Ash Wednesday begins the forty-day journey to Easter. This time we call Lent, which likely comes to us from the Latin word meaning “slowly.” Lent is a time for us to slow down and be reflective. It’s not a time to wallow in our wretchedness, but it is a time to seriously consider what are our lives are really like. In that contemplation, we are left with nothing but despair, though, if we stop at just who we are and what’s going on in our lives. But isn’t that often the problem when we make it all about us and forget that the world doesn’t stop at our doorstep? Lent is also a time for us to consider our role in the great scheme of creation, as much as it is also a time to consider what God’s part is in it all. No one is an island, as the saying goes. We are not alone in this, and so Lent is a time for us to consider, yet again, our relationship with ourselves, with one another, and with God.
As we begin this time of contemplation that is Lent, consider your relationships. Don’t only consider the ones that you wish were better, but also the relationships that cause you distress, angst, or anxiety. Consider also those relationships that provide you life and energy. Why is that? And what can you learn from the one to help you with the rest? Where do you see God active, if at all, in the pattern of the grand design?
Would you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
How many of you like to garden? It might be hard right now to think about gardening, what with the mountains of snow that are still lying all about and the impending forecasts for yet more snow, but time to prep for gardening is quickly approaching. In fact, people who really get into gardening, do it all year long. They’re really always thinking about ways to improve their gardens. One thing that serious gardeners get excited about is compost. Now—if you’re anything like me, you have a spot in the backyard where you throw grass clippings, leaves, food scraps—not meat!—so that it can compost, but you never actually do anything with that pile of stuff. Real gardeners, though, engage in a calculated science about how to make the best compost for their garden, even down to the proper ratio of glass clippings to leaves to this or that kind of food scraps.
Not all foliage from trees is good for every kind of garden. It depends what you’re planning to grow. If you’re looking for compost for a vegetable garden, for instance, you don’t want pine needles in your compost. They’re too acidic, apparently. So, don’t take your Christmas tree out to the compost pile. I may or may not know that from my father—who takes his composting very seriously!
Compost, from the Latin meaning “put together.” What is it? Most basically, compost is decayed organic material used as fertilizer. Certain mulches can be used as compost. Mushroom mulch, especially, is a favorite compost because it forms from decomposing leaves and other plant material by the fungi that live in it. Manure is another favorite compost—particularly where I grew up. Manure largely works as a compost because it breaks down organic material with bacteria. Those of us who grew up with pig, cow, and chicken farms all around us can immediately tell you which variety of manure a farmer is using to fertilize his fields just by the smell. Believe you me! Not all manure is created equal!
Whatever the case may be, compost is the stuff that comes about after something organic has died and begins to rot—to decompose, to break down, to decay, to disintegrate. This process breaks down living things back into their fundamental parts—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen—so that it can be put back together again differently for nourishing other plants, which will go on themselves to nourish other organisms—even us who eat plants and animals, who themselves eat plants. Composting recycles parts of life that have died, parts that would be otherwise seen as waste, and makes a way to put it back together again in a new way.
Ash Wednesday is a time for us to consider who we are and who God is. At a fundamental level, we are creatures of the earth. Not only in the sense that we like deer, squirrels, trout, or hawks call earth our home, but we are creatures of the earth more fundamentally than that. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, when God set about creating all that is, the Lord God formed us from the dust of the ground, and breathed into our nostrils the breath of life. And we became living beings.
From the dust of the earth, from the ground, from the dirt…God formed us. God shaped us. God arranged our innermost parts—our hearts, our brains, our stomachs, our bones, our intestines, even the little bones inside our ears. God made it all. And God fashioned all that from the same stuff, the same material, as the dirt of the ground. “Intricately woven in the depths of the earth,” the psalmist sings. “Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,” O Lord God, and you fashioned me after your own image even before I was formed in my mother’s womb. From the dirt of the earth, from the same stuff as the soil of our gardens, God put us together and put his own spirit of life within us that we have life. And God saw that we, along with all creation—that all that together was very good.
