Sermon Lent 1(A) St Agnes, Toxteth Park
When do you do the housework?
No doubt you are very organised and have a day a week when you get the hoover and the dusters out. I’m afraid I am much less organised. It’s always a good thing when there are friends or visitors coming to stay: the housework gets done!
This week Christians throughout the world have been thinking about dust. As ashes were put on our foreheads we reflected on the words:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I don’t know if you have thought about the arrangements for your funeral. I hope you have. It is a good thing to do, to reflect on the fact of death and how our Christian faith will be reflected in our funeral. As I often tell my friends a requiem Mass and a sermon on the victory of Jesus over death and sin is all I require, if anyone starts telling people amusing stories of my life or suggests that I am anything other than a sinner in need of salvation I shall be banging on the lid of that coffin.
A few years ago my beloved dog, Oscar, dies, he was old and the time had come. We buried Oscar in the garden and dug a deep hole to do so. Playing the theme tune to Desert Island Discs – which he always liked to howl along to – we placed him in the ground. The soil in our garden in Staffordshire is wonderfully rich with that typical reddish colour. Putting Oscar into the ground felt like his coming home. Putting him to bed. I was determined that I too would be buried in that soft, rich, fertile soil.
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
The Lord God, we heard in today’s first reading, fashioned man of dust.
I have a deep love for the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament and these passages from Genesis are especially powerful and should speak deeply to us. I have been privileged to hear them read or sung on many occasions in synagogues that I have attended. It is a powerful reminder that these are ancient texts of humanity and the source of our faith.
In examining the Hebrew text one theologian, Phyllis Trible, noticed something deeply profound about this section of Genesis. At the beginning of our reading the translation we are using – the Jerusalem Bible – renders the Hebrew word ha-adamah as ‘man’; it is ha-adamah from where we get our name for this first creature ‘Adam’. But Trible points out that in the Hebrew it is not at all clear that this is the creatures proper name but a description of what the creature is. Adamah is the Hebrew word for dust so a better translation might be dust-ling, or even earth-ling a sit is from the soil, the earth that God creates the creature. It is only later in the passage that the Hebrew words for male and female, ish and ishah, man and women are used. After woman had been created from the flesh of the earthling.
This insight into the Hebrew text is, I believe of utmost significance and the second reading we have heard today from St Paul’s letter to the Romans only makes sense in light of it. ‘Sin’ says St Paul, ‘entered the world through one man .. if it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ … will cause everyone to reign in life.’
The stuff that I am physically made of, is the same stuff that made that first earthling, that first Adam and it is the same stuff that Jesus was made of and that every human being that has ever lived and will ever live is made of. We are earthlings, made of dust and to dust we shall return. When Adam and Eve sinned, when they ate of that apple, they carried all human stuff, all human life with hem, when Jesus died and rose again he carried our humanity with him.
This has huge consequences for each one of us. When we were born we were already in Adam, already human, when we are baptised our humanity is incorporated – notice that words, made flesh with, made corporal with – the redeemed humanity of Jesus.
Just as we shall say in the cred in a few moments time that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father, sharing the same substance with the Father, so by birth we are consubstantial with all human beings and by baptism we are consubstantial with Jesus. When I mix water into the wine in the chalice at the altar I will pray:
By the mystery of this water and wine
May we come to share in the divinity of Christ
Who humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Consubstantial is a difficult word with its origins not in simple Anglo-Saxon English but in the complexities of Latin.
One spiritual writer uses a lovely English expression for this, ‘inter-being’. We ‘inter-are’ with our fellow human beings. And even deeper than that we inter-are with everything that exists. We are created from the earth, the dust, the planet, from raw matter. Not only can nothing human be alien to us but nothing that exists can be alien to us.
Our care for the planet, our care for human life is an expression of who we are.
At this beginning of holy Lent, the Lord in Scripture shows us that we exist together and that together we share the inclination not to inter-being but to separation. We share the tendency to sin, to selfishness in place of selflessness.
We are all, every one of us, prone to temptations, to the subtle, glamorous, powers of evil. As the gospel shows us most profoundly even Scripture can be used in bewitching ways to pander to our selfishness.
Dear friends, in this holy Lent, we are called to return, to renew the commitment made at our baptism to plunge into the waters, to drown our selves so that not I but Christ might live in me.
The devil quotes, in the gospel passage, from another ancient text of the Hebrew Bible, the book Deuteronomy, from the account of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. If we are to make that desert journey and arrive in the promised land it will be by abandoning our selfishness, our isolation, our separateness and embracing our inter-being with Jesus and one another.
Thus, as the Preface of today’s Mass puts it:
“celebrating worthily the Paschal mystery,
We might pass over at last to the eternal paschal feast.”