That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Tag: Revelation

Dust Thou Art

As we come to the beginning of another Lent, I share the sermon I preached last Ash Wednesday.

A Sermon Preached on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Genesis 3; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6; Revelation 22:1-4

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Those strange and solemn words are at the heart of this strange and solemn day. They are the words that you will hear in a more contemporary form when you come forward to receive the mark of ashes as a sign of penitence. In that moment, the dust will be physical, literal—the gritty symbol of real ashes smudged on fingers and faces—but the force of those words will connect them to our need for repentance, and our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

But where do those strange and solemn words come from? If you look back over the readings in your bulletin, you will not find them there. The prophet Joel is not interested in ashes—in the outward signs of repentance—as he calls the people of Israel to “rend [their] hearts and not [their] garments.” Our Lord Jesus is not thinking of smudged foreheads as he urges his disciples, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face”—indeed, he seems to challenge, if not expressly to forbid, practices such as these

No, to find the source of today’s reminder that “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we must go back beyond today’s appointed lessons—back beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, and back beyond the prophetic pronouncements of Joel. We must go back to the beginning: to the Book of Genesis.

In Genesis, we are told of how God created the heavens and the earth. We are told of how the Spirit of God moved mightily over the face of the waters, and how, out of chaos and darkness, God brought order and light. In Genesis, we are told of God’s great goodness in calling forth the bounty and rich diversity of this earth: plants and animals, fish and birds, the beasts of the earth and the cattle of the fields and “every creeping thing that creepeth upon” the ground.

In Genesis, we are told of how God in his mercy and in his love made human beings in his image—formed out of the dust of the earth and enlivened with the breath of his Spirit. We are told of how he set them over the good earth that he had made, to tend and keep it, in order that we might rule and serve all creatures. In Genesis, we are told that God set the first humans in a garden full of good fruit growing on abundant trees.

And one more thing. In Genesis, we are told of a single command that the Lord gave to the first people—the dust creatures made in the image of God: “Of every tree in the garden, thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.”

Of course, we know what happens next. The serpent seduces. The people eat. And God comes to walk through the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, only to find Adam and Eve hiding—ashamed of their nakedness. The relationship of trust and intimacy that the first people enjoyed with the Lord their God was broken by disobedience—by sin.

And so it is, at last, that in the Third Chapter of the Book of Genesis, we find the strange and solemn words for which we have been searching—the dread words that we will hear again in just a few moments this evening. The Lord pronounces judgment: first upon the serpent, then upon the woman, and then at last on Adam, the first man. God declares: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken. For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

This, then, is the source of tonight’s strange pronouncement. Here, then, is the meaning of this day’s solemn declaration. The startling and unsettling truth proclaimed in the imposition of ashes today is that you and I stand in the line of Adam. Over us is spoken the same condemnation, the same curse. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Now perhaps this is too much for you. Perhaps here you might raise an objection. Perhaps, as modern Americans in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2014, you chafe against so simple an application of so ancient a story. Talking serpents? First parents? A divine curse? Can you imagine a more preposterous explanation of human origins?

But let us be very clear this Ash Wednesday. The story you have just heard—and the curse at the heart of that story—is not meant to explain the past. The truth of this tale cannot be confirmed by an archaeological dig or a mitochondrial DNA analysis. The story of Adam and Eve is not a story about where we come from, explaining our background. Instead, this is a story about where we are, and it explains where we are headed. This is not a story about the past, but about the present and the future. For the truth is that the fruits of Eden’s loss still fall, heavy and rotten, all around us.

