February 22, 2012 7:30 PM • Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday Sermon
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near.” One has to give the prophet Joel his due because I think that Joel unequivocally wins the award for one of the noisiest wake-up calls in all of Holy Scripture! As we begin our Lenten journey this evening, it somehow seems appropriate that we should have a rather noisy wake-up call lest we get a little too comfortable and complacent in this beautiful and extraordinary Cathedral. The prophet Joel sounded alarm with some urgency and I invite you this evening to join with me in exploring what Joel had to say to the Israelites in his day and what he has to say to us this evening.
After sounding the alarm, if you listen carefully in that passage, Joel lifts up just a glimmer of hope and it all begins with the small word yet. “Yet even now, says the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The word shub in Hebrew is the word for repent or return. And it literally means: turn around; do a 180; head a different direction. And what Joel is prescribing for the Israelites is: it may not be too late; for our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. Joel tells the Israelites to look forward, to head and return to the illumination of God in their lives, to not look back at the sin and the guilt that brings in their lives but to turn around and to be re-oriented, reconciled to God, to live fully—and understand more fully—God’s purpose in their lives and their lives as community.
Will yourself to return to God, opening yourself by fasting to the possibility for transformation and reorientation and reconnecting with God.
In ancient Israel the heart was understood to be the center of one’s will and intellect. And Joel lifts up the traditional forms of lament and supplication with fasting and weeping and mourning. But he says you have to go one step further. Those are the external things. Joel invites the Israelites—beckons the Israelites and us—to go more deeply, internally, straight to the heart. “Rend your heart and not your clothing.” You recall again that in ancient Israel in a moment of grief and lamentation people would literally tear their clothes; so when Joel beckons them to rend their heart, he’s saying tear your heart wide open. Will yourself to return to God, opening yourself by fasting to the possibility for transformation and reorientation and reconnecting with God. And in those days, of course, fasting meant to abstain from food and drink. In our day fasting, opening up more time intentionally to be in conversation with God, can happen in any number of ways. What do you need to fast from in your life to free up more time to be in conversation with God? Fasting from TV? Fasting from e-mail? Fasting from Facebook? How are you filling your time and your space? What can you free up in your day to spend more time returning to God, re-orienting yourself? It’s a journey. It doesn’t happen overnight. We embark on that 40-day journey tonight, and it’s a pilgrimage.
I recently saw the movie The Way, and it’s a story about a pilgrimage. In the movie, Martin Sheen stars as a dad who’s a doctor who spends most of his day either consumed with his medical practice or playing golf. In the opening scenes of the movie his son Daniel comes to see him and he is estranged from his son and essentially has been since his wife died, Daniel’s mother. And Daniel tells him that he’s not going to finish his Ph.D., that he really needs to take a journey to learn more about his life. And his father can’t understand it; and he bickers with him about it and he struggles with him about it. Nevertheless Daniel persists and says he has to do this. So his dad, Tom, drives him to the airport and they have a conversation even on the way to the airport with Daniel asking his dad to take the journey with him. And he says, “You know not everyone can drop everything in our life and just go.” And he said, “You may not appreciate my life, the life I have here, but it’s a life I’ve chosen.” And Daniel looks at his dad and says, “Dad, you don’t choose a life, you live it.” And with this Daniel then goes into the airport and flies away.
His father doesn’t know where he’s going or what he’s doing. But about two days later the dad gets a phone call and it’s the French police telling him that his son, his only son, has tragically died in a weather situation in the French Pyrenees. So Tom flies to France to collect the remains of his only son. And he discovers that his son had embarked on a pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage that people have been taking for over 1,000 years—it begins in the French Pyrenees and it’s about 800 km. It culminates in the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela where they believe the remains of St. James the Apostle are interred. It’s known by some as the Way of St. James. And Tom, seemingly on the spur of the moment, decides that he’s going to make that pilgrimage. He’s going to pick up his son’s backpack and complete the journey that his son began. And he has Daniel cremated and he takes the ashes and puts it in the backpack determined that the two of them will make this journey together. And the French policeman who’d been consoling him, tries to convince him not to go. I mean, he’s not prepared to make this trek. But Tom won’t listen; so the last thing that the Frenchman says to him is like a blessing that you hear all along the route of the Camino de Santiago, “Buen camino,” meaning good journey, blessings to you.
So Tom takes off and along the way he encounters other pilgrims and they all have their own story and their reasons for taking the pilgrimage. One person says it’s because he decided he needed to lose some weight before a wedding. Another person says he had a writer’s block so he’s taking the pilgrimage. Another person decides that her pilgrimage is designed for her to quit smoking. They all have a story and that’s the part of it they tell. But, of course, along the way you start to get the sense that their hearts are slowly being torn open-those wounded hearts being open and available to the healing light of Christ on that pilgrimage. And they slowly but surely begin to actually live life. Toward the end of the movie they reach the final stop on the pilgrimage. They get to the Cathedral and just as they are about to have their passports stamped with the final stamp indicating that they’ve successfully completed this pilgrimage, they’re asked a question. To a person they are all in shocked silence. And the question was: why did you take the pilgrimage? They all seemed stunned. And I think the shocked silence is because the question forced them to go back to the beginning of their journey and to reflect on who they were and why they thought they were embarking on that journey. And they realize that they’re not the same person who started that pilgrimage. They’ve been changed; they’ve been transformed.
In Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Tonight we start that journey. We too have the opportunity to rend our hearts—to tear them open—to be transformed and return to God to live into God’s purpose for our lives and for our life as a community. So this evening I pray that you will stay open as you make your way to Jerusalem and the Cross, and I bid you, “Buen camino.” Amen.