Sermon for Sunday 26 March 2017
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
"What Jesus does with dust"
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was a bitterly cold winter day on the outskirts of Chicago, as the long black hearse I was riding in pulled into the Lutheran cemetery and parked. It was so cold that the funeral director and I sat for a moment in the front seat, debating whether the elderly widow of the deceased should even get out of her car for the graveside service. We both knew this feisty woman well, however, and decided to not even suggest such a thing.
The cold air smacked us in the face as we opened the car doors into the wind. The funeral director quickly gathered the small group of family and friends around the gravesite, the pallbearers quickly (but ceremoniously) moved the casket into place, and I tried to breathe in as little as possible. Breathing hurt. My face hurt. For the umpteenth time, I thought to myself, “Why do I live in a place where breathing hurts my face?”
With gloved hands and fingers fat and clumsy from the cold, I flipped through my prayer book to the proper page and began to read,
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”
Then there was a prayer, and another Scripture, and then it was time for those famous words which, mostly thanks to television, have become an iconic part of the American funeral tradition: “We commend to almighty God our brother Harold, and commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
All that was left was for the pastor to say these words and to toss a handful of earth onto the casket. Then we could all get out of the cold, and go to lunch at the church!
But there was a problem. As I looked down to my feet, I realized that the ground was frozen solid. I kicked at it with my foot. Nothing moved. I looked around for a pile of dirt, of gravel, of dust, of anything I could conceivably scoop up with my hand for this last step of saying goodbye to Harold.
But it was hopeless. Everything was frozen, including my feet now. And throwing snow into the grave just wouldn’t have the same effect! I had decided just to skip it, when suddenly, my friend the funeral director was at my side. He stuck his gloved hand into his coat pocket and produced a little plastic container, the kind that holds prescription medicine. He popped the lid off and handed it to me.
“Hey, things really aren’t that bad yet!” I wanted to say.
But as I took the little vial from him I saw that it contained, not pills, but dust.
The funeral director looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, leaned in and whispered, “For emergencies.”
The idea of carrying “emergency dust” in your pocket struck me as so funny that I barely held it together for the last moments of that graveside service. But: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” I proclaimed, and tossed the contents of that little plastic container onto Harold’s casket. “Amen” said the crowd, and then they all hurried into their cars and drove off to eat ham sandwiches and macaroni salad at the church.
I thought about that “emergency dust” again this week as I read the story of Jesus and the man born blind. Jesus does some amazing stuff with dust! Amen!
We read in the Gospel according to John chapter 9, that while Jesus walking along, he saw a man born blind. The disciples wanted to know, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They might as well have added, “…and how can we avoid it happening to us?”
But Jesus turned their question upside down. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents have sinned. He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him!”
And then Jesus spat on the ground, made mud from the dust, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. And after the man had washed the mud off in the pool of Siloam, he came back able to see.
Thanks be to God, Jesus restored a blind man’s sight with only dust and spit! As the healed man himself said later, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” Amen!
Now one conclusion from this miraculous event is that if plain dust has such great power, perhaps we should all be carrying around little bottles of “emergency dust” in our pockets!
But of course, it was not the dust which held the healing power, but Jesus. This beautiful–and sometimes humorous—Gospel story is a powerful testimony of just who Jesus is.
It is no accident that Jesus heals the man born blind with dust and spit. This important detail of the story serves to remind us of Genesis 2:7, where it is written, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Therefore, just as God the Father created Adam out of dust and holy breath, we are meant to see that Jesus re-creates the blind man’s life out of dust and holy saliva.
Jesus, therefore, is more than a prophet. He is more than a teacher and a healer. Jesus possesses the powers of creation and re-creation, powers that only come from the one God, the Creator heaven and earth. As the man who was healed said to the Pharisees, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
Jesus, his teachings, and his works are from God! This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Good News the Pharisees struggled to understand, but which the man born blind embodied in their midst.
But there is more Good News in this story.
