February 22, 2023 – Ash Wednesday
We are finite and flawed. That is the truth that we grapple with this night. Our lives are finite and our love is flawed.
Though it would be a little hard for this community to avoid the reality of our own mortality, saddened as we are by Helene’s death, nevertheless we live in a culture that denies, or at the very least hushes our talk about death. But tonight we acknowledge it out loud: We are dust, and to dust we shall return. And then, as if saying it or hearing it is not enough, we voluntarily come to have our foreheads marked with ashes. We will look around and see the marks on one another’s heads and be confronted with the fact that there’s not a one of us who will avoid death. And though we cannot see the ashes on our own foreheads, when we look into the mirror before we wash our faces later on, we will be confronted with the fact that we, too, will die. Our lives are finite.
And our love is flawed. We say a confession almost every time we gather for worship. But usually that confession is rather general. We will start out in generalities tonight – what we have done and what we have left undone – but as we continue, you will find a terrible specificity in our confession. Tonight, the confession of just how flawed our love is gets really personal. For example, when I confess that I do not love God with my whole heart, and mind, and strength, I will be forced to reflect upon how half-hearted my love for God can be, especially if that love conflicts with my own self-interest. When I confess my indifference to injustice and cruelty, I will have to think about the privilege which allows me easily and heedlessly to move around through this world without giving a thought to how much others struggle. When I confess my waste and pollution of creation, I will be compelled to think of my careless use of our planet’s resources and how shallow my love is for all of God’s creatures. My love for God, for my neighbor, and for our earth is most definitely flawed.
We are finite – marked with a sign of death – and our love is flawed – in dreadfully specific and concrete ways. But that is only half the truth we tell this night. The other half is this.
The ashes that remind us of death are also the mark of salvation. It is not a random smudge that I will place on your forehead but the cross of Christ. That cross reminds us that yes, Jesus died. And so shall we. But Jesus rose. And so shall we. It hurts to tell the truth – that we will die. It’s not pleasant to think about. We spend all sorts of money and energy trying to cover the fact that we are slowly but surely marching toward the grave. But death was not the end for Jesus, and neither is death the end for us. God got the last word, and the last word was life. And that is why we can tell the truth without fear – we will die. But we will also live. For while our life is finite, our life in God, through Christ, is without end.
And this also is true: Even though we can no more turn from our sin than we can avoid death; even though our love for God and neighbor and creation is deeply flawed; God’s love and forgiveness will never fail. Lent, after all, isn’t really about us. It’s not about our turning from sin as much as it is about our letting ourselves be drawn in by God’s irresistible love and turned toward God, neighbor, and earth. It’s not about our desire to please God as much as it is about God’s desire to be close to us. It’s not about our heroic efforts to be better people – it’s about God’s heroic efforts to reclaim us.
So when you receive the ashes, do so boldly in faith, knowing that even though you will die, you will also live. Our life on this earth may be finite, but our life in Christ is without end. And when you confess, do so freely, holding nothing back, knowing that God freely forgives, holding back nothing of God’s love. For though our love may be flawed, God loves and forgives without fail.