Ash Wednesday wastes no time: we pray, and then the Prophet Joel is telling us, “Sound the alarm, you’ve left God and must return.” Joel is like your GPS ap when you make a wrong turn. “In 500 ft, make a U-turn if possible.” Joel’s like, “Now, turn back onto God’s road.” Such instructions assume we know where we are going. Not all drivers know where they are going. Some are just out driving, no place to be. My dad is like that. His parents were like that. Everyone who’s ever in front of me is like that. Most of us are on the road because we have some place to be. Joel assumes that we who mean to travel God’s road know what it is and why we are on it. Joel is telling us to get back on track. So, where are we going? Why are we on this road? Is it possible we left the road because we aren’t sure where we are going?
We asked ourselves the first question—where are we going?—last fall. When the strategic planning team sat down to make sense of all the responses we had, we found they fell into six overlapping areas, one of which was best called “advocacy.” It came as no surprise that this congregation identified advocacy as something to which we thought God was calling us. There were responses like, “be a presence at City Hall,” or, “fight against what is unjust.” So, advocacy is a piece of “where are we going?” Why, though? Why is this the road on which we believe we should travel? That—I think—is the question our Gospel asks.
Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them….” Jesus, like Joel, assumes we’ve got a religion to practice. Jesus warns us of acting religious for the likes, the shares, the retweets. In all of the negative examples Jesus mentions, he concludes with, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” It’s a kind of haunting pronouncement. O my God, what is it they’ve already received? It’s nothing twisted. It’s not like Satan is stoking a special fire for them. Rather, they got exactly what they wanted; what they wanted was pathetic. They wanted people to notice. People noticed. Whoop de do. My alms got a lot of “likes.” Seventy people retweeted my prayer. My fasting got over three hundred shares. People noticed. But that is not the reason to give, pray, or fast. Put in terms of our mission, it would be like saying that we want affordable housing because we like being in the news for mentioning it, or that we welcome and protect the stranger (today, immigrants) because we want our friends to notice, or that we are a Reconciling in Christ congregation so that everyone knows we’re a Reconciling in Christ congregation. It’s not like it is wrong for people to know that we stand for these things. It is that this is not the reason to do these things.
Why do we do these things, then? Are we trying to impress God? No. That’s basically treating God like one of our social media followers. Are we doing these things because of a partisan bent? No. When it comes to partisan issues, in practice we are usually critical of policies in “their” party, and in favor of the same policies in “our” party. The things for which we stand aren’t partisan. Why do we do these things?
We do these things because we believe they are right. Why? Why do we believe the road to which Joel is calling us to return is the right road? We believe because Christ makes believers out of us. That’s a dangerous statement. Lots of people claim God is talking to them. Just today I read that Rick Wiles, the famous conspiracy theorist and non-denominational pastor, says China can end the coronavirus outbreak by accepting Jesus. He’s wrong, in case you’re wondering. We’ll talk about the danger in a moment. Our Ash Wednesday course correction, our trip back to God’s highway, hinges on Christ making believers out of us, and that hinges on that one tough verse in our second reading: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
In that verse, Saint Paul describes what we’ve come to call the “happy exchange.” God makes a blockbuster trade. For Paul, human beings are naturally a mess. At the heart of the mess is not following God, not allowing God to be our God. This separates us from God. We push God away and then make a colossal mess. Aside from that, we’re okay. God wants us in the world doing good, but we’re too busy pushing God away and making a mess. So, God figures out a way to fix this with a trade, just like hockey teams trade players trying to improve themselves, and the happiest trades are the ones that work for everyone. God gives us Christ’s place with God in exchange for our place here. Where we are naturally a mess and separated from God, Christ has got it together and is with God (by virtue of being God). It works beautifully for everyone. We are close to God, and God is in the world working through us. That’s the happy exchange. Paul will spell it out, I think more clearly, in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Christ is in us. That is why we act the way we act.
Why does a Church work for adequate housing? Because Christ wants people to have safe, dignified places to live, and Christ is in us. Why would a Church be a sanctuary for immigrants? Because Christ welcomes all and Christ is in us. Why would a Church intentionally include the LGBT in its life? Because Christ wants to welcome and include those who have, time and again, been made to feel unwelcomed and excluded, and Christ is in us. We do the work of advocacy because God staked out this little corner and the people in it as the site of God’s work.
That is a dangerous, daring statement to make. We’re weird. In case you thought it was normal to brave a snowstorm so some guy in a purple poncho could smear oily ashes on your forehead and tell you you’re going to die eventually, it isn’t. Wearing some symbol that screams “we’re dead, Christ is alive in us” is daring and dangerous. We can make the social statements we make because we believe they’re in line with what God does in the happy exchange. What’s the point of the happy exchange? We are with God, and God is in the world working for others. That becomes our litmus test. So, when Rick Wiles says you can defeat coronavirus by accepting Jesus, what do you do? You say, well, in the world God made and loves, viruses infect believers and nonbelievers alike. In this world that God made and loves, we know that having faith in Jesus does not immunize you. So, how does this benefit anyone? I mean, yes, it would be lovely to have a whole bunch more Christians, but this is not going to save any lives. On the other hand, when a congregation says we think God wants us to work for healing in our context, healing especially around racial and LGBT issues, we can say, Yeah, the community needs this and we need to be closer to God. That’s happy exchange worthy.
The Prophet Joel says, “Sound the alarm! Get back on God’s highway!” He assumes we have some idea of where we are going. We do because Christ lives in us. On Ash Wednesday we say, “Remember that you are dust.” This Ash Wednesday, I say along with it, “Remember that Christ lives in you.” We’ll do the imposition of ashes, and I’m not trying to take anything away from it. God knows I need my regular reminder that in the grand scheme of things I live just a little while and what makes me, me, will spend most of eternity as dust. That just sets me up, though, for the good news that Christ lives in me. For however long I have as more than dust, Christ is working in me. It’s time for me, and for all of us, to get on God’s highway.