Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“I Am Dust and Ashes/For Me, Christ Rose From the Grave”
Sermon, Year C, Lent 3, March 3, 2013
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

In Judaism there is a tradition, suggestion, idea, whatever one calls it, that one ought to carry around two slips of paper. One in the right pocket and one in the left pocket. Which I realize that, having been informed in the past year or two that many women’s pants don’t have pockets, this is a male-centric idea. So if you are a woman with no pockets, imagine this however you need to. So you have two slips of paper. On one slip, write down “I am made of dust and ashes” and put that in your pocket. On the other one, write “For me, the world was created” and put that in your other pocket. They are now both part of you. The first is a message of humility. A reminder of our origin to keep us rooted and grounded. To remind us that we are created. God made us, we did not make ourselves. God has made us. We are made from the substance of the earth. Even if we are rich, or famous, or nobility, we are all made from the same stuff. WE are all made of dust and ashes. And the other slip of paper is a message of hope. Of God’s love. A reminder that we are blessed, and that we are not forgotten, we are not left alone, we are valued. That even in the pain and anxiety of life, even in the dust and ashes of life, a reminder that for me, the world was made. A reminder that the world was created for us to enjoy and to live in. To live in as fully as possible. God wants us to enjoy the creation that God put us in.

And also to remember, by having those slips of paper at the same time, to remember that it is not an either/or. We don’t live in one or the other, we live in both stages at the same time. Or think of it as we either live at both extremes at the same time, or live somewhere in between them. Choose an image that works for you. But we are not just dust and ashes. Life is not just dust and ashes. But life is also not just a world that was created solely for me. We live in that tension. We are dust and ashes, but the world is created for us.

As a Christian practice, especially since we are in Lent, we could change the writing a bit. We would keep the “I am made from dust and ashes” because that is Ash Wednesday. That is the beginning of Lent. Our other slip of paper could have the ending of Lent: “For me, Christ died.” Also a powerful message. I am made of dust, and therefore no more special than anyone else, because we are all made of dust. And yet I am special enough that Jesus died for me. I am dust, but God does not leave me there. God does not leave you there in the dust. Or, one could also rewrite the second slip of paper, not as the end of Lent but as the beginning of Easter: “For me, Christ rose from the grave.” It is a resurrection message. I think that maybe a focus more on Easter resurrection and new life and eternal life is probably healthier than fixating ourselves on the cross, Jesus’ death on the cross. It is a powerful message to have one slip be Ash Wednesday, and other be Easter. If we think of all of Jesus’ ministry, the couple years he spent teaching, preaching, and doing what he did, he only spent a couple hours on the cross and a couple hours in the tomb. But he spent years teaching, preaching, healing, and showing us how to live. Showing us how to live. And showing us that we can live in the fulness of God’s love, and that we live in Gods grace.

And not just showing and teaching how to live, but showing and teaching us that we OUGHT to live! That we are free to live, that we have a right to it. That God wants us to live as fully as possible in all of the greatness of creation. To enjoy all that it has to offer. To never feel like we need to be miserable to make God happy, because it is okay to be joyful, be happy, to celebrate life, and to live life as much as we can. All those years that Jesus spent teaching us, and showing us, that God is not one who is waiting for us to mess up so that he can strike us down. And I have found that in those that think that way, that God is waiting for a chance to strike us down, God is always a he. We don’t get a lot of feminine imagery in those traditions. I think rather that God is waiting for us to live. Wants us to live, and is ready to lift us up when we mess up. Lift us up from the dust and ashes when we make mistakes, and dust us off to send us on our way. Especially if the mistake we have made is because we have taken a risk of faith. Because we have dared to love too much. Dared to be too kind, too generous, too open, too inclusive. God wants us to take those risks of faith, and is there to lift us up and build us up when we do so.

And we have this parable that Jesus offers to us today. As I mentioned, Jesus has been walking around from village to village and having these theological discussions with people, conversations, and talking about judgment a little bit along with other things. And then these people come up to Jesus, as we saw in the beginning of the lesson: some from the crowd came forward and told Jesus about the Galileans. We don’t have any other reference to Pilate killing these particular Galileans anywhere else in scripture or outside of scripture, but we know Pilate was a violent person. So it would not be surprising, and he has probably done this numerous times, killing people . They come up to tell Jesus about those Galileans. I think that they have clearly said to Jesus that there must be something that those Galileans had done that God punished them. That Pilate’s actions were God’s punishment. And there was at the time a lot of this kind of thinking: that if something bad happened to you, it was because of some sin you did before that God was punishing you for. Or maybe even for some sin that your parents did, or grandparents did. Punishment could be visited upon one even for the sins of other generations. And Jesus throws all of that upside down. He says, “No!” He says no to thoughts of God punishing us, or God punishing “them” in this world for our sins or for their sins. That does not have a place in Christian theology. It is not a healthy way to look at things. And he says to the people, “Were the people killed by Pilate more sinful? No, they weren’t more sinful. They died because Pilate is violent. God had nothing to do with it. This was not God’s punishment, they did not bring that on themselves because of their sin.” And then he talks about people at the tower of Siloam that fell down. That is another event that we don’t have any reference to outside of the Gospel of Luke. But clearly a tower fell in Jerusalem and killed a number of people. And Jesus says, “Were the people killed by the falling tower more sinful? No, they died because a tower fell. God didn’t have anything to do with it. It was not God’s punishment.”

