A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on March 1, 2006.
(Ash Wednesday, Year B).
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It is not an uplifting image. If the oak tree is the symbol of strength and permanence, dust is the symbol of transience and fragility. Here one moment, gone the next. To be dust is to be fleeting. Dust can be swept away in an instant. Or blown away by a gentle breeze. Dust scatters. It is transitory. Just like us. We are no more permanent upon this earth than the smallest speck of dust. With the slightest breath we can be lost forever. Forgotten. Erased as if we had never existed.
On this day we reflect upon our own mortality. We remember that we are but dust. And it is a painful reminder that all of our strivings in this mortal life are ultimately for naught. But only on the surface of things. For our mortality, this Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, and our entire lives are all set within the context of Christ’s resurrection. Dust is not the end of the story.
When a Christian dies and is buried from the church, the service of committal takes place at the grave site. The person is committed to the ground and, more importantly, is committed to God. And while earth is cast upon the coffin, the priest says: “we commend our brother to Almighty God and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” There is a finality in these words. Our friend or loved one has taken leave of this earthly existence.
But again, dust is not the end of the story. Because the priest precedes this statement of committal by saying, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And so we are committed to the earth within the framework of Easter joy. Yes, we are dust. But our going down to the grave, our returning to dust, is not the final word. Because Jesus Christ, through the power of the resurrection, has destroyed death. Death no longer has dominion over him and through faith in Jesus, neither does death have dominion over us. That’s the good news of the Christian gospel. That’s why we can reflect upon our own mortality on this day and yet not despair. Dust is not the end of the story. For Jesus Christ transforms the dust into glory.
Death, for Christians, is merely a temporary state. As ephemeral as dust itself. We pass through death into the new life we share with the resurrected Christ. Which doesn’t mean that death is without regret or pain or grief. We are human. But the dust of the grave is not our final dwelling place.
And so on this day, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Yes. But at the same time, remember that you are born of God and to God you shall return. Remember that you are holy and to holiness you shall return. Remember that Christ has died for you and to Christ’s glory you shall return.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006