The Lens of Love

Sermon for Wednesday, February 22, 2023 || Ash Wednesday

I’ve been preaching a lot lately about belovedness: the Beloved Community, God calling Jesus the “Beloved,” God calling us “Beloved” because we, too, are children of God. This idea of belovedness has stuck to my heart like glue, and so I can’t imagine it will leave my preaching any time soon. And that’s because belovedness is not just an idea, but a lens – a lens through which we see the world.

And as I turn this lens of love onto today’s service of Ash Wednesday, I realize just how tender this service is. I know that sounds strange. “Isn’t this service all about our sinfulness and our transience?” you might think. “Aren’t we preparing for a Lenten season of self-denial and repentance? How could this service possibly be tender?”

Here’s the thing. If we start from the premise that God is angry with us and will whip us into submission until we change our sinful ways, then there’s no way to see this service as tender. But if we start from the premise that God loves us, then every element of this service takes on the color of compassion.

We start with today’s collect, and look at it through the lens of love. “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made,” the collect begins. We see these words, and we realize that too often down through history, people have done hateful things in God’s name, and people who have been oppressed by these hateful things have, quite naturally, believed God is hateful. And so, the person who wrote this collect for Ash Wednesday felt the need to remind us that God does not hate. And with God’s help, we who see the world through the lens of love, work to change the world so this collect could start like this: “Almighty and everlasting God, you love everything you have made.”

After the collect, we read from the Prophet Isaiah, who calls the people back to a right relationship with God. Such a relationship includes the extension of belovedness to all people, and so Isaiah lays out the plan of liberation. Loose the bonds of injustice. Let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with the hungry. Bring the homeless poor into your house. Satisfy the needs of the afflicted. These are the ways to translate a “feeling” of belovedness into the action of creating beloved community.

Next, the psalm: a poem that speaks of God’s compassion and mercy and kindness, that imagines God as a loving parent, that proclaims our sins have no power to separate God from us. In the cosmic scale, we are dust on the wind and still God cares for us.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus warns his friends against doing things for the wrong reasons. If your goal is for others to see you doing something, then that thing will never have the power to change your life. Jesus is concerned, not with outward appearances, but the inner life of his followers. He has no desire for photo-ops. His only desires are to make every person feel like God’s beloved and to challenge his society that does not treat people like they are.

And that brings us to the parts of the service still to come. After this sermon, we will listen to the call to a holy Lent. As you listen to those words, remember that God is not angry with us. God loves us. And through the lens of love, hear the words anew. Lent is not a time to beat yourself up about how wretched you are. Rather, see in Lent an opportunity to renew your relationship with the God who loves you by refocusing some of your time to dedicate to that relationship. Just like you might schedule a few coffee dates with an old friend who has just moved back to the area, open that space up for God to fill this Lent.

After the invitation to a holy Lent, we will place the ashes on our foreheads. This is a most profound act of witnessing to God’s love. With the ashes, we trace once again the cross placed on our heads with oil at our baptisms. We remember Jesus’ baptism, when he came up out of the water and heard God’s words of love and pleasure. We remember our own belovedness, which the church at its best nourishes as we come together as a piece of the family of God. The ash reveals that baptismal cross, and we realize again that our transience is not a barrier to God loving us. We live. We grow. We plant. We reap. We strive. We fail. We age. We die. And God loves us through it all.

God loves us even when we separate ourselves from God. And so we pray the Litany of Penitence. We rehearse the many ways that we miss the mark, that we ourselves and our society distort relationships to benefit the few at the expense of the beloved many. And when we look at this litany from the lens of love, we see a God who keeps loving us no matter what. We hurt each other and hurt ourselves, and still God loves us. We destroy the creation God made, and still God loves us. We turn away from the suffering of others, and still God loves us.

And because God loves us, we can change. When we pray, “Accept our repentance, Lord,” during the Litany, I invite you to hear something else in those words, another translation if you will. Hear this instead: “Help us change our hearts and lives, Lord.” That’s what we are praying in the litany. We do not pray to appease an angry God, despite some of the language in the service today. We pray because God loves us. We reach out to the God who is already reaching out to us, who is always reaching out to us.

When seen through the lens of love, today’s service is a tender one. Today’s service is a proclamation that nothing in all of creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The ashes we wear today are a witness to the steadfast love of God.

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash.

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