Remember Who You Are
Good morning! It is a joy and an honor to stand before you today as your new Rector. This has been a long time coming, for all of us, and I am so excited to begin to get to know you all as together we explore who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do here at St. Dunstan’s.
In the spirit of getting to know each other, I have a question for you, and I’d love if we could please have a show of hands. How many of you have seen what is arguably the greatest Disney movie ever made, The Lion King – either the original, that was made about 25 years ago, or the new “live-action” version that came out this summer?
Good! Clearly we’re going to get along just fine.
For those unfamiliar with the story, I promise no spoilers. What you do need to know is that it centers around a young lion cub Simba, heir to the throne of the Pridelands. Living in exile after the death of his father, Mufasa, Simba is urged to return to his home to overthrow his evil uncle, Scar, who has taken control of the kingdom. Simba does not believe that he is up to the task, and he questions whether he is worthy to be King. In the midst of his despair, Simba has a vision of Mufasa, who appears to his son and says, “Look inside yourself: you are more than what you have become. Remember who you are!”
Now, Mufasa is voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones, so I can’t possibly do him justice, but do try to hear that unmistakable, booming voice: Remember who you are.
Who are you?
Think for a moment about how many times you have gone to a party or to Coffee Hour or to some other social gathering and have been asked, “What do you do?” It happens all the time, doesn’t it? We are conditioned to define our identity and worth in terms of our function and productivity.
But is what you do really who you are?
Some of us tend to describe ourselves in terms of our relationships. I grew up in a small town where both my parents worked for the local government, and for years I was known as Ed and Dorothy Phaneuf’s daughter. Now that I have a family of my own, I often introduce myself as Randy’s wife or Will’s, Peter’s, or Andrew’s Mom. Is that the essence of who I am?
Or perhaps we think of ourselves in terms of identifiers such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, nationality, or socioeconomic status. We might add political affiliation to this list, as well.
But does any of these labels fully capture who we really are?
As Christians, we believe that we are all children of God, created in God’s image and blessed with memory, reason, and skill. We are given inherent beauty and dignity and worth and purpose. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the sign of the Cross on our foreheads with oil, and “marked as Christ’s own forever.” That mark is indelible; it cannot be washed away.
But at the same time, we are not invincible: we are mortal, we are limited, we are fallible, we are vulnerable, we are finite. Each year at the beginning of Lent we are invited to receive another Cross on our foreheads, this time made not of oil but of ash, and we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Remember who you are.
There are few moments as poignant for me as a priest than when I say those words to someone who is gravely ill. Or to an infant. Or to my own child.
This practice, of course, recalls the Creation Narrative in Genesis, the moment when God forms “the man” (ha adam in Hebrew) from “the dust of the ground” (ha adamah), giving the creature shape and form and the very Breath of Life itself.
Understood in this context, there should be no shame in being dust – and yet we seem to spend our lives trying to deny this fundamental identity.
It certainly isn’t socially acceptable. Imagine if I were to come up to you at Coffee Hour and say: “Hi, my name is Patty, and I am dust!”
“Wow, the new Rector has self-esteem issues,” you might think to yourself. “Does she really think she’s dirt?”
“Nobody likes me, Everybody hates me, Guess I'll go eat worms…”
Poor, pitiful thing.
Or maybe you’d think, “That priest has a pretty big ego! Listen to her, shamelessly fishing for compliments!”
We’ve probably all played that game: We put ourselves down, falsely, hoping that someone else will jump in to reassure us of how great we are. Yes, it’s manipulative, and yes – in our neediness and insecurity, we humans do it all the time.
But here’s the thing: I am dust. And so are you. I say this not to deprecate myself or to insult anybody else, but rather simply to state the truth. Our lives are brief and transitory, and – in the words of Benjamin Franklin – “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Dust is the common denominator, the Great Leveler. For all of our differences, we are all made of the same essential matter, the same “stuff.”
A few years ago, an ad campaign sponsored by several human rights agencies drove this point home. A giant x-ray screen was set up in a public space in Santa Monica, California, and a curious crowd began to form as pairs of skeletons danced, kissed, hugged, and held hands behind the screen.
At first no one seemed to understand what was going on.
Behind the screen everyone looked more-or-less alike; the only really appreciable difference was in height. But when the “skeletons” stepped around to the front, revealing their many different identities, the point became crystal clear.
“Love has no gender” scrolled across the screen.
“Love has no race.”
“Love has no age.”
“Love has no disability.”
“Love has no religion.”
And so on.
The crowd went wild, erupting into a joyful celebration of our common humanity. It was an effective campaign, to say the least.
The message seems so true, so basic, so simple. And yet…
You and I know that we humans don’t tend to be able to stay in that place of joyful celebration, of unity and equality, very long. For whatever reason, it seems to be only a matter of time before we look in the mirror and begin to see ourselves as distinct individuals who, at the end of the day, feel compelled to put ourselves - and maybe our loved ones - first.
Get ahead. Eat, or be eaten. Survival of the fittest.
If such behavior sounds primitive, that’s because it is. For all of our intellect and sophistication, the human animal can – and does – devolve to our baser nature from time-to-time.
We act as though we were God, instead of God’s Creation.
In short, we sin – we draw back our arrow as if to hit a target, but we “miss the mark.”
As the Prophet Jeremiah puts it, we exchange our glory – our God-given inherent beauty and dignity and worth and purpose – “for something that does not profit.”
We all do it. (Like dust, sin is a Great Leveler.)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus (Who is never one to mince words) names and challenges this human tendency to exalt, or distinguish, ourselves – often at others’ expense. Jesus sees and recognizes that we just can’t seem to get out of our own way, and – thanks be to God (literally!) – He has compassion on us. Jesus offers a corrective to our baser human instincts, and it is as simple and profound as this:
You are more than what you have become. Remember who you are.
True humility, the act of humbling ourselves appropriately and authentically, is nothing more than remembering who we are.
Remembering that we are, indeed, dust.
It’s worth noting that the English word “human” derives from the Latin humus, which means “earth,” or “ground.” Humus is also the root of “humble,” and “humility.” To be humble, therefore, is to hold a mirror up to our own souls. It is to begin to see ourselves not so much as distinct individuals, separated one from another, but as creatures bound together by a common identity, formed as we are out of one essential matter.
And what matter it is, filled with the Breath of Life and made inherently holy by God.
The Franciscan priest and spiritual writer Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
“We are earth that has come to consciousness. If we discover this power in ourselves and know that we are God’s creatures, that we come from God and return to God, that’s enough. As a human, I’m just a tiny moment of consciousness, a small part of creation, a particle that reflects only a fragment of God’s glory. And yet that’s enough.”
What would it be like if we were to live in light of this identity – as a particle reflecting God’s glory? How might that change the way we see ourselves and our place in the world? How might it affect our interactions with one another at Coffee Hour, or at work, or on the Metro, or around the family dinner table, or around the Altar rail?
My hope for St. Dunstan’s is that this might be a place where each of us might be free to be fully ourselves, in all of our beautiful “dustiness,” and where might celebrate and uplift and support the dust in one another. I pray that this might be a place where we are reminded who we really are.
In that spirit, I’m going to end with an excerpt from a prayer for Ash Wednesday, entitled “Blessing the Dust,” by Methodist minister Jan Richardson:
Let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge