Baptized Dust

Psalm 103

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Praise the Lord, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
Praise the Lord, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

 Do you remember starting a new job, and how you want to make sure that everyone likes you, everyone thinks that you are competent, and more than anything, you just don’t want to be the person that makes a mistake and draws attention to yourself?

So I had been a pastor for a few months and found myself in the position where I was to conduct the funeral for one of the saints of that congregation.  The local funeral director was a deacon in our church, and I was eager to show him that the new pastor had the right stuff.  We got through the service all right, and headed out towards the cemetery, where we’d be interring my friend Bob’s ashes.  As we walked out of the funeral home, I already had my coat on, and he gave me an armload of things to hold as he put on his coat and then buckled into the driver’s seat of the hearse.

Acting incredibly nonchalant, I said something like, “You know, I can’t remember the last time I did an interment like this.”  I looked into the back of the empty hearse.  “How are Bob’s ashes getting to the cemetery?”

The Funeral Director looked at me with some surprise and said, “All that’s left of Bob is in that little box on your lap…”

Fortunately, I was able to control my “bwuah!” response enough to ensure that Bob remained in the box and was not scattered all over the floor of the hearse. But I remember my utter shock at the fact that I was holding all there was.  “Keep the ashes in the box, Dave.  Ashes in the box…” I kept saying… Because my secret, inner fear was that if I didn’t carry that box exactly right, then that somehow, some of the ickiness of the ugliness called death might rub off on me.

You know the truth, I think: you can’t keep the ashes in the box.  Oh, we got Bob, or at least what was left of him, out to the cemetery without any incident.  But the reality is that the ickiness of death and the ugliness of that rubs off on me – and on you – all the time.

We’ve known this for a long time…Since God looked at Adam in the Garden of Eden and said, “you’ll get your food the hard way, Planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,
 until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried; you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.” (Genesis 3:19, The Message).

We heard it again when Abraham encountered God face to face:  “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27, NRSV).

And Job brought back that same refrain as he contemplated the mystery of the holy, complaining that God has “cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes…” (Job 30:19, NRSV)

This is the truth: I have spent a good portion of the last five decades trying to convince myself that whatever Adam’s, or Abraham’s, or Job’s experiences were – that was not me.  That was simply not true.  I am alive!  I move.  I accomplish.  I travel.  I talk.  I do, for crying out loud.  I want to think that somehow, I am different.

But I am not.

I am Job.  I am Abraham.  I am Adam.

dusttodustAnd every day, I, like they, must remember, that I am nothing but dust and ashes.  That I, no less than they, came from the dirt and am heading to the dirt.  I must remember.

And fortunately for me, it’s not just me who remembers.  God remembers, too.

Listen to this: two years ago, on a trip to Texas, a friend of mine showed up in the kitchen with the mystery of mysteries: a pie (which I love) made out of grapefruit (which I love).  I had never considered such a thing, and I tasted of this rare and delicate dish with gratitude.

And then again, last year, my friend showed up with more pie.  More awe.  More wonder.  And more boldness: because I carried some of that Texas Ruby Red grapefruit home with me and I made myself a grapefruit pie that was every bit as delicious as the one my friend had shared.

And earlier this week, I set to work in my kitchen and I made not one, but TWO grapefruit pies with the fruit that Steve Imler schlepped through the airports.  And I was disappointed.  Because the pie was not as good.  Why? Because I had forgotten the recipe that I’d used.  I did not care enough to remember.  It was grapefruit pie.  It’s not a big deal.  Lord willing, I can try again some time…

I forget how I make things all the time.  Who cares?  But God? Not so much.  “He knows how we were made.  He remembers that we are dust.”

Isn’t that liberating?  God knows how he made me.  He remembers.  And every time he looks at me, he thinks, “Yup.  Dust.”

So I don’t have to fake my way through some sort of an act whereby I am trying to impress you or anyone else that I’m something that I’m not.  I can be myself.  There is no shame!  Because the Creator remembers me.

Think about that word: remember.  Usually, we take that to mean that we call something to mind:  do you remember that day when Dave was preaching and we got out before noon?  Usually, we think that the opposite of remember is what? Forget.  “Did you remember to stop and get milk?” “Nope, I forgot.”

But what if we consider it in another way?  What if remember is re-member?  What if the opposite of re-member is dis-member.  If I dismember someone, what am I doing?  I am taking them apart.  I am destroying them.  I am denying them.  The world seeks to dis-member.  Death seeks to dis-member.  But God?  My creator? He re-members.  He is in the business, not just of calling you to mind every now and then (“Dave?  Dave Carver? Likes to fish? Talks a lot? Sure, yeah, I got you…”) – but of putting you back together, and of making you whole.  God is in the business of reversing dis-memberment.

Back to dust.

I don’t know what you talk with your friends about, but a few of us pastors were on the internet today and Pastor Susan asked whether we would be having communion first or doing the ashes first.  There was a lot of back and forth until Pastor Howard said that he was going to do the communion first so that his hands wouldn’t be all ashy when he went to break the bread.

And that’s when it occurred to me that the ashiness of my hands is directly connected with the purity of these baptismal waters.  I can break the bread tonight with these hands that have touched the ashiness of death – but only after I wash them in the waters of the baptismal font.

What happens to the ash when I wash my hands?  Does it disappear?  Does it cease to exist?

Of course not.  I’m merely transferring the ash from my skin into this water.  The waters of baptism do not change the ash – but they surely encompass it and envelop it.

Tonight, I stand with Adam, with Abraham, and with Job, and I confess that I am dust and ashes.

But I am baptized dust.  I am ash that has been suspended and upheld and maybe even lost in the waters of baptism.

My dustiness, my ashiness, my brokenness, my death does not get to define who I am or what I am.  I am defined by the fact that I am made by God the Father.  I am loved by Jesus Christ the Son. And I am sustained daily by the Holy Spirit.  Because God remembers me!

I may be dust.  But I am baptized dust.  And so are you. Thanks be to God!  Amen.


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