Ash Wednesday (B)

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A meditation by Pastor Robert Schaefer

First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches

Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2006

Text: Joel 2:12-13

Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tonight, with bread and wine and ashes, we begin again our Lenten journey to the cross, and beyond. Each Wednesday night, you will hear God’s Word proclaimed by one of our neighbors – we will be focusing on the special blessings which Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” There are nine – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – you will come to know six of these very well during these forty days, as my colleagues share their insights with you.

Tonight, we take up the first fruit of the Spirit named in the fifth chapter of Galatians – the fruit known as love. Does it seem odd to you to be talking of blessings and spiritual gifts tonight, with our foreheads smeared in black? It does to me. And isn’t it strange to speak of love flowing through our lives just moments after we humbly begged God to have mercy on us, who are hopeless sinners? It seems so, if you ask me. And yet, perhaps there is a thread that can tie together love, the fruit of the Spirit, and the somber tones of Ash Wednesday.

Let me share a story with you that I think will help us put the pieces together. It’s from Bobbie Reed’s devotional book Listen to the Heart, which will be a guidebook to us as we explore the Spirit’s fruit in our lives. In her chapter on the fruit of love, Bobbie writes:

It had been a terrible day at work and James was totally out of sorts. Now the traffic was irritating and the heat was unbearable. When James arrived home, his dog raced across the yard and placed muddy paws squarely on the front of James’s favorite shirt. James stifled a strong urge to kick the dog in the ribs but settled for merely pushing the dog out of his way.

“What’s for dinner?” James growled to his wife, Bonnie, as he entered the house. James didn’t want to listen to their children and didn’t have much to say at dinner. Twice he attempted to start an argument, but no one else seemed interested in pursuing one.

Bonnie was tempted to ignore James as soon as dinner was over. Instead, she gave him a smile and patted the couch beside her. As he sat down heavily, she cuddled close and whispered, “I love you.” A wise woman, she knew that people usually need to be loved the most when they deserve it the least! Bonnie knew how to express the gift of love.

The times we most need to be loved are the same times that we are least loveable. And when are we less lovable than when we’re soiled and dirty on the outside with ashes, and even nastier on the inside, where the filth of sin blackens our very souls? Tonight, friends, you and I are a long way from being lovable. And just like James, a night like tonight is when we most need to be reached out to in love. That’s why we’ve come here.

You see, God understands how love works – scripture tells us that the God we pray to didn’t just create love, he is love. God knows how much you and I need his love right now… far better than we do, in fact. And though it’s the farthest thing from easy to do, our God who is love reaches out to us in love. In the bread and wine of our communion he whispers to us, “I love you.” Over and over again. As many times as we need to hear it. God knows what our broken lives need – he knows that the only thing that can turn things around for us is to be loved by him despite everything.

And here’s the thing – though Bobbie Reed doesn’t say what happened next, I have a hunch that things did turn around for James that night. Maybe not right away – even with a deep, forgiving love, pains don’t go away in a few heartbeats – but as his muscles unclenched just a bit and he settled maybe an inch or two deeper into his wife’s embrace, my guess is that surrounded by her love, James began to love, too. Love works that way, like a snowball rolling down a hill – it builds us up. When we are loved, we discover that we are able to love others. And that’s where we return to where we began – with ashes on our foreheads and the fruit of love on our minds.

This fruit of the Holy Spirit, this gift called love, only fills our lives because God has shown such deep, unrelenting love toward us first. Here at church tonight, God is wrapping his arms around you and loving you, so that you might begin to love those around you. God is approaching you when you are unapproachable, touching you when you are untouchable, pardoning you when you are unpardonable – and all in order to set you free to do the same for your brothers and sisters. For the fruit of the Holy Spirit is never given for our own exclusive enjoyment, but so that God’s whole creation can be built up.

In the weeks to come, you will hear much more about the fruit of the Spirit, but return each time to the night of ashes and communion and remember that it all begins with love. First God’s love to us. Then our love for each other. And from there, no one can say how bountiful the harvest of blessed fruit God’s Spirit will bring on the earth! Amen.

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