It was only a year ago when we gathered together in this place, somewhat oblivious to what lay before us. Each one with an ashen cross on our head. Each one hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Knowing and understanding the words, and yet having no idea what power they claimed on us.
On March 8, we gathered, relatively normally. We sang. We refrained from handshakes but gave elbow bumps and smiled into each other’s eyes. We baptized 3 children that morning—children that belonged to a FEAST partner. It was glorious. And the next week, we went digital. The Sanctuary remained empty. COVID had hit. And though some assured us that it wouldn’t amount to much, that it was nothing, that it would go away quickly, we were hit with a different reality: We are nothing more than dust. We are fragile. Life is fragile. And nobody escapes this world alive.
People across the world went into lockdown. Schools closed. Worship centers stopped gathering in person. We fought about masks even as hospitals became overwhelmed—as cities set up mobile morgues to manage the bodies of the dead. We fought about freedom as people fought for their lives. Children tried to learn from home. Pastors sought out technology to lead worship from home. Families were stuck at home—often homes that were the least safe place for some individuals to be. Holidays were celebrated alone. Suicides are on the rise. Depression and anxiety meds are on the rise. We fought about priorities—physical health versus mental health. And we were reminded just how close we are to being nothing more than dust.
We had hoped things would pass quickly. It would be a blip on the screen. I secretly planned for Easter together. And then Pentecost. And then a fall restart. We gathered in the parking lot. We tried gathering inside in October—but it wasn’t the same. Worship isn’t the same when you can’t sing. And here we are still. Two million deaths later. From a mysterious disease that sent the whole world into chaos. That reminded us that life is fragile and we are nothing more than dust.
In May, the nation went spiraling all over again with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. Not an innocent man, but not deserving of death. An accident, but one that could have—should have—been avoided. Once again, police were put in the hot seat. And then it was Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY. Another accident that should have been avoided. Another black life taken without cause. There was Daniel Prude in Rochester, NY. And Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, GA. And Dijon Kizzee in Los Angeles, CA. And Walter Wallace, Jr., and Jonathon Price, and Casey Goodson, Jr., and Ahmaud Aubrey. And we were reminded that not only are we nothing more than dust, but some lives seem dustier than others. Some lives more fragile than others.
As the nation reeled toward the elections, we found ourselves more and more divided. Accusations of voter fraud. Political battles between family and friends. Actions and words that led to an assault on the nation’s capital, an assault on democracy, death threats, an impeachment trial, and the death of 7 people. And we were reminded, again and again, that we are nothing more than dust. Life is fragile. And relationships can be destroyed with just a word.
And we’ve come around again, one year later. And I wonder if we’ve learned anything since the last time we received ashes.
Because, if this last year has taught us nothing else, it is that life is precious and deserves to be protected. Life is temporary and needs to be lived. Relationships with one another are fragile and tenuous, and words can both hurt and heal. Community matters—even when we don’t agree on everything. Touch is life-giving. Hugs can be healing. A handshake is a promise of honor. A smile is beautiful.
That is the lesson we are taught every year as the ashes are placed on our foreheads. Whether we choose to learn it or not is up to us. These ashes remind us, again and again, that we are nothing more than dust. But they also remind us that in God’s hands, dust lives. In God’s hands, dust loves. In God’s hands, dust is everything.
You are everything to God. You, who struggle to get up in the morning and start yet another day. You, who find yourself imprisoned by bad decisions you and others made. You, who are tired of looking at the walls of your house and connecting to people on a screen. You, who are bullied at school and told you are nothing. You are everything. You, who have been denied the gospel because of who you are. You, who just want to be lifted up by a word of grace today. You, who have lost so much and know more is on the line. You, taking your final breaths. You, who sit at the bedside, waiting for the end. You, who long for new life. You, who long for companionship. You, who feels overwhelmed by daily demands. You, who is angry at what you hear on the news day in and day out. You, who is picked on and picked apart.
You are everything to God. In the beginning and in the end, you are nothing more than dust. But you are in God’s hands. In God’s hands, dust lives. In God’s hands, you are alive—right now. Today. This moment. In THIS moment, God’s promise is renewed, again and again. God’s covenant is made with you—with ALL of you. With all of us. God has promised to breathe new life into this dusty carcass. And with every breath you take until that final breath, you are being made new. You are alive. Now. You are God’s purpose. Now. You are God’s everything.
But God’s promise doesn’t end there. You may return to dust, but that isn’t where you’ll stay. God has promised a resurrection the likes of which we can’t even imagine. We try, but words and imagination fail us. All we know is this—in God’s hands, dust lives. Again. So, this day, as we once again receive ashes and hear those haunting words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we remember. We remember the challenges of this past year. We remember lives lost unnecessarily. We remember relationships broken. We remember businesses and congregations that couldn’t make it through. We remember the names and the hurt.
And then, we remember the hope. We remember the compassion shown and the hands that have helped so many people up from the dust. We remember sacrifices made for others. We remember Eugene Goodman, who courageously led rioters away from where people were hiding in the capital. We remember food stall owners in Singapore who took food to the hungry during COVID, free of charge, making sure people didn’t go hungry.
We remember grace and love, prayers and songs that have risen from the dust. We remember the cards sent by Alissa and Karrie, blessings sent by Cathy, phone calls made by Kay, care packages sent and Christmas gifts delivered. And we start to share THOSE stories—the stories of living dust. Those are our stories, as well. Those are the stories of God’s people living the gospel. We will never forget the shadows of 2020 and 2021. They will haunt us for many years. But we are dusty people. We are God’s love built in the dirt and given breath. We are dust, and in God’s hands, dust lives.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church