Mortality and Morality
February 22, 2023 Creekwood United Methodist Church

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Ash cloud with text

You Are Dust

The first time I assisted with Ash Wednesday I cringed each time I marked someone’s forehead with ashes and recited the second part of Genesis 3:19.

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:19 NRSV

It’s not just me. At every stop along my ministry journey there’s been at least one other staff or clergy who has wanted to use one of the alternative recitations as we administer ashes.

“Repent and believe the Gospel”

“May you seek the forgiveness of God”

…and other less common sayings

None of the alternatives are inaccurate or unhelpful. But they do take some of the impact…or should I stay “sting”…out of the occasion?

We throw around the words “repent” and “forgiveness” every Sunday. While they are powerful and important words, they don’t carry the same sense of finality as “to dust you shall return.” Let’s put it this way. One of my relatives smoked a pack or more of cigarettes every day for years. He heard the commercials, the doctors, and family members who told him, “If you don’t stop, one day that’ll kill you – there’s still time to change your habits.” But, I guess one day seemed far enough off that he didn’t feel compelled to stop. Until, he went to the doctor with heart problems, fatigue, and all the symptoms of an impending heart attack. The doctor told him, “If you don’t stop smoking, you will die.” He stopped the next day.

You’re Not God

When it comes to our mortality, we’ll do whatever it takes.

The question becomes: will we choose morality in the face of mortality?

Genesis 3:19 is the final word of punishment towards Adam and Eve for disobeying God. It seems the idea, previously, was that humanity would live eternally with God as long as they realized they weren’t God and behaved as such. But, as humans do, Adam and Eve fell victim to believing they could be equal to God, and behaved as such. In Paul’s words to the Romans (6:21), “So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.

And the ramifications were death. Despite the graceful protection God afforded them, in the face of their impending mortality humans rejected morality in favor of behavior that continued to pretend they were equal to God.

Cain killed Abel

They wanted to build a tower to the heavens for noteriety

They worshipped false idols

They took multiple wives and concubines

They treated visitors and foreigners as slaves and enemies

They lavished themselves with wealth at the expense of others and called it “blessing”

And, depending on your reading of scripture, they justified mass genocide.

When faced with the prospect of death, most of the characters from Adam/Eve and onward in the Bible display some sort of character flaw and relaxed morality, in favor of preserving their own power, life, and prosperity. Because when it comes to mortality, we’ll do anything to preserve our own life.

It’s a good thing we’ve evolved past this, right…

You can see why we’d rather talk about repentance than death. One gives us an out of “one day,” while the other sets a deadline. One lets us procrastinate on the choice of morality, while the other demands a response.

Death Is Not The End

But what if death wasn’t as final as we fear?

What if the dust we become is created anew into something more lasting than the first creation?

But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 6:22-23 NRSV

One of the greatest miracles in the history of the world is that the Christian church exists. By all logic, given all of the moments in which the early Christians faced the end of their mortality through martyrdom or persecution, the Church shouldn’t be here. It should have withered from fear.

It should have collapsed under the weight of infighting.

It should have disappeared as people ran for their lives.

It should have buckled under pride and prejudice.

We should not be here, because in the face of death humans tend to choose self-preservation over a cause greater than their own lives.

But…the early Christians did just that. They stared into the face of mortality and knew with confidence it wasn’t as final as they once thought. And because of that they served like no one else before them. They loved their neighbor and forgave radically. They gave selflessly, because they knew the things of this world don’t compare with the world that is to come.

Ash Wednesday

I hope you will join us tonight for our Ash Wednesday worship at 7pm. I want to give you the chance to accept your own mortality – that you are not God. But I want to give you that chance with the full knowledge that the God who is more powerful than you has opened up eternal life beyond the dust you will become. And I want to give you the chance to choose morality in the face of mortality.


David Lessner

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