A big part of our observance of Ash Wednesday is hearing God’s honest words about us. If we are being honest with ourselves and honest with God’s vantage point of our lives, our lives are pretty broken and fleeting- individually and communally. Individually we spend our time over-indulging in fleeting pleasures of food or drink, propelled by our pride we cut down our enemies with sharp, hurting words, or we spend too much time caring for ourselves and not our neighbors.
Communally, we try to ignore the epidemic of violence in our communities or the epidemic of poverty or the epidemic of shame. As a society the unspoken, dishonest “truth” is that those who are poor are lazy, those that are the victims of violence are thugs, and all of these people should be ignored so that their wicked ways won’t end up anywhere near us.
We are fragile beings, we are dust. With just a few harsh words, our spirits are crushed to despair. When we hear, “You are lazy,” “You are stupid,” “You are ugly,” “You are a waste,” we start to believe it.
We are fragile beings, we are dust. With just one unexpected medical bill, a mistreated or undertreated mental illness, or a single addiction, we can find ourselves unemployed, alone, or even homeless.
We are fragile beings, we are dust. With just one misguided declaration of religious moral righteousness, we can find ourselves at war with our “enemies,” we can alienate and shun our loved ones who do not meet our righteousness requirements, or we can conveniently distract ourselves from the greater problems of poverty, violence, and shame.
We are fragile beings, we are dust. With just one diagnosis of cancer, one car accident, or one bullet our lives come to an end.
If we are being honest with ourselves we will hear God’s words to Adam in the Garden as if they were spoken to us, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I am struck at how similar declarations of repentance of sin and the act of lament are as they are depicted in the Bible. Joel describes the actions of fasting, weeping, mourning, and tearing one’s clothes. All could be acts of repenting of sin and disciplining oneself to start a new life, or they could be acts of mourning for the tragedies and hurts that our world endures. Either way, they are cries to God. They are powerful pleadings begging for God’s action. We may beg of God’s forgiveness for the wrongs we’ve done and the ability to start anew, or we may beg for God’s aid and mercy for the great needs of our hurting world.
God is honest with us about the depth of our sin and God is honest with us about the depth of hurt in our world. God’s words of honesty are two-fold though. On the one hand, God speaks the honest truth about our brokenness and fragility, but on the other hand, God speaks the honest truth about God’s steadfast love.
Joel has spoken many, many words about the despair and pain his people are facing- whether it be the result of their own sin or something outside of their selves. There is “darkness and gloom” and a “great and powerful army coming” and we miss the verses between the beginning and the end of the lectionary texts that describe the earth quaking, the sun and moon losing their light, and the stars withdrawing (Joel 2:10). But now God makes another honest declaration, “Yet even now, return to me with all your heart.” In the midst of great suffering, fear, and chaos God urges God’s people to turn again to God. God is present and God never left. God is honest in saying that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God will have mercy, God will forgive, God will restore and make new. That promise is always there for us and it confronts us when we are in the darkest, most vulnerable, and dustiest of places.
There is a story that I heard many times growing up which was meant to teach me what Yom Kippur is about. Yom Kippur is a Jewish high holy day set aside for asking forgiveness from God and committing oneself to repenting of the sins one has committed in the past year. In this story there is a man whom we will call “Jacob.” Jacob was a very unkind, selfish man. After I read A Christmas Carol some years later, I began to think of Jacob as an Ebenezer Scrooge type person. He was wealthy, but only spent his money on himself. He had no friends and turned his nose up to most everybody he knew. He cared nothing about God and he felt no commitment to the synagogue of his community. He lived his whole life in this way until he grew to be a bitter, old man. At a very old age, Jacob knew that he would die soon and on Yom Kippur something stirred in his heart. He began to feel guilty about the way he had hoarded his money, about the way he had shunned his family and his acquaintances, and he felt guilty that he never supported the work God was doing through his community’s synagogue. With a heavy heart, Jacob walked into the synagogue in the middle of prayers and stood in front of the ark where the Torah was kept. He cried out in a loud voice asking God for forgiveness for the wrongs he had committed and the good he had failed to do. With that, he died, but the people of the synagogue saw his spirit ascend into heaven assuring them that he had been forgiven.
When Jacob was in his most fragile and dusty moment- when he was lost in his own selfishness and bitterness, God stirred his heart and met him on Yom Kippur in a moment of healing and forgiveness. In this season of Lent, we remember that we are dust. We are honest about the fragility of life and the brokenness that is wrought in our sin and the sin of the world. We may give up a particular joy or take on a discipline meant to open our hearts toward God and our neighbor. We do these things not because God requires them in order to forgive us or heal our world, but because they remind us of our fragility or dustiness. We are honest about how we cannot survive on our own, but that we depend on the love and mercy of God. In that honesty, we remember that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We are reminded of that honest truth- that God knows our hurts and that God will heal them. Honestly. Amen.