A sermon preached for Ash Wednesday on March 6, 2019 on Joel 2:12-17 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
If you’re like me you have items in a bag in the closet that have to be returned to the store.
Let’s see what’s in my bag—a Christmas gift that’s the wrong size, make-up that’s the wrong color (I have nearly finished the bottle of the right color and still haven’t gotten this returned), sheets my son doesn’t need, a jacket for my daughter, 2 sweaters for me that don’t fit…all this stuff and I only have 3 receipts!
You might have noticed, I have trouble returning things. Every store has a return policy—some are better than others—but you have to follow their rules.
Rule 1. You must have a receipt. You have to prove that the product came from that store and upon its return, that it belongs there—it’s their product and they are responsible for it.
Rule 2. Its not supposed to be used. You cannot wear the clothes and then return them; you cannot use the dishes, wash them and then bring them back. You cannot play with the toy and when you are tired of it, return it to the store. The difficulty is that it is hard to know if you really want something until you have tried it and then you realize it’s not what you had wanted or hoped or expected, but of course, then you can’t return it.
Rule 3. Stores often don’t want broken things. The Customer Service counters usually want you to prove that it was a problem with the product to begin with—that you didn’t misuse it or fail to follow the directions. If YOU broke it, if YOU’RE at fault, they may not take it back, you may not get your money back. Your return can’t be broken – or broken in. You can’t take one step outside in your New Balance shoes before discovering that the heel slips or your stuck with $130 heel-slipping shoes for two years because you were breaking them in inside and forgot and walked out to the mailbox.
Rule 4. Customer Service likes returns in their original packaging with the tags and stickers on there. Never mind a lot of toys and electronics are like getting into Fort Knox. When my children were small, I joked that we should put the people who wrap up Barbies and their furniture in charge of National Security – no one is getting through that plastic packaging. Also, you may not get your money back if you have lost your box, threw out the plastic, tossed the stuffing and Styrofoam, or wrecked the wrapper.
Finally, returning anything is just a hassle – there are long lines, forms, signatures, time limits – within 30 days, and often, you can do exchanges but not receive cash. So, now you understand why we avoid returning anything.
This week we began the season of Lent and Lent is a season of returns.
Perhaps we avoid returning to God as well—we are afraid of being judged by God for our sin, for not following all the rules, and we don’t want to feel bad, shameful or guilty. Or maybe we already do feel ashamed or guilty and we’re afraid we’ll feel more judged if we come to God.
But our Old Testament reading from Joel says reminds us, “Return to the Lord, you God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Returning to God is not about judgment, but rather about love—It’s about trusting God’s love for us, even when we don’t get it right. Confessing our sin is not about judgment, but about experiencing God’s steadfast love and being liberated from our fears, guilt or shame so we can grow more and more into the image of Jesus.
If God coming to us in human form means anything, it certainly means that God “gets” our human experience. God will not be surprised by whatever we’re hanging onto that causes guilt. Lent is a call to move from sin to Love. So, during the season of Lent, God calls us to return, to return ourselves, our lives, and the hidden corners of our soul to God.
God calls us to return from those places and ways where we have wandered away. God calls us to return from the places in our life where we have been afraid to allow God in. Unlike the Customer Service counter at any retailer, God’s return policy doesn’t require a lot of receipts and rules.
With God’s return policy of grace and mercy, you don’t need a receipt to prove that you came from God—that you belong with God. God knows his own product-line. In steadfast love, God created your inmost being; God knit you together in your mother’s womb; you are fearfully and wonderfully made! God knows what God made. God knows you belong. God wants to take you back and is delighted at our return.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects us to be used—those are the returns God loves the most. God wants us to be used up and return empty. God imagines we will be worn out and rough around the edges, using our gifts and expending ourselves for good; hoping we have been out in the world living and loving and serving.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, God expects we will return broken—that something in our lives is amiss, that there is pain, and grief and frustration –that we are broken and in need of healing. God’s not looking for who’s fault it is—if we didn’t read the manual or follow the directions or take care of ourselves how we were supposed to, or if we’ve lived by fear. God knows you were made “very good” at creation, and in love, takes us back broken, to fix us up and feed us and heal us again.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, we don’t need to be in our original packaging with everything in its place. The packaging may be different now—we’re older, maybe we’ve grown taller or maybe we’ve shrunk a little. Maybe we have a few more wrinkles, maybe we are thinner or heavier, maybe we have a new hip, a pacemaker or lost a gall bladder. Perhaps we have lost some things along the way—innocence, childlike wonder, delight, or maybe a sense of joy. God can restore those again—God’s concern is that we return.
With God’s return policy of steadfast love, you don’t need a tag or sticker. Whether or not it is Ash Wednesday, God sees that smudge on your forehead—the sign of the cross that was traced in your baptism. You’ve already got Jesus’ name on your forehead and Jesus’ claim on your life, and Jesus’ Spirit dwelling inside you, and that’s all that really matters.
So, return to the Lord your God this Lent with all of who you are and don’t hold back any part of yourself or your life. Trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!
For with God’s return policy, there’s never a line, there’s no waiting for an available clerk, there are no forms to sign, there is no time limit, the counter is always open, and no one is turned away!
Simply show up and tell God you’ve returned. Ask God to accept you, to embrace you, to love you, to forgive you, to guide you, to help you live out of love.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!
That’s a return policy we all can buy into!