In the Book of Genesis, we get a glimpse of how God created not only the world but also Adam and Eve. From the dust of the ground, God created Adam and Eve and breathed life into them. This is such an important part of the human narrative, that it was God who breathed life into the dust of the ground from which humans were created, and it is God who breathes life into us - each of us, all of us.
Genesis reminds us that we came from the dust of the ground and that is where we return to, dust. For me, this is such a humbling reality that I have a hard time with any form of hubris.
In the midst of the pandemic, one of our parishioners buried her son at the Churchyard. Paul was cremated. At the burial, I had to pour Paul’s ashes into the hole that had been dug in the ground. The ashes were in a big urn, which I initially thought was to be put in the hole. Well, it turned out that Paul’s ashes were in a bag in the urn, and I had to pour the ashes in the hole.
That was the first time that I ever saw the ashes of another human being.
But what was so poignant, humbling, and so revealing was the coming to life of Genesis 3:19b - “You are dust and to dust you shall return” - while I poured the ashes into the hole. I could see the dust - Paul, mixed with the dust from which he was created. I could see myself actually witnessing this passage come alive in real-time. I have never felt so shaken over a Biblical passage coming to life in such a powerful and meaningful way.
I said to myself, thereafter, that one must have an exalted impression of himself or herself to assume that the dust from which they were created makes them any different, for it does not. And to think otherwise is the uneasy deception we carry with us.
This week, I write about the dust from which we were created for two reasons; one, because we are a couple of weeks away from Ash Wednesday. It's a day that specifically reminds us of the dust from which we were made and to which we shall return, and reminds us that we have to reorient ourselves and put our priorities in order. The second reason is, if the dust of our beginnings is the same as the dust of our endings, then why do we make ourselves look, sound, and act in ways that create the impression that our particular dust is somewhat better? Different it may be, but how is it better?
I wonder how many of you have heard about the Reverend Absalom Jones. He was the first African American Episcopal priest. He was born into slavery in Delaware and taught himself to read using the New Testament as one of his resources. At the age of sixteen, Jones’ mother, sister, and five brothers were sold, but he was brought to Philadelphia by his master, where he attended a night school for African-Americans operated by Quakers.
In 1784, he began serving as a lay minister for the black membership at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church with his friend, Richard Allen.
As a result of their evangelistic work, the African American membership at St. George’s increased greatly. But this came with a great cost. The Vestry at St. George’s, without notice to their African American parishioners, decided to segregate the congregation and move the African American parishioners to the upstairs gallery. When the ushers attempted to move the African American congregants to the gallery, they refused and eventually left the church.
Upon leaving St. George’s, Jones and Allen, with the support from Episcopalians and Quakers, established the “First African Church” in Philadelphia. This was in 1792. Shortly thereafter, the African Church applied to join the Protestant Episcopal Church and presented the diocese with the following conditions: that the Church must be received as an already organized body, that it must have control over its own affairs, and that Jones must be licensed as lay reader and, if qualified, ordained as its minister.
Upon acceptance into the Diocese of Pennsylvania, the church was renamed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The following year, Jones became a deacon but was not ordained a priest until 1802. At 56 years old, he became the first African American priest. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is a thriving congregation in Philadelphia.
The story of Absalom Jones reminds me of a conversation I had with a well-accomplished, former parishioner whose parents are still very active at Christ Church. In the course of our conversation, I inquired about why she hasn’t been to church. Her response was interesting. She told me that the church, as it is, represents some of the wrongs in our society. And being a part of the church implies that one supports the wrongs that the church has perpetrated over the years. I was taken aback.
The reality is that what the parishioners at St. George’s did to their fellow African American parishioners wasn’t a one-off, isolated event. It was the culture, and to an extent it is still the culture, albeit pursued in a different way. And so Obenewa wasn’t far off with her critique.
The question then, is, how do we help the church reflect on these issues, turn these narratives around, and make the necessary transformative changes? If our solemn proclamation is that we are dust and to dust we shall all return, then our corresponding responsibility must be one of leading people not only from dust to dust, but from dust to life - after all, that was the very gift that became possible when God breathed into the dust of Adam. Life must be our goal. We must also breathe life, a life lived with purposeful design to honor everyone, especially those who are being asked to move to the upstairs gallery.
For all we care to acknowledge, there is a high possibility that those who actually labored to build that sanctuary, who maintained the sanctuary were the very ones who were asked to move to the upstairs gallery.
Sometimes, I wish we can all climb up the upstairs gallery, life’s gallery, take ourselves off the dancefloor, even for a moment, just so we can gain a much clearer view of reality. And then we can return to the dancefloor to make changes that we need - to deal with the uneasy deceptions that we carry with us.
I believe, ever strongly, that it is dust filled with the breath of life that can change the human condition.