But then he adds this cautionary note at the end of each of those, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Unless you go a different way, you will perish. And I am not sure that is as much a warning to the people that they are going to die horribly at God’s hands. That God will punish them by letting them be killed by Pilate, or letting a building fall on them. Jesus isn’t saying that as much as he is chastising them for only looking at the sins of other people, and wanting to bring judgment on them. The attitude of “Well, they got what they deserved!” Jesus is saying that you need to look to yourself. Don’t worry about the sins of others. God will worry about that. Worry about your own state. Worry about what you are doing. Do some self-reflection. Do some cleaning of your own house. I think that if they were doing the two pieces of paper thing, this might be the point that Jesus would say, “You know what, you need to give me the slip of paper that says ‘For me, the world was made.’ Because you are spending too much time thinking about that part. You aren’t spending enough time in dust and ashes. And maybe you need to spend some time there. And when you are ready, I will give you the other slip of paper back.”

This is a theology that we still have. This theology of punishment, this idea that God punishes people is still around. And it drives me bonkers sometimes. We see this after disasters or calamities. It’s bad enough when I hear people saying, “I’m going to heaven and you’re not. My faith is the right one, yours isn’t, so you’re doomed.” That’s a bad enough way to approach people. But then when they start pulling out things like “This hurricane was God’s judgment. This hurricane that destroyed YOUR area of the country was God’s punishment for your sins.” Or “That gunman who was in your town? That was God’s punishment for your sins.” Or if they say “You’re sick because you’re not faithful enough.” And one can replace ‘sick’ with poor, jobless, lonely, hungry, homeless, whatever.

Jesus speaks very clearly against that kind of thinking when he says, “No.” And I am surprised that it is still so popular amongst Jesus’ followers. We need to offer a counter-witness to that. Jesus offers a counter-narrative by the parable that he follows this up with. He says, “Not only were none of those people killed because they somehow merited it. Listen to this parable...” Jesus doesn’t introduce this by saying, “The Kingdom of God is like this...”, but this could very well be a Kingdom parable. “This is what the Kingdom of God is like. There was a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit. The owner was going to cut it down, but the gardener said ‘Don’t. Don’t be in such a hurry. Let me work on it another year. Let me dig around it. Let me put some fertilizer on it. Let me tend it, let me love it. Let me do what I can do to see if we can get it to bear fruit. And then let’s look at it next year. Give it another year.”

Patient grace. God’s patience here.

Patience to work on us as much as we need. And I imagine Lent as being kind of this yearly chance to look at whether we are bearing fruit, or how much fruit we have born in the last year. And I think that’s why our lectionary writers put this text in Lent. Lent is our time for our annual checkup. Our self-evaluation, and evaluation by our creator and by our savior to see how well we are doing. To look within and ask, “How well did I do in the last year?” And then because none of us are perfect, and because God is patient and merciful, even those of us who are not bearing fruit, even if we haven’t bared fruit for years, the gardener says, “One more year. One more year.”

And so we get another Easter, another Pentecost, another Advent, and Christmas, and then another Lent.

Compare what Jesus says in this parable about not cutting down the tree and giving it another year, to John the Baptist earlier in Luke in chapter 3, when he gives a stern warning that the axe is ready to go. It is ready to go to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit. And not just to cut it down, but to throw it into the fire. Complete and utter destruction from John the Baptist. And Jesus modifies this. He says, “Yeah, it’s sort of like that, but the axe isn’t so ready. The axe isn’t so eager to cut down the tree. Let me feed it. Let me tend it. Let me love it. I will give the tree the living water. I will give the tree the bread of life and the cup of salvation. I will keep feeding until he gives up the false bread that doesn’t satisfy. I will keep watering until she gives up the waters that only make her thirstier, the false waters. I will set the table before them. The bread and the cup. I will set the table before them for another year, for they are made of dust and ashes, but for them I died and for them I rose from the tomb.”


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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