Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1st Reading: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
There are three kinds of particles in soil that are categorized by size. They are sand, which is the largest, clay which is the smallest, and silt, which is in between. You can tell what kind of soil you have, if it isn't already obvious to you, with a simple test of taking a cup of soil from your garden and putting in a glass jar with a quart of water and shake it up. The sand settles quickly, within a minute or two. The silt settles within an hour, and clay can take a day or two to finally settle in the water. Then you can see the different kinds of soils by the layers in your jar.
I reflected on the size of the particles as I mixed the ash with oil today. Ashes for Ash Wednesday ought to be smearable onto someone's forehead, without too many large pieces falling into people's eyes. Ash is small particles. It makes for clay soil.
If you have a garden with clay soil, you may think it is the bane of your existence, because you want there to be spaces in your soil for roots to be able to permeate and because you need oxygen in there to make the chemical reactions happen in your soil that makes nutrients available for your plants. Clay is actually good to have in your soil, because water sticks to all the surfaces of a particle of clay. Clay holds a lot of water and your plants need that water.
Ash makes for really tiny particles in soil. Today we smear ourselves with ash and dust, consider where we come from and where we are going, and what really matters.
We smear ourselves with dust. This is a very ancient practice. I looked up the custom of using Ashes during mourning or repentance and this is what I found. The use of ashes to indicate mourning, deep repentance or humility goes back over three thousand years and involved many cultures. As early as 800 BC, Homer wrote about it in The Iliad, and records show that it was practiced by Greeks, by Hebrews and by many other cultures of the western Mediterranean. Ashes were regarded as a symbol of personal remorse and sadness.
There are many Old Testament references to the practice. Here are a few:
Job 42:6 "Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." Job repented in sackcloth and ashes while prophesying the Babylonian captivity of Jerusalem.
Dan 9:3 (c. 550 B.C.) "And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes."
Jonah 3:5-6 In the fifth century B.C., after Jonah's preaching of conversion and repentance, the town of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, and the king covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes.
Esther 4:1 "When Mordecai perceived all that was done [the decree of King Xerxes, 485-464 B.C., of Persia to kill all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire], Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry."
Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) wrote that the penitent must "live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes."
Maybe, with the mark of the ashes, we can't pretend that everything is ok, when it clearly isn't. It is outward and visible and disturbing to have dirt on our faces. Other people see it. We are constantly reminded of it. But when we are in the process of repenting, that is what it is like on the inside. There is something that is smudged. It isn't a permanent character flaw or something that you can't forgive yourself for, but there is something to be working on that isn't right. It could be better and sometimes a whole lot better.
At Camp Odyssey, we often talk about cleaning our windshield. Driving through life we pick up dust and dirt and dead bugs, which is the racism and homophobia, and our prejudices we come into contact with in our lives. They obscure our view of the world and especially other people. Once in a while we need to stop and really see our windshield—how dirty it is. And then we need to clean our windshield. We need to decide that we aren't going to look at the world that way anymore and clean it off, see people for who they really are.
This is the way it is with all sin, not just the sin of prejudice. We are made good, but we get smudges and streaks as we go through life and we must stop at times to examine the dirt and ashes we have on us and organize a cleanup.
Dirt, dust, ash, it doesn't have a positive or negative value. Soil is necessary for life, to feed plants, for roots to grow in, to provide nutrients. It is just when it gets where it isn't supposed to that we think of it as bad. When it is on us, we want to wash ourselves. When it is in our house, we want to sweep it up, because we prefer order and predictability.
Dirt doesn't lend itself to predictability. There are so many amazing things in there. Not in this ash that I am giving you tonight. It has been burned. It has been purified by fire. This ash doesn't have all the properties that soil has, all the microbes and insects and so forth. But this ash will go back to the soil. Some will brush off of you and the carbon will join with other elements to make new compounds in the soil. Plants and insects and microbes will feed on it and turn it into other things. With soil, nothing stays the same for long. There are always new things going on in there and that is a good thing, because if that kind of thing every quit going on, life would cease to exist for us on earth.
The ashes and dust tonight are a reminder of where we come from, that God fashioned humankind from the clay, those little particles coming together to make us, acknowledging that we are made of the same stuff as this. And someday, sooner or later, our bodies will go back to dust and be transformed into other creatures and soils and new life of other sorts. We come from somewhere holy, from elements and life created by God. We are loved by God, with all the smudges, the mistakes, the imperfections. But since we have the grace and new life of God and make ourselves so miserable, wouldn't we want to thank God for loving us, and make our own lives and the lives around us a little better by making a change, by turning from our sin and embarking on the new life God is inviting us to right now? That is the journey of lent. Finally, we are going somewhere, our bodies and our failings are temporary, but our relationship with all other things in the universe goes on and is eternal. Sometimes we need to put a little smudge on our foreheads to remember what really lasts and matters, and live in a way that honors those connections.
From the broken pottery that we have become, God picks up our pieces and wets us in the waters of baptism, joining us together again, creating a beautiful mosaic, all people together, all living things united with God, giving and receiving life and giving thanks to the one who marks us with the cross at baptism and marks us again and again as members of one family united by love.