And Ash Wednesday is still a time for us to recognize who we are. Our lives aren’t all good. We know how the story goes on in Genesis, and in fact the very sentence that so viscerally characterizes this day, the sentence that we will hear in a few minutes uttered as ashes are imposed on our foreheads—that line comes immediately after the story of God’s good creation. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” What God put together—because of sin, because of brokenness, because of skepticism, because of forgetfulness, because of arrogance—what God put together falls apart. We are sinful creatures. We are creatures who, by things done and things left undone, by things done to us and things not done for us, find ourselves captive to a reality that isn’t all that God intended for us or for creation.
This year in particular has brought home to us just how captive we are to sin. The pandemic that upended our lives. Our sanctuary desecrated by the wantonness of fire, smoke, and water. The uncertainty about the future of other factors in our own lives and the lives of others. Diagnoses. Jobs. And then there are those things that aren’t out of control. The sinful acts that we’ve committed or the love that we withheld—either intentionally or because we were too busy or otherwise unaware. Ash Wednesday is a time, the day we honestly recognize that we are creatures who are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Try as we might, we are unable to break out on our own of a reality hellbent to decompose, to break down, to decay, to disintegrate.
And yet—the story doesn’t end there. Ash Wednesday is a day for us not to wallow simply in our own sinfulness, in the reality that life isn’t as God intends for us or for creation. Ash Wednesday is a time for us to remember, yet again, who God is. God creates. The very first line of Scripture, our witness to who God is, testifies to God’s creative desire for creation. The first thing God does is make something. God plants a garden and puts us in it. From before the beginning of time, God has been busy creating, and God hasn’t stopped. Ash Wednesday is yet another opportunity for us to remember that, but for us Christians in particular it’s a day for us to remember the particularity of God’s creative and re-creative desire for us.
It’s not a coincidence that the ashes that remind us of our mortality are traced on our foreheads in the shape of a cross. For us and for our salvation, God came down from heaven and joined us in our mortality, became a creature of the earth like us, and lived life to the uttermost along with us as one of us. In Jesus, God joins us in the dirt, the grime, and the messiness of life and hallows it, makes it holy, makes it whole… by breaking it down and putting it back together again. In Jesus, God composts us—God puts us back together again. God puts us back together with himself in Jesus in a garden…in the new garden of creation…where Jesus rises from death to life again. From the depths of the earth, from the cold, dark dirt of the ground, God raises Jesus up to life again, and for his sake, God promises to do the same for us and for all creation.
On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with a sign of both humanity and divinity. The cross that is marked on our foreheads at our baptism that ties us to the death and resurrection of Christ is made visible for us to remember that in all the trials of this life, God is still putting us back together with him, with one another, and with the whole creation in a cycle of death and rebirth. Just as once God fashioned us from the dirt of the ground and breathed life into us, so too will God fashion us anew for life in Christ, filled with a new spirit of life as creatures of the earth made in the image of God.
Ash Wednesday is a time for us to consider who we are and who God is. We are creatures, made of the dust of the earth, fashioned after the image of God, filled with the spirit of God’s own life. Fragile as dust, our lives are full of uncertainty and evil inclination—some by our own doing and some foisted upon us. And yet in the face of that, God comes among us as one who before time, desired to create, to make, to put together, and God continues recreating, remaking, and reshaping our lives.
In Jesus, in whom we live, and move, and have our being—we are broken down, we are known, and we are put together again with God, one another, and all creation. “I came that you may have life,” Jesus said, “and have it abundantly.” This is God’s desire, this is God’s design, this is God’s plan for us. We are dust and we all go down to the dust, and having returned to the dust, God our creator will put us together again and blow the breath of life into us that for the sake of Jesus we might walk in newness of life as creatures of the earth fashioned in God’s own image. We are compost made in the image of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.