Ash Wednesday (March 1, 2017)

Last week the Washington Post started including in its nameplate the tagline, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The day that debuted, Slate.com ran a piece on classic heavy metal albums whose titles were not as dark as the Post’s new tagline. My friends, knowing me, tagged me multiple times with the story. (I do own some of those albums.) I really didn’t think it was all that bad. The phrase I thought would’ve made a good heavy metal album title was “American Carnage.” Remember that one from President Trump’s inaugural address. People went crazy over it, asking what kind of phrase was this to use in an inaugural address. I don’t have a problem with the phrase. When I think of Flint, MI or East Chicago, IN; when I think of what happens to towns and cities when employment disappears and the opioid black market replaces it; when I think of the debt and lack of opportunity laden upon most Americans under 40; I don’t have a problem with that phrase “American Carnage”…if. If we acknowledge our share in it.

Our Ash Wednesday texts make the case about our share in the problems. The Gospel condemns piety that exists solely to impress others and not to help them. The Epistle begs: be reconciled to God! The Psalm is the song of a sinner who knows he’s a sinner. And the Reading from Joel sets the tone for it all, saying, “Humans, you’ve gone and gotten yourselves in a whole mess of trouble.” Together, the texts hem us in and won’t let us deny the existence of the mess or our role in it. Joel sets the tone, as I said. He gives precise yet archaic instructions: “between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.”

I think we can figure out what Joel means. The Temple was a series of rooms. The innermost was the holiest holy place where God or God’s name dwelt. Outside of it was a slightly less holy chamber, the nave, where most of the holy rituals happened. Outside it was the vestibule or porch, which was what we would call a courtyard: it had an external doorway but no external door, and it had no roof. Outside the courtyard, in an open area, was the altar. There was space between altar and courtyard. The altar and its surroundings would most closely resemble today a big barbecue and slaughterhouse operation. Animals were sacrificed, or made holy, near the altar, and then burned on the altar. Depending on the sort of sacrifice, the blood of the animal was spattered on people or objects atoning for sins or making the people or objects holy. This is nothing like church. It is probably foreign to all of us. It is beautiful in its way. Cultures that worship this way have a deeper appreciation for life than we do because they are viscerally aware that something died for them. Because they killed it themselves and are covered in its blood. Our ashes tonight come from old palm leaves we burned with the youth group as a way of connecting to something that lived but then died for us.

But, back to Joel. Priests couldn’t enter the Temple rooms to do their holy work without the proper blood spattering near the altar, nor could they enter the holy places without passing through the vestibule or courtyard. The place Joel is describing, is, then, a simple space for turning around and heading into the courtyard where holy work could begin. We’ve done the sacrifice; let’s go do the holy work. “While you’re turning around,” Joel says, “weep for what you’ve done. Before you go do your holy work, ask God to show up and remember you. It is not sufficient to be spattered with the blood of sacrifices; you’ve gotta recognize God is in charge, and that you’ve got a lot of problems because you aren’t following God.” The external acts are vital. So is understanding.

I think that is what the Psalmist is after when he prays, “You delight in truth deep within me.” It is not inner faithfulness at the expense of outward act, any more than outward faithfulness to sacrificial protocol was sufficient without inner trust. It is, rather, a desire to “know wisdom deep within.” I want my faith to be so deep that my actions are Christ’s actions on behalf of the world, and I want my actions to shape me and form Christ’s faith deep inside me. As we begin Lent, that is God’s call to us: let God dwell in you deeply.

As God gets into us deeply, stuff… “comes up.” Our share in the mess, our role in the problem, surfaces. Take care when speaking of our role in the problem. It is easy to take the blame for stuff you didn’t do, like when a battered woman apologizes for “her role” in being battered. No, no, your “role” was getting punched. You are not at fault. It is also not a matter of equating all things. Nobody in this room personally put lead in the water in Flint, MI, or East Chicago, IN. Nobody in this room singlehandedly gutted a whole industry and then convinced the people who remained in the factory town to trade and use heroin. Nobody in this room singlehandedly set up a system whereby college students had to borrow a couple hundred thousand dollars to go to school so they could get a job that would not pay enough to pay the debt. Rather, we participate in a society and an economy that produces these problems. Our spending habits and priorities contribute to this. Our desire to have things cheaply or pass the costs on to others creates Flint and East Chicago, broken cities, and perpetually underemployed neighbors. Lent starts with our confession that we have a share in the evil things of the world. It starts with our pausing between the altar and the vestibule to acknowledge our sin.

It calls to mind a scene in Matthew that’s caused no shortage of horror over the years, and suddenly has surged to the forefront in the last week of anti-Jewish threats and vandalism, and the President’s revolting claim that the Jews are doing this to themselves. It’s in Matthew 27, which we’ll read on Palm Sunday as part of the Passion. In the scene, Pilate has bravely decided that Jesus is innocent but he is going to kill him anyways; he just wants the crowd to take the blame for it. He famously washes his hands and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Matthew says, “The people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” Christians have for two thousand years seized upon this as the Jews’ admission of guilt in Jesus’ death, the smoking gun in the case that the Jews are Christ-killers. And Christians have used this text to justify terror against Jews. It’s the sort of verse that gets raised in defense of vandalizing Jewish cemeteries or calling in bomb threats to Jewish centers.

We, brothers and sisters of Christ, cannot join in such blasphemy and outrage, not just because it’s ridiculous and bigoted—though those are really good reasons—but because we know that’s not what Matthew’s talking about! Because we know that between the altar and the vestibule the priests are soaked with the blood of things made holy. What the blood gets on is atoned for and sanctified. As Jesus, the holiest possible person, is handed over to death, the crowd is now spattered with Jesus’ blood and therefore holy. Jesus makes everyone holy, even those who are actively trying to stop him. Everyone. Our Holy Work is to share the news that everyone is holy. It cannot begin with blaming others. It begins with confessing; confessing our role in Sin today, confessing our forbears’ misuse of the gospel, confessing that we cannot say for sure we wouldn’t have been part of the mob at Pilate’s house.

That’s the start. Where we want to go, ultimately, is into the Temple. We want to dwell in the Temple of the risen Jesus. We want to get on with the priestly work, using the holy things that Jesus has given to us. We want to tell the world how Jesus withstood temptation; how God “loved the world more than the world loved itself,” to borrow a phrase from Rob Saler’s Adult Forum; how Jesus offers endless living water to those whose water is poisoned; how Jesus baptism is now ours, and we have died to sin and live in Jesus; how we are people who are so deeply marked with his death that there is literally nothing about you that could be so horrible that we couldn’t forgive it. The ashes soon to be on our foreheads proclaim that we recognize how we have helped cause the breaks we propose to heal with Jesus, and they remind us that it is Jesus who heals. It is Jesus who atones for sin and who makes us holy.