Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dirt People: An Eco-Sermon for Ash Wednesday

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Text:  Genesis 2:4 - 7; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

If you're longing to be centered and grounded in this time of divisive, soul-fracturing politics, an ancient Hebrew text from Genesis unearths an important reminder. Your Lenten journey can bring you closer to God when you connect to God's Creation, even the very dust from which our bodies were created.   

Consider this verse:  "Then the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7 NRSV)

Now try saying these Hebrew words in Genesis 2:7 aloud as you read them and see if you recognize any words:
Va.yi.tser   a.do.nai   e.lo.him   et-ha.   a.dam   a.far   min-ha.    a.da.ma   va.yi.pakh   be.a.pav   nish.mat   kha.yim va.ye.hi   ha.a.dam   le.ne.fesh   kha.ya

Did you notice the words “adam” and “adamah”?  This is a Hebrew pun.  “Adamah” means, “dust of the ground.”  Adam means “human.”   Adam was made from the soil.  So we are, literally, “people of the dirt.”  We are “dirt people."

We don’t like to think of ourselves that way, of course.  “What do you mean, I’m just dirt?”

But the Bible is very clear about the stuff from which we are made: adamah, soil, hummus.  And when God breathed life into the nostrils of this dirt-being, life entered into it and it became human. 

“Be-a-pav  nish-mat” -- literally,  God blew the breath of life.  God breathed the breath of life into the mud-man, and the man became a living soul.  You are "Adam-Nishmat."

So basically, the equation of life is this:

Dirt + Breath = Life.  

And when we die, the reverse is true:

Life - Breath = Dirt.

This is why we repeat these words when you come forward to receive the ash cross on your forehead.  We say, “Remember O Man/Woman that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Our death is as basic as our birth.  Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s a somber thought, I know.  This is a somber service.  Ash Wednesday is not the time to be whimsical and happy-go-lucky.  It’s a time to reflect on the fragility of life, the brevity of our existence.  And in light of that finitude, to take stock of our lives and see if we are making the most of these “jars of clay” we inhabit for only a few decades.

If we are, indeed, just mud-people, with the “nishmat,” the breath of life, flowing through us, how might this have an impact on our Lenten journey this year?  This
 is a time to return to that from which we were made -- earth and the breath of God.  It is time to get back to our center, to return to ourselves, to return to God.  And make no mistake - this return to God through earth and breath is a radical, prophetic act.  When so many powers attempt to deny the sacredness of Earth, to demolish all legal protections for the health of Creation, and thus the health of human beings - our return to earth and breath is a form of resistance in and of itself.

And so during this time of resistance, finding ways to reconnect with the earth from which you were created is so essential to finding wholeness and being at rest in God.  What might that look like for you? 

Perhaps you will decide to garden this year.  Maybe you will put your hands into the earth, feel the rich loam in your fingers, gently place some seeds into it, and watch in amazement as the plant is able to grow in this soil. 

Or maybe you will take daily walks each of these forty days.  It’s a wonderful time of year to do that.  Because as we watch winter recede and spring begin to take hold, it can be a very renewing experience.  We immerse ourselves in the rhythms of the earth, the lifecycle, the God-cycle.  And we feel ourselves being swept up into the ebb and flow of life.  Things die.  And their dying allows other things to live.   Things live, and cause other things to die.  It’s all part of the cycle.  Our little lives are like a shard of the mirror, reflecting the larger truths of universe.

But it’s not just the earth that we need to return to.  We also need to return to the “nishmat,” the breath of God.  What is this breath of God?  How does it manifest itself in us?  Think of the associations of God’s breath in the Bible 
 the “ruach” at the beginning of creation moving over the waters; the breath of God coming down in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; Paul describing how the Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers with “sighs too deep for words.”  There it is – prayer!  We reconnect with the breath of God by praying – breathing – to God.  

In the book, Real Faith for Real Life, by Mike Foss, the first chapter is all about prayer.

“Daily Prayer is the first Mark of Discipleship.  This is the habit of our living in relationship with God in Jesus of Nazareth . .  . One of the most incredible truths of Christianity is that God desires a real relationship with us.  This is the desire of God’s heart. . .  Daily prayer affirms the relationship between Creator and humanity, bringing heaven to earth in the life of the disciple of Jesus.” (Foss, p. 15).

In his book, Foss challenges the reader to a thirty-day experiment.  He says, “Set aside and use this special time of daily prayer for just thirty days.  Take note of what happens within you – your response to stress, your outlook, your response to others.  You may want to make a prayer list and check it to see what has happened in response to those for whom you have prayed, for those things you have asked for yourself.  Understand that you will only get a glimpse of what God can do.  And ask God to help you see the working of God’s goodwill.  Then be spiritually alert.”  (Foss, p. 21). 

I would expand that into a forty-day experiment.  Use this season of Lent to realign yourself with the earth from which you came, and the breath of God which gives you life.  “What matters,” he says, “is time 
– time for you to grow in your knowledge and trust in the loving God to touch your life and help you grow deeper in faith; time to be connected to the eternal will of God.” (Foss, 37.)

Ah, but there’s the tricky part 
– finding the time!  Where will you find time for these wonderful walks in nature?  Where will you find an extra fifteen minutes a day to devote to prayer?  Your schedule is already so crammed full.  You already have so much to do – how are you going to add one more thing?

That’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  Jesus speaks of fasting in this 6th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  How can fasting be helpful for us in our quest to return to the earth and prayer?

Fasting doesn’t just mean abstaining from food.  It can mean practicing abstinence from any chosen thing or activity as a religious discipline.  That’s where we get the tradition of giving up something for Lent, like chocolate or red meat.

What if we gave ourselves a fast that allowed us to more easily return to the earth and the breath of God?  From what could we abstain in order to make room for these spiritual practices?

One of my favorite books is called, Margin:  Restoring Emotional,Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Dr. Richard Swenson.  He says, “It is healthy to periodically separate from the things of the world and do without.  In traditional thinking, such fasting pertains to food.” (Swenson, p. 147)  But there are other kinds of fasting that are more appropriate for our modern world.  Try fasting from shopping for a week or longer.  Use that extra time to take a stroll along the a local waterway instead of bustling through the stores of a shopping mall. 

Try fasting from television.  “For the average adult, this would gain twenty to thirty hours a week.  No single effort will secure as much time margin as this simple, nearly impossible action.  Even Billy Graham, asked if starting over he’d do anything differently, said, ‘I’d watch less TV.’ 

“Seminary professor Douglas Groothuis says, ‘I routinely require my students to engage in some kind of ‘media fast,’ in which they abstain from an electronic medium for at least one week.  The results have been nothing less than profound for the vast majority of the students.  Having withdrawn from the world of TV, radio, computers, and cell phones, they find more silence, time for reflection and prayer and more opportunities to engage family and friends thoughtfully.’ (Swenson, p. 123).

This kind of fasting means saying no to what is draining to our lives in order to say yes to what will renew us, fulfill us, and make us whole. 

Your life is so short.  Last year’s green, luscious palms quickly dried and now are nothing more than the black ash that marks your skin.  What have you done with your life this past year since the palms faded?  Have you become closer to God?  Closer to the earth?  

Hear, O “Adam-Nishmat” 
– dirt people filled with God’s breath:  it is time to return.


Foss, Michael W., Real Faith for Real Life, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2004

Swenson, Richard A., M.D., Margin:  Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives; 2004, Richard Swenson, NavPress

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