Green Ash Wednesday Sermon Notes (2019)

SERMON NOTES — March 6, 2019
“Green” Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

With those words we receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads today. It is a somber reminder of our mortality, as well as of the cost of our sinfulness to Jesus, who went to the cross for us.

But tonight I choose to also hear these words through Easter ears, so to speak. We are reminded of our mortality, yes. But as Easter people, even in the Season of Lent, we also live under the promise that someday our mortal bodies will put on immortality and have Easter bodies (1 Cor 15). Even though we groan with creation, we still live in hope, as St. Paul says, “for the redemption of our bodies” — the first fruits of all of creation being liberated from its subjection to decay.

So I’d like us to hear these words about being dust and returning to dust also as being very much about our close relationship with the whole creation. We are star dust. (Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock,” right?) The earth is made out of the dust leftover from birthing and dying stars, and we are made of the same stuff as the earth. We are dust and shall return to dust, but we are star dust — meaning our fate is inextricably bound up with the whole creation. As the ultimate horizon of the creation is for God to finish the work of creation, bringing the process of decay to an end, the promise is that the end of things will be life, not death.

The Season of Lent also asks us to consider our role in all this — how it is that our sinfulness is part of the problem. And I find one of the ideal passages for this is John 9. It begins with a question about sin. Jesus and the disciples come upon a man born blind, and they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Notice first that Jesus’ answer shows how wrong the disciples apparently are in their thinking about sin. He is kind enough not to say, ‘You dummies!’ But his answer reveals how very far off they are. Our thinking is often to assume that anything which is not quite right must be a punishment from the (tribal) gods for being wrong. We have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and think we know what’s what. But Jesus’ answer says, ‘No, this isn’t about sin. It’s about creation not being finished yet. God is still working on creation. It’s ongoing. So when we come across suffering from incompletion, it’s about the opportunity to join God in the work of creation and help make things better.’

Notice what Jesus does. He grabs some dust of the ground, from which we are made, makes mud out of it, and goes about God’s work of caring for creation and continuing to bring it to completion. Do you see Jesus’ deliberate reminder of God’s first making Adam from the dust of the ground? God is still working and invite us to join in.

But, instead, our Sinfulness is epitomized by the disciples question: they turn an opportunity to care for this man — working with God to further creation — into a matter of our false ideas about sin. What comes next is even more drastic and illustrative. The man healed of his blindness comes upon some Judean religious leaders who recognize him as having been blind, and they basically put him on trial. They are the ones usually in charge of healing, after sins have been forgiven. Who muscled in on their territory? When the man tells them his story, and they hear that it was even done on the Sabbath, then they are really put-off. They bring in the man’s parents as witnesses and try to bring him back under their control. When the man continues to praise Jesus and refuses to denounce him, they throw him out.

The chapter ends with the healed man coming back to praise Jesus, who says, mainly for the benefit of some of the Pharisees who have trailed behind the man, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9:39). And then directly to the Pharisees he says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41).

Wow! What’s going on here? My friend James Alison has written a groundbreaking book titled The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. (We are seeking tonight to hear the reminder of being dust through Easter ears.) And he does an amazing job of summing up this story in John 9. He writes,

In this story then we watch a revolution in the understanding of sin, and a revolution that takes place around the person of Jesus, but is actually worked out in the life of someone else. The structure of the story is the same as is to be found time and time again in John: that of an expulsion, or proto-lynching, one of the many that lead up to the definitive expulsion of the crucifixion, which is also the definitive remedy for all human order based on expulsion. The revolution in the concept of sin consists in the following: at the beginning of the tale, sin was considered in terms of some sort of defect that excludes the one bearing the defect. At the end of the tale sin is considered as the act of exclusion: the real blindness is the blindness which is not only present in those who exclude, but actually grows and intensifies during the act of exclusion. (p. 121)

Do you see? It’s the Sin of tribalism — of us framing everything in terms of Us-vs-Them, which colors our view of sin. We see things different from us, like a man born blind, and we assume it’s connected to sin. Wrong! It’s our opportunity to see our own blindness to the true Sin of tribalism that leads us into trying to control “Them”; and if we can’t control Them, then to expel Them or destroy Them.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” On this “Green” Ash Wednesday, as we remember our own destiny with this earth from which we’re made, let us also repent of how we have increasingly made this earth one of the “Them” that we try to control or expel, to throw away. When we think of salvation as leaving this earth behind for heaven, it gets even worse. We come to see the earth as disposable. Instead, God asks us to see it as our family home, part of Us, with our fates inextricably tied together. So, as St. Paul says, “the creation waits with eager longing” for us children of God to get our act together — to finally do what we were created to do: to care for each other and for our earth-home.

“Green World” — by Bryan Sirchio

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

When God gave dominion to humans
You know I don’t think that God ever had in mind
A license to take the earth prisoner
And lock her in chains made of dollar signs
The earth and its fullness is Yahweh’s
Stamp that verse on our property rights
That means that the land is not ours to exploit —
Its just ours to take care of for a while

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI
March 6, 2019

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