A sermon for Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Some day I will die
And so will you.
Roses are red
Ashes are black
Tell me I’m dust
And I’ll tell you right back.
When Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide, you might as well take advantage of it!
I ran across a couple of other possible holiday cards for today’s occasion:
“Won’t you be my valentine, you miserable offender?”
“Remember you are dust, but awfully loveable dust!”
And, for Roman Catholics:
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I don’t want chocolate. It’s fish fries or bust.”
There is actually a hashtag trending on Twitter for today: #AshWednesDate, as in, “Won’t you be my AshWednesDate?” That reminds me of the time when I was studying abroad in Germany after college and I liked this one young woman and finally asked her to go on a date with me one day. She said “yes,” and since we both had an interest in the local history and culture, I took her on a tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Turns out that’s not the most romantic place for a date. My buddies never let me live that one down.
So maybe Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t really go together all that well after all. Death kind of clashes with sweet reminders of love, at least the kind of love that Hallmark envisions. But it does strike me as interesting that while school kids across the nation will be taking scissors and cutting out millions of construction paper hearts today, priests and pastors throughout the world will be tracing millions of ashen crosses across foreheads young and old.
And on the same day many people will be rushing to the florist or the candy shop at the last minute to purchase something that will remind their significant other of their love, as many more of us are somberly shuffling into worship services to be reminded of their mortality.
It is as good a time as ever, then, to remember that love is what draws us here. But this is no frilly, cutesy, chocolate-covered love. This is the enduring love of the Creator. As the prophet Joel announces to the people of God, it is the “slow-to-anger, aboundingly-steadfast love” of the same God who first fashioned us from the dust.
Joel inserts this important reminder of what God’s love is actually like into his call to repentance. Joel is calling them to return to God because death itself is staring them in the eye. The Day of the Lord that is storming onto their horizon is not going to be the party atmosphere they had expected. It is a day of gloom and thick darkness. Like an army, a massive infestation of locusts will wipe out their crops and lead to a famine and thousands may die. Their situation is not due so much to the fact that God has deliberately sent the plague to punish them as it is that their thoughtless living has left them vulnerable to these kinds of calamities. Joel speaks to a people of God who have essentially forgotten their responsibility to one another and to the poor in their midst. They’ve lived as if they don’t need to worry about the damage their selfishness can do to themselves and others. They’ve lived as if they have all the time in the world. The prophet sees this this impending disaster as a kind of wake-up call from all of that.
That is the purpose of the ashes today. It’s an impending disaster, a reminder that though we are beautiful and good, we are neither as beautiful or good as we should be. We have wandered from our holy calling to be examples of God’s righteousness in the world, and it grieves God. And yet God invites us to return to him, to change direction and face that fact not in a sense of fear or doom, but in the hope of love, of steadfast love. We are given the opportunity by a gracious God to rend our heart—to rip that carefully cut Valentine heart—instead of our clothing. That is, to let this reality of death shake us to our core, not just on the surface through platitudes, and know there is nevertheless forgiveness and cleansing and life in God’s care.
And therefore a Valentine’s Ash Wednesday gives us the chance to come to terms with the two messages that enable us to truly live as God’s people: “You will die,” and “You are loved.” The two statements which, when placed together, free us to be who we are created and redeemed to be are “Remember you are dust,” and “Remember you are loved.”
Just as in Joel’s prophecy, both are vitally important, and nothing more really needs to be said. Knowing we are going to die reminds us we don’t have all the time in the world. We make mistakes. We aren’t perfect. The ignoring of death leads us to make all kinds of harmful decisions to ourselves and others. Hearing we are dust reminds us of our need of God’s eternal care and, just as importantly, forces us to come to terms with our common bonds with others, of our responsibility to live as God’s fragile people together, aware of our needs, not to live as God’s individuals who are out to get what they can while they can.
But hearing that we are also loved lifts us up. It reminds us of another aspect of who we are—that we still have worth through God’s steadfast love. It reminds us of the great lengths God has gone to have us return to him, to make us God’s own.
And that’s why the shape of love on our foreheads tonight will not be a heart, but a cross. It is a symbol that manages to encompass both: a sign of where our brokenness takes us—of the place human sinfulness always leads—but also a sign of what true love looks like. This love is selfless…it is for the other…it gives its life. It says “You, child, are dust, but you are my dust.”
We live in a world that offers few healthy perspectives on death or love. It tends to glorify the one through violence, a sick fetish with weaponry, or through a self-loathing that thinks of death as a solution to problems, and it sentimentalizes or oversexualizes the other. In this midst of all this, the follower of Christ stands somewhat as a fool. We are God’s funny Valentines to the world, honest about our own shortcomings, and honest about what death does to God’s creation and our relationships.
But we also get to be honest about the love that has been given to us for the sake of others. We are freed to live our faith in ways that hold those two things in tension. We confront the darkness in ourselves and others, but we also proclaim that God has reconciled it all to himself in Jesus.
On Wednesdays this Lent we will explore the lives of some notable fools in Christ, people who have been particularly outstanding examples of that reconciliation between God and humankind, people who strove in their unique witness to remind others both of the world’s sin but also of God’s steadfast love. As a bridge of saints connecting Valentine’s Ash Wednesday and an April Fool’s Easter, they will inspire us to give thanks for the people who have gone before us. As people who share our baptism—Harriet, Dietrich, Francis, Oscar, Catherine—they will encourage us to live into our own baptismal call as fools in this dying world…and into the message of tonight’s ashes…that (hmm, how shall I say this today?)…
Roses are red
Violets are mauve
Both broken and beautiful
We’re marked by God’s love.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.