Perhaps, like me, you have a drawer somewhere in which you have stashed a pile of gift certificates and gift cards that thoughtful people have given to you, but that you have never gotten around to using. A few years ago, I designated a single drawer as the destination for my gift cards and gift certificates, because I knew how prone I was to lose track of them and leave them un-used and un-spent. By keeping track of the cards, I hoped I’d do a better job of actually using them in the way the givers intended me to do. But like a significant percentage of others who receive such generous gifts, I remain often careless and forgetful about these gifts. A quick inspection this morning revealed cards or certificates for L.L. Bean, American Express, and a kitchen shop in South Philadelphia. I could not bring myself to look at the dates on these cards to determine how long they have been in the drawer.
In the business world these cards, I am told, are referred to as “stored value products.” The question remains for whom the value is being stored – the recipient or the issuer? Estimates are that as much as $8 billion worth of gift cards go un-spent every year. As one business writer says, companies love gift cards, because “they receive payment in advance for products they may or may not ever have to deliver.” From the giver’s point of view, once he or she has paid for the card and handed it over, it’s out of his or her hands, and the recipient is free to do whatever he or she likes with the gift.[i]
It occurs to me that the ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday are something like a gift certificate or a gift card: they are gifts given to us out of the love and generosity of the giver, but a great many of us are unlikely ever to use this gift. For the gift of the ashes, and the reminder that we are from dust and to dust we shall return is a gift of stored value. By this gift God is calling us each to repentance, to a new relationship with him and with each other. God is asking us to use this act of humility – receiving this sign of mortality – as a chance for a new life, to turn our backs on the foolishnesses and faults that have become our personal trademarks. I have my trademark foolishnesses, you can be sure, and I suppose you have yours.
But the question remains, for whom is the value stored? Will we use this opportunity, this Lent, to really make room for the clean heart we are asking God to install in our lives? Or will we walk away from Ash Wednesday in more or less the same way we walk away from any other Wednesday, washing the smudge from our foreheads in more or less the same way we would deposit a gift card in a designated and forgotten drawer, leaving God with the gift of his grace and forgiveness still in his open hand, looking like a pile of so many ashes?
God is making a promise of hope and repair, of forgiveness and love. The payment, we are assured, has already been made; the gifts are ours to accept, or not. But because it can be complicated for us to accept hope and repair, forgiveness and love, usually a little work is required on our part, a little effort to make it clear these are gifts we really want. And once the gift has been given, the recipient is free to do whatever he or she likes with it. God does not compel us to accept his grace.
Here’s the kind of work it takes to claim the gift:
You fall to your knees in a prayer of repentance or thanksgiving.
You open your heart to God’s love.
You turn from the things you do that are hurting yourself or others, and you start to do things another way.
You seek forgiveness from one you have wronged.
You offer forgiveness to one from whom you have been withholding it.
You help someone in need, recognizing their need may be greater than yours.
Because we are sinners, these apparently simple acts are often difficult and complicated for us to accomplish. Because we are sinners these ashes are like gift certificates that may never be used, left in the drawer of your heart to grow old and forgotten, even though they will never expire.
But the truth is that God has no end of mercy and forgiveness and love, just like this world has no end of ashes.
God will not soon run out of grace, not ever. God is willing to extend his offer of grace to you as long as you are alive to hear it.
God is not about to stop breathing down your neck, if you will let him get close enough.
God is not about to withhold his gifts from you.
God is not short on what you need to change your life, or what I need to change mine.
And tonight God is giving you the gift in the form of a little smudge of ash on your forehead. He does it other ways on other days. His gifts of love have stored value, which, on second thought, have no worth to him, since God is love. So the value must be being stored for you and for me, waiting for us to claim it, to use it, to take it: the gift of his mercy, his forgiveness, his love, meant for you, and for me.
We’ve been given a great gift this night. And the only question that really remains is: What ever shall we do with it?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Ash Wednesday 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Donna L. Montaldo, “Retailers Clean Up On Holiday Gift Cards,” About.com Guide