Here’s the sermon given at Peace by Harvard Divinity student Anna Mullen.
Compost & Ashes
Ash Wednesday Service, Peace Lutheran Church
March 5, 2014
The ashes we place on our foreheads this evening serve as an outward reminder and sign of our humility. I just learned this, though you may have already know it, that for the early Christians, having dust on the forehead was an indicator that one has bowed her or his head all the way to the ground in prayer before God. I like this idea that having dirty foreheads – with ashes, or dust, or dirt – is a sign that we have been in deep pray, as if in order to most fully lay our lives before God, we must lay our head on the earth. Touching the Earth brings us closer to God.
As I have been thinking about this idea of bowing our heads literally down to the earth in prayer, I remember something I saw when I was living with a group of monks at monastery in France. Whenever a new brother takes his vows in the community, he lays his entire body flat on the ground in front of the alter. This act of total prostration is not unique to this monastery, but what it highlights for me is our incontestable connectedness to the earth within our relationships to God. It is beautiful to me that in the monk’s effort to give his life over to the community, to show his deepest commitment to God, he lays his body down to be in full contact with the earth. To think of it, we do not jump, or stand on ladders, or climb to the top of mountains to be closer to God. We bow. We get closer to the ground. We lay our foreheads in the dirt and the dust of the earth.
Perhaps we may recognize that this mark of the earth upon our bodies is unifying. On this Ash Wednesday we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As Genesis 2 says, “Then 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.” We are creatures of God’s divine creation, a beautiful combination of dust and the breath of life. We are dirt. We are dust. To our deepest core, we are sisters and brothers with all of God’s creation. In our acts of bowing – of laying our heads on the ground – we remind ourselves of our humble unity with all of God’s created cosmos. And, perhaps in this act of remembering what it means to be created by God out of the dust of the earth and with the breath of sustaining life, we can find ourselves in deeper and closer relationship with our Creator.
When I was working on a farm, educating kids about where our food comes from, I always tried to stay away from the word “dirt.” It has a connotation of unclean, lifeless, burdensome matter. I would always try to give dirt some dignity by calling it soil. And you know what? Soil – the dust and dirt that we are made of – is pretty incredible stuff. We know that it is from the soil that our food is grown. It is in the soil that the trees that build our homes are rooted. It is within the soil that billions of tiny microbiotic communities that we cannot see with our naked eyes live and thrive. But do you know what I think is this the most amazing thing about soil? The best soil – the richest, healthiest, most vibrant soil – is made out of piles of discarded waste. Our trash. It has a fancy name you’ve probably heard of –compost.
The best soil a gardener could ask for is made out of yesterday’s dinner, dead leaves, eggshells, newspaper, animal manure, grass clippings, and vegetable peels. You throw all of this junk, the stuff you don’t want anymore, into a pile, and you mix it about and turn it over every few months, and you eventually get this incredibly beautiful, nutritious fertilizer from which new life will spring forth. My favorite poet and agricultural advocate Wendell Berry has written that, “Soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.”
For me, compost is a beautiful metaphor for our season of Lent, a time of self-reflection, repentance, and humility. Lent is a time for us to take the things that make us broken, the things in our lives that we know we want to put behind us, and to offer them up to God so that something new can be created. Like the scraps we throw into the compost pile, we can rid ourselves of the things that get in the way of us being in deeper relationships with God. I know that Pastor Jeff has asked us to think of disciplines we would like to adopt for Lent, whether it be giving something up, or maybe adding something to our daily routines that will enrich and deepen our relationships with God. Whatever your discipline may be, I challenge you to see it as an element of the metaphorical compost pile. If you’re giving something up for Lent, throw it in the pile and watch what new life can come from discarded things. If you’re adding something to daily routines, see it as the pitchfork that stirs the scraps of yesterday to create a vibrant tomorrow.
Just as the gardener uses compost to prepare a garden, Lent is a season of preparation to prepare our heart for the coming of the risen Christ. So as we throw our scrap in the compost pile, as we use our acts of humility and self-reflection to help foster deeper and more meaningful relationships between us and both our neighbors and God, may we make an effort to bow down and remind ourselves that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. May we get our hand dirty in this work of preparation, and when we wipe the sweat off of our brows with soil cover hands, may we see that the mark of our Creator is upon us.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
— Psalm 51:10-12