I had the honor to preach my first sermon at Summit on 16th UMC last night for their Ash Wednesday service. It felt right, natural, and good. I am so thankful for all the support people have shown me on this adventure.
I even got to do the Imposition of the Ashes, which is something I have wanted to do for years. I think you’re supposed to be somber when you do it, but I was so excited that it was hard not to smile.
My spouse was kind enough to record the sermon for me. I’ve uploaded the video here, and included the transcript for those who would rather read it.
Now, if you’ll look in your bulletin, see where it says “Scripture Reading?” Yeah, we’re just going to ignore that for a second. I’m going to take a quick detour first to the Hebrew Bible. Just hang onto those bulletins, because we’ll get to Paul in a second. But for now we’re going to start with a different text from this week’s lectionary. You don’t have to turn there with me. I have no idea what page this is on, but it’s Joel 2, I’m going to read verses 1-2:
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Sound an alarm on My holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble and shudder in fear,
For the day of the Lord is coming;
It is close at hand,
A day of [hopelessness] and gloom,
A day of clouds and of thick fog,
Like the dawn spread over the mountains;
There is a hostile army numerous and mighty,
The like of which has never been before
Nor will be again afterward
Even for years of many generations.
The word of God, for the people of God.
So, I don’t know about you. But this Ash Wednesday thing? This whole day set aside just for us to contemplate our mortality? I am not feeling it this year.
I’m really not. You know why?
Because every time I turn on the news lately, it feels like I’m reading Joel 2. The passage says “a day of hopelessness and gloom.” Who here has had a whole lotta days like that recently?
I’m tired of contemplating my mortality. I’m exhausted.
Every time I go outside and it’s a nice sunny day I enjoy it for a second and then think “Oh, wait. It’s FEBRUARY. It’s only warm because humans are destroying the planet.”
Every time I get excited about future plans, I feel compelled to temper my excitement by saying, “Well, that’s if no one decides to blow up the earth before then.”
…Did you know last week “nuclear holocaust” was a trending topic on Twitter? It’s 2017 in the year of our Lord, and we are sitting around discussing the possibility of a nuclear holocaust and whether or not such a thing would be bad.
And then we have this whole day–wow a whole day–to think about mortality?
Why do we need to remind ourselves that we are dust?
We probably have enough technology by now to wipe out human life on earth, and yet some folks at the top think we still don’t have enough nuclear weapons. That we need more!
It’s hard not to look at everything around you and think “Is this all just dust? What’s the point?”
And then there’s Paul.
Now’s the part where we finally get to read Two Corinthians. So if you’d like to follow along, this is on page 1409 in your pew Bibles. I’m going to be reading chapter 5, verse 20 through chapter 6, verse 9:
So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation. Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!
We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive!
We were seen as punished but not killed, as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.
Paul obviously had some Joel 2 moments of his own: problems, disasters, and stressful situations….beatings, imprisonments, and riots.
But in the midst of all those things he said: Look! We are alive!
I’ve gotta be honest, I wasn’t feeling this either when I first read it. It almost felt like one of those platitudes that well-meaning people say when they’re uncomfortable with your pain and want to dismiss it. You know what I’m talking about: “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it!” or “Heaven just needed another angel!”
It’s nice to think “Bad things happen, but at least we’re alive!”
But that doesn’t solve the problem.
That doesn’t ease the pain or the existential dread.
What’s the point of being alive now if the earth could turn to dust tomorrow?
I can work hard, live in the moment, try to leave a better planet for the next generation. Yet what’s the point when some climate change scientists are wondering if it’s even ethical to have kids, knowing how bad the climate is going to be in just a couple of generations?
And yet, when I began to look deeper at this passage, I had to admit that there was more going on here.
Paul wasn’t actually much of a platitudes guy. Paul was an individual who knew his share of existential dread.
For much of the letter of 2 Corinthians, Paul has to defend himself against a group of people that he sarcastically calls “super apostles.” These super apostles were threatening Paul’s ministry, because they didn’t think Paul was masculine enough. (Imagine that—working in a church so fragile that it could crumble to dust just because someone wasn’t performing their gender the “right way.”)
