Sermons – February 14, 2014

Do You Want to Live Forever?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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 The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
Ash Wednesday + February 14, 2024

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  (Matthew 6:19-20)

Lately, I’ve been reading about a man who wants to live forever.  What is more, he thinks it’s possible, and he’s working a plan to make it so.  Bryan Johnson is a 46-year old billionaire who made his money acquiring a little start-up called Venmo, and then selling it.  But today, he is an anti-aging guru who devotes his time to an endeavor he calls Project Blueprint.  His goal is to take ongoing, meticulous measurements, or blueprints, of every biological function in his body that is possible to track.  At the same time he subjects himself to a scrupulously healthy lifestyle in terms of diet, sleep, and exercise.  He believes he has the science to show that he is turning back the clock.  He has the maximum heart rate of a 37-year old, the gum inflammation of a 17-year old, and the facial wrinkles of a 10-year old.[1]  Do you see what I mean about meticulous measurements? 

Bryan Johnson claims to have slowed his speed of aging to that of a child, and he wants to share the secrets to his fountain of youth with others.  He has become a social media sensation, and a whole movement has sprung up around him.  “Don’t die” is the mantra of his followers.  They gather for what they call “Don’t die meet-ups,” where they wear black T-shirts with letters across the chest that read – you guessed it – “Don’t Die.”  They take “Don’t die hikes,” and purchase Project Blueprint products: special olive oil, battery-powered hats to stimulate hair growth with red light, vitamin pills, and vegan recipes that reverse the cycle of aging.  Moth and rust shall not corrupt youthfulness.  Time and gravity will not break in and steal vitality. 

Some people have accused Bryan Johnson of starting a religion, not a fitness regimen.  He agrees with them.  “Every religion has been trying to offer a solution to ‘Don’t die.’  That’s the product they’ve generated,” he says.  He goes even further, comparing himself favorably to Jesus.  “Jesus fed people bread and alcohol, impairing and aging them.  I will feed you nutrients that awake and create life.” 

Friends, I hope I’m not the first today to wish you a “Happy Valentine’s Day.”  I promise that Valentine’s Day will have no further bearing on the sermon.  But how could I let the coinciding of Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday pass without comment?  Besides, I can’t really wish you a happy Ash Wednesday.  Happy Ash Wednesday doesn’t sound right at all.  You see, Ash Wednesday is a rather grim day.  Today Christians gather to stare unflinchingly at an uncomfortable truth.  We are all going to die.  Today you have not stumbled into a “Don’t die meet-up.”  Oh my, no.  Quite the contrary.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to call today’s liturgy a “We are all going to die meet-up.”  When you come forward to receive the imposition of ashes, you will be taking a “We are all going to die hike.”  When you leave the church, your identifying garment will not be a T-shirt that says “Don’t die.”  Rather, it will be a cross-shaped mark of ashes on your forehead that says to the world, “We are all going to die.”  We are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return, states the Prayer Book liturgy for the burial of the dead. 

We are all future dead people: you, me, every fitness guru, and all anti-aging actors who want to prolong biological life.  I’m told that in an old New England cemetery, a particular headstone reads as follows:

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you too shall be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.

Why would we want to remind ourselves of our mortality?  Isn’t the world – filled as it is with violence, hate, and war – a gloomy enough place already?  I don’t mean to disparage Bryan Johnson and his movement (except the part when he compares himself to Jesus).  I don’t mean to discourage anyone’s effort to lead a healthy lifestyle.  I myself strive to avoid in-between meal treats, and the FitBit in my pocket counts my every step.  So why the solemn warnings of today?  I’ll tell you why.  We’re being honest.  We’re being honest about our mortality, and our utter dependence on God if anything is to follow the ashes that we too shall be.  We have little control over our mortal destinies. 

Ulysses S. Grant was a great Civil War general and later the 18th President of the United States.  In his highly acclaimed Personal Memoirs, Grant writes of a fellow officer with whom he served in the Mexican-American War in the 1840s.  Thomas L. Hamer was “less than 50 years old, and possessed an admirable physique that promised long life.”  Before the war he had been a member of Congress, and he was an able politician as well as a soldier.  In fact, Grant believed that Hamer was on the fast track to becoming the President of United States one day.  Then, just like that, Hamer took ill before a battle and died within a few days.  Grants tells the story to show how little we control our own destiny. 

If you are looking for an easier read with the same message, you may recall a book of dark fiction from 2013 entitled This Is How You Die.  The story centers around a device called “The Machine of Death.”  For those who wish to know the means of their own demise, the infallible contraption will provide the information for twenty-five cents.  I suppose a way to exercise at least a little control over your inevitable death is to know how it’s going to happen.  The chapters of the book have been made into video shorts that you can watch online.  One young woman out for a jog comes across the machine, inserts the coin, and the card she receives reads Old Age.  She smiles, reinserts her earbuds, steps into the street to continue her jog, and is promptly run over by an elderly driver.  Old age got her, just not the way she thought it would.  In another video, a young man’s card reads Parachute Failure.  He looks puzzled.  We assume he’s not a parachutist.  It doesn’t matter.  The next day on the tennis court he’s flattened by someone else whose parachute had failed.  The point of the stories is that we don’t control our own destiny.  We are all going to die. 

By now you may be wondering if I have anything to offer besides existential despair.  Cheer up, friends.  I do!  Bryan Johnson is right insofar as he says that religions all try to solve the problem of “don’t die.”  So what is the Christian response to death?  You know what it is.  It is Easter.  We follow the risen Jesus, the only person in history to have gone through death and come out the other side.  When God raised Jesus on the third day after he died, his new life was not a resuscitation.  It was a resurrection.  God clothed Jesus with an imperishable body, a new body, a resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15).  What is more, St. Paul writes that God shared with him a mystery – the mystery that we too shall be changed: in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  Death will be swallowed up in victory.  God will save us not from death, but in and through death. 

Later on, when you come forward to receive the ashes, note the shape of the mark: a cross.  Today we receive a visible sign of the cross.  As you know, the cross is the place where Jesus willingly stretched out his arms and died for us, a perfect offering for the sins of the whole world.  If the cross means anything at all, it is that God forgives you.  The cross says that God will go to any length to save you – not from the ashes, but through the ashes.  Again, not from death but through death.  He that spared not his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not also freely give us all things?  Of course he will.  So we put our hope in Christ and his cross.  Note the shape of the mark of ashes: a cross. 

Note the location of the cross: the ashes mark our foreheads in precisely the spot where in baptism we were sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.  So the ashes remind us not only of our mortality, but also of the great Christian hope that we belong to the One who raised us out of the dust.  Nothing in all of creation – not even death itself – can separate us from his love.  For those who belong to Jesus, death is no longer an end, but a beginning: the beginning of larger life in the closer company of God.  Note the location of the ashes.  Let them remind you of the waters of Baptism, in which you were buried with Christ in his death, and by which you share in his resurrection. 

Finally, note that these things which we do on this day include the Eucharist.  Yes, bread and wine – not to impair our senses and make us unhealthy.  Rather, bread and wine to fill us with God’s grace and heavenly benediction, and make us one body with Jesus, so that he may dwell in us and we in him.  “This is my body.  This is my blood,” said Jesus on the night before he died.  This is the true bread which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world. 

Do you want to live forever?  If so, then “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”  Eat this bread.  Drink this cup.  Come to Jesus and never be hungry.  Trust in him, and you will not thirst. 

[1] “A Quixotic Quest for Longevity Adds a Sales Pitch.”  Christopher Beam, The New York Times, January 14, 2024.