Two days after September 11, 2001, like many Americans, I wanted to do something other than just sit there on the couch and watch TV all day. I wanted to do something helpful, no matter how small.
I had just started seminary in New York City. The school sent out an email saying that volunteers were needed to clean up an Episcopal Church next to Ground Zero: St. Paul’s, the little chapel in which George Washington used to worship.
St. Paul’s would go on become a relief center for first responders who slept, ate, and prayed around-the-clock in the church for months after the attacks. It’s now a worldwide pilgrimage site.
When our group of volunteers arrived at St. Paul’s, we were met by a friend and mentor of mine, Fr. Lyndon Harris, the church’s priest. He embraced everyone and asked us to help him clean up the church kitchen. We needed to make sure it was ready to go when the power went back on. Lyndon had a feeling that St. Paul’s would be feeding the souls and stomachs of people immediately.
After we finished the kitchen, I had a moment to go out behind the church to the graveyard.
Half-way up the grave markers was a layer of dust and paper which had drifted down from the towers. Office memos, spreadsheets, work which had once seemed so important.
On the way back to the seminary, I couldn’t get the words of the thirtieth psalm of out my mind “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?”
“Will the dust praise you?” We’ve all asked God that question. In a hospital room. During a moment of fear or anxiety. After witnessing a scene of violence or suffering. At the graveside of someone it’s hard to imagine living without.
This question echoes throughout the Bible, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, when God proclaims to Adam and us all, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When you come forward to receive ashes today, you will hear those same words: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
In the past, monks kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that life is short. Now, we have apps for our mobile devices.
One is called “WeCroak.” I kid you not. On your device, you’ll receive heartwarming messages like this: “Don’t forget that you’re going to die.” Or: “The grave has no sunny corners.”
I don’t think we need skulls on our desks or apps on our phones: the words from Scripture that we remember this Ash Wednesday are enough: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Death, the Bible teaches us, is a radical equalizer. We witness this theme especially in the Wisdom books such as Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.
In Ecclesiastes, death is accepted as a part of what it means to be human: “For everything there is a season,” the sage writes, “and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.”
But in the book of Job, we meet a man, as the poet says, who “rages against the dying of the light.” He isn’t at all happy about his fate and the way God is treating him. Job cries, “God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two. He seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces . . . I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and laid my strength in the dust. My face is red with weeping and deep darkness is on my eyelids, though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.”
You know what he’s saying: “God, this isn’t fair. I’ve said my prayers. I’ve helped others and done my part. Why are you doing this to me? Will the dust praise you?”
Cynical resignation or a raging against the dying of the light, “for everything there is a season” or “my face is red with weeping.” If you’re at all like me, you’ve dealt with the painful reality of death both ways.
But what if there’s a third way, an approach to death that takes the psalmist’s question seriously and seeks to answer it in faith?
If the question is, “will the dust praise you,” then our answer this day as we gather for worship and prayer is a humble “yes.”
We answer “yes” as we sing hymns, listen to Scripture, receive ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and penitence, offer up our prayers, and gather around God’s table to be fed.
We answer “yes” as we study the Bible during these 40 days of Lent and seek to apply God’s Word to our lives.
We answer “yes” as we fast or take on spiritual disciplines. We answer “yes” when we care for the poor and vulnerable through the giving of our time or money.
Count it all as praise of God. “All we go down to the dust,” we pray in the Episcopal Burial service, “yet even at the grave we make our song.”
Through faith, Job was able to move from rage to praise. He affirms: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see and my eyes behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”
Through faith, the psalmist who asked God if “the dust will praise you,” answers her own question with these words that close the thirtieth psalm:
“Hear, O Lord and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper. You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”
Through faith, you and I can join in this song. We can go from wailing to dancing, from sack-cloth and ashes to joy.
It all comes down to faith in God’s eternal promise to us that we’ll never be separated from God’s love. Nothing can separate us from God, not even death.
We can make this bold claim because we have placed our faith in Jesus, who faced the reality of death with obedience rather than cynical resignation or rage.
He was obedient—that is, he listened prayerfully to God’s call—until the end. Like any human being, he feared death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before he was crucified, he asked God to take away this cup. Surely, Jesus hoped, there must be some other way to reconcile God and God’s people.
Like all who face death, Jesus experienced fear and anguish. He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten about me?”
Jesus cries out in words that he knew by heart from the twenty-second psalm, a song that ends with these words: “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever.”
Will the dust praise you? Yes, even the dust will praise you. We will praise God with Jesus because we’re known as the Lord’s forever.
As you receive the cross on your forehead today, may it be more than a reminder of your mortality and penitence. May it also be a moment when you remember that in baptism, you were marked as Christ’s own forever. No one, or nothing in this life can take away the dignity that we have in Christ. And so even at the grave, even on a solemn day like this, we can sing.
We can sing along with the poet, Anya Silver, who lives up in Macon, Georgia, where she’s a member of St. Francis Episcopal Church. She’s also a mother who has faced life-threatening illness with courage.
In this poem, she recounts going to church on Ash Wednesday. As any parent will tell you, sometimes you’re so busy caring for your children and working that you don’t even have time to bathe.
The poem is entitled “Ash Wednesday, Unshowered.”
“My hair’s pulled back to disguise the grime, though maybe it’s well that I’m unclean, since from dust you came, to dust you will return, the priest recites, smearing my forehead. Once, twice, and I’m marked, a lintel in plague years. I’m invited to kneel and read the fifty-first Psalm, recalling how David watched Bathsheba bathe. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Merciful one, save me from slight repentance.”
This season of Lent before us is no time for slight repentance. Allow God to transform you over the 40 days and 40 nights of this season.
Like Silver, approach God just as you are right now, conscious of the grime of sin and death that covers us all.
In a moment, once, twice, and you will be marked by ash, a lintel in plague years, a sign that you have been marked as Christ’s own forever.
We are the Lord’s forever. We know that our Redeemer lives and that in our mortal and immortal bodies we will see God. Even at the grave, our strength laid in the dust, we make our song of praise to the Living God.
A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2018 by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee.