Dust to Dust
Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, February 29, 2004
Today we turn. We turn from the star light of epiphany. We turn from the faint afterglow of Christmas. We turn toward Holy Week. We turn toward Easter. “Blow the trumpet in Zion” announces Joel, “for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near.” Ring the bell. Send out the email. The day we have been praying for is near. The Lord is near. But the trumpet is sounding out a warning. The bell is ringing out danger. It is not a joyful “Come one, come all”. It is “Watch out, prepare for the worst”. We come to church from a world of endless bad news. We come from trouble, from sorrow, from heartache, from loneliness and despair. We come when the bell rings because we know about the bad news. We come hoping for good news strong enough to redeem the trouble. Gerald comes with the aching of daughter Kaz and her struggle with cancer. Terry and Daphne come, shocked by the murder of the son of friends in Alberta. Mamolete comes from a University of some three thousand students in Lesotho, where there are funerals for five students - sometimes ten - every weekend, in the midst of a country where 33% of the population lives with HIV/AIDS. But Gerald and Terry and Daphne and Mamolete do not come alone. We find ourselves in “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” We imagine that the Day of the LORD will set that all right, will make the pain go away, will resolve and redeem and make new. But Joel sees something else. Joel sees that when God draws near, the darkness deepens. The storm gets worse. Massive trouble brews. We want the love of God on our terms. We would rather God was cozy and domesticated. Joel sees that the trouble that is loose among us cannot be easily caged, because we are implicated in the trouble. We are not innocents. We have turned away from God. We have turned away from neighbour. We have participated in the trouble. We do not have an alibi. God knows that we are not merely victims. That is why the season of Lent, like Advent, begins with a turn. Preparing the way of the Lord inevitably begins with turning - literally repenting - our hearts and lives toward the One who comes. The trouble with our lives, with the church and with the world is thick, layered, deep. It will not easily be resolved. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart ... rend your hearts and not your clothing.” This is the figure that the church traces in Lent. It is not too late to get right with God and with neighbour. Even now, return to God with all your heart. This is what brings us to the font today. The ashes that wait for us here are an ancient symbol of turning. The ash is a sign of penance, of a desire to return to right relations with God and with neighbour. The act of being marked in this fashion is called the “imposition of ashes”. We have reduced the old word ‘imposition’ to an act of having something unwanted, something ‘imposed’ on us by force. But the ashes are not imposed on us or on the church as some required ritual, demanded by an imposing God. The ashes are for you who long for God and who, even now, feel your heart returning to the Lord. They are a reminder that we are not God, that we are not in control, that we are not immortal. As the ash is imposed on your forehead with the sign of a cross you hear the words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. The turn to God begins with this deep truth about us - we are creatures and not the Creator, we are mortals and not the Immortal One. This truth would be too hard to bear, to painful to tell if it were not for the Table that sits within view of the font. The font is the place of turning, the place of entry, the place of dying to old ways and of rising in Christ. On the other side of the font, beyond immersion in the Jordan river lies the kingdom of God. The map of this geography has been handed down from generation to generation. Joel tells what he has learned from Moses: “Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” The next time someone claims that the God of the Old Testament is not a God of love you can recite this deep creedal memory: “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” It is this memory that we glimpse just beyond the font. This table of memory where we remember back to Jesus at table with his disciples and where we remember forward to the Messiah at banquet with all who turn to him and return to him. This is our Thanksgiving table. In Greek the word ‘thanksgiving’ is ‘eucharist’. If you look closely you can spot the Greek word ‘charis’ - grace - held within the word ‘eucharist’. Make no mistake about it. Our thanksgiving is deep, soulful gratitude for the abundance of God’s amazing grace that is revealed to us in Jesus. In him we Gentiles have discovered that the God of Israel is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” We return to God because we know that without God we are lost. Without God we will drown in the trouble. Without Christ at the helm the ship that is the church will surely be lost at sea, overcome by the storm. Yet Joel names the uncertainty that we know in our gut. “Who knows”, says the prophet, “whether <God> will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him.” This turning to God is not only about us. It is also about God and our inability to control God by our prayers or actions. Turning back to be in relationship with one whom we have hurt, whom we have offended, whom we have ignored is always risky. There are no guarantees that our turn to restored relationship will be received in kind. “Who knows” says Joel. This is the gamble that is at the heart of our life together. It is what we mean when we speak of the gift of faith, the gift of risking life and death on God. Everyone gambles their life on some deep act of faith. Everyone must finally choose where to place their trust and to locate their security. Gathered at the font today we take a leap in faith, entrusting our lives - and deaths - to God in Christ. Here we are marked with a cross as belonging to Christ, the One who has promised to be with all who take up their cross and follow him into the trouble. This is the great gamble that Christ invites us to take. He comes, calling on us to turn - to return - to God. But this turn is not a turn away from the trouble of the world. Christ does not invite us to run away from the trouble. In him we do not escape the pain or the ache of our mortality. No. In him we discover the courage and faithfulness to walk into the heart of the troubles. There is a glimpse of this promise hiding in Joel’s ancient word. All week long I have been wrestling with this strange text: “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?” This seems such peculiar logic. Who knows if God might relent, and leave a blessing, an offering of grain and of drink for God? God’s turn to relationship with us will be marked with a meal that is, itself, an offering for God? Perhaps you glimpse already what I suddenly noticed in this odd text. Yes. An offering of grain and of drink, of bread and of wine. This table is a sign of God’s change of heart, of God’s turn to the world’s anguished troubles. It is a blessing, given by God in Christ to mortals who are overcome by the troubles. By sharing in Christ’s mortality - body broken, blood poured out - by bearing one another’s sorrows, by participating in the world’s suffering we enter the Easter story. And to our enduring surprise and delight this story of trouble and grief is also a tale of unspeakable joy and of deep hope. The gospel - the good news of Jesus - is a story that we want to have imposed on us. Yes, we are mortals. Yes, we die. Yes, we are ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Yes we have run far from God. But running from God does not satisfy. We can only cover over the truth of our mortality for a little while. The troubles catch up with even the most righteous and just and correct among us. We ponder our frail lives, our wrong turns, our dead ends. Then we see the font of repentance and we glimpse the table of redemption on the far shore. And we turn - we return - to God.