Ash Wednesday “God’s Name is Love”
George Martin (3/1/2017—Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa MN)
We have a curious set of readings: The Old Testament prophet Joel saw a day of darkness and gloom on the horizon. The Lord was declaring to God’s people, “Return to me.”
But come with fasting, with weeping and mourning.
Know, Joel said, that you return to your God who is gracious and merciful.
Then we heard Matthew using the version by Eugene Peterson in what is called The Message.
The first line we heard was “When you do good deeds, don’t try to show off.”
The more traditional words are, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”
So what is piety? It simply means devotion or spirituality. It ought to be a positive thing to pray, to kneel, to study the Bible, and to come to church. But there is a negative side to some forms of spirituality and devotion: Peterson has it right because there is always a danger in showing off our faith.
Here’s the problem: Wearing ashes was always a sign of penitence; and always acknowledging our mortality before God.
But according to Jesus in Matthew we shouldn’t pray in public, but only in a door with the door shut. So do you wear your ashes out of church? Well, don’t worry. It’s night. No one will see you. And we do this inside a community of faith. This is how and when we start the season of Lent.
In some ways this is the most honest day of the whole year. Honest because we get reminded of death. There isn’t a priest or pastor that I know of, by the way, who doesn’t admit that making the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those we love and know at this service——well it’s about the hardest thing we ever do each year.
I should tell you about the ashes themselves. In the traditions of the church they come from last year’s palms. They are burned on Shrove Tuesday, what yesterday was, and they start us on our journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Yesterday I asked Pastor Kari about the ashes and she pulled out of her desk a small bag of ashes the church had purchased last year. She said I had some in my office, and after some searching she found the ashes Pastor Andy had left.
“But what about those Palm crosses from last year?” I asked. Pastor Kari knew where the box was. “Let’s burn some of them keeping the old tradition alive.” I said.
With Clint’s help we found an old metal can and drilling holes in the bottom made a kind of oven. And then we tried to light one of the crosses. It wouldn’t light. I went back to my office to my recycle paper bin and brought out the newsletter from First Lutheran that I had read earlier. We lighted the entire newsletter, threw in the palms. It was quickly burned-up. So when you receive the ashes you may have a little of page 6 or 7 on your forehead, but mostly burned palms.
The important thing is that these ashes represent a whole year of worship and faithfulness. Here we are and here we belong.
There are times though when we’re here and don’t think we belong. That’s the reality the poet George Herbert was addressing over 400 years ago. Herbert was born in 1693 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, and died in 1633, 40 years later, during the troubled reign of King Charles the Second. He spent most of his life as an academic priest inside hallowed halls where intellectuals vied for honor and where hopeful politicians crafted their eloquence.
Shortly after his marriage, at the age of 35, he discovered his true vocation, and that was to be a pastor in an obscure parish in Southern England. When he died five years later he left behind a slim volume of poetry, 99 poems The last poem in the collection was his third poem with the title of Love. (It’s printed in your bulletin.)
I first heard this poem from an English pastor studying with me in 1984 at Virginia Seminary. Something was said, and the next thing we knew Robert Parsons gave us this poem from his memory. I said I have to have that poem, and I have to have it in me. So it is there in my memory as well.
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin
` But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here;
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste My meat.
So I did sit and eat.
Why do I share this on this Ash Wednesday? It’s because of this guilt thing. This feeling we often have that we are unworthy of God’s love. And please note, if you haven’t already, that the word Love is the word for God according to the poet. And this must be his story. I think it’s mine. I hope it’s yours.
And by that I mean that we can all come to a point where we finally accept that we are loved by God and that we belong at this table where we encounter the holy one, the very presence of Christ. That we stop beating up on ourselves as somehow still not quite right, not quite acceptable.
Can you see that in this poem? My soul drew back. So many people come to mind in my ministry. People who’d sneek into and out of church. Looking up at the roof. Wondering if it would come down on them. They didn’t feel they could ever accept communion or belong to a Christian fellowship.
It happens to all of us. At times we grow slack. Not knowing that Love, God, draws nearer and nearer to us sweetly questioning if we lack anything.
The poet’s story was that he was in search of a guest. A companion. Someone really good—really worthy. Because he didn’t feel that way.
As the poet admits, and it happens to all of us at times, we know that we haven’t been grateful. Our selfishness stares back at us in the mirror of life. And we don’t feel worthy of looking at what is holy and good.
But Love took the poet’s hand, and I love the line, that Love was smiling when this question was asked, “Who made the eyes but I?”
Still the poet resists. For many of us have spiritual stories that include resistance, and as we will see, bargaining or self-justification. The poet feels shame. “Let my shame go where it doth deserve.”
Earlier I mentioned that we can sometimes have a problem with what I termed this “guilt thing.” What’s important is that we know the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt, as strictly defined, means we have done some specific wrong. We can say we are sorry for something that we did. We can try to make up for what we did. What we did stares us in the face.
Shame is when our whole self feels wrong. It’s guilt defused into so many aspects of our lives. Many of us are dealing with issues related to shame, and not so much guilt.
The poet said “let my shame go where it doth deserve.” But here’s where the revelation takes place for this poet and I hope for all of us.
Love replied, “And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” A clear reference to the cross. God has made us, God watches us grow slack, God bore the blame, and God wants us to be at the Lord’s table.
And no bargaining here as, if you don’t belong. That’s at the end. The poet offers Love a deal: He said, “My dear then I will serve.”
Love rejects all our bargaining, and says we are to sit down, and taste. And so the poet did.
We belong my friends. Right here. Belong with ashes on our foreheads, and then hands reaching our for God’s bread, because God who made us, wants us to know and celebrate the one whose name is Love.