February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

In her book One Coin Found, Emmy Kegler uses the parable of a woman searching for a lost coin[i] to describe God finding her from places of isolation, despair, doubt, and rejection. She imagines God sweeping through the house, seeking that one missing coin, until it is found.

We too are lost and dusty coins,” Pastor Kegler writes. “We have gone unnoticed, rusted from other’s indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation… has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine[ii].”

Dust, ashes, and grime mark our heads and hearts more clearly than ever this year. For eleven long months, we have been lost to the hidden corners of our homes, tucked behind masks and computer screens, removed from those we love, learning how to step back from strangers, and even from friends who may be standing a little too close to us if we gather outside.

Like coins that have rolled away into forgotten spots of the house, it feels like we’ve been gathering dust and forgetting what it’s like to shine. Maybe we have felt buried by the oppression or rejection others have caused. Maybe we’ve burrowed ourselves in the realization we have caused hurt, kept love unexpressed, left undone the good we could have done. It’s all left us feeling hidden from God, from grace, from hope.

We long to rise from the ashes and be found.

For eleven long months we’ve been “practicing our piety” behind closed doors. “When you pray,” Jesus directs us, “pray in secret[iii].” Check.

In fact, we only pray in secret. It’s awkward to pray along with each other on Zoom, and strange to pray along with the TV images of ourselves. Even when we join worship services on-line, it’s hard to sing along. My voice is becoming scratchy and thin without the weekly robust singing I’m used to doing with all of you. My worship leading skills are growing rusty.

We give our alms in secret, too, clicking on a link from home, sending a donation through the mail, dropping off gifts for neighborhood school children or homeless encampments when no one is around to see us make our offering. Some of us authorize electronic withdrawals to the church each week in such a quiet fashion that our left hand doesn’t always remember what our right hand has sent.

Fasting, meditating, observing almost any spiritual practice is nearly always done in private these days. We’re alone in the lost corners of our lives, feeling cut off from the places our faith has normally been nurtured.

And the grief part of this Ash Wednesday? The reminder to recognize our mortality and inevitable physical death? We can put a big “check mark” in that box, too.

This last Sunday marked a full year since my family buried my mother’s ashes. We had only the slightest inclination of what the coming grief would be. It was the last time most of us saw each other in person. It was the last time we gathered for a big family dinner or embraced each other.

Of course, there’s been only more grief since then. Whether our losses have come from the virus or from something else, we’ve never been so aware of our frail transience. The collective grief is much more complicated now when we’re unable to greet each other, unable to be together to say goodbye, unable to attend to each other. We’re losing the ways we know to mark death for each other. We can leave a hot-dish or plate of cookies by the front door, but we can’t stay and weep together, can’t hold one another’s sorrow for a time. The dead and grieving seem to have to fall without a net.

How on earth do we mark a day of repentance and sorrow when we’ve been living through nearly a year of daily grief and dust? How on earth do we start a season that never seemed to end last year? How on earth do we find grace in the midst of our losses?

Could it in fact be in the earth[iv], itself?

On Sunday, Gloria Dei approved a Land Acknowledgement statement, reminding us that the ground on which our building is located and the land on which most of us live and travel, is sacred to the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples. We grounded ourselves in our responsibility to heal and reconcile our relationships with native persons, and to use this land and building in ways that work for justice, peace, and the well-being of all creation. In acknowledging the sacredness of the Bdote near which we stand, we remember that God’s people belong to the land, and not the other way around. The Creator’s embrace of all creation is stronger than our claim to ownership. Remember you are dust, and the dust under your feet is sacred.

Our Care for Creation team continues to work, too, even when we’re not physically in the building. They’ve helped us move to ever more efficient use of water, electricity, and heating fuel. They’ve challenged us to plant and maintain healthy rain gardens, allowing the land to be reclaimed by monarchs and resurrected with native flora. Remember you are dust, and the dust you use is from precious reserves.

Could the touch and reminder of the earth itself be restorative? Could it somehow connect us to one another, when we can’t touch each other, and to remember God’s hold on us and all creation?

The scriptures remind us that we stand on holy ground. The earth beneath our feet, the dust that swirls between us, is formed by the God of all creation. Could the dust itself help reconcile us to the maker of the cosmos?

This year, rather than come to church to receive ashes on our brows, many of us will simply use a bit of soil to mark ourselves. If you didn’t pick up a Lenten kit at church, maybe you have a houseplant from which you could pick up a small clod of dirt, or could even just crumble up a dying leaf from its stem. Maybe you have some dust from the bottom of your winter boots, or an upswept corner of your room. You may simply want to hold a tiny sip of water in a teacup, all of it simple signs of the planet from which we were created.

“Remember, you are dust,” we will whisper, not to feel lost and rejected, but to remind ourselves that we are part of the earth. We are shaped by the God of life, who with a word, brought every molecule, each atom, even the dirt and grime around us, our flesh itself, along with the dust of the stars, into being.

We belong to the ground and to each other. God finds us in the corners of our regrets, our fatigue, our sorrow, our grief. God wipes us off in delight, as if to say, “There you are, my dear one! You, whom I made from the stars; you, who shine with my own likeness: I’ve been looking for you. You may feel lost, but you have never been forgotten.

The God who formed us from the dust finds us and says, “Rub a little of my life stuff there on your face, and recall your birth. Mark yourself with a cross, and remember that even death will not separate you from me. Return to me, with all your heart. I am still here, sweeping away all that hides you from love, and bringing you to new life. I will use this season to restore you to hope.”

Return to God, is the message of these forty days. Return to God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounds in steadfast love[v]. God still leads us through this pandemic wilderness, offering us just enough flaky, dusty manna to nourish us each day, providing water from the rock, and claiming us as children of light. God still calls us together, even through these wild times of separation, to recognize our connections to each other, perhaps through our screens, perhaps through the earth itself.

God who sees in secret recognizes our grief. God who knows our stories relents from punishing, and rejoices over us still. God still brings out her broom, and sweeps through all that has held us back or held us down, to claim us as her own. See? Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of our salvation[vi].

Dear friends in Christ, it is time to rise from the ashes and be found. It is time to rejoice. It is time to return and seek the tender faithfulness of God[vii].  Amen

[i] Luke 15:8-10.

[ii] Kegler, Emmy, One Coin Found: How God’s Love Stretches to the Margins, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, ©2019, p. 8.

[iii] Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

[iv] Berry, Malinda Elizabeth, Living by the Word: February 10, Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, February 10, 2016, The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-01/february-10-ash-wednesday.

[v] Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.

[vi] Corinthians 5:20b–6:10.

[vii] Marty Haugen, Return to God, © 1991, GIA Publications, Inc.