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“It’s like a war zone up here, like a movie scene.”
“This is a level of horror few of us could have anticipated.”
“It’s like Hiroshima, like a nuclear bomb.”
“It was hell on earth.”
These were just some of the descriptions from survivors of the deadliest wildfires the twenty-first century has seen. They happened six years ago, in Australia, in the state of Victoria. At least 210 people died. 1800 homes were destroyed, and over 7000 people were displaced. And perhaps the most heartbreaking revelation came when authorities announced they believed the fires were caused not by natural disaster, nor by accident, but by arson: the free choice of a human being.
This story seems to capture human sin in one microcosm. We were created, the scriptural story suggests, in a green and flourishing garden: created to love and serve God’s good creation with thanksgiving and joy. We were made to live eucharistically, blessing God for all that has been given into our care. But instead, whether through malice or simple carelessness, we tend so easily to turn it all into ash.
Think of all the ways that what happened in Victoria reflects human fallenness. First of all, its impact on the natural world. The charred grasses and trees of that Australian landscape are a small symbol of all the ways we fail to care for our planet, threatened by pollution, waste, and the ever-increasing specter of irreversible climate change. Next, the way it devastated homes and families: an image of our wounded economy and our tendency toward shattered relationships. And finally, the lives that were lost: two hundred people whose deaths are emblematic of the way we humans kill one another, whether out of hatred, greed, or just simple carelessness. This too is a story that starts in Scripture, with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. It continues through the centuries, through wars and crusades and inquisitions, through the all-too-literal ashes of the crematoria of state-sponsored genocide we have come to know in the past century, and to today, from the horrific beheadings and atrocities of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to the fourteen murders in Oakland so far in 2015.
As the people of Victoria looked out six years ago at their charred landscape, remembering the grass and trees that once made it green, so we look at the world God has given us and the eucharistic words of praise we were created to say can easily turn to dust and ashes in our mouths.
Yet we have not come here tonight to despair about the magnitude of fallenness and sin. For there is hope for us. Because in all the brokenness of our world, God has chosen not to abandon us to our fate.
As we heard a moment ago in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God.” Hear how Paul’s poetic language strains toward paradox, how his words crack at the edge of meaning: one who knew no sin is made to be sin for us. This is the tremendous exchange in which Jesus, who uniquely among all humanity was free of sin, chose freely to empty himself of divine privileges, become subject to our human condition in all its beauty and suffering, and take on all the consequences of our sin so that we in turn might be made righteous.
Paul says that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus God has reconciled the whole world to God’s own self. Not some of the world: not the upstanding, not the decent; but ALL. God’s free gift of reconciliation is offered freely to both those people in Victoria whose houses were destroyed and the careless or wicked arsonist who set the fire. Scandalous as it may be, God’s grace is available for victims and for perpetrators—for you and me, in both of those roles, in each of which we will find ourselves in some manner throughout our lives. It is available for free. There is no entrance exam. There are no strings. The only requirement is that we accept God’s grace, turn away from evil, and turn toward the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Of course, we can fail to open ourselves to that love. Paul goes on to warn the Corinthians that it is possible “to accept the grace of God in vain.” He does not say “to fail to accept it”—but rather to accept it and yet still have it not be effective in us. One sign that we may be accepting God’s grace in vain is when we begin to congratulate ourselves on our goodness. Paradoxically, it is often Christians who can be better at that than anyone else. And so we do well to hear Jesus’ warning in today’s gospel reading against hypocritical worship, priding ourselves on appearances, assuming we have ourselves put together so that we forget our deep need of God. That forgetfulness is what we are here today to resist. In a few moments, when we come forward to receive ashes, we will be told, “REMEMBER that you are dust.” We need to remember our own ashiness, our limitations and weakness, so that when we come to the joy of Easter we may not receive it in vain.
There’s a word for this remembering. It’s an old word, and one that perhaps we don’t use as often anymore—partly because it’s been used too often in the past to beat people into submission and blind obedience. But when used rightly, it’s still a good and faithful word. The word is “humility.” And it comes from the same word as “humus”—a word for soil—indeed, the most fertile layer of the soil. When we have humility; when we remember that we are dust, that we are humus—we can become fertile soil so that God’s Spirit can grow in us and bear fruit. And when we live in this way, we are returning to our eucharistic calling by blessing God for the life we have been given.
If you go to the web site of the Museum of Victoria in Australia, you can see a page that tells the story of how the local forest regenerates after a bushfire. As it happens, the trees that make up the forests in Victoria can only reproduce after there has been a fire. The hot fire triggers the trees to drop seeds by the millions. And the tiny saplings that begin to come up are nourished by minerals from the layer of ash that covers the ground. Until the fire happened, those minerals had been sequestered in the old trees. But now those nutrients are returned to the soil and fertilize it for new growth.
This Lent, may we remember that we are dust, so that we may receive the grace of God with open hearts rather than closed ones. May the ashes we receive on our heads reach into our hearts and fertilize them, so that God may once again make a fresh planting in our lives, and that we may tend God’s garden with thanksgiving and joy.