Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018

The Prayer of the Day
Let us pray….(Silence)  Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent.  Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen           

First Reading:  Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm: Psalm 103
Second Reading1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 45-49
Gospel:  John 5:24-29

Title:  Our Ash Wednesday, God’s Valentine’s Day

What do you get for a person that you love?  Be they friend, family, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, spouse, mother, father, grandparent – whoever it is that you love.  What gift do you buy or make or find that will express the depth of your love so that your beloved, your soul mate, your friend, your relative, will know the depth of your love, will be assured of the place they hold in your heart, will be at peace in the trust they place in your feelings toward them?  These are the questions of the day, right?  What do you get for that special person?  Something to reflect the beauty of love – like flowers?  Do you get something that speaks of love – like a hallmark card or a book of love poems?  Maybe you get something that the person needs so that the joy they feel in receiving it can be a reflection of the joy of love that you feel from them.  What do you get those folks you love?  Perhaps there is someone among us tonight who is still asking this question, struggling for an answer and will be praying for enlightenment while here so that a quick trip to the store upon departure from this place might be fruitful and they can safely go home or to the post office with meaningful expressions of love.  (Well, maybe tomorrow for the post office.  Better late than never.)

But tonight, we are gathered not because it is Valentine’s Day, but because it is Ash Wednesday.  And it is strange to have a cultural day of gift giving connected to a solemn holy day.  At least at Christmas, the cultural expressions go hand in hand with the holy celebration.  One was born out of the other.  But this is an accidental pairing of two contrasting holidays.  In fact that last time it happened, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s sharing the same day, was 1945.  (Although it will happen twice more in the next eleven years.)

The danger of this juxtaposition is the traditions of one can bleed over into the other.  Symbols of one could get confused when brought into the observance of the other.  For example, if you take my original question intended for those who are observing Valentine’s Day (not everyone does), and you start to think, well, I’m giving a sign of my love to my loved one, and God loves me, so what gift is God giving me this Valentine’s Day?  An immediate answer that blending could bring is ashes.  I’m going to church, this evening, and I am being given ashes.  And a very sarcastic, “thanks for the Valentine, God” might be mumbled.

But we need to stop right there and make one thing very, very clear.  Although we have come to God’s house this evening, though we are worshiping the God who created us and showers us with every gift, the God whose abundance sustains us;  God is not giving us ashes.  We brought these ashes ourselves.  These ashes are ours.  These ashes are what is left of our rebellion against God, of our sinful self that insists that we don’t need God, they are what’s left of our arrogance and our ego that wrongfully convinces us that we can go it alone.  We are all Adam.  We are all Eve.  And as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, death has come through our humanness.

God created a world perfect and eternal.  God lovingly gave humanity freedom.  And with that freedom, humanity brought rebellion, sin, and death.  So if anyone is giving anyone ashes on Valentine’s Day, we are giving the ruin of our lives, in the symbol of ashes, to God.

Now hear the good news of this Wednesday that is both Ashy and Valentine’s Day – God is not passive aggressive.  God does not give begrudgingly or with a spirit of revenge.  God gives in the totality of perfect, self-less, unconditional, self-sacrificing love.

What is God giving you for Valentine’s Day?  (Reminding ourselves what we have given God.)  Actually it’s what God gives us every day and for all eternity.  Look in the font and see the water that gives us new life.  Come to the table and taste the mercy and grace of God in the bread and the wine.  Hear the word proclaimed that testifies to the abundant promises of God. Look in the face of your neighbor and see the gift of relationship and community that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

We are the ones that Jesus is speaking of.  We are hearing his words as we lay in our graves, being raised up to new life.  He gives us the power and the assurance that enables us to hear the good news of God’s love.  Knowing there is no shame.  There is no humiliation.  There is no condemnation.  There is only good news that is filled with love and mercy, grace and peace.

And with this gift of restoration and resurrection, we become, like those Isaiah is speaking to, we become a garden, a flowing stream bringing water to parched places, we help those in need, we free those who are bound.

Yes, while we bring death in the form of ashes, God is giving us life.  And this new life in Christ, when lived in faith and hope, in confidence and courage, this new life that we are called to live and sustained to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, becomes a Valentine that God is giving to the world.  We are loved into life so that we might live that love for the sake of the world.

But there is so much fear that keeps us from living out this gift of love.  Part of Lenten journey here at St. John’s will be taking time to explore these fears.  I hope you will join us.

And having completed this journey that ends at the empty tomb, may our joy be complete as we again and in new ways see that the greatest gift of love and life – Jesus the Christ – conquers our greatest and most primal fear – the fear of death.

So bring your ashes, your fears, your death, and give them to God in trusting love, knowing fully that God is giving you grace and mercy, peace and joy, love and life.  While we say to ourselves “We are dust,” God is proclaiming to us:  “you are mine, you are beloved, you are loved, you live forever, this Valentine’s day and forever.”

The Rev. Mark Erson


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