Earth to Earth
Based on Genesis 2 and 3, Jeremiah 18, 2Corinthians 4
Here we are on another Ash Wednesday – one like no other in the past 100 years. How often I have used that description since this time last year! This year we are unable to gather face-to-face as we did last year, to apply ashes from the leftover palm branches from Palm Sunday. This year, in order to love each other in the safest manner available to us, we will instead focus our attention on earth/soil/dirt. After all, in our funeral liturgy as we are committing the body back to the Earth we remind ourselves of the cycle of our lives, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. From the earth we were first made and to the Earth we shall all one day return. On this Ash Wednesday and all through the 40 days of Lent, we will use the dirt that you have before you tonight as a focus on our mortality and on the grace of God who created and who sustains us.
Most everyone learned at one time or another that the Earth is made up of five different layers. Those layers are very thick, sometimes many thousands of miles. The Earth’s crust, the uppermost layer is only about 5 miles thick and soil – the most important point for life on Earth, is only about 6.5 feet thick. As important as all the other layers are to maintaining our planet, all of life is created and sustained on the layer that is about the same average depth as a professional basketball player is tall! There must be something quite special about this thin, life-giving layer.
Turns out, like all of our farmers know, that soil/dirt/earth is indeed quite a marvelous creation. It is in fact a living ecosystem complete with micro- and macro-organisms which make their home within it. A single handful of soil from your yard or garden contains more living creatures than there are humans in the world. Only about 1% of all the living organisms in the soil ecosystem have been identified. Half of the content of soil is air and water and the other half are minerals and organic matter. The organic component of soil, humus, is where we derive the word “human”. The humus in soil help retain water and recycles carbon for use by growing plants. Many crop farmers all over the world are not tilling the land anymore, but rather using cover crops and seed drills to be good stewards of this valuable resource to keep their soil from washing away.
The Bible has much to say about how humans came to be and how it is that God created all things from this wonderful material. The Hebrew translator of the Bible that I prefer is a gentleman named Robert Alter. Alter’s translation comes from a close and contextual reading of the original Hebrew. His translation of the second creation story from Genesis 2 starting at verse 7 reads: “…then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature….” Further on in verse 18 we find God again using soil to create: “’…It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.’ And the LORD God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens…” God used good old dirt to make everything that lives and breathes on the Earth. It is therefore important for us to spend some time focusing on this life-giving material!
In Chapter 3 of Genesis, following the deception of the serpent and the decision of man and woman to eat of the forbidden fruit, God cursed the man in this way, “…Cursed be the soil for your sake, with pangs shall you eat from it all the days of your life. Thorn and thistle shall it sprout for you and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread till you return to the soil, for from there you were taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return….” For all that we dream ourselves to be or to become, at the deepest and most elemental level we are just air, water, minerals and organic matter – we are soil/dirt/earth.
The Bible also tells us about how the substance of who we are can be shaped or molded by God. God leads the prophet Jeremiah to watch a potter at work with clay, making vessels as the potter chose. God says to Jeremiah, “Look, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, house of Israel….” The same word, “fashioned” is used here in this prophecy as was used to describe the creation of humans from humus, Adam from Adamah. God is bringing a prophecy against the house of Israel because the people would not allow themselves to be molded by God into useful vessels to do God’s work in the world. God asks, through the prophet, for Israel to repent of her evil ways and return to God. The response is chilling, “…It is hopeless, for after our devising we will go and each of us will act in the stubbornness of his evil heart….” So, God smashed the vessels of clay and sent them off into Exile for 70 years.
Paul speaks to the believers in Corinth about the fact that the “knowledge of the glory of God in Jesus Christ” is a treasure that we carry within the clay jars of our bodies. He goes on to write, “…But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us….” An Old Testament professor that I had in Seminary, when talking specifically about the Prophets, noted that “one needs to be careful as a prophet because the Word of God often shatters the container into which it is placed!”
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are intentionally placed before the glorious season of Easter so that we can get ourselves oriented to who and what we are in relation to God and Jesus. Ash Wednesday reminds us of the limited nature of our existence – of how we are really just fragile blobs of dirt which are prone to breaking and finite in nature. We are created by the One true and everlasting God and inspirited with God’s love through the Holy Spirit and the image of God inside us. Thus, we have been intentionally fashioned and gifted to work with God in the world. The season of Lent reminds us to be humble and to seek after God so that God might direct our energies for good and for healing. Just as good soil in the Parable of the Sower returns 30-, 60- or 100-fold what was planted, so we too as good soil can return to our world and to God so much more than we imagine. During this season of Lent, may God continue to fashion you into the earthen vessel you are intended to become, before you return to the earth from whence you came. Amen and amen!