Sermon text: Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It’s a stark line, isn’t it? And yet, in those words we find a mountain of truth. We are first reminded of our mortality, that one day we too will die and there is absolutely nothing in our power to prevent that inevitability. One way or another we will become dust and we will return to the Lord.
Immediately we are also connected to the soil with this phrase. And just like the soil, we, as animated dust produce good fruit for the benefit of the world. All of it stems back to the creation story of Genesis 2—dust and mud formed by God’s hands for the purpose of life, given as sheer gift and love.
But the dust of Ash Wednesday goes beyond our mortality and soil. It connects us further to the entire cosmos. I read recently that scientists estimate that forty thousand tons of cosmic dust fall to the earth every year. That’s 80 million pounds of space dust—tiny particles from our solar system—that compose the elemental building blocks of life.
On September 5, 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1, a space probe designed to explore the furthest reaches of our planetary system. 13 years after launch, after completing its primary objective of exploring Jupiter and Saturn, it reached the edge of the solar system. Then, on February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 took its last photograph, a shot looking back at Earth at the distance of some four billion miles. At that range Earth appeared as a tiny blue point of light. The photograph is now famously known as the Pale Blue Dot.
In his book of the same name, astronomer Carl Sagan reflected on the amazing image:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Voyager One’s picture and Carl Sagan’s words convey what we so often miss: we are all connected. As followers of Christ we know that God has made us all from the same dust. We are here because God desired to share creation with us. We are here because of God’s love poured out for us.
However, there are times when we do not desire to be connected to the rest of the world. In fact, if we are honest, there are plenty of times when we do not desire to be connected to God. We would rather make it on our own. Times when we reject the good gifts of God for our own independence and decisions. Times when we would rather have a go at life by our own willpower and grit and brawn that receive God’s compassionate care.
The prophet Joel addresses this independent worldview with a plea from God. “Return to the Lord, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
God created everything on this Pale Blue Dot and God continues to sustain all of this animated space dust, even when we would rather run astray. God remains faithful even if we do not. God is gracious and merciful even when we’ve been cruel and cutthroat in our actions.
That is why we enter into this season of Lent every year. We journey into these forty days with the intent to return to the Lord who creates and sustains everything on this Pale Blue Dot. We return because we know that we cannot live life well without God. We return because God has more to offer us, gifts that we will witness at the end of this Lenten time with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But we also remember that God will bring us back from the dust with the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
We are the most valuable dust that has ever been created. We are God’s dust, and God wants us back. God wants every speck of us back.
So this Lent, through our faith practices and renewed devotion, let us return to God—our God who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love for us. AMEN