Stardust (Revisted [Again])


 …so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 
—Philippians 2:15

Introduction: 1969
I came upon a child of God—
he was walking along the road.
And I asked him, 'Where are you going?'
This he told me: I’m going down to Yasgur's Farm;
gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.' [1]
Fifty years ago this summer, a singer and songwriter named Joni Mitchell was planning to perform at an obscure music and arts festival in Upstate New York. But her agent told her that it would be better for her career if she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show instead. And so that's just what she did. The festival she missed was named Woodstock, and they say that she wept when she saw the reports on television of what it was that she missed. Her boyfriend, Graham Nash, was there, and he told her all about it. So she sat down and wrote a song, and named it Woodstock after the event she wished she’d gone to. This song has been acclaimed by one 21st century author as “the most popular and influential poem written in English” in the past half century. [2]
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, 
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden. [1]

I. The Entrails of Each Star

There’s another song many pastors think of this week. It’s called Crown Him with Many Crowns. It’s a song for the holiday we’re celebrating today—the event that happens the fortieth day of Easter, which always falls on a Thursday. (We celebrate it on Sunday, for obvious reasons.) This holiday is, of course, the Ascension, when Jesus was taken up into heaven.

Though Crown Him with Many Crowns is our main Ascension hymn, my favorite Ascension song is the one by Joni Mitchell that I was just talking about. To me, the Ascension is the counterpart of Ash Wednesday—the day we’re reminded of our origins. Ash Wednesday is the day when the pastor puts a cross made of ashes on your forehead and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Dust to dust is a saying that in most of our minds is associated with death. The Bible tells us that we are of dust (the Hebrew word for soil, after all, is Adam—the same as the name of the first man), and we know that our bodies return to the earth when we die. The resurrection seemed to imply that that saying didn’t apply to Jesus. That is, not until forty days after he rose from the dead. On that day, we’re told that he ascended into the heavens, showing us that when he returned to the dust, it was not to the dust of the earth, but to stardust.

II. Cosmic Canticle

I don’t know what influence Joni Mitchell had on him, but twenty years after Woodstock, a Nicaraguan priest and liberation theologian named Ernesto Cardenal said something very similar (originally in Spanish) in his Cosmic Canticle:
What's in a star but we ourselves? 
All the elements of our bodies and of the planet 
were in the entrails of each star. 
We are stardust. [3]
This wouldn’t have been understood in the same light two thousand years ago as it is today. But what seemed impossible back then is now scientific fact. The stars in the heavens are not such foreign bodies to us after all. These stars, which are farther away than could be imagined by our ancestors, are nevertheless close at hand.
So much extraterrestrial material has fallen to earth 
that perhaps even the ground we tread is extraterrestrial. [3] 
The earth is made of the same elements as the sun and the moon and the stars. The dust of the earth from which we are made is the same as the dust of the heavens to which we will one day return.

This sheds a whole new light on the main proclamation of Jesus, that “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I suppose we’ve always assumed it was just a figure of speech. But we could also take it literally, for the invisible dust coating our palms is composed of elements that are all found in the stars. The kingdom of heaven is not just at hand, but in our hands. For, as Jesus showed us in his Ascension, there’s a bit of heaven in each of us. “We are stardust,” the song says, “we are golden...”
Well, then can I walk beside you? 
I have come to lose the smog, 
and I feel like I'm a cog in something turning. 
And maybe it's the time of year, 
yes and maybe it's the time of man [sic]
And I don't know who I am, but life is for learning. [1]
III. Shine Like Stars

Every generation faces challenges, and in every age there are those who unthinkingly live their lives as though nothing ever has changed and nothing ever can change. But in the middle of history came One who taught us that, even “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation,” we could “shine like stars in the world.” These, at least, were the words the Apostle Paul used to encourage the Philippians [2:15]. But life, as Joni Mitchell reminds us, is for learning. And on the day Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers learned something. They had an epiphany—a heavenly message that they were not simply to stand around looking up at the stars, longing for him to come back. It was their responsibility to share his message with a generation that needed to hear it. And the message was that the kingdom of heaven was at hand… the kingdom of heaven was in our hands.

What is now called the Woodstock Generation also had an epiphany—a realization that humanity had gone too far down the wrong path, and that somehow we had to get ourselves back to the garden—a message, just like in the Book of Genesis, that something was wrong, that humanity wasn’t in the place God intended for us.

Of course, we still aren’t, are we? Weapons still hold too high a place in our esteem, and violent death still dominates our news feeds. But as Christians who celebrate the ascension of our Lord, we must join together to pray for a new day—and not just to pray, but to join hands and work for a new day. Jesus told us that when we come together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish, for when I hold your hand, I have in my own hand the entrails of a star, extraterrestrial material fallen to earth billions of years ago.

Each of us is an invitation to look at those we know we love, at those we’re told to hate, and, yes, even in the mirror, remembering that we are dust. Yet the dust of the ascension is the dust of the earth and the heavens. Because the human point of view is clouded by the sin of separation—separation from God, from each other, and even sometimes from our own true selves—we deal with things far too often from the standpoint of independence, which is not exactly how Jesus would have us deal with the earth and the people who live on it; for, in Christ, all lives are intertwined, and heaven and earth are of a piece.

Conclusion: We Leave No Footprints

In my own mind I can draw a line from Christ’s ascension to Woodstock to Ernesto Cardenal’s Cántico Cósmico to a song written by another Spanish-speaking poet—this one from Uruguay. And perhaps it’s this song—Jorge Drexler's Stardust—that’s the most beautiful of all:
One life is worth that of a sun. 
It’s learned in the cradle, 
it’s learned in bed, 
it’s learned at the hospital door. 
It’s learned suddenly, 
it’s learned gradually, 
and sometimes it’s not learned until the end: 
All glory is nothing; all life is sacred… 
We’ll leave no footprints, only stardust. [4]
It’s hard to see much stardust in our way of life. I get up in the morning and I’m afraid to look at the news for fear the worst has happened. And just the other day, once again, it had: twelve people killed in a mass shooting in Virginia.
We’re caught in the devil’s bargain, 
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden. [1]
Joni Mitchell said it, as did Jesus before her. And he showed us the way back, he taught us a path of nonviolence. On the cross, he showed us that one life is worth infinitely more than that of the sun, for—by shedding divine blood—he valued each life as being worth the life of the One who made the stars.

Our bodies of dust were shared by the One who was present at the beginning of all things. And because he shared our life and death, we know that in his resurrection and ascension we can "shine like stars in the world,” for we really are stardust.
– ©2007, 2017, 2018, 2019 [5] Sam Greening 
  1. Joni Mitchell, Woodstock, from the Ladies of the Canyon LP (A&M, 1970) 
  2. Camille Paglia, Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads 43 of the World’s Best Poems (New York: Pantheon, 2005) 
  3. Ernesto Cardenal, Cántico Cósmico, Antología Nueva (Madrid: Trotta, 1996). 
  4. Jorge Drexler, Polvo de Estrellas, from the LP Eco (DRO 2004). This song was inspired by the aforementioned canticle by Ernesto Cardenal.
  5. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times that I've simply re-preached a sermon I'd written for a previous year, but this one has been preached at least four times now with only minor adaptations.