Sermon on Ash Wednesday 2018
THE REVD DR REBECCA AECHTNER, LANCASTER PRIORY
Ash Wednesday Sermon (John 8. 1-11)
‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return….’
These haunting words which we will soon hear, penetrate the soul. They force us to confront our humanity and our mortality. In a few minutes many of us will receive the imposition of ashes, a physical mark on our foreheads, but this is temporary, it is easily washed off, or unconsciously rubbed away. But these words linger, they linger throughout Lent, and for many of us, they bring back painful memories of loss….
….Of funerals, of endings, of committing our loved ones to God – ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ My voice cracks each and every time I say those words at a funeral – they leave no where to hide behind, nothing can lessen their poignancy, their raw, finality.
But this evening, let us turn not to our ending but to our beginning. Dust. We are dust. In the second creation account in Genesis, God forms man from the dust of the ground, and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man becomes a living being (Genesis 2. 7). And from the man’s rib God creates Eve to be his partner.
We all know how the story unfolds; at the serpent’s suggestion the woman breaks God’s only commandment and eats the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and shares it with the man. The man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent. But God holds all three into account. Note, all three, not just the woman. The serpent must ‘crawl on its belly and eat dust’, the woman suffers pain in childbirth and the Lord admonishes the man saying ‘cursed is the ground because of you […] By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out if it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3). And the story of our origin, which might challenge us to aspire to the love and mutuality of Paradise, of paradise lost, has instead been used to subjugate and subordinate women down the ages. From Eve to our Gospel’s adulterous woman whose partner is notably absent. (Rachel Held Evans A Year of Biblical Womanhood, xxv).
She is brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, who quote the law of Moses, that such women should be stoned. They have judged her guilty and sentenced her to death. Justice is in their hands. Literally. They will meet out justice with each stone thrown at her until there is no breath, no life left in her. Until she has returned to the dust.
And how does Jesus respond? Twice he bends down, and writes with his finger on the ground. He says to the crowd: ‘ Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Jesus’ judgement is perfect as is God’s in the creation story. God holds all into account, the adulteress woman, those who judge her, all of us…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
One by one the accusers, the self-righteous slink away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman (assuming that even his disciples left) he asks her ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ … ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.’
Jesus bends down and writes on the ground – In the dust – In the dirt. The very substance from which we were made. He gets his hands dirty with our very nature.
Countless theologians and ordinands have agonised as to what exactly Jesus wrote on the ground, but perhaps they miss the point. He chose not to write on something more permanent, but on and in the fleeting, impermanent, basic element of our existence. Dust. And in so doing, he saves the woman’s life and she becomes part of the story of his redeeming love for all Creation.
Jesus redeems the very dust, the dust from which we were made, and restores us to life and life eternal.
This Ash Wednesday, this Valentine’s Day, may be particularly difficult. Being confronted with our true nature may reveal pain, regret, loss, unhealed wounds, loneliness, shame, and our mortality. In Lent we are meant to lay ourselves bare – to hide nothing from a God from whom nothing is hidden.
As we enter Lent, let us examine our selves, our sins, all the separates us from the love of God and from each other. It is right to be penitent – but remember that God’s judgement, God’s justice is perfect.
In Genesis the sin of all three characters is punished and as a result they live a less-perfect life, but they live and we are their descendants. And the adulteress woman is told to go on her way, judged but not condemned, encouraged to turn away from her sin.
Tonight we are invited to do likewise. To examine our hearts and minds, to be confronted with our sin, to forgive the sins of others, to drop the stones of judgement clutched in our hands.
Yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return. That is certain. But remember that in Christ Jesus, God our Creator, got his hands dirty with our humanity, with our sins and our failures. We were created from the dust of the earth in order to be transformed by the life-giving breath, love, justice and forgiveness of God. AMEN.