Returning to Dust

Sermon from Ash Wednesday 2017

The Rev. Becky McDaniel. This sermon is based on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. 

Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

A couple of weeks ago I listened online to an unusual sermon. It was unusual because it was preached by the journalist David Brooks. He had never preached a sermon before, and the dean of the National Cathedral, Rev. Randy Hollerith, invited him to preach on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany. David Brooks was born into a Jewish family and attended an Episcopal school in New York City. He is not religiously affiliated, but he is a spiritual man and gave a beautiful reflection on the very challenging readings of that day. One story he told was about a friend of his, a rabbi, who in the midst of the pain of sitting with his wife in a hospital as she was dying, realized that he could not pray in the large hospital, because God would not come to him there. He found that he had to drive home, go into the smallest room in his house, shut the door, drop to his knees, and then, only then, did God come to him. God was in the small place, the secret place, and there God placed his hand upon the rabbi’s shoulder, and the rabbi clung to God’s knees. It was there, in the secret space of his room, that God showed up.

On the surface this passage in Matthew seems to be strictly a warning about practicing piety in front of others rather than in the authenticity of relationship with God, just as in the passage from Joel we are told to rend our hearts and not our clothing. But on a deeper level this is also a passage about the closeness of God in the depths of our hearts; this is a reminder that when we peel back the outer layers of ourselves, our garments, our alms, our disfigured faces, then we find the real treasure, the treasure of the heart, where God is never absent.

Tonight we enter the season of Lent, a time when we dedicate ourselves to the process of self-examination, to the peeling back of outer layers, to the uncomfortable journey to the secret of the heart. We begin this process by receiving ashes and listening to the words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But what of this dust? Aren’t we seeking to return to the heart? What is this returning to dust? If God is hidden in the depths of our hearts, then where is God when our hearts return to dust? Well the truth is that this dust, this is quantum dust. Stardust. We are the dust of stars, after all. I remember when my youngest child, in a moment of clarity at the age of four, said to me, “Mommy, I used to be a star.” Yes, yes she did. Yes we did. All of us. The dust of the earth and everything in it is the dust of dead stars; it is quantum dust. We have been here since the beginning. Nothing created in this vast universe has been lost. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “What I see ‘out there’ is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars. When I look up at them there is a small commotion in my bones, as the ashes of dead stars that house my marrow rise up like metal filings toward the magnet of their living kin.” We are the dust of stars. We are eternally present in God’s creation. In the secret space of the heart, we are the universe. In those small spaces where we meet God, we find a window into the vastness of the all in all. Returning to dust is just that: remembrance that the cells in our bodies are living fossils, billions of years old, originating from the same source, God, who meets us on the cellular level, in the tininess of our being. Perhaps the greatest secret of all is that God is in it all, but sometimes it takes drawing ourselves into the smallest spaces to meet the biggest truths.

This Lent, as we rend our hearts and journey through the layers to the deepest levels of ourselves, finding God in our smallest rooms, may we also look up to the stars, and see that our treasure is both “out there” and “in here.” May we remember the miracle of creation – that the cells in our bodies are over 3 billion years old, that we are all children of the universe, sharing the same chemistry as the ashes of stars. We are in this together, all of us. May we find our way together, as we journey to the heart of God.

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