Ash Wednesday

Rev. Isaac Bradshaw

Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103, 2 Cor 5:20-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

You Are Not Alone

Way back, years ago, Alanis Morrisette sang a song; it was probably the one that first brought her to serious public attention.

Anyone remember what it was?

Ironic! Yes a song about some things going wrong when they feel like they should be going right. What’s some of the lyrics?

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
Well, that’s not ironic. That’s just sad. What about..
A “no smoking” sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
Well that’s not ironic, either. Mildly annoying, I suppose. What about…
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Well, that’s… Horrifying. Horrible!
When we talk about irony, we’re talking about two things, two events or statements that seem, on the surface, to be incongruent with one another. Clear as mud!

Pleasant as a root canal!

Wikipedia helpfully tells me that when President Reagan was shot in 1981, all of the bullets missed him… except one, which missed the President, ricocheted on his bulletproof limo, then… Struck the president! Irony!

We have, in our Gospel, something of an ironic situation. Jesus tells us, rather directly, not to practice our righteousness in public; if you fast, look healthy. Clean your face.

And here we are, about to make our faces dirty. Maybe that’s ironic?

So why do we do this? Why do we read Jesus’ words telling us to not outwardly share our repentance, to declare our prayers to others, then promptly do the opposite?

If you know me well, and some of you do, you will know that I enjoy all kinds of geekery. Star Wars, video games, tabletop gaming.. I’m a bit of a nerd. And about 15 years ago, I got drawn into a whole new realm of geekery… Doctor Who! It’s a long-running British TV show, going back to 1963. It follows the adventurers of the Doctor, the last of the time- and space-traveling Time Lords from the Planet Gallifrey, as he takes his companions on adventures in different histories and different planets. It’s pretty awesome.

In one of my favorite episodes, the one that has stayed with me for these 15 years, is called Gridlock. Visiting New Earth in the year five-million and 53, the Doctor and his companion Martha discover an enormous underground motorway full of flying cars, in a perpetual, eternal traffic jam. There’s also cat people dressed as nuns, but I digress.

The cars simply go around and around and around. There’s no police, no ambulance. The people in the flying cars are on their own. There is no one coming to save them.

Eventually, the Doctor finds an old friend, the Face of Boe, an enormous, 6 foot tall, 5 foot wide head in a giant jar filled with life-supporting smoke. I promise it all makes sense if you watch the episode. Even the cat people.

But in the climax of the show, the Face of Boe, dying, has a final secret to reveal to the Doctor. One that will change and alter the Doctor’s life and trajectory of the entire series. As he breathes his last, the billion-year-old Face of Boe says to the doctor… “You. Are. Not. Alone.”

It’s a remarkable statement. The last Time Lord? He is not alone. The people, human and cat? Not alone. Remarkable not just within the context of the show, but for all of us. You. Are not. Alone.

Jesus is speaking to a group of people who have spent a good deal time trying to get convince themselves, others, and God that they are all alone. It’s why the hypocrites, as Jesus calls them, spend so much time making sure that others know just how holy and set apart they are. It’simpliedthey’rerich.Theydon’tneedtowork.Theycanspendalldayinthetemple and ostentatiously “give” to the poor. They feed off others’ labor, then feed off others’ emotions and projection of worth and call it righteousness.

And here’s the truth. If we are truly alone, if there is no Father, no relationship to other people, then it all makes perfect sense. The reward for giving, for praying to the non-existent is that others notice and others heap praise upon the givers. It is, to put it mildly, a narcissistic existence. Self-focused, self-energized, self-defeating.

But…
You are not alone.
The sign of the cross on our foreheads isn’t for us; it’s not to draw attention to ourselves or to let others know us how hard and how much we’ve repented, how we’ve worn out the carpet kneeling, but to let others know that they are not alone. That you are not alone. That all of us, each of us, individually and corporately, share in the necessity of turning away from sin and turning towards God and each other. Because…

You. Are Not. Alone.

No storing up of goods for yourself. You are not alone. What are your treasures? Where does your heart lie? Does it lie in yourself? In your stuff? Does it lie with yourself? Or with others? Because…

You. Are not. Alone.

We live during a time in our country’s history in which we have quite intentionally told ourselves a whole set of stories about being alone. We tell ourselves that we are alone. We did it. We built it. We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. No one helped. We process our entire existence as loners. We have our phones, our Facebook and Twitter and we keep “connected” virtually. But not actually. Never actually. Someone might get too close, someone might see that we’re not as good as we’ve said we were, someone might notice that we’re not as rich we are, that our Instagram is made up that we are actually terribly hurt and broken and… Stuck in gridlock, unable to move, waiting and waiting for someone to free us from it.

Because, you see, if your heart and treasure is in your things, if it’s in yourself then there isno-offramp. Thereisnoplaceforyoutogo,noexit,justmoreandmorecirclesaroundthe motorway. You will never have enough stuff. There will never be enough acclaim from others. There will never be enough votes, never be enough people in the congregation. There will simply never be enough of whatever it is you think will get God to notice you and free you. There will never be a Time-Lord Doctor or a Face of Boe or a group of cat people dressed as nuns to help get you out of it. Someone used to say that Hell is other people; I think Jesus would say that Hell is just us. Alone. Eternally. Finally getting what we always wanted. But…

You. Are not. Alone.

Because Jesus changes everything. He takes a sledgehammer to the entire idea that we are alone, that we have to get get and get more, that to be might is to be right, or that our righteousness depends on others recognizing we are righteous. Jesus declares that, since we are not alone, not alone in our sins not alone in our alienation from God or one another, The Gospel, the good news that we share and the good news that we celebrate with ashes and water and bread and wine and oil and touch… Is that Christ is not alone either! Christ is with us, God knows our struggles, knows what it means to be tempted, to feel alone… And to even experience death. Not even in death are we alone. Christ goes with us. And Christ goes before us freeing us from the round-and-round motorway. In life. In death. And in resurrection.

The true irony of Ash Wednesday isn’t that we are doing something that we are superficially doing something Jesus tells us not to do, but that we live in an incongruent state, grasping with both hands that dread of knowing that we will die, but also knowing… That we will live. Because he first lived. And that we… Are not. Alone. That’s the faith that Christians profess. That through repentance and faith in Christ, our sins are taken away and we made the sons and daughters of God; that just as Christ died and rose again, we will also die and rise again, first sacramentally in Baptism, then for real. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. You will die. Your body will return to the earth from which is was made. Whatever it is you gathered and hoarded that you thought would break you from death will be taken away from you. But…

You. Are not. Alone.

About a third of the way through the Gridlock episode, in an episode full of remarkable things, something super remarkable happens, especially for a sci-fi story written by an atheist. The Doctor, in full throttle, in the midst of telling a couple that there is no one out there, that they’re all alone and trapped, a voice comes over the radio. It’s time for the daily meditation it says. And together, thousands of people. Trapped. In the midst of an enclosed motorway for years and years, together they stop, and all sing together. Slowly. Quietly. “On a hill, far a way… stood an old rugged cross… The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best

For a world of lost sinners was slain.” They were looking for a savior. Same as you.. Same as me. They hope in our cross and the hope of our Lord:

You. Are not. Alone.

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