Last year on Ash Wednesday, the brilliant Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans, posted a word of encouragement on her blog. She wrote this: “Whether you are a Christian, or an atheist, or an agnostic, or a so-called ‘none,’ you know this truth deep in your bones: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.’ Death is part of life,” she wrote. “My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.” Rachel Held Evans posted this on Ash Wednesday. Eight weeks later, she died at age thirty-seven.1 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/us/rachel-held-evans.html
There’s always something strange and holy about Ash Wednesday. If you feel a little weird about coming to church in the middle of the week to offer confession and consider mortality, then get a black cross smudged on your face, you’re not wrong. It is weird!
Ash Wednesday is undeniably strange and holy. One of the gifts it offers is the chance for us to acknowledge our mortality as a sign, not of sin, but a sign of our utter humanness. We show up in this sanctuary and we tell death, Look. We know you’re in our future. We’re all going to die. We’re all going to love people who die, and we know that. By showing up and saying it out loud, it takes away some of the fear.
It gives something to our lives to let a little bit of death come in. It gives something to our world to let a bit of heaven come in.
Sometimes I think we imagine heaven as our final destination, the place where God will pronounce: Well done, good and faithful servant. God will look at us, and say I love you, and we’ll actually believe it. And there’s nothing wrong with imagining this is what happens when we die. Only thing is, it could be this is not just the prize at the end.
Would it change your life, do you think, if heaven isn’t just the place you’re headed to one day but it’s also your point of origin? Could be, we’ve all been set on a path of getting back to heaven or getting heaven back to here…
Would it change the world, do you think, if I love you is not what we get to hear when life on earth is over? What if I love you is spoken at the beginning… I love you breathed into your soul when you were being knit together in your mother’s womb. I love you sung into creation by the stars of the morning. I love you issued as the charge that drives us into the world, ready or not.
Parents do this, you know. We drop off our children at school wrapped in I love yous as though this blessing is any match for bullies, or guns, or depression. We hope our I love yous are strong enough to protect them and get them home to us alive, but we know the truth. You can say I love you to the person you love with your life, and that won’t stop them from getting killed. God knows. We know this too, and it doesn’t stop us from saying it. And if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
The scripture Gail read begins with a fight between Jesus and Peter. What happened was that Jesus asked the disciples, Who do people say that I am? and they told him. Jesus asked, Okay. Who do you say that I am? And Peter got it right! You are the Messiah. Yes, Jesus explained, but I’m not the kind of Messiah you’re thinking of. You’re imagining a military hero, a well-armed king destined to vanquish his foes.
What you need to know about me, Jesus told them, is that I’m going to die. First, I will endure great suffering and rejection. I will be arrested, and convicted, and executed, and three days later, I will get up from the dead.
No! That can’t be right! said Peter. Look, I’m not trying to tell you who you are, but I can’t believe what you’re saying! Jesus turned and looked at all the disciples. He chastised Peter in front of them. That’s when he said, Get behind me, Satan!
Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the top of a high mountain. They hike to the top in chilly silence, then on the summit, Jesus was transfigured. He began to glow and his clothes became dazzling white. So Peter, bless his heart, offered to set up tents for Jesus, and Moses, and Elijah. That’s when the cloud poured over the heavens, and the voice of the Spirit said, This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him. In a whoosh, the cloud was gone. Jesus was left standing there. He took Peter, James, and John down the mountain. They dove back into the world healing and helping the people in trouble.
Now in the middle, after Jesus and Peter had it out in front of the disciples, before they climbed the mountain, Jesus summoned the crowd. He told them this: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
See there’s something more to hope for than not dying. The more fiercely we fear losing our lives, the more we’re at risk of doing just that. But when you choose to give your life in discipleship and service, nobody can take it from you.
It’s like the song: “Love is something when you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something when you give it away, you end up having more.”2https://genius.com/Malvina-reynolds-love-is-something-magic-penny-lyrics Ask anybody who has ever done any living. Life is something when you give it away. You end up having more.
In the scripture Gail read, the LORD pours heaven into the earth, and looks at Jesus, and says I love you, and that’s true. And so is this. The I love you God spoke on the mountain did not stop Jesus from getting hurt. It didn’t stop the betrayal, or the torture, or the humiliation, or the cross. God knows what it is to say I love you, and send your child out into the world, and still, he got killed.
We know this too. We drop off our children at the door wrapped in I love yous as though it will protect them when we know. It really might not, so why do we keep doing this?
Maybe it’s this. Maybe, our I love you is not meant to be a weapon for defense. When we send each other out into the world in the morning, it could be, our I love you is doing something else entirely.
What if hearing somebody say I love you begins to teach us how to hear the tenderness of God… Soon, this tenderness is something we start to perceive in each other. We begin to see each other’s forgiveness. We begin to hear how God once spoke I love you to a person who can’t remember the last time he heard those words spoken out loud. We begin to feel our own hearts break along the same fault lines where God’s heart breaks.
We don’t set out with a weapon that will protect us from dying. We send each other out the door with the power to detect the tenderness of God, and if you want to know the miracle, it’s that this is enough. It could be more than enough. It could be exactly what we need to help turn the violence of the world into compassion.
When Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the waters, the heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit looked at him and said, You are mine and I love you, and before Jesus could say it back, God drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and waited on by angels.
When Jesus went up the mountain with the disciples, he began to glow in light, then the cloud poured over, and the Spirit looked at him and said, You are mine and I love you, then God whooshed him down the mountain and back to work.
When Jesus was killed on the cross, the cloud overshadowed all the earth. The Spirit looked at Jesus and loved him. God wept, and tore the curtain of the temple in anguish. When God didn’t say anything at all, you know all the angels in heaven and earth flooded creation with the threat: You are mine and I love you, as though everything living is about get to thrown into the horror of this world with no sword and shield, with no bulletproof backpack, with only the tears and the tenderness of God! As though that would be enough…
Rachel Held Evans said it like this: “We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.”3This is from Rachel Held Evans’s 2015 book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.
I love you is the promise of heaven. It is where we come from and where we are going. I love you breathed into your soul when you were being knit together. I love you sung into creation by the stars of the morning. I love you issued as the charge that drives us into the world, ready or not, because we have work to do, because if violence is not the destiny of humankind, it’s going to take people to change the ending, and we can and we will. And we know the truth:
We come from dust, and to dust you shall return.
We come from love, and to love you shall return —our whole world, you know.
We can help turn the world toward love.