Paul was facing the possibility losing everything he had worked for in Corinth, and he knew it, but he said “Look! We are alive.”
But could Paul understand a world of climate change and nuclear weapons? Could he understand the possibility that not just his life’s work, but everyone’s life’s work might crumble to dust over night?
I think he could understand this very well.
Some scholars believe that Paul was an apocalypticist,  meaning he thought he was living on the edge of the end of time. We can tell from his letters that he believed that any day God was going to intervene in history, wiping out the world that Paul knew.
Paul understood pain and suffering and existential dread, and he wasn’t the type to deny it or shy away from it.
But how could a man facing not just the possible end of his ministry, but the possible end of the world say, “Look! We are alive?”
Where does Paul draw his hope from in this passage?
I think the answer to this question is Jesus Christ.
I know that sounds a little cliche, but bear with me. Let me talk about the Christ that Paul knew.
Paul never knew Christ as a carpenter from Nazareth. He never quotes the sermon on the mount or references the feeding of the five thousand. Scholars wonder if Paul even knew about those stories–they weren’t even written down yet!
This is the Christ that Paul knew.
First of all he knew the Risen Christ. This is the Christ that shows up for Paul on the Road to Damascus—the Christ that called Paul to a new way of life.
Secondly, he knew Christ crucified. Perhaps this is the christ that Paul actually knew the most intimately. This is the Christ that Paul knew in his bones and aching joints. The Christ of whom Paul said, “I bear on my body the marks of Christ.”
These two events in the life of Christ–death and resurrection–are everything to Paul, and they are the source Paul’s hope. These two events are the reason Paul can say “Look! We are alive!”
Why these two? Why not just the resurrection?
Because I think Paul knew a profound truth about life and death–they’re not polar opposites.
For Paul, the crucifixion and the resurrection together were the key to understanding a profound truth about the universe.
In the crucifixion, God became a dusty earth creature and died. On the cross Jesus felt his life slipping away like sand through a sieve. Everything he had worked for crumbling away to dust.
And yet….three days later–look he is alive!
As the poem we read earlier said: “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with the dust?” 
The truth of the crucifixion and resurrection is the truth that is woven all throughout creation. Death and life are intimate friends.
The poem we read spoke of:
“the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
We are made of stardust, and that’s not just a Joni Mitchell song.
It’s the truth of the death and resurrection shining forth in our very existence.
Look! We are alive.
And we are only alive because billions of years ago colossal, majestic stars millions of times bigger than the tiny rock we live on died in a cataclysmic, fiery implosion. There is scientific evidence that most of the elements on this planet were originally stardust from.
Look! You are star dust!
And look! You are stardust.
Look! The trees outside are stardust. The ground we walk on is stardust. The air we breathe is stardust. My cat Meryl is definitely stardust.
We are alive because once upon a time it was the end of the world.
And then God came in.
Don’t you know what God can do with dust?
Paul knew. He knew deep in his soul. He felt the truth of the death and resurrection being lived out in his stardust-filled bones. His world constantly threatened to turn to dust and yet he said “Look! We are alive.”
We are proof that the end of the world is really the beginning of the world.
But now what?
“Yes, we are dust, but we are earthly dust, springing forth from a multi-billion year holy adventure. And dust is good, after all; it is the place of fecundity, of moist dark soil, and perhaps we are “star-dust,”….emerging from God’s intergalactic creativity. We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.”
Friends, I don’t know when our world is going to turn to dust. But I do know, as Paul knew, that we are a part of God’s Holy adventure.
We are dying, but look! We are alive.
So while we’re alive, let’s give God the most fertile dust we can to work with.
Because we know what God can do with dust.
 This interpretation inspired by the Queer Bible Commentary chapter on 1 & 2 Corinthians, by Holly E. Hearon
 Basing this on Bart Ehrman’s work
 Go read the whole thing of Jan Richardson breath-taking poem, Blessing The Dust. Because wow.