“You are God’s beloved child. God is pleased with you.” Throughout the season of Epiphany, we remembered these powerful words that God spoke to Jesus in his baptism, and through Jesus, to all humanity. Our Christian life and discipleship begins with this strong affirmation of God’s love for each of us, specifically and unconditionally. We cannot walk the Christ path if our steps are motivated by shame, guilt, or self-hatred. Nor can we become followers of Jesus through self-righteousness and self-reliance. God’s love is our starting point and our ending point. God’s love gives us roots and wings. God’s love is our freedom and our life.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Tonight, can we hear these words, too, as an affirmation of God’s love for us? With the cross of ash, we remember our sin; that is, we open ourselves to the truth of our woundedness. God loves us; that never changes. Yet we have a hard time we have trusting in God’s love. We are always, to some degree, alienated from it. Our broken relationship with God hurts. It hurts us; it hurts those we injure when we lash out in pain. It hurts God’s whole creation.
Our reading from 2 Corinthians urges us, “Be reconciled to God.” Being reconciled to God is a life-long process of coming closer to trusting, with all our hearts, God’s love for us and for the world. Being reconciled to God means taking steps to live toward God’s love, to live “as if” we fully trusted it, even when we aren’t sure we do, even when we feel acutely the risk of doing so. Seeking reconciliation with God, and God’s love, is what this night is about, and what Lent is about.
“You are dust and to dust you shall return.” It was such a shock, when our friend Tom suddenly suffered a stroke, two Sundays ago, after having been here, with us, all morning for worship and into the afternoon for confirmation class. We’re all so grateful that he is still with us and he’s going to be all right. What happened to Tom, though, is a vivid lesson in life’s fragility, and the truth that death is always close to us and those we love. It’s tempting to try to ignore the reminders of death that are with us constantly.
Ash Wednesday declares, however, that meditation on death—though counter-cultural and counterintuitive—is essential. Christine Valters Paintner, a scholar of Christian spirituality, writes: “We spend so much energy and money on staying young. But when we turn to face death wide-eyed and fully present, when we feel the fullness of the grief it brings, we also slowly begin to discover the new life awaiting us.” She points out that in the tradition of the ancient desert mothers and fathers, “death is a friend and companion along the journey. St Francis of Assisi referred to death as ‘sister’ in his famous poem, ‘Canticle of Creation.’ Rather than a presence only at the end of our lives, death can become a companion along each step, heightening our awareness of life’s beauty and calling us toward living more fully. Living with Sister Death calls us to greater freedom and responsibility.”
The Tuesday bible and book study group has been reading A New Harmony by John Philiip Newell, a noted author on the subject of Celtic Christianity. Newell writes about Etty Hillesum, who cared for the sick in the Westerbork Transit Camp before they went to Auschwitz. Newell says, “Etty believed that each of us needs to destroy within ourselves all that we think we ought to destroy in others. We need ‘to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves,’ she wrote, ‘and the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.’ We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds.”
“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Lent is a time to ask ourselves, what is it in me that needs to be destroyed, reformed, or healed, so that I can be reconciled to God’s love? How does my heart yearn to be “rended”—torn open to some new way of loving and being—so that I can return to God? Let’s take some quiet time to reflect and, if you wish, you can fill out the “Lenten Covenant” that is in your bulletin. There are two copies—one for you, and one to place in the offering plate—as a way of making a commitment to God and allowing Aaron and me to support you in prayer.
This night, may God’s peace be with you, reconciling you to God’s love, in life and in death. Amen.