I walked down Grace Street in Richmond twenty years ago, and about two blocks away from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church I began to see people with dirty foreheads: all sorts of people, some smartly dressed for work on their lunch hour, some rather shopworn and tired. It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that the source of the “dirt” was Ash Wednesday worship, so distant was this day in the liturgical calendar from my Presbyterian experience. Now Presbyterian churches galore, including our own, have Ash Wednesday worship. We ministers smudge the foreheads of worshipers and say: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Ash Wednesday worship at Second Church has become one of our best-attended evening services downtown. This slow liturgical awakening and Ash Wednesday’s popularity (encouraged by the Book of Common Worship as well as the spiritual emptiness of this nation) is a metaphor for the too slow enlightenment of the American Church to persistent, ravaging, death-dealing hunger on our planet.
If we are looking for an act of repentance this year; if we are looking for some responsibility to assume (in place of feel-good worship, or the self-serving renouncing of sweets to improve a waistline) then we Christians could do no better than to renounce our sloth, and to see and act upon the evil gap between rich and poor countries in the world.
While Americans gear up for a fight over Social Security in 2005, three million impoverished children will die from malaria. Tens of millions of Bangladeshis daily drink poisoned well water laden with arsenic. These problems are easy to solve; they are continuing crises for which the rich world, including America, has simply not stepped up to the plate. The Bush administration, embarrassed at the world scorn of an initial pledge of $15 million to tsunami relief, raised it to $35 million, and then to a more realistic $350 million. But even this increased amount was only $1.20 per citizen, not quite enough to cover your cup of Starbucks tomorrow morning (Sachs, Jeffrey D.,”The Class System of Catastrophe”, Time, 1/10/05. p. 86.)
If that is not enough to rankle a redeemed heart, then take notice of this fact. A mere thirty years ago, the average annual compensation of the top 100 chief executives was $1.39 million, 39 times the pay of the average worker. Today it is $37.5 million, more than one thousand times that average pay (editorial in The Richmond Times Dispatch, 1/15/05, quoting “The Economist”). Do these 100 executives rejoice in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Magical Market? Are they, too, slaves to riches and systems beyond their control? What would repentance look like for them — not the thieves among them, but those whose hearts belong to Jesus. Surely there are ten righteous in the pack! “Suppose ten are found there.” [God] answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy [the city].“ (Genesis 18: 32.)
Is this just another “make you feel guilty” column, a tired liberal rant, or a distraction from the real business of the church: to preach the gospel for the salvation of humankind? I think not. I speak to my own too indifferent, often burdened heart, and to the heart of my congregation, whipsawed every year in budget making between revenues for downtown ministry, and our desire to increase mission giving to alleviate world hunger.
It helps to remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. It also helps to remember that the eternal life into which I have been born “from above” is not of human intention, least of all my own. It is the Holy Spirit’s work. That same Spirit calls me into a life of responsibility and service to the justice and mercy of God that is eternal. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet does not help? (I John 3:17)
It further helps (and I am fortunate to have experienced this) to remember the three hundred AIDS stricken orphans in Malawi singing to our Senior High Youth in a Bible School there: “When Jesus shall come, I shall fall down and adore him, for he has bought me, not with gold, but with his precious blood.” As they sang, their faces were alive with joy.
When Jesus shall come, will we also see his gracious smile as he stoops down like a frail grandmother to wipe the tears of the little ones who seek his face expectantly? They have no other face to seek, and no guarantees that they will live through the next drought, when the wells dry up, and the maize is stunted in the field, and the food supplies run out. They don’t have even a Pharaoh who with Joseph’s help, made provision for the lean years following the fat ones. Make no mistake. When Jesus shall come, we shall be called to account. Within God’s eternity, there is no cheap grace.
On Ash Wednesday, when we remember that we are dust, may God grant also that we remember our intimate connection (beyond anything that government can guarantee) to all human beings. With every child of earth we bear the imprint of God’s image. May we rise from Ash Wednesday, and joyfully respond to this world’s evil inequities. There is no time left for slow awakenings.