Ashes to Ashes; Stardust to Stardust

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
February 18, 2015 – Ash Wednesday
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

Ashes to Ashes; Stardust to Stardust

Genesis 1:1-4,14-16,18; 2:7; 3:17,19 NRSV

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. … And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” … And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. …. And God saw that it was good. … Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. … And to the man God said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Isaiah 58:6-12

This is the sort of fast that pleases me: Remove the chains of injustice! Undo the ropes of the yoke! Let those who are oppressed go free, and break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people! Clothe those who are naked, and don’t hide from the needs of your own flesh and blood! Do this, and your light will shine like the dawn and your healing will break forth like lightning! Your integrity will go before you, and the glory of Yahweh will be your rearguard. Cry, and the Yahweh will answer; call, and God will say, “I am here—provided you remove from your midst all oppression, finger pointing, and malicious talk! If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows will become like noon. Yahweh will always guide you, giving relief in desert places. God will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. You will rebuild the ancient ruins, and build upon age­?old foundations. You will be called the Repairer of Broken Walls and Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods.”

Additional reading: A Cosmological Creation Story: “The Star Within”

by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith

Are we dust, or are we stardust? That’s the question I posed on the bulletin insert promoting this service. Of course, the Bible says we came from dust—“the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground”—as Jason read a few minutes ago. And if we are but dust, should we not be humble? Should we not grovel? Should we not crawl to God, begging for forgiveness we don’t deserve? That’s the attitude that has prevailed on Ash Wednesday for 900 years as Christians receive, on the first day of Lent, ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads as a reminder, at least for one day, to be humble. “Remember, oh man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When I was in seminary (a non-UCC seminary, by the way), there was a particular, morbid piety surrounding Ash Wednesday. It was based on this same theological view that humans really are no better than the dust of the earth—that even though God has redeemed us through our beautiful Lord Jesus Christ, it is good for us to remember our foul human nature by receiving the ashes on our foreheads. Everyone—students, faculty, staff—received their ashes at morning chapel and wore them proudly—smudgy, dirty, itchy badges of dishonor—until they went to bed that night or, for some, woke up the next morning. If you missed chapel and did not bear the mark of ash, you were looked upon as heathen, unpracticing, impious. That’s when I developed my deep aversion to the ritual of the imposition of ashes. Life already beats us down enough; do we really need more reminders of how hopeless things can seem? If we are dust (even redeemed dust), how lofty can our hopes really be? How much change can we hope to make?

But are we dust, or are we stardust? If the account Clarke read to us a few minutes ago has any credibility to it—if all of the chemical elements required to create human life came to the earth from the interstellar dust of generations of ancestral stars, and if by some miracle of God, those atoms, in their cosmic dance, developed into the living cells of carbon-based life which then, by some miracle of God, advanced into plant life, animal life, human life—then what does that say about us? We are stardust! We are light, created by the same God who created the first light: the sun, the moon, and the stars!

If we are stardust, how lofty can our hopes be? If we are stardust, then we are made of the very elements that illuminate the world! If we are stardust, then we are transformed by God’s creative energy into an existence that conducts God’s good news into the rest of the world.

If we are stardust, how much change can we hope to make? How does “Repairer of Broken Walls and Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods” sound to you? How about “Rebuilder of Ancient Ruins and Builder upon Age­-Old Foundations”? That’s what kind of change God says we can make.

Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is traditionally a day of fasting—the day we declare what we plan to give up for the season of Lent. Just like the pious people at my seminary who wore their ashes with pride, people of faith have often taken the same approach to fasting, making sure everyone knew how much they were “suffering.” In our Isaiah passage, God says that’s not the kind of fast he’s looking for. God says this is the kind of fast that will really make a difference in this world: Fast from injustice! Fast from oppression! Fast from greed by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked! Help the afflicted fast from their affliction!

God says if we undertake this kind of fast—if we act like stardust—our light will shine like the dawn and our healing will break forth like lightning! Our light will rise in darkness, and it will shine so brightly there will be no shadows!

Are we dust, or are we stardust? It only matters if seeing it one way over the other will help you rise to the level of stardom God has called you to. The whole season of Lent is our celebration of what God has done to help us rise to that level of stardom—sending our beautiful Lord Jesus to earth so we could be free of guilt, free of aimlessness, free of sin, free to partner with God in the continuing creation of this beautiful world that he created … from stardust.  Amen.