Just as in English, if we were to play Scrabble in Hebrew you could experience how this language builds words, one letter at a time, with related meaning. When the words are read aloud their consonants echo, you subconsciously understand without explanation their connectedness.
The word dam, meaning, “blood,” becomes “dirt” by adding a few letters, adamah. Both are the substance of our being, the essence of who we are and how we live.
Dam and adamah are related to adam, the first earthling, a genderless human one. As an aside Adam was not a male until Eve entered the story. With that little vocabulary lesson, listen to our first reading.
the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
Just a few verses later, in the Garden of Eden, Adam learns he will return to the dust of the earth at his death.
Stories of dirt, and dust, and sand, and all the myriad ways to name the earth permeate scriptures.
Abraham is promised descendants as numerous as dust or sand.
When mourning a loved one’s death, Israelites heaped ashes and dirt on their heads, showing humility before God and their awareness of the fragility of life.
The “promised land” consumes Israelites for generations. Exile from land is part of Matthew’s genealogy.
Scripture calls us to honor the ground upon which we walk, the fiber of our being, and the life we are given.
Our next reading from John’s gospel is dirt and life and how to walk with God in an obvious teaching.
Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and Jesus sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
They said this to test Jesus, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
I was raised on dirt. Both of my parents grew up on farms in the Midwest and they tended an orchard in California before finally retiring. We moved from one state to another, a number of times and I recall the acidity of the soil, the shape of the yard, the color of the dirt, and all the other ways to know what formed the land were just as important to my dad as the age of the appliances.
My dad has never lived a day in his life without a tomato plant or seed in some stage of growth. As a little girl, I learned to pull the weed and leave the seedling, how to de-tassel corn, and to compost long before it was fashionable.
Our dinner plates constantly reminded me of the connection between keeping my body alive and the dirt in the backyard. My family instilled within me a deep respect for dirt. It is where I came from.
The creation story from Genesis reminds us that God created us from dirt. By God’s grace we were breathed into life. God’s grace that renews the earth. And God’s grace to redeem our lives.
Getting closer to the essence of our creation and our creator steadies and corrects our way of life. Jesus’ encounters the Pharisees and scribes and a woman is such an example.
To test Jesus and justify their judgment, a woman is presented as having violated the law. By Hebrew custom they were ready to stone her, Roman law did not demand such a brutal death. What would Jesus say?
As he was being judged, Jesus stooped to draw in the dirt with his finger. Scholars have debated over the centuries what Jesus might have traced.
What does it matter? Maybe he was not writing anything but merely reminding them how fleeting life is…too soon they will all be dust. Who are they to judge? Life and death belong to God.
Jesus only asks, “have you walked a perfect life?” Rather than berate them, he returns to the dirt, and in doing so, an elder drops his stone, accepts the gift of Jesus’ compassion and walks away, followed by the others, who dropped their stones, and also left with a chance to begin again.
We can only wonder if they decided to live more graciously towards others.
To the woman, Jesus also shows compassion by not focusing on the past; she is not her mistakes. He invites her to begin again. Walk a new way.
To those who heard this story in the first century, I wonder if they connected God’s breathing life into dirt and Jesus breathing new life into those broken and hurting lives. From the most basic, God creates and, God recreates.
Lent is about spending time reflecting on how we walk with Jesus. We ask ourselves what has taken us away from following him? Scripture uses the Greek word metanoia. It is succinctly translated as repentance.
Recognizing how we have strayed is only part of this repentance. It is also receiving grace; forgiving ourselves and others, and most of all, begin again, live as he taught. In Lent we are invited to literally change our hearts and minds and change our way of walking on this earth to become closer to Jesus.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL was created to honor enslaved and free black people who were lynched. The site includes 800 six-foot monuments to represent the 800 counties across the US where the lynchings occurred and each is engraved with the names of the people who perished. Over 4,400 are known to have been lynched.
In addition, jars of dirt are displayed from each site where these murders occurred, representing the disparate locations.
Bryan Stevenson, one of the forces behind the memorial, shared the story of an African American woman who participated in this project.
At one of the lynching sites, she was on her hands and knees digging dirt, and placing it in a jar when a white man in a truck slowed down to look at her. He drove past, turned around and stopped, and asked her what she was doing.
Stifling her fear, she told him the truth, her plan, and the dream for the Memorial. He got out of the truck, asked if he could help.
Rather than take the trowel she offered, he got down on his knees and dug with his hands. Together they put the dirt in the jar.
When she noticed tears streaming down his face, she asked if he was okay.
He said he feared his ancestors may have participated in the very lynching she was memorializing, and she cried with him.
They took pictures of each other, holding the jar, capturing a moment of unexpected understanding, hope, and reconciliation.
Even though I was raised with dirt, these days I don’t do much gardening other than a few pots in our postage stamp size city yard. My real encounters with dirt are in our memorial garden.
Surprising to some, we inter urns of ashes in the ground, not the wall. The holes are about yeah deep. Looking down through jagged edges reveals tree roots, different layers of soil, rocks, sand, and when you get close you feel the cool air rising.
Since interments occur before the memorial service, family members are usually dressed in their finest church clothes. Most often we tie white ribbons around the urns so you can lower the urn into the ground without getting dirty.
It is a privilege to stand with someone or a family as they say goodbye and I will share with you one experience.
A woman with impeccable poise and in my mind the embodiment of grace came to bury her husband’s ashes in the garden. At the appointed time, rather than use the ribbons, she got down on her hands and knees, soiled her forearms, and carefully place him with her hands into the bottom of the hole. Time was standing still, and I truly wondered if she would crawl in as well.
She stood and with her kids, we all took turns shoveling earth back into the hole, covering his urn, tucking him in with pats. The ground felt holy.
“Into your care, oh God, we commend your servant, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”
We cannot imagine God breathing life into dirt, but God did.
No one imagined an empty tomb on Easter, it was.
God has the capacity to create life and through Jesus we have the promise of hope beyond this life.
Just like the woman before Jesus, and the Pharisees and scribes, and just like the man digging dirt for the memorial, we are not our mistakes, we get to begin again and again, now, today, in this life.
Lent reminds us we can choose to walk a new way with Jesus so that at the end of our days, when we hand back our bodies, we can know we have become what God wanted us to be.
Humility is the way to begin Lent…to rediscover what we are made of and who made us.