This past Saturday, I was sitting in a coffee shop working on my sermon for Sunday. I’m kind of a chatty person, as you’ve probably noticed, and easily distracted, and I ended up striking up a conversation with a woman sitting at a table near me. We’ll call her Danielle. It pretty quickly became clear to both Danielle and me that this was one of those conversations that God himself seemed to have arranged. Danielle had been looking for a new church home and was grateful to unexpectedly find herself in conversation with a pastor. And she shared with me some of the struggles that she has been facing recently.
She shared that her 23-year-old son – we’ll call him Tyson – is addicted to meth and that she and her husband had just taken him to a treatment center earlier that week. She talked about the pain she felt at seeing her son being slowly isolated from everyone else because of his addiction. She said that the other members of their family had already given up on Tyson – even his own father. He was angry at her for taking him to the treatment center, but she was worried that he was going to end up dead if he didn’t go. She talked about how hard it can be to love someone who is addicted, and how challenging it is to walk the line between loving someone and enabling them.
But by far the most striking thing about the conversation was Danielle’s love for her son. I was amazed and moved by just her sheer, stubborn love for him. She told me about seeing his eyes glaring at her from the back of the car while he kicked her seat, and how she just looked him straight in the eyes and said, “I love you. Even when you hate me, I love you.” She said that she knows that even when he is lashing out and saying hurtful things, that it’s just “the devil running through his veins” that makes him act that way. And she still believes in the good in him, even though others have given up on him. “I love you,” she says to him. “I’m your mother and you are mine and I’m not going anywhere.”
As Danielle spoke, I was overwhelmed by the sense that this unconditional, indelible love that she feels for her son is the exact same kind of love that God has toward us. “Even when you hate me, I love you and you are mine and I’m not going anywhere.” And today, I hear the words of our readings in Danielle’s voice – in the voice of a loving, pleading, stubborn mother, begging us, “even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, return to the Lord your God for she is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
This plea for us to turn back to God with all our heart is at the very heart of Lent. Today, on Ash Wednesday, we begin our annual journey of repentance, shaking off the weight of sinfulness and worldly junk that we have accumulated and opening ourselves once more to God’s redeeming grace and love. Lent isn’t meant to be a season of punishing ourselves and giving up stuff we like because “God said we had to” – it is meant to be a season of liberation and return. It is a season of experiencing God’s grace anew.
But it isn’t an easy journey. And Paul warns us, just as he warned the Corinthians, not to accept this grace in vain.
Because the journey of Lent asks us to recognize that we are, in a sense, God’s meth-addicted children. We are addicted to sin and selfishness and the ways of death. And the church, if anything, is our own rehab center. We are called to own the reality of our own addiction to sinfulness, to all that we put before God or that draws us away from God and from our neighbor. You know what these things are for you. Perhaps it’s an actual, physical addiction that holds you captive, or maybe it’s a preoccupation with money and material stuff. Maybe it’s a relationship, or maybe just the need to be in control of everything and the lack of trust that God is at work for the good. And we are also called to recognize our participation in broader systems of sin – to repent of the ways that our lifestyle might be exploiting low-wage workers around the globe and contributing to the harming of the environment, to re-examine how our fearfulness and intense need for security might be leaving other people in danger.
And especially on Ash Wednesday, we are called to do the hard work of acknowleding our mortality and our human limitation – our inability to overcome on our own the ways of sin that keep drawing us away from God. We remember that, apart from God, we are dust and to dust we shall return.
In fact, I think that Lent is most like a kind of twelve step program for Christians and for the church. We begin by confessing our powerlessness over sin – that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We confess that we have tried to live our lives apart from God’s will for us and we have come up empty. We have not found the life and happiness we were looking for at the bottom of a bottle or at work or in our latest diet or in our latest and greatest purchase. We confess that our actions and inactions have even contributed to the harm of ourselves and others. We acknowledge that true life and happiness are only to be found with God. We humbly repent. And we commit ourselves and our lives over to God’s care.
This is not easy work to do. It is deeply countercultural, the way we choose to focus on our own mortality and limitation. It asks us to be vulnerable and to admit that we have fallen short. But, as we begin this journey together, we can be certain that this recognition of our shortcomings and our turn back to God will be met with unfailing grace. It will be met with the fierce, stubborn, steadfast love of a mother who, even in our sinful state, says to us, “I love you and you are mine and I’m not going anywhere.”
So with Paul, I entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Now is the acceptable time and today is the day of salvation. Lay aside your addictions and your worries and return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and truly abounding in steadfast love.