Green Ash Wednesday Sermon (2022)

Ash Wednesday
Texts: Gen 2:4b-9, 15-17; 3:16-19;
Rom 8:18-25; John 9:1-7

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This idea for a Green Ash Wednesday, around the theme of taking care of creation, is largely my own invention — at least, in terms of choosing this particular set of readings and changing the imposition of ashes to, “Remember that you are earth, and to earth you shall return.” But the inspiration for the idea was a song by one of my favorite Christian songwriters, Bryan Sirchio, a song called “Green World.” The following sermon seeks to capture the message of that song as a whole. Here’s the chorus:

God made this green world green
Air and water clean
We come from the earth, and to earth we shall return
Let’s go back to Genesis 2 and relearn
Humans are here in the garden to serve
And service is the purpose of God-given power
We are more the earth’s than earth is ours
We are more the earth’s than earth is ours

Why did I choose these readings? Genesis 2-3 is obvious when we know that the word we most often say, “dust” — “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” — is in Hebrew a word that more widely means earth. It’s the same word from which we get the name “Adam.” Adam basically means earth creature. “You are earth, and to earth you shall return.

OK, so why the Second Reading? In Romans 8 I believe that St. Paul implies that we need to ‘go back to Genesis 2 and relearn, as the song says, ‘Humans are here in the garden to serve.’ First, let’s be careful to note that the scope of God’s salvation is not just human souls going to heaven when they die but the whole creation. The resurrection of Jesus has renewed God’s promise to bring the present suffering to an end someday so that the whole creation will be freed from death and decay. So in the meantime, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In other words, the creation is waiting for us to get our act together! We were put on this earth to serve, and instead we have fallen into a sinful neglect of that vocation in order to pursue our own false sense of freedom to do what we want. We were created in the image of God to love and serve the creation as God does. But we have continually failed to do so. The call of this Green Ash Wednesday is for us to remember our deep connection with the earth. We are earth, and to earth we shall return. In the meantime, we are to help care for our earth home. That’s the purpose of our God-given power!

How do we so continually get off-track from our created purpose? Genesis 2-3 has some insight about that — which has been corroborated and deepened by the anthropology I’ve shared with you on a couple of occasions — the Mimetic Theory of René Girard. The central element of Girard’s ideas is that we desire mimetically — that is, we catch our desires from each other through a subconscious imitation of one another’s desiring. Advertisers understand this by showing us people desiring their products.

But the writer of Genesis also understands this in telling us the story of falling into sin as a matter of catching desire. We read the parts about God commanding the first man and woman not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In tonight’s reading, we then skipped over the story of their disobedience to God’s detailing the consequences of their disobedience in Gen 3:16-19. But that first part of Genesis 3 that we skipped is a well-known story, right? And here’s the crucial part that I want you to recall: The woman and man don’t simply look at the fruit of that tree and decide to eat it one day. The desire doesn’t spring up from nowhere. No, they catch their desire from the serpent, who convinces them that God desires the fruit and is holding out on them. They follow the serpent’s false, resentful version of God’s desire. They catch a desire from the tempter serpent and fall into rivalry with God. They disobey, following the desire of a fellow creature, and eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider what obedience means in light of mimetic desire. It means following the desire of God rather than the desires of each other. It means understanding that we are made in God’s image to desire caring for the creation like God does. It means living out our vocations as caretakers of the earth, and each other, with God.

The first man and woman represent all of us in our tendency to catch desire mimetically — “covet” is the word the Bible gives us — and then to fall into rivalry and conflict. For when we catch our desires from each other, we eventually become rivals for the same objects of desire, even when there is enough for everyone. Catching the desire for the same object makes that object seem scarce. We become uneasy and resentful, and we begin to have our entire experience tainted with the lie that life is about fighting for scarce resources. We think that there’s not enough for everyone, and so life becomes a constant struggle about Us trying to get the good stuff before They do. Instead of joining with God in caring for the earth and for one another, we end up in seemingly endless battles of Us-vs-Them.

Which highlights another element of the story in Genesis 2-3: namely, the name of the tree — the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s not a throw-away detail. The full scope of our sin is not just that we disobey because we catch our desires from each other instead of God. Another deeper dimension of our sin is that we think we know good and evil in ways that justify our playing God. We think we have all the answers to who’s good and who’s bad, who’s Us and who’s Them, who’s deserving of getting the good stuff and who’s not. It makes us continually susceptible to the work of the tempter in his guise as “Satan.” Satan means “Accuser.” When we think we definitely know who’s good and who’s evil, then we are susceptible to the powers of accusation in all manner of conspiracy theories. Us-vs-Them thinking begins to color and shape everything we do. Does any of this sound familiar yet?

And when we are entrenched in Us-vs-Them thinking — thinking that we actually know good from evil in the way God does — then it makes it virtually impossible for us as a human family to work together in caring for creation and for one another. It makes it impossible to do God’s work.

Today’s Gospel Reading is a case in point. Jesus and his disciples come upon a man born blind, and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Do you see? They, like us, think they have the Knowledge of Good and Evil so locked down that they presume this man’s affliction is a sign of God’s punishment. They think they know Good and Evil just like God. Jesus immediately divests them of that lie. Jesus answers them, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” What work is that? Why, caring for the creation! And so Jesus proceeds to imitate God by applying some earth to the man’s eyes in order to restore his sight. This man’s blindness is not the occasion for judging him sinful. Rather, it’s the occasion for Jesus to open our eyes to caring for the creation precisely by caring for the least powerful in the human family. It’s the occasion for restoring full dignity to one another in our caring for each other. Once again, Jesus healing of one individual is a sign of his coming to heal the whole human family of our blindness — our blindness to our created purpose of caring for one another and for the earth.

Brothers and sisters, kind of like Jesus did to the blind man’s eyes, we have applied earth to our foreheads in the sign of the cross this evening — to heal our metaphorical blindness! May it be the occasion not for playing God in thinking we know good and evil but for being able to see the world as it is: our home in need of our care. Remember that you are earth and to earth you shall return. Remember that we are made deeply connected to the earth as the creatures who bear God’s loving desire to redeem this world from the powers of death and destruction. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, March 2, 2022

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