Pardon Our Dust – Ash Wednesday Sermon

Scripture – 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Pardon Our Dust
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Ash Wednesday service at Twin Pines Christian Church

As a kid growing up in Jeffersonville, Ind., there wasn’t a lot to do. Summers were usually filled with Little League games and trips to the pool, but our most frequent time-killer was hanging out at Greentree Mall. Greentree was a pretty wimpy mall compared with some of the Taj Mahals of materialism that exist today, but when you live in a one-horse town, you’re just happy to have the horse. Greentree was what we had, so we made the most of it.

You know our summers were lacking in excitement when the biggest thrill we would get was when a new store would open in Greentree. Something would close – maybe a candle store or a Radio Shack – and those big cardboard walls would go up around the store entrance. And then the prognostication would begin. My friends and I would begin speculating on what we’d find at the grand opening, usually while wolfing down a calzone from Sbarro or slurping an Orange Julius. Would it be a Hallmark or a nail salon? Boring! Maybe a Walden Books, which would stretch our intellect and help us beef up our comic book collection. Or a Foot Locker, where we could dream about owning the latest Air Jordans. Or could it be – hoping against hope – one of the Holy Grail of mall stores, like a Kay-Bee Toy Store or an Auntie Anne’s Pretzel?

We didn’t know what was behind those cardboard walls. As soon as construction started, the only sign of promise we had to sustain us was the notice they put up: “Pardon Our Dust. Something New and Exciting is Coming!” But in the meantime, we had to wait while our dreams were under construction.

The time period before the new store opened was usually about six weeks, which coincidentally is the time period for Lent, the season we are entering tonight. Lent, as we know, is also a time of waiting, but it’s not idle waiting. There is work for us to do while we wait, and to be honest it’s the kind of work we often resist doing.

The church I used to serve in Illinois never had an Ash Wednesday service. I couldn’t talk them into it. “Too Catholic,” they would tell me. I would gently insist that Ash Wednesday is an important part of the church year. “What’s it for?” they would ask skeptically. I would explain how it ushers us into Lent by reminding us of our broken humanity and our need for a Savior. It’s a confrontation of our own mortality. “That’s a bummer. No thanks,” they would say as they were stuffing Easter eggs for our community egg hunt.

What I couldn’t convey to my beloved congregation was that it was the confrontation of our own mortality that set in motion a reconsideration of our own life and death – both apart from Christ and in Christ. In other words, Ash Wednesday reminds us of the necessity of contemplating that we are dust and to dust we shall return, which softens up our hardened hearts for a serious and genuine soul-level exploration of salvation.

But really, who wants to do that? Isn’t it easier to just ignore death and act like it won’t actually happen to us, rather than stare it in the face for six weeks? Of course it is. Life would be a lot easier if we could just skip ahead to Easter and bypass the mess. Or as a congregation member once said to her long-winded spouse, “Don’t tell me about the labor, just show me the baby!”

But our lives are all about labor, in the sense of the hard work we do just to make it from day to day – the work of service, the work of forgiveness, the work of faith. Tonight is the time for us to acknowledge that sometimes we do that work well and other times we fall woefully short. Tonight is the night to acknowledge there’s a gap between who we are and who God wants us to be. We can delude ourselves into believing we are really good people at heart and we’re just doing the best we can. But the reality is that it’s hard to accept someone as your Savior if you don’t believe you need to be saved.

And as Paul reminds us, we need to be saved, both as individuals and as Christ’s broken body in this world, because when we look outside there are things going on that look nothing like the kingdom of God. “Troubles, hardships and distresses…beatings, imprisonments and riots…sleepless nights and hunger.” This world needs to be saved and for some strange reason God has chosen us as agents of transformation to help make it happen.

But before we can do that work, we have to acknowledge that our lives are all about labor in another way. Not only are we doing the hard work of faith, but we are also birthing something into this world, something that we glimpse from time to time but never fully realize. It’s Paul’s already/not yet portrait he paints in this passage’s crescendo: “genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

In other words, we are under construction. If you listen closely you can almost hear the cordless drills and miter saws in our souls, working to tear down the old and build up the new. Something new and exciting is coming! But until that time, until those six weeks have run their course, we need to hang up a sign: Pardon our dust.

This sign is a reminder that we are indeed dust, and we can’t escape the fact that we will one day return to dust. No amount of cosmetic surgery or cryogenic chambers will change that fact. We can run from death all we want, but Death has the newest Air Jordans and will eventually overtake us. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

In the meantime, the dust of our humanity will continue to contaminate the space around us. We can make all the sweeping apologies we want, but the truth is the dust of our brokenness will sift through the cracks in our humanity and make a mess. So I need to ask you something. Will you pardon my dust? Will you forgive me when I’m not so forgiving, or gracious, or patient? I’ll go ahead and say I’m sorry now for all the negative things I’m sure I’ll say and do here in Lexington. Will you pardon my dust? You know, I’m still under construction.

Will you pardon each other’s dust, too? How could our lives, our communities, our world be different if we did this? Too often we stand around pointing out the messes we’ve made for each other, indignantly arguing over who made that dust bunny and who’s responsible for that dirt pile, pointing out the flaws in the other while dust falls from our own shaking finger.

I want to ask you to think of someone in your life who is a real thorn in the flesh, someone who just makes a mess of things, someone who you secretly wish you didn’t have to deal with. Hold that image in your mind. Now realize, someone is probably thinking of YOU! We are all under construction. Wouldn’t life be simpler if we just pardoned each other’s dust?

Of course, the ultimate pardon comes not from each other but from God. As we move through Lent, our “Pardon Our Dust” signs will grow heavier and heavier until, six weeks from now, the weight will be lifted and true pardon will once again be offered to us. Something new and exciting is waiting for us on the other side. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So THAT’S what’s being created behind those cardboard walls of our soul: the righteousness of God! That’s even better than an Aunt Annie’s Pretzel! Each of us, as we acknowledge our mortality and claim the need for a Savior, are being formed and fashioned into living examples of God’s favor, always rejoicing, making many rich and possessing everything, despite what the world may tell us.

But we’re not there yet. In fact, we’re just beginning. Tonight, the walls go up, the sign gets hung, and the work begins. In these next six weeks, may God give us the strength and the perseverance to acknowledge who we are and who we are not. May God give us the honesty to admit the distance between where we are and where God has called us to be. May God give us the humility to confess what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone. By doing these things, we prepare our hearts for a certain Sunday morning six weeks from now, when at the tomb we get to experience a real Grand Opening. May God bless us as we begin this journey together.


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