Sermon 02-13-2013

The Way Back

Ash Wednesday

February 13, 2013

Reverend Jan Wiley


I think it’s pretty easy to turn around. I start here. Turn around. (Demonstrate turning half way around.) Start here and turn around. (Turn again). Easy. Except it’s not.


It’s easy to make our body turn around.  But a lot harder to turn around our feelings, our thoughts, our habits.  Hard to turn around from what we have believed for a long time, even if we know at some deep place that what we believe isn’t helping us –  isn’t leading to the life we envision for ourselves.


Sometimes things happen in our lives that cause us to be awakened to a new perspective.  We begin to reassess the life road we are following, the direction we are going.  And sometimes we decide to turn around and head in a new direction. That’s really what the word ‘repentance’ means – to ‘turn around.’  And Ash Wednesday is the time each year when the church provides the opportunity to reflect and think about our direction.


Often we hear the word repentance and it’s uncomfortable.  Because we think we are supposed to think only about “religious” things we need to turn around, we keep the focus very narrow.   How we didn’t pray enough.  Or we said a mean thing to our partner.   We don’t work in the Food Closet enough.  Those may all be appropriate things to think about.


But maybe we can see Lent as an opportunity – not to feel bad about something we’ve done wrong.  But to see it as opportunity to reorient ourselves in a new direction that brings life and wholeness.   That’s what God really wants for us.  Life and wholeness.  Love and a measure of peace.  “I have come,” Jesus says, “that you might have life and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10)


When we aren’t our truest selves, then we distance ourselves from God, don’t we?  God doesn’t want you to just worship regularly, pay your tithe faithfully and do a few good deeds here and there.  Yes, those are good things.  But God doesn’t want to have relationship with you that’s just a checklist.


God wants you to be your best and truest self.  To be your most whole and healthy self – physically, spiritually, emotionally, relationally, in harmony with the world.  It’s not a checklist.  It’s a relationship.  It’s a journey.


And like any journey, we need a direction to go and a map that helps us get there.  And Ash Wednesday   is a special time we have carved out of the Christian calendar, to especially focus on where we are, and where we want to go, and Lent provides a journey to help us get there.  Out of the 52 Sundays of the year, we set aside 6 Sundays each year to help us focus (more than normally) on who we are, how we’re doing, what adjustments (large or small) we need to make to go in the direction we need for abundant life.


But I have to say my own internal arguer (that ‘yes, but’ person that lives inside of me),  the ‘yes but’ voice says,” I can change all I want but  my issues are with other people or circumstances that I can’t control.  Even if I change, if my spouse (read partner, parent or my kid or my in-laws or my co-worker doesn’t change) then all my changes in the world won’t fix it.  So why try.”


Fair enough.  If we change, it won’t fix other people’s issues and make them more whole, fair, compassionate, whatever you think they need to make your situation better.  You’re right about that.


There are some circumstances that can’t be changed.   In a moment you will watch the first clip from the movie The Way, which is also part of the inspiration for our Lenten journey this year.  Tom Avery, Dr. Thomas Avery, an ophthalmologist in Ventura, has just learned of his only son Daniel’s unexpected death as Daniel has been out travelling the world.  Tom knows little of the circumstances of Daniel’s death except that he was in France, so Tom, whose wife has already died, travels alone to a small town in France to claim his son’s body.  We see Tom on the train to the town, and through flashbacks,  he remembers his final time with Daniel as he drives him to the airport.  Devastated by his son’s death, this glimpse into their relationship reveals that it was sometimes a painful relationship where father and son struggled to understand one another.


Multi Media:   Show Clip here.  


So begins the journey of Tom Avery.  A journey not to just to reclaim his son’s body, but an unexpected journey that will help Tom reclaim his relationship with his son and reclaim in many ways his own life.


Tom can’t change the fact of his son’s death.  But the prophet Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf saying:  ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.‘ (Isaiah 43: 19).


I will make a way for you.  So if you can’t change a bad situation, and you can’t change someone else, Isaiah says believe that God will yet make a way for you – a new path where you find strength to live even with the barriers or hurts or rocks that are part of your path.


As our song this evening says:


‘God will make a way where there seems to be no way.

God works in way we cannot see.  God will make a way for me.’


Daniel’s death becomes the moment (not that he realizes it yet), when Tom embarks on the first step of the journey of repentance, of turning around, of redirecting his own life towards wholeness and peace.  And it will be a journey of forgiveness too – not only forgiveness for Daniel but for himself.  But we’re getting ahead of the story.


Part of the power of Daniel and Tom is that it was a journey.  Repentance rarely happens all at once.  It comes bit by bit.  But even a slight change in our position, will send us on a new trajectory, a new journey.  So, baby steps or giant steps, open yourself to the journey, to re-orient yourself to God and to your own life, to rediscover the life God wants for you.


Jan moves to the altar table and brings the ashes forward:


I have always struggled a bit with the traditional order of this service.  For you read scripture (the same scripture assigned for each and every Ash Wednesday.  Then you receive the ashes on your forehead.


I think I understand that order better this year than I have before.  For the ashes are the sign and symbol of our mortality.  Not just that we will die but to remind us of how important it is to truly live the life we have.  We don’t mark our foreheads as much to remind us we will die but to remind us to live!  To make this fragile life have purpose and meaning and joy.   And the older we get, the more we realize that our life and the lives of those we love are fragile and sometimes all too brief.


Then, aware of our own mortality, being reminded of life’s fragility, we turn and confess to God that we have not lived up to all life’s wholeness and abundance and care for ourselves and others.    And, amazingly enough, when we confess, we are reminded that God knows how we have messed up and loves us anyway.  God pardons us and says.  “OK.  You see that life is fragile.  You have messed up and I love you anyway.  Now, what are you going to do about it?”


So this Lent we take a journey.  You are invited to travel the season of Lent as your own pilgrimage of faith.  Because the truth is, that though I can turn my body around pretty quickly and easily, to truly re-orient my life back to God and rediscover the abundance and wholeness God wants for me is not quite that easy.  So we have time.  Lent is six weeks.  Not nearly enough time for some of us to finish the journey that may be before us.  But it’s plenty enough time to start the journey.   And it starts tonight.  With our foreheads all smudged up as we leave the service, we are declaring that we are tagged as Christ’s own and admitting that we can’t do this journey alone.   So Christ will walk with us on this journey, reminding us that our life is too temporary on this earth to be wasted.


So, let us bless and give thanks for these ashes and we join in the responsive ‘Thanksgiving Over the Ashes.’




In the movie The Way, you will see that Tom Avery embarks on the journey his son

Daniel was on when he died.  Daniel was following the historic pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago de Compostela – walking with pilgrims from a site in southern France over the Pyrenees and to traveling to western Spain to the cathedral in Santiago.


When pilgrims travel they are given a special pilgrim’s passport that is marked at every place they stop for food and lodging.  It is proof you a pilgrim. And later it is used as proof you have walked the Camino – the road – the Way.


So tonight, as we embark on our Lenten journey, you will be given your own passport.  And when you leave tonight you can stop at the table in the narthex and stamp your passport in the box if you have watched the movie the Way and then stamp if for the date of today,  Ash Wednesday.   And each week that you come to worship in Lent you can stamp your passport to document you have been on the Lenten journey.  Put your name on it.  Bring it each week.


When you discover the reason for your journey, you can fill it in too if you wish or keep it private.


So let us prepare for the road and receive our ashes, a mark that we belong to God.