A sermon for Ash Wednesday
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
I knew the day would come. Such an unlikely friendship, so strong but yet in many ways so fragile, it couldn’t last forever. Through Facebook posts over the past nine years we had watched this bond form between my friends and a songbird as it kept returning every winter to their backyard. It had learned to eat mealworms straight out of their hands, and would routinely chirp outside the kitchen window for company when it was too rainy. And each night it would roost under the eave in the shed by the window they would deliberately leave open. Since the longest recorded lifespan for an Eastern Phoebe, a small brown and tan flycatcher of the eastern United States, was ten and a half years, I knew the day would come when their little feathered friend would not show up, and I’m sure they did too.
This year, like clockwork, Phoebe, as they named her, showed up in early December from wherever it was she spent the summer. She was her usual spunky, cheerful self all winter, but all who follow my friend on Facebook received the heartbreaking report yesterday—just in time for Ash Wednesday—that Phoebe had been found dead beneath the shed window. It looks like she died of natural causes. My friends shared that they held her up close one last time—such rare opportunity for a little bird—admired her little delicate Phoebe features, remembered her bravery and curiosity, and then gave her a proper backyard burial. I think many of us who followed the adventures of Phoebe and the Ragan and had enjoyed all the photos of this little bird feeding right out of Mr. Ragan’s hand mourned a bit yesterday.
We know the day will come. We’re so strong, but yet so fragile in so many ways. That’s why we’re here tonight…to confront the reality that one day our flight will too come to an end. It is inescapable. Someone said it’s a little like having to greet a pastor after worship is over while we’re under construction and limited to one way in and one way out. There’s no slipping through some other exit. You’re going to shake our hands, one way or another.
Some of us may not need such a stark reminder this year because we’ve dealt with mortality afresh in our families or friendships. We’re painfully aware that we really just eat out of God’s hand, each day a blessing, and we rest in the shelter God has provided. It is such a good and gracious hand stretched out with things we don’t deserve, with mercies more numerous than we could ever count, and yet it is so easy to forget all that and begin to think the gifts are treasures we’ve gotten ourselves, scrounged up from our own determination, treasures to hoard and stockpile. It is good to be occasionally reminded our day will come, the day when God’s loving and eternal embrace will put an end to all our selfishness and pride and reveal fully just how connected we all are.
Yet, in fact, in all the most important ways that day has already come. Confronting the finality of our lives does allow for a certain stock-taking of our motives and goals, but be certain of this: for those who’ve been marked by a certain watery cross the day of God’s total embrace has already come. For those who’ve been claimed by baptism, the day for redemption is here. We live in God’s grace now. We have received the fullness of his light and love now, have been given a foretaste of the feast to come now, and we are therefore reconciled with one another. Because God loves us and rescues us from sin and death, God has given his own Son to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.
That means a lot of things, and one of the things it means is that we may live and share in God’s divine life now, not just after we die. God’s forgiveness gives us opportunities now to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy with others—the same grace and mercy he has first shared with us through the life and death of Jesus. As Paul says to the church in Corinth, let it now be said again to us: don’t accept the grace of God in vain. That is, let’s not waste any part of this marvelous life God has given us.
So, while much of the world right now is forced to wear facemasks to present the spread of disease, Christ-followers have a special opportunity to wear the cross. One is a sign that I might be a threat or you might be a threat to me, an emblem of our need to be timid and careful.
The other is a sign of our common brokenness and of God’s love for us, that ultimately we have been set free. Let us bear that cross for he has cleansed us. It is a sign of our boldness to live this life that is now reconciled to God and one another.
Perhaps one of the most basic and important and ways we display and enact this reconciliation with one another is in the ways we actually receive one another, the ways we bring people into our presence. It is the practice of hospitality: extending a greeting or a handshake, making room for people in our spaces and lives. An up-front acknowledgement each and every day of our common fragility and brokenness sets the stage for healthy relationships to occur. It helps to cut through harmful systems of power and privilege. It reminds us that we are really all on the same playing field after all, that on this earth our livelihoods are tied more tightly than we might think.
The ancients understood this well. The harsh life of the desert, which was always nearby, even in Jesus’ age, had impressed upon generations that you never know when you might take your last drink of water. Wilderness life humbled you, and you were ever aware that everyone was at the mercy of the same elements.
The privilege and power that come from things like the clothes we wear, or the schools we send our children to, or the side of town we live on, or even the color of our skin often make us think we have different value. Making unhelpful distinctions between each other through religion and religious practices happens all too often, too. It’s one of the first things Jesus addresses among his followers, and we hear that in the gospel reading today. Some people use prayer to make themselves appear more holy, and others lift up their generosity and philanthropy or their attachment to certain righteous causes mainly to get attention before others. On social media it’s called “virtue signaling,” the public sharing of one’s actions and beliefs for the main purpose of showing off one’s good character. Whatever they are and however they arise, these distinctions pop up all over the place in human community when we are blind to our link to our common Creator and Redeemer, and when we ignore our common link to the dust from which we come. Whether we intend it or not, these distinctions communicate to others messages what a facemask might: “You’re tainted.” Or “We have reason to be afraid of each other.”
It is very possible that during this season of Lent the newest gathering and welcoming areas of our church will be complete, and if not during Lent, then not long afterwards. We have also been since September giving special focus to our congregations’ objective for Evangelism and Outreach Objective, which is to “seek, invite, and attract people to create more opportunities for the Holy Spirit to deepen their relationship with Jesus.” Undertaking evangelism and hospitality from the position that Jesus has already reconciled us to one another, even to those we have yet to meet and receive here is the best way to go about it. We are one in our dust-ness, but also one in Christ’s love for us.
This Lent we invite you to take on the discipline of hospitality with us. Host a dinner in your house. Invite people over for a game night in your home, maybe even some families at church you’d like to get to know better. Introduce yourself to someone at worship you do not know. And join us on Wednesdays over the next several weeks for a special series that will focus on hospitality and welcome as it is pictured in Scripture. We will be looking at select stories in the Bible that give us examples of how God wants us to relate to people as fellow wanderers in the desert, fellow migrants who are actually all eating out of the same hand, the same nail-scarred hand. We will be unpacking those scenes from God’s story that may help us see and cherish the unlikely friendships that may arise.
And learn that it is a holy thing to receive a common mortal, to view one another in terms of the price God paid for us in his Son, and not according to the other ways we devise. For the day has come—we knew it would—and now we can learn to depend utterly on God the provider, who always leaves that window open for us, and commit our fragile lives to the bold witness of Jesus’ love.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.