In high school I lived in Belgium because my dad had a job there. I went to an international high school where my friends were from all over the world, and they too were temporarily in Belgium because their parents were diplomats or executives or military people. I actually knew very few people who were Belgian. Most of us had made significant enough moves, some of us more than once, that we felt we no longer truly belonged in the country of our birth, but we also didn’t fully belong in the country where we were living. Unlike the people I grew up with in California, I crossed my sevens, kissed people on the cheek when I met them instead of shaking their hands, and my everyday speech was sprinkled with French and Spanish and German. I had never watched the Rocky Horror Picture show but I’d visited a lot of castles and monasteries and the trenches of World War I. We were exiles, nomads, wanderers in the world.

That feeling of being exiled was at the heart of the experience of the people of Israel, the people to whom the prophet Isaiah is speaking when he invites them to do what matters. The people of Israel were in exile to Babylon, but that wasn’t the first time they had had to wander. All the way back when the Israelites had been liberated from slavery, and God was giving them instruction at Mt Sinai, God tells them what they should do when they finally do have a home, when they finally do settle in the Promised Land, when exile is over. God tells them they should remember and tell the story of their origins, beginning with Abraham who was called by God to leave everything he knew to a land God would show him. Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel after them, had to wander from place to place, exile to exile, knowing that although they were headed for a home, their lives were always in transit, always temporary. This was not a source of grief to them because they knew they were following a way prescribed for them by God. God intended to bless them to be a blessing for others. God had always told the people of Israel that even when their lives appear to be settled, they should remember their roots in wandering, their roots in pilgrimage and journeying and exile, so that they would remember that everything they had came from God, that they should offer the first and best of what they had back to God.

So today is Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of lent. Ash Wednesday is the one day in the church year that we face our mortality and our limitations as human beings. We acknowledge the fact that someday, we know we will all be composting in the earth, providing life for the soil and plants and bugs in the ground. On Ash Wednesday we remember that we too are wanderers, that our lives are temporary, and that every single thing we have, every single breath we take, every word we speak and relationship we are blessed with is a gift from God and will be returned to God some day. We can’t truly say that we own anything. Our roots are not in any place or civic identity or nationality. Our roots instead are in an ancient story, in the story of a God who spoke light and all life into being, a God who became human simply to share our condition, and to show us that love is stronger than any other force on earth, including sin and violence and even death. Our roots are in this story and in the identity that this story gives us, an identity as wanderers who follow the way of Jesus.

And this is the beginning of the pilgrimage we know as lent. Lent is a 40 day journey of transformation, honesty, and preparation for the power of holy week, when we as followers of the way of Jesus identify with his death and resurrection – when we let some things go in order to receive the new life God’s Spirit is always