Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-13
On Ash Wednesday we gather to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. This is a season of repentance and reflection in preparation for the Easter event. I always thought of it as a particularly dirty Christian tradition. In the days of old Christians would come to the bishop on this day to serve public penance by receiving ashes from the previous year’s palms sprinkled over their clothing while reciting Psalms of repentance. On this day, I am reminded of the significance of seeking forgiveness and repentance before God.
The author of Genesis wrote: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I am the pastor of a small rural congregation on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. One of my church members shared with me a story about growing up out here in Kekaha during the height of the sugar industry. She told me that trucks would drive down the dusty roads spraying mosquito and other pesticides to protect the crops. As the trucks sprayed the pesticide the neighborhood kids would run behind it rejoicing in the misty haze of dust and repellent.
Imagine the health risks of which we were unaware! Not to mention the injustice committed by sugar companies that profited from the exploitation of land and people in rural Kauai. It is the community that continues to pay for the clean-up of remaining chemicals and demolition of the defunct mill.
The text which I offer us for reflection is from the Book of Joel, about a prophet who called his people to lament and seek repentance before God. The people were faced with the threat of invasion from a foreign army, but still, Joel reminded them it was not too late to return to God.
The prophet used poetic imagery throughout the book that is associated with the changing of the rainy to dry seasons in ancient as well as modern Israel. Strong, dry winds called Hamsin (Aribic) or Sharav (Hebrew), much like the Santa Ana winds in California, blow a dreadful current of dust and sand from the Sahara desert. There is no way to escape the dry, intense heat swelling across the landscape.
The point is that we voluntarily or involuntarily rejoice in, live through, and suffer from the plume of pesticide and dust. It is a metaphor that speaks to the very human capacity for both good and evil. There are times when we rejoice in the harmfulness of our world because we know nothing else, but other times we know we are hurt by and/or contribute to the hurt of others.
On Ash Wednesday, it is the ash of the earth that reminds us of the significance of repentance and forgiveness.
Last night I watched President Obama deliver the State of the Union Address. At times I was caught up in the spirit of hope but found myself frustrated with an often repeated phrase: “We can fix this.” He introduced inspirational commentary and commissions on issues such as economic, immigration, and especially gun law reform. Indeed, we deserve a vote and political action on these issues. However, as the prophet suggested, we cannot fix anything in our nation(s) until we seek forgiveness as individual people, but also as a nation that continues to contribute to violence, death, and the ill-treatment of those whom we fail to regard as God’s beloved.
We know what it is like to be human, to make mistakes in our lifetime, to find ourselves in the mess of the earth. We come seeking repentance as individuals in need of forgiveness but also as one community seeking the merciful, kind, and compassionate God.
May you receive God’s blessing on this day as we impose upon ourselves the ash of the earth.
Joshua Clough is the pastor at West Kauai United Methodist Church on the Island of Kauai, Hawaii and a candidate for ordination in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. A native of the Seattle, Washington area he enjoys running, reading, writing, and walking on the beach at sunset with his dog “Cassie.”