We see them falling in the Crimea, as the great powers of the world once again find themselves drawn into the tired, terrible dance of war. To be sure, this day we hope and pray that peace will yet prevail. But we must also acknowledge that each time nations collide and tyranny rises and blood is spilt, the fruits of Adam’s fall can be seen, and the ancient curse can be heard again in our time: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We see those fruits falling in Mexico, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now sits in federal custody. The arrest of perhaps the world’s most powerful drug lord late last month has been major news, supplanted only by the crisis in the Ukraine. Guzman rules over a multi-billion dollar cartel. His actions and activities have brought misery and pain to the streets and suburbs of America, even as he has brought violent death to the towns and cities of Mexico. Yet we must not forget that his enormous wealth is built upon the enormous American appetite for his products—cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroine—and therefore, by the enslaving power of addiction. Here, surely, around one life we see the fatal fruit fall abundantly, and hear the curse spoken to so many of the innocent and guilty alike: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

And lest we forget the purpose of this season of Lent, if we would see the truth of this day’s pronouncement—if we would see the fruit of Adam’s fall—let us look within ourselves. You and I may not be as brash as Vladimir Putin or as ruthless as “El Chapo” Guzman. But can you outrun the terrible words we hear this night? For all our advancement and enlightenment, for all our wealth and wisdom, for all our piety and our spiritual practices, who among us can claim a perfectly clean conscience, or the knowledge that we have not been disobedient?

We know what it is to exploit our fellow human beings in ways big and small. We know what it is to eat gluttonously, to drink intemperately, to look and act lustfully, to yearn enviously, to react wrathfully, to amass greedily, and to boast pridefully. And what is the price of all this? What is the cost of these actions? Is it not the same penalty paid by Adam: the loss of a relationship of intimacy and trust with the Lord our God, and with one another? For all our sophistication and satisfaction, for all our charity and our credentials, for all our goodness and our gratitude, who among us can escape death? “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

But let us make something very clear. Ash Wednesday is not, in fact, a day to sit in our sin; to wallow in the warped, worn-out weariness of our hearts; to fixate on death. Our worship this day does not end with the imposition of ashes. Our story this day does not conclude with the pronouncement of a curse.

For behold, Christian, the shape of the ashes that will soon bedeck your brow! The dust with which you are marked today is no mere smudge. Rather, the symbol of mortality applied to our foreheads this night will be made in the form of a Cross.

And that realization lifts us to the true and better meaning of this strange and solemn day. For what that sign of the Cross shows forth is that we have not been left alone in our fallenness and our mortality. What we remember this day is that the same God whose justice drove Eve out of Eden has come down from heaven to be born a son of Eve. The same God whose righteousness could not bear the disobedience of our father Adam took on our flesh—our flesh of earth and dust—to become for us a new Adam, a new creation: a new and better beginning for our race.

The sign we receive this Ash Wednesday reminds us, not only that we are dust, but that God himself has come to share in our dusty, deathward life. The purpose of this long season of Lent is not to fix our hearts on our fallenness, but to prepare us for the announcement that on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus our Lord has conquered Death and Sin forever, and in the bright light of the Resurrection he calls us to share in a new life that cannot end.

So it is that this evening (and only this evening in the whole cycle of the Church year) we come forward twice. The first time, we come forward to hear the dread reminder; to be told “Dust thou art”; to acknowledge and bewail the fact that the seeds of Adam’s fall have taken root in us and grown up and produced rank fruit in our souls.

But then, beloved, once we have been marked with the cross, and have made our confession, and have heard words of absolution, we will be called forward again. We will be called forward to hear, not a curse, but words of blessing and holy union. We will be called forward to taste, not the bitter fruit of fallenness, but a new and better fruit: the fruit of the new Jerusalem, the fruit of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Tonight, Christ Jesus invites all those who have shared in his death through baptism, and who repent of their sins, and who embark now on the holy road of Lent, to draw near in faith, and to see the fulfillment of words not from the first book—from Genesis—but from the last book—from Revelation—and to taste at this altar the fruit of the Tree of Life.

“And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the lamb. In the midst of the street of the city, and on either side of the river, there was the Tree of Life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.”

AMEN.

Already? Not yet? Now!

A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18, 2014

By the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Anthem: “And I saw a new heaven” by Edgar L. Bainton

“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea.”