That all-important detail—the fact that Jesus spat on the ground to make the mud which gave the blind man new life—is also a reminder that dust is the stuff of miracles.
Dust is the stuff of miracles. Here in the Middle East, it feels strange to say anything positive about dust. In fact, we are entering the time of year when every day will feel like a futile fight against the dust in the air, the dust in our noses, and the dust settling on every conceivable surface in our homes.
But God does some beautiful things with dust. Our cleanliness, it turns out, is not “next to godliness.” Our mess is!
God does beautiful things with our dust, with our dirt, with our mess, with our imperfections, with our doubts, and with our sins.
God does beautiful things with us, the ones who, in the beginning, God fashioned out of dust! For as it says in every youth pastor’s favorite psalm:
“For he knows how we are formed. He remembers that we are but dust.” (Psalm 103:14)
(If you’re wondering why I say this is every youth pastor’s favorite psalm, try saying “we are but dust” in front of a youth group! I dare you!)
God knows we are dust. God knows we are a mess.
God knows what we are made of—because God made us.
|Early morning cleaning at Damascus Gate|
26 March 2017
Photo by Carrie Smith
And still, when we are lost, when we are afraid, when we are lonely, when we are beating ourselves up for the messes in our lives, we always think the answer is to tidy things up on our own:
So we clean up our closets.
We clean up our email inbox.
We clean up our friend list.
We vow to clean up our lives, once and for all, so God will have a reason to love us.
We even renovate the tomb of Jesus.
As a matter of fact, I visited the newly-cleaned up and renovated tomb of Jesus the other day.
It was the day after the big formal dedication of the centuries-old aedicule. At mid-morning, I left my office here at the church and walked over to the Holy Sepulcher Church to see it for myself. My plan was to sit by the “sparkly” new tomb and meditate on the preaching text for this week.
So I pushed through the crowds and found a spot on one of the wooden benches opposite the aedicule, next to a Franciscan brother in his long brown robe, and two Russian women wearing matronly skirts and headscarves. I unfolded my printed-out scriptures for this week and read,
He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
|Pilgrims line up to visit the newly-renovated|
aedicule over the tomb of Jesus
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
23 March 2017
And it suddenly struck me as incongruous, and almost humorous, to be reading about Jesus playing in the mud and dust, while all around me people were lining up, shoving, and jockeying for position to see the tomb of the same Jesus—now free of dust, free of ash and soot, free of the wear and tear of life and the passage of time.
I looked down at my notebook read again: Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.”
I thought about it some more, and made some notes in my notebook, until something distracted me:
It wasn’t the crowds. It wasn’t the noise of the pilgrims praying, chatting, and taking selfies.
It was the extreme body odor of the man standing next to me, peering into the room behind me where the “Navel of the World” is found.
Deodorant did not find its way into this man’s luggage.
Deodorant may not have found its way into this man’s life up to this point, I surmised.
His presence near me was beyond distracting. And yet…somehow his was the perfect scent to accompany our Gospel lesson for this morning.
Hear these words again:
Jesus spat on the ground. He made mud with dust and saliva. And he used that mess—that muddy, sticky mess—to give a blind man new eyes and a new life.
Dear friends in Christ, Jesus is not afraid of dust.
Or body odor.
And Jesus is not afraid of your mess.
In fact, Our Lord loves the things we find dirty, stinky, messy, unsightly. Our Lord makes miracles happen with the stuff we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen with relationships we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen with the people we deem worthless. Our Lord makes miracles happen through us, even though we are “but dust”.
And so yes, I find it strange, and a little bit funny, that we just spent 3 million dollars and an entire year to clean up and beautify the tomb of the One who,
In great love,
Creates miracles out of dust.
Hear again the Good News: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who gave sight to the man born blind, is the Son of God. He is the Messiah we’ve been waiting for. He is the light of the world, our salvation, our healer and our brother.
And he loves us, the ones created out of holy dust, and holy breath, and holy love. He may even keep “emergency dust” in his pockets! Because thanks be to God, our messes are the building blocks of his miracles.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.