In the intersection of Harris Road and Hollister Road, above Crooked Lake, someone executed a spectacular donut right in the middle of the road. I mean it is thick and black and is much more than a mere 360.
It elicits a number of thoughts and a mixture of feelings. There is admiration, because it really an impressive donut. There is thanksgiving that it wasn’t done by one of my kids in one of my vehicles. There is a vision of the artist, 16-20 or so, male, wiry build and longish brown hair under a red cap. (I have no idea if any of that is close, it’s just my little picture.) I think about his dad having to pay for a new tire or maybe a whole set much sooner than he should have.
There are more thoughts, but my real interest for today is how thick and dark those tracks are. The rubber really hit the road.
I often describe funerals as a key moment where the rubber of our faith meets the road of our lives. Death brings great sorrow and grief over those we love but see no longer. And it pushes us to wrestle with the questions: Where is he or she now? What happens when I die? How do we have a hope of seeing our loved ones again? How does our hope in God and life with him shape the ways understand ourselves?
If God holds hope for me, is there a cost? What is the cost?
We’ll approach that by exploring the basic principle of right and wrong. If someone steals from you or injures you or your property, there’s a fundamental principle that the wrongdoing has to be made right. There has to be a restoration to bring things back in balance. And if the wrongdoing is sufficiently grievous to society as a whole, you may lose your freedom both for the sake of protecting society from further harm and for the hope that punishment will lead to amendment of life. That gets very complicated in how it gets worked out. And if a whole series of objections or concerns welled up in you regarding how the systems we have in place – criminal and civil courts – fail, it’s because you see ways in which the actual systems we have in place do not measure up to the principle of right and wrong, of justice.
Apply that same principle to our sin against God and against each other. The charges ring up continuously, so quickly that they ring like a pinball machine. We have no hope of paying them back.
This deficit, this debt, is important to remember. We spend a lot of time and focus on God’s love and grace. It can become too easy to kind of think of God as a cosmic buddy, an indulgent parent that says, “Sure, keep spinning your wheels.”
The hope we proclaim was won for us at a terrible cost, the ultimate cost, of Jesus Christ hanging on the cross to die.
Ash Wednesday is a time we set aside to consider that cost, to contemplate our own mortality, to let the rubber hit the road so to speak as though today were our last day.
All of that rubber is very heavy and thick. It takes time to get our hearts and minds around it. And when our rubber hits the road, we don’t want to be spinning around in circles, which is why Jesus teaches so persistently about the direction, the orientation of our hearts and minds.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving his disciples very stern and clear warnings about the way they should approach these deep issues of faith and life. We tend to want to fit in, to gain place and position, to have others take us seriously and to think well of us.
But there is much danger in that. The whole point is to attend to our faith in God. If we are attending primarily to how others regard us or speak about us, then we are getting sucked right back into our original problem – putting ourselves before him.
So Jesus teaches: Don’t show off your piety. Don’t toot your own horn. Don’t make a show of prayer. Don’t make a display of your fasting. Continually refocus on God.
And hear the strategy Jesus gives us. Giving of our money, our prayers, our personal piety and fasting are not merit badges to earn so we can get a promotion. God isn’t high up on some mountain that we must clamber up. Jesus doesn’t say to support the things you care about and oh by the way this is the most important thing.
Rather, Jesus says to reach out ahead of where we are and stake our claim in his kingdom. We don’t have to have all of this right. We don’t have to know the entire Bible like the back of our hands. We don’t have to know the ins and outs of theology and ethics. We stake our hope and future in him, in the Kingdom of God, and trust that he will continue to mold and shape us to that perfect end.
And end it shall.
When I impose these ashes on your forehead, the rubber is hitting the road. May you find traction in your wild and desperate hope for salvation in Jesus. He gave everything for you. AMEN