“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Joel 2:13
This verse from the Book of Joel serves as the Gospel Acclamation for mass on Ash Wednesday. It is a simple verse, not terribly complicated, and yet should shake each of us to our core with its directive and following affirmation. Here’s why…
Return to the Lord your God: What a different world we would live in if we all heeded these words. To return to the Lord implies that at some point there has been a turning away from God, to have gone astray, or to have lost direction somewhere along the way. In our baptism, mutual promises are made between each of us and God which place us on a path that leads to the reign of God. In the faithfulness of word and sacrament we are nurtured for that journey and by fully participating in a community of faith we are continually reminded of that most righteous of paths.
That’s a lot of really great church talk, isn’t it? If only it were that easy. Life, relationships, the lack of relationship, sickness, anger, hurt, exhaustion, depression, addiction, and so much more can take over and detour us from the path of God. Sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t even want to return to the Lord. Sometimes we let the things that harm us the most control our lives. It might feel good to hold that grudge. We might find ourselves with more enemies in this world than friends because of our actions. We might be held hostage by abusing or being abused. We might simply prefer to sit in front of the television on a Sunday rather than give thanks and praise to God which “is right, our duty, and our joy.” In church talk we call this ‘sin’. I think we often associate this term exclusively with “bad things” that people do when in reality the word ‘sin’ describes anything that keeps us from God.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger. We live in a culture where much of society discredits organized religion on the basis of “I’m a good person. Why do I need to go to church just to be told how bad of a person I am and have to believe in a bunch of stuff I don’t agree with?” Why should we go to church? Because we’re human. No matter how good we are as people, we’re still human and we need to be reminded of what it means to be gracious, merciful, and slow to anger. We need to be shown the way and as Christians we believe that way is shown in God through Christ Jesus; through death and resurrection, through water and word, bread and wine, and all that other stuff which we might not understand yet points the way. Imagine if the current governments of the world, including ours (!), would be gracious and merciful and slow to anger. Political gridlock, social and economic polarization, racism, sexism, wars, and all the other things that bombard our headlines would cease to be and we would dwell in peace. Imagine if you and I were to do the same. Those things which we allow to pollute our hearts cannot exist when we choose graciousness over hatred, mercy over judgment, and understanding over anger.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. If I weren’t already married and someone told me that they were “abounding in steadfast love” for me, I would officially be swept off my feet. How much more profound is it that we have a God who loves each of us in this way? People need to hear that God loves them. You and I need to hear this and we need to be reminded of it often. Last year on Ash Wednesday, Pastoral Associate Ann Schmidt and I stood on the corner of 65th Street and Central Park West for a few hours, fully vested with the Processional Cross in tow, and offered ashes to anyone who wanted them. The experience changed me. Some people explained that their work schedules wouldn’t align with a mass time and they thanked us for providing an opportunity to receive ashes. Drivers would stop in the middle of the street and run over to get smeared. People shouted out their car window “God bless you!” as they passed by. But the most unsettling and yet beautiful were the people who would approach us, ask if they could receive ashes, and instantly break down sobbing. You would have been shocked how often this happened. I was. What was it that moved these people to their utter core that they could not help but expose their deepest pain and wailing to two strangers on the street; two strangers who were there to remind them of their mortality and that God is gracious, merciful, and abounds in steadfast love for them.
Come to mass on Ash Wednesday. Come to mass during the season of Lent. Set aside the business of life that keeps you away from God. Bring your hurt, your anger, your sickness, your burdens…and set them at the foot of the cross. Allow yourself to know your reality and identity: that although we are mortal beings who will someday know death we too are children of God, members of the body of Christ, that shall know everlasting life. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.