A couple years ago, there was this video that spread through the internet like wildfire—and y’all have probably seen it. It was this mom in her minivan wearing a Chewbacca mask, the kind that would make the sound every time she opened her mouth. And she was absolutely tickled to death by it, and could not stop laughing as she was trying to explain how she was got this mask on a whim. People loved it. She even ended up on the Ellen Degeneres Show.
Going viral is something that can happen in the age of the internet. And there are some people who work really hard to actually do that—go viral. They want people to see their post and share it widely. They want to be seen and known. They want the exposure that will help them make their mark on the world. But despite the editorials and talking heads complaining about how “this generation” is so vain to do that, let’s not forget that wanting to be remembered, and doing crazy things to do it, has been part of our human story forever.
The poem Ozymandias by Percy Shelley was written about Egyptian King Rameses, or rather, a statue of King Rameses. It describes a giant pair of legs stretching up from the desert sands, and a huge stone head lying nearby. On the platform where the legs stood are the words, “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” And the kicker is this: there is nothing but desert as far as the eye can see. Ozymandias, who thought his works would last forever, is just as forgotten as anyone else.
While we might not all want to build something that will never break down, or be remembered forever, or make something that will be noticed by millions of people, we all have a desire to be noticed. Even the most humble people I’ve met, who would never want to be publicly applauded for their work, still deeply appreciate a thank-you. That’s completely human. But what Jesus is warning against in the Sermon on the Mount is our tendency to stretch that desire to be acknowledged into an expectation to be applauded.
The Israelites, freshly returned from exile, were in that boat. They were determined not to have the disaster of the exile repeated, so they doubled down on keeping themselves holy and pure. They mandated a strict code of morality. They required everyone follow the letter of the Law given through Moses. And, very publicly, they fasted. They did all of this so that God would notice their very good piety and would reward them for it.
But like when we loudly lament how public schools don’t mandate prayer anymore, but tolerate the offensive existence of such a thing as school lunch debt, God reminds the fasting Israelites that all their piety was aiming in the wrong direction. Their motivation wasn’t to live changed lives with changed hearts; it wasn’t to remake their society to reflect God’s desired kingdom—their motivation was to be praised for how good and holy they were. It missed the point entirely, because the piety—the “fast”—God desires is to bring justice to your neighbor. When it’s about me, it’s not about my neighbor. When it’s about me, it’s not about God.
So one way we can avoid our tendency to mix up wanting to be appreciated with needing to show off is to hear the words we speak tonight: “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Like Ozymandias, even our biggest impact will fade away. Like any viral social media post, even our biggest moment of fame and applause and acknowledgement will disappear. Even our most public and most holy acts of personal piety will not outlive us by long. We are dust. We will return to dust. It reminds us to be humble.
But while we hold onto that, I don’t want us to think that all is doom and gloom. Just because our personal memory and accomplishments won’t last forever doesn’t mean that we should just give up. We may be dust, and we may return to dust, but God didn’t tell the Israelites not to do anything at all. It’s something truly remarkable that Jesus instructs us to still do those things that bring justice and love to our neighbor—prayer, charity, and fasting. And when you think about it, the very fact that we are such a blip on the radar, a fleeting moment in the vastness of time—and yet, God still calls us to participate in the work of the kingdom; it’s mind-blowing.
There was one of those viral posts I was talking about that recently came up on Twitter. An avowed atheist made this observation about Christianity: “The belief that a god who created a universe 14 billion years old, that stretches several billion light-years across, filled with billions of galaxies, each containing a billion stars, and this god wants to have a personal relationship with YOU?” This person intended to point out the absurdity of our faith and instead, accidentally, summed up the amazing wonder of the gospel. You, who are but a momentary shape of dust that’s here today and gone tomorrow, whose accomplishments will disappear into the sands of time—God cares about you and wants your heart changed to love and care for your neighbor.
God loves you enough that your little act of justice in the world means a heavenly reward. When you give what you can to help your neighbor in need, and do it not for the sake of applause but just because your neighbor is in need—the heavens rejoice. When you pray for the wholeness of the world, for the healing of the sick, not because you want others to see you praying but simply because your neighbor needs your prayers—the choirs of angels sing in thanksgiving. When you deny yourself that thing that distracts you from hearing God and loving your neighbor, not because you want people to notice how pious you are but because you want to hear God and love your neighbor more— the maker of those billion galaxies claps with joy.
So you are dust. And you will return to dust. But God loves your dusty self more than you could possibly imagine. Enough to share the Holy Spirit with you to give you guidance. Enough to come bodily in Jesus Christ to teach, heal, and die for your sake. Enough to gather up the dust that was once you and remake you in the new creation where death is undone forever.
Remember you are dust. And God loves dust.
Thanks be to God. Amen.