An Ash Wednesday Sermon on Dust, Football and an Epic Fail Conference

Joel 2:12-17

American Poet Langston Hughes writes:
“Gather out of star-dust,
And splinters of hail,
One handful of dream-dust
Not for sale.”

Great things come from dust.

Hughes reminds us of that with his words;
the book of Genesis reminds us of that when it tells us that
God fashioned humankind out of the dust of the earth
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life.

God makes great things out of dust.

What are the dusty places of our lives?

I have been thinking this week about failure as a dusty place,
where perhaps hard-laid plans have crumbled,
or hopes and dreams have tumbled to the ground.
As we look at the pieces, the granules, the dust left behind,
we wonder: What now?

What now?

This is precisely the question that J.R. Riggs found himself asking.
A burnt-out pastor and human being, J.R. had experienced
what it was like to have plans flounder and exhaustion set in.
“What do I do now?” He thought to himself wearily.
Looking for refreshment, J.R. attended a
highly produced,
expertly marketed,
pastor’s conference featuring success stories from famous megachurch pastors.
These megachurch pastors cited as their biggest struggle
their church buildings, packed to the brim
and their marketing budgets, bursting.
J.R. left the conference feeling inadequate and depressed.
He decided that he wanted to find a place
where he could talk honestly about failure.
He looked and looked for a conference and he couldn’t find one.
In a blog article, he asked:
“What if there was an EPIC FAIL pastor’s conference with the tagline:
‘where leaders put their worst foot forward?’
What if we led with our weaknesses, not our strengths?”
To his surprise, within hours of posting the article,
J.R. received hundreds of comments, emails and phone calls saying, “I’d go.”
People were hungry for a place to talk about their struggles.

Where in our lives can we talk about failure?
Where can we talk about the dusty experiences of our lives?

I pondered that question this week
as I read the story of Nick Foles,
the back-up quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.
An injury kept the Philadelphia Eagle’s
main quarterback, Carson Wentz,
from playing in the Superbowl this year,
so Foles played instead.
Forgive me for mentioning the Superbow;
I know there are Patriot fans here.
It’s just that I am struck by Foles’ words after his team’s win.
In the wake of their momentous win,
Foles commented:
“Don’t be afraid to fail.
I think, in our society today, with Instagram and Twitter, it’s a highlight really.
It’s all the good things.
When you look at it, you think, wow, if you’ve had a rough day,
or you think your life isn’t as good as that, you’re failing.
Failure is a part of life ….
I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes….
We are all human. We all have weaknesses
and I think, though out this, just be able to share that and be transparent.
I know when people speak and share their weaknesses, I am listening
because I can resonate.
I’m not perfect. I’m not Superman.
I might be in the NFL; we might have just won the Superbowl,
but we still had daily struggles. I still have daily struggles.
That’s where my faith comes in.”

In a post-Superbowl moment normally focused on winning,
Foles talked about failing.
Foles reminds us that there is something within us greater than our wins and losses
and that is: the love of God,
which embraces us from the beginning to end.

Foles’ words mesmerize me.
“I wouldn’t be up here,” he says, “if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes.”

Maybe Foles also knows what it is to flounder spectacularly at times.

I wonder: What would it be like if we had an EPIC FAIL conference for football?

If we were telling stories of shortcomings and missteps,
certainly the story of the Buffalo Bills would be told.
They went to the Superbowl four times in the ‘90s and lost every single game.
Several Ash Wednesdays ago, I told the story of Scott Norwood
Scott is the Bill’s kicker who missed the field goal in the last eight seconds
of the Bill’s fourth and final trip to the Superbowl.
His miss cost them the game.
In that moment, he realizes that he has let himself down as well as his team.
Scott describes the magnitude of the miss “seeping on top” of him.
He doesn’t want to go home to Buffalo and face the fans
who had so publically witnessed his failure.
He reluctantly attends a press conference,
walking out on a balcony to a square of hundreds if not thousands of fans.
The fans – to his utter amazement –
begin to cheer for him and chant his name over and over.
He says of that moment:
I have never felt so loved.

Amidst earth-dust, cloud-dust, storm-dust and splinters of hail,
there is an handful of dream-dust not for sale.

That dream-dust is the image of God within us,
that nothing and nobody can touch.

I was reminded of that not just through Scott’s story but through J.R.’s

Over one hundred pastors from seventeen states gathered
for J.R. Rigg’s EPIC FAIL conference,
where they ate, prayed, drank and talked about what ministry and life is actually like.
J.R. writes: “People shared their stories and struggles with refreshing courage.
They opened up about their battles with depression and …
their terror of failure and their broken hearts over a failed church nine years prior.
They shared how dry, lost, and alone they felt. …
Seventeen minutes in … people were standing up
telling complete strangers stories of pain, loss, fear and deep wounds.
There were no superstars, no impressive videos, no greenrooms and no lanyards.
There was laughter and prayer and tears and refills.
It was, as one retired pastor put it, ‘a kiss from God on our bruises.’”

This is the love that the prophet Joel invites us into in the Scripture today.
In a moment when the Israelites are burnt out and lost, Joel reminds them:
God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

In this moment, God calls them to return, with every dusty part of their heart.
God calls them to return,
because God doesn’t want them to forget who they are,
forget that they have that holy dream-dust deep within them.
God calls us and them to return so that we do not forget that it is
Divine Love that formed us from dust
and is to Divine Love we return when we become dust once again
and it is Divine Love that holds us our whole life through,
even when it feels like it is splintering into
and earth-dust
and cloud-dust
and splinters of hail.

We gather here tonight to be real human beings, to offer our wanderings and missteps to God, knowing that when we tell God the worst things they are not the final things.

The final thing is grace.


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