’re imperfect.
Somehow, the idea just makes us uncomfortable.
And that makes perfect sense.
After all, doesn’t our whole world spin upon this idea of perfection?
There is an ideal of what perfection looks like.
Those ultra-skinny, young female models in their designer-labeled clothes. Their faces without a trace of a wrinkle or a blemish.
The men with the broad shoulders, chiseled jaws and driving the latest luxury vehicle.
Or maybe perfection is the corner office.
Or the nicest house on the block.
Maybe it’s being published, earning the doctoral, reaching the highest seat in political office.
In other words, not who you are, but what you’ve done.
Or what you appear to be.
Except the Bible — if we gaze at it deep and hard and long enough — becomes a mirror, doesn’t it?
And all those worldly traits — the money, the flawless skin, the latest clothes, the seat at the boardroom — they all turn to dust.
We are dust
This message shouldn’t be hard for us to understand — surely, I am not the first person or pastor who has uttered these words or those similar to them.
But somehow, we are so locked into this worldly idea of perfection that we fail to see how absolutely imperfect we are.
We read these passages in Matthew 6, in which Jesus is teaching us:
Don’t practice your piety in front of others in order to be seen by them.
When you give alms — money to the poor — do not do it loudly, but quietly.
And don’t pray as a big public display.
When you fast, don’t put on a big show — oh, poor me!
And do not store up earthy treasures, but heavenly treasures.
These proverbs sound so distant to us sometimes. We read them, and we are automatically brought back to biblical times, where we get these images of Pharisees and hypocritical elitists flaunting their holiness.
Surely, we wouldn’t do that, would we?
Well, two things about that.
The first is this:
Maybe we don’t flaunt our holiness because maybe we’re really not trying to be holy, or to live this set-apart life.
Maybe the Pharisees at least are flaunting their holiness because they’re at least practicing being holy — they’re simply doing it for the wrong reason, for earthly reasons
So we need to ask ourselves, are we practicing holiness?
And if we are, are we doing it for the right reasons, for heavenly reasons?
And the second reason is this:
If Jesus says don’t practice your piety before others in order to be seen by them, what about all those pastors, theologians, writers and bloggers out there profiting on the volumes they produce that tell us how to improve ourselves? What does that say about our piety?
And what do you think it says to God when we are giving donations to those who need it, and then being recognized by having our names plastered upon the wing of a children’s hospital, or being honored at a banquet, or how about even being acknowledged in a newsletter for the gifts we’ve purchased for a school, a library or even a church … Little brass tags of validation everywhere.
When we pray, does it need to sound like William Shakespeare? Does it have to be some oratory masterpiece that we perfect and balance metre and cadence? Or is it just our words, from deep within our hearts? So many people are afraid to pray publicly because they fear they will be judged for not being eloquent. That’s sad.
Some of you may be fasting these 40 days, starting with today. It’s sometimes a good conversation — “What are you giving up this Lent? Chocolate? Facebook? Or some other vice?”
And in that quest for living up to that worldly standard of perfection that we just talked about, are you considering that next shiny car, that bigger house, or whatever fad that reinforces this, or are you taking a step back and seeking True happiness in the only One who can satisfy?
It’s not the stuff we surround ourselves with; it’s not even the people we surround ourselves with.
Fast from that!
Jesus wants us to fast to gain a relationship with God, not to gain the respect of a crowd — your friends, your family, even your church…
You see, these passages that we read today in Matthew force us to confront the truth about ourselves.
Don’t read these words — don't read any words in the Bible — as if they aren’t speaking directly to you today.
If the words and concepts are too distant or foreign to you, you need to pray hard that the Holy Spirit illuminates these passages and helps you apply them to your life.
Because, let’s face it: It’s incredibly hard to not want the kind of validation that Jesus is calling false here.
We love to be noticed, to be praised, to be awarded, to be honored and to have our names printed for all to see.
Maybe we should rethink what we’re doing for these 40 days of Lent.
What if we first asked “How does this honor Jesus?”
“How does this honor what Jesus taught?”
“How does this honor Jesus, who died for my sins so that I may have an eternity of real treasure?”
And “How does this honor Jesus, who promises me that I can make this world a much better place?”
How about we do that by giving up those things — those earthly things that make us temporarily feel good about ourselves — that distract us from gaining a strong and true relationship with God!
You see, this reading forces us to confront the truth about our lives if we really work hard and wrestle with what it means to us here tonight.
It’s not deprivation for the sake of deprivation.
It’s gaining heavenly treasures.
It’s gaining true treasure here on earth.
It’s a gift, a promise, yet another opportunity.
Life is short, maybe.
But it’s not the quantity in your life; it’s the quality.
For what are we really but dust?
This is the secret we don’t want to face, the secret we don’t want to hear — as if we don’t know.
We are nothing without God. Nothing.
“From dust you came, and from dust you will return” — Genesis 3.19.
In this light, our physical bodies are nothing but opportunities to do the Liturgy — which translates to the work of the people.
And the Liturgy forces us to confront this truth.
We may come from dust, and we may return to dust, yes, but we have a promise, a true gift if we just choose to accept it and then embody it.
How beautiful then is it to know that we can do nothing without our Lord?
And that our God will transform us from this dust into something so amazing, so beautiful, so perfect that we are able to be called God’s children, made in God’s image, able to spend this life glorifying God, and the next life in God’s glory.
We need to know that the only way of feeling and being this complete is not through that which money can buy or recognition can give, but it’s ONLY through God’s Son Jesus Christ.
It’s only through Christ’s love.
Repeat these words after me: “I need Jesus”
“I love Jesus.”
“I want Jesus.”
“I accept Jesus.”
“My redeemer is Jesus”
“My savior is Jesus.”
What will you give?
So what will you give? And how will you give it?
That’s between you and God, but know this.
The question is why will you give it?
The answer must be to gain a stronger relationship with God.
It’s as simple as that.