Drive through Ashes

Drive Thru Ashes(The Song – “Dust in the Wind” begins the Sermon)

Marisa got a guitar for Christmas. I gave her a couple songs to work on and practice. One was an inside out Travis picking style song called, “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas, written by Kerry Livgren. Livgren says it was just a finger picking exercise that turned into a monster hit for the group. It has become a standard for finger picking guitarist.

Since I first heard this song a long time ago, not an Ash Wednesday has gone by without that song being the tune I just could not get out of my head. “I close my eyes / Only for a moment, and the moment’s gone / All my dreams / Pass before my eyes a curiosity / Dust in the wind / All they are is dust in the wind.” Certainly no Christian hymn cap­tures any better Ash Wednesday’s liturgical refrain, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall re­turn.” As I repeat those words with the imposition of ashes on each parishioner’s forehead, playing inside my own head it’s the “Same old song / We’re just a drop of water in an endless sea / All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.”

Certainly “Dust in the Wind” captures the existential angst of a generation that refuses to see or accept, even though we cannot deny the conclusion.  Even those not present here today or those who haven’t darken the door or a church in years can identify with this understanding of life in this song, and at the same time also refuse to accept it. I have to ask, has the message of Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” not relevant to our message and what we need to do in the church today?

Many churches don’t recognize Lent and don’t even have crosses in them. They say it gets in the way of the message and keeps people away.  It is all about Easter? On ………………………website there is no mention of Lent and especially no mention that we are dust. Yet, people always come and say to me…what are they doing that we are not that makes them so successful?

Successful? What is successful? In our culture big numbers make you successful. We see it all over the media, if you are rich, you are successful. The giant megachurches we see on television show massive crowds and we assume they are successful. Successful at what exactly? There is a difference in what we believe. If numbers and prosperity equal success, that makes true Christianity and Jesus Christ a complete failure.

If big numbers are the goal of ministry, I can tell you how to do it. The reason people come to church is convenience. Provide enough times, opportunities, and programs and people will come. Church growth programs tell you if you pump enough money into it and you can grow too.

The reality is that surveys have shown us that the number one reason for people attending church is: Location and times of service.  Theology or what the church believes in way down the list, far behind, “Something for my kids” and “entertainment”.  Convenience and marketing have replaced the cross and the sacrifice of following Christ.

Which brings me to the title of my message this evening; “Drive thru Ashes.” This has become increasing popular over the last 10 years. My facebook is flooded with my colleagues and pastors offering “ashes to go.” I am sorry this seems like a complete sell out to me. It is bad enough the gospel today tells us to wash our faces and do our devotions in private and then I smear crosses on our foreheads and tell you to go out into the world and say look at me. But now because we are looking for any advantage or gimmick to call attention to ourselves we tell people they come and get ashes on the go, no muss, no fuss…isn’t it cool?  Let’s make our effort to proclaim our broken nature and dependence on God convenient for everyone.

David Nevergall’s blog.

Someone once told me there is a difference between a believer of Jesus and a follower of Jesus. I never liked that analogy as it seems to set up a hierarchy of those who watch and those who do. The reality is that there are a lot more watchers than doers. There always has been.

The difference seems to be that the doers seem to grapple with being dust differently than the watchers. There isn’t this sense of convenience. For example, when I ask people why I don’t see them as often as I use to? The number one answer is that they are doing other things. From working, to family trips and outings, and events scheduled during worship or Sunday morning.

I knew when we went to one service that attendance would drop slightly. I knew this would happen because we took away some convenience and would have less options for people. The problem was that we really couldn’t justify the time and effort and money for the small gain.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to see us go back to the blue laws. (Explain). The last thing we need is to force people to worship because there is nothing else to do.

And I don’t think believers of Jesus or watchers are bad people. I also don’t condemn those getting their ashes to go or those giving them. I am just stating this is the reality we are living in today. Just like I am not going to join…………………………., or suggest we merge with them because my faith has called me in a different direction. We proclaim Christ Crucified, we are dust, and that you cannot get to Easter and resurrection without it. Dust is more than a symbol. It is a way of life. A relationship we have with God and each other.

The purpose of the prophet Joel’s warning is not to announce inescapable judgment, but rather to call the people to repentance not one of convenience.

Whereas Joel’s message to his contemporaries was fundamentally a call to repentance, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthian Christians in the epistle lesson is to be reconciled to God. Their goals are thus the same — restoring the relationship between God and God’s people and a call to follow Jesus even when it is inconvenient.

The gospel of Matthew has it right. All the things we do to build up treasures for ourselves on this earth ultimately crumble to the ground consumed by rust or are stolen away by thieves. Even should you manage to safeguard your wealth, once you are confronted with the limits of your own mortality — in the words of another line from the song — “all your money won’t another minute buy.” Like these haunting lyrics, the words of the liturgy demand of us, “Remember that you are dust, and that to dust you shall re­turn.”

We are the recipients of God’s grace, mercy, and steadfast love.  We live out the responsibilities of that relationship, and repent of our past failures even when it is inconvenient to do so.  Ash Wednesday is a reminder that our reality is both harsh and blessed. We are “dying, and see — we are alive … punished, and yet not killed… sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Ash Wednesday is, after all, just the beginning of Lent, and the transformed, resurrection life of Easter will come.   Amen.