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 Aunt Annie’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 enter on Ash Wednesday. 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. Because, really, who wants to self-introspect and acknowledge our sinfulness and do all that Debbie Downer stuff? 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. As Paul reminds us, we need to get work, 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” (2 Cor. 6) Did he write that last week? This world needs a witness 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 the 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 it 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 in the future. 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. 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. On Ash Wednesday, the walls go up, the sign gets hung, and the work begins. In the 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.