February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen.

So, are you more of an Ash Wednesday, or a Valentine’s Day kind of person? It’s not every year that we get to mark both of these days together. In fact, this is the first time since 1945 that we’ve had the special days fall together, but it’s going to happen again in 2024 and 2029, so we might start getting used to it.

As you might imagine, as soon as church leaders started noticing the rare occurrence, we began worrying and considering just how this would all work out. Let’s see, which holiday would win? One that focuses on love and romance, inviting us to share greetings, chocolate and flowers? Or one that reminds us of our mortality and brokenness, calling us to confession and fasting? Maybe we should offer an early morning Ash Wednesday service so that people could come to church in the morning and still have time to celebrate with their loved ones later in the day?

Lots of people have been anticipating this special combo with all kinds of mashup greetings. A friend of Pastor Javen’s sent him this one:

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
If you’re not my Valentine, my Lent will be crushed.

Katie LeClair reminded her friends that,

You can’t spell Valentine without L-E-N-T.

I think we could all get pretty creative:

Roses are Red; Violets are Blue.
You are just dust; But God’s love is true. 

Actually, we don’t have to stretch too far to realize that Love is at the heart of Ash Wednesday, and it shouldn’t be hard for us to find a way to make the day work. Although Ash Wednesday begins by reminding us of our mortality and calling us to repentance, it only does so in the context of the never-failing love of God, the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

What could be a better Valentine than an invitation to be loved by the greatest love in the universe?

Truthfully, Valentine’s Day isn’t always a happy event for everyone. I know a lot of people for whom the day will be a reminder of lost love — those whose spouses have died, those whose marriages are ending, those who feel they’ve never really been loved, who have never had a Valentine in their lives. I know there will be many others who woke up this morning very hopeful and excited for something special that could be happening, but who will go to sleep tonight feeling discouraged and let down by the way the day turns out.

Valentine’s Day tends to set up too many of us for sweetness and romance, but ends up disappointing us with unmet expectations. Our relationships have become weary. Our dreams have turned into regrets. Our hopes have been dashed.

Could Ash Wednesday actually be a better way to invite us into a celebration of love? Maybe not the saccharin, giddy kind of romantic love marked on tiny candy hearts and Hallmark cards, but the real love? The kind of love that breaks open our hearts with goodness poured out on behalf of the world, the Love of God offered for each one of us?

The ashes on our forehead serve as a reminder that none of us has loved as fully as we’ve hoped. We are human, created of the earth, and we stand with the rest of creation, fragile and mortal. We bloom for a season, but we also age and decay. Our love sustains and gladdens us, but it is temporary. We are human; we let people down. We are vulnerable to jealousy, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, self-righteousness, and pettiness. With all of creation, we are dust, longing for renewal and redemption.

But those ashes are marked in the shape of a cross. The God who formed us from the dust of the stars is gracious and slow to anger. God loves us even when we feel or act unlovable. God arrives not just once a year, but morning by morning, day after day, to restore us to the love for which we were created.

Roses are red, Violets are blue,
Valentines may fail, but God is for you.

No matter who you are, no matter how successful or disastrous you have been in love, no matter how many or how few little pink hearts get stuffed into your doily-covered box at school today you are loved. You are a beloved child of the God of creation, and nothing can separate you from the love God intends for you.

But it’s even better than that. God doesn’t simply love us and leave us alone; Lent invites us into a deeper participation in the love of God.

The reading from Second Corinthians makes the wild claim that in Christ we become the righteousness of God. We are made ambassadors of God’s reconciliation, are given the work of serving God through reconciling others. God’s love rescues us from our isolation and disillusionment and reconnects us to the divine justice and mercy that heals the world[i].

We can’t help receive the gift of God’s love without also being connected to the rest of the world God loves, too. No matter what sleepless nights and heartache we have faced, (Paul adds “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings or imprisonments,”) God is constantly restoring us to ministry with others, in “patience, kindness, truthful speech, and genuine love” toward our neighbor.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust,
God is renewing the whole world through us.

And God is doing so, even in the midst of our struggles. Even when we feel brokenhearted and left out, God is using us in ways we can’t imagine. Paul uses all this paradoxical language – of being “treated as imposters and yet being true, as unknown, and yet being well-known, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

It’s the unexpected ways God works through us, knitting together those of us who are brokenhearted and hurting and calling us the body of Christ. God surrounds those of us who are disappointed and discouraged, and shapes us into a community of faith, taking away our troubled spirits, and creating in us a new heart. Like seeds planted into the soil of spring, Lent invites us to bury our false sense of where true love can be found, and watch for new life to sprout, as if we were “dying, and see – we are alive.”

Maybe Valentine’s Day isn’t that strange of a day to begin this season after all. Isn’t God’s love almost always more real for us when we are broken-hearted and in pain?

Monday morning, we gathered as a community to give thanks for the life of Bill Goshert and to mourn with his wife Danica. As is our custom, a few minutes before the funeral began those of us who were leading worship arrived to find our robes and make sure we all knew where we were serving. Slowly, the vestry filled with the women who had offered to serve–Carole, Lenore, Shirley, and Kay, each a widow. There they were, hearts and hands outstretched, holding broken bread and pouring out wine, in service to Danica, in honor of Bill, in thanks to God, and in a miraculous sign that love is stronger than death. Like women carrying spices to the tomb before the dawn, they gathered to give witness to the power of resurrection. Somehow God used their broken hearts to offer healing, compassion, and new life to a community longing for hope. Christ was present, reconciling us, and empowering us to share God’s reconciling grace with others.

Of course, the most wonderful of Valentine’s Days are those in which we are fully embraced by love, in which another recklessly and outrageously offers us abundant, unexpected, passionate affection, and we are left breathlessly aware that though we can’t fathom how or why, we are loved, we are claimed, we are made whole.

But isn’t that precisely what we’ve come together for today? Here at this table, God is recklessly pouring love and life into our broken hearts, claiming us as beloved, breathing new life into our disappointment and fatigue, outrageously taking our shattered dreams and false hopes, and offering us new hearts and meaningful lives in exchange.

Here in this gathered assembly, God is restoring in us the joy of salvation, saying, “See? Now is the acceptable time!” Saying, See?  Now is the day of Love and reconciliation.

Ashes to ashes, Seeds to the Earth,
Christ’s love transports us from death to rebirth.
Love freely given, held here in our grasp
Making us new with real love that will last.

Thanks be to God. Amen

[i] Lois Malcolm, Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Working Preacher, Preach this Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3571