A Sermon for Ash Wednesday; Joel 2:1-2,12-17, or Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Sometime after the first of the year, it came to my attention that Easter is on April Fool’s Day which means that Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. This concurrence raises the delicate liturgical question is the proper color for the day? pink? or that deep purplish red? I asked a couple of deeply knowledgeable liturgical colleagues of mine. The first answer was to be sure and use red glitter for ashes and make the shape a heart on penitents’ foreheads. The other suggested using the little chalky heart candies for Communion wafers. Alas, I have waited too late and the traditional ashes and communion wafers lovingly baked by the sisters of Monastery of St. Clare will more than suffice.
Over these many years, have preached on the dire warning the alarm horns and gathering clouds of darkness and gloom from Joel. I have preached on Isaiah’s exhortation to announce God’s people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins. I have mentioned that the merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever. One way or another it is always necessary to remind us that now is the acceptable time to be reconciled to God. I’ve even preached on what you should do in secrete and maybe that God already knows what you do in secrete.
None of this inspired me. But only because Monday a week ago I was inspired by the Daily Office reading from Genesis (25:19-33). It includes the birth of Esau and Jacob, how Esau grew up to be a great hunter who loved the field and that Jacob became a quiet person who preferred a tent. It also includes the story of Esau coming in from the fields famished. Jacob is cooking some stew that Esau wants to satisfy his enormous hunger. Esau is so famished he sells his birthright to Jacob for bread and bowl of lentil stew. The divine muse nudged me, laying two questions on my heart and soul: How does lentil soup manifest itself in our lives? What have we sold our birth right for?
But before we can get to the depth of those questions we have to understand our birthright. As Christians what is our birthright? In the Episcopal tradition the go to liturgy is Baptism where we are washed in Christ’s baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We are one with Christ. It is Christ who stands with us before God. It is through Christ that God’s unconditional love is made fully known. A long-time colleague of mine wrote this week and reminded us of Henri Nouwen’s wisdom:
We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior. God doesn’t approve of betrayal, violence, hatred, suspicion, and all other expressions of evil, because they all contradict the love God wants to instill in the human heart. Evil is the absence of God’s love. Evil does not belong to God.
God’s unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. God continues to wait for us as a loving parent waits for the return of a lost child. It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God’s ever-present love. (Adams-McCaslin)
Our birthright is that divine love which endures all the approval driven silly, wrongheaded, selfishness, hateful, violent, evil, that has ever resided in our hearts, in secrete, or boldly there for all to see.
It is such a precious thing. And yet we seem to follow Esau’s path far too often. Our desire for the lentil soup of the moment takes precedence over everything else. Our momentary desire seems more important than what is right, than what is just, than our birthright. Sometimes our desires are manifest in the behaviors of others who speak and act publicly what is secretly in our hearts and are secretly joyous. At times such persons are from the margins. At times such persons are our leaders; social, educational, business, political, and religious. Sometimes our desires are manifest in our own words, and actions; spoken or unspoken, done or undone. Sometimes our words and actions are the public manifestations of what is secretly in the hearts of others and one way or another, we welcome slight approving smiles, nods of heads, and other small signs of approval.
As we have for a life time this Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a time of inner reflection. A time to acknowledge the ominous dark clouds not so very far from the center of our lives. A time to raise our heads at the blaring sound of the trumped alarm. A time, with naked vulnerability, to explore the depths and strength of God/Jesus/Sprit. A time to acknowledge all our secretes trusting that our father, who see in secrete, will welcome you into your acceptance of your birthright of unconditional love, from God, for all that is made in God’s image, you and all of creation. A time to leave aside Esau’s path and embrace your birthright. A time to see the truth; every day is valentine’s day; because every day is the acceptable time to receive and reflect God’s unconditional love, secretly, or boldly and publicly; for every day is the day of salvation.
So today, I invite you to with both fear and trembling and with trust explore just how does lentil soup manifest itself in your lives? and what have you sold our birth right for? for knowing this truth will set you free to receive the depth and strength of God’s eternal unconditional love.