If you saw the New Hampshire Town Hall Meeting last week in which Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders answered questions from people in the audience, you might have noticed that one question was from Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. In my judgment, he asked the best question ever asked a candidate running for political office. The question was this:
“Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person has to have two pockets, and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.”
Rabbi Jonathan then asked Mrs. Clinton: “I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego we all know you must have – a person must have to be the leader of the free world – and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all things that the president has to be responsible for?” (1)
Apply and adapt that question to yourself. How would you answer it? “I am but dust and ashes” and “the universe was created for me.” This is a question about ego and humility, about maintaining our humanity and respecting the humanity of those around us. It is a question that asks us to hold in balance the paradox that we are created in the image of God, but also we are dust and ashes.
Maintaining this balance is difficult, especially for those in positions of leadership, whether as bishop of a diocese, or rector of a parish, or the head of a department, or Mayor of London, or the Prime Minister of Canada. It is the paradox of the human condition – we are dust and ashes but made in God’s image.
One of the most important pastoral tasks for me as a priest is to help people deal with their own inadequacy. I have met people who not only feel inadequate but worthless. They do not feel attractive enough or intelligent enough or as fortunate as others. The success they dreamed of obtaining has not happened. As they grow older, the childhood dreams of being someone important begin to vanish, and they become angry, bitter, and resentful. They may even begin to feel increasingly uptight or junky.
But here is the good news for their lives and ours: God made us, and God doesn’t make junk. We are created in the image of God. We are molded in the likeness of our Maker. Like God we can reason and think, we have a mind, a memory and a will. God even gave us dominion over the earth – not to savage the planet but to care for it. God was pleased when God created human beings and said, “It is good.” God made nothing more special or more beautiful than us. Made in the image of God, we even have the ability to control much of our destiny.
Yes, God made each of us, and God doesn’t make junk. We produce the junk in our lives when we let sin get the best of us, when we try to attain unattainable goals and then labor under feelings of failure, when we get our priorities all mixed-up, and when we walk life’s way apart from God.
That’s why knowing that the “universe was created for me” has to be balanced by the realization that I am but dust and ashes. I know…none of us like to be reminded that we someday will die, that we are not immortal, that we are not infallible with all the answers to all the questions that challenge us in life.
Tony Campolo tells about a church that one day every year celebrates student recognition day. One year, after several students had spoken quite eloquently about their hopes and dreams for the future, the pastor started his sermon in a striking way: “Young people, you may not think you’re going to die, but you are. One of these days, they’ll take you to the cemetery, drop you in a hole, throw some dirt on your face and go back to church and eat potato salad.”
I don’t know of any Anglican priest who would dare say such a thing, but it’s true. We may not like to acknowledge it, but someday every one of us will have to face the “potato salad promise,” that we will die. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Of course, dust and ashes is not the end of the story. The ultimate purpose of our journey through Lent – from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday – is not to drag ourselves down. It is rather to allow God to raise us up. By God’s grace out of the ashes comes hope.
In Egyptian mythology there is the story of the Phoenix, a god in the form of a bird comes back to life after being destroyed by fire. It rose out of the ashes to new life. The Phoenix is a sign of immortality and points to hope when only despair exists.
The Phoenix is a myth, but the resurrection of Jesus is a fact. From the suffering and death he experienced on Good Friday came resurrection and new life on Easter Sunday. Because Jesus lives, so shall we. Yes, our physical bodies will return to dust, but our spiritual bodies – the essence of who we are – will live with God forever. Death does not have the last word in our lives, God does. And so, we can live freely, faithfully and fully in this life knowing that the best is yet to come. We can give more, love more, and care more, because with God our work is not in vain. We can do our duty in whatever capacity we find ourselves, take responsibility for our lives, be good stewards of the planet and do our part to alleviate human misery – to leave this world a better place because we have lived in it.
In the southwest coast of Italy there is the city of Pompeii. It lies a short distance from Mount Vesuvius. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely destroyed the city. Pompeii was covered with ash and pumice at a rate of six inches per hour. In 17 hours the city was buried beneath nine feet of ash and pumice. For 1,700 years, Pompeii lay beneath tons of cinders, ashes and stone. Archaeologists in uncovering the city found the remains of many bodies preserved in hardened ash. Some of the bodies were in deep vaults, as if trying to escape the volcano’s destruction. Other bodies were in luxurious chambers. What is most interesting, however, is that a Roman soldier who stood at the gate of the city was found at his post. His hands were still clutching his weapon. He had been commanded by his captain to continue his watch and even in the face of death he remained at his post.
I hope that when I die, I am like that Roman soldier – that I am doing exactly what God wants me to do, that I am standing by my post, obeying God’s will, whatever the challenge or however difficult. I hope that when I die, I will never waver from God, never falter in my mission, never stray from the faith.
In the end, we will all turn to dust and ashes, but we will be with the Lord of the universe in heaven. So stand vigilant, be watchful, do your duty, and be a good and faithful servant of Jesus Christ. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, but that you are also made in God’s image, called into God’s family and declared Christ’s own forever.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
February 10, 2016
Text – 2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, C
1. Sonia Saraiya, “Hillary’s Humility Moment: A rabbi walks into a Town Hall and asks a question you’d never hear in the GOP debates,” Salon.com, February 4, 2016