There are few better passages of Scripture for us to sing and to hear in Eastertide than our anthem this evening. The mighty words of St John the Divine echo down to us through two millennia of longing and hope–of promise, and of waiting. The words of tonight’s anthem speak to us of the “already/not yet” nature of the Christian life, a quality made most poignant and palpable in this season of Resurrection.

In these Great Fifty Days, we proclaim that already God has come to dwell with his people in the person of Jesus Christ. We proclaim that already the darkness of death has been conquered by the shining light of the empty tomb. We proclaim that already the former things, the earthly things–those things in ourselves and in our world that would that would hinder us and hold us back and hide our blind eyes from the light of God’s grace–already these things are seen to be passing away in the rising sun of God’s new day.

But, beloved, at the same time we look to the tear-streaked faces of the mothers of Nigeria and we know that not yet has God wiped away every tear from every eye. We look to the broken hearts and the broken lives commemorated at the new September 11th memorial dedicated this week, and we know that not yet has God granted to us the glory of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, where peace and righteousness reign. We look, at last, to ourselves: to our hearts, to our lives, to the unknown tears we have wept, to the unseen hurts we have caused, to the unheard and unanswered prayers we have prayed, and we know that not yet have the former things passed away, not yet have sorrow and crying and pain departed–not yet have all things been made new.

Already. Not yet. Thus we are doomed to live our lives in this bittersweet in-between. Or so it would seem. “Already/not yet” would indeed be the guiding dichotomy of the Book of Revelation (from which the words of our anthem are taken) if it were simply a book about things that might happen somewhere in the future. “Already/not yet” would be the concluding verdict on Jesus’ life and ministry if he were merely a wandering Galilean teacher and healer of long ago who, in a misguided effort to spread peace and love, ran afoul of the ruling Romans and got himself nailed to a tree as a warning and an example. “Already/not yet” would characterize the ceaseless carousel of our lives if we were only helpless pawns caught in an eternal chess match between God and Satan, uncertain of the outcome of a pitched battle between diametrically opposed equals.

But, dearly beloved, the truth of the matter is that Revelation is not a book that darkly probes the distant, mysterious future. It is, instead, a book that tells in bright, shining phrases, the here-and-now triumph of our God for those who have eyes to see it. The life of Jesus is not a dusty, dated tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is, instead, the everlasting announcement of God’s power and purpose at work in our midst today–a story that ends not with an execution outside the walls of Jerusalem in 33 AD, but rather a living story that has the power to transform lives in each and every age through the power of a risen life that will never die again, by the might of a Resurrection that knows no bounds.

And finally, this great promise that Christ’s triumph is not merely a past fact or a hoped-for future but an eternal reality boldly declares that you are I are not helpless puppets caught in an endless metaphysical tug-of-war. For while still we are called to the front lines of life’s mental fight; while still we wait for every tear to be wiped away; while still we look for the final end of even death itself, nevertheless we profess our faith that in God’s triumph, in Christ’s Resurrection, in the Holy Spirit’s enlivening power, we have now been brought into the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Whatever our past may warrant and whatever our future may hold, we are sons and daughters of the One who was, and is, is to come. We dwell not on the ceaseless see-saw of already/not yet, but, by grace, we are citizens of God’s eternal now, claimed and sealed by baptism, and called not to worry away in constant anxiety for ourselves or for the state of our world, but to live and work in the uncertain present always confident of the ultimate victory already achieved–though not yet revealed. As another of the writings of John’s community puts it, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

This, then, is the great truth announced in our worship this evening. May it be the great truth proclaimed in our lives each day. May we, through all the changes and chances of this life, cleave to the present reality of God’s everlasting promise in Jesus. May we know him more perfectly as we steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life. May we see, with all the bright clarity of St John the Divine, the vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven as a bride prepared for her bridegroom. And may we, confident that the One who has promised is even now fulfilling his promise with power, abide there in the peace that passeth all understanding.

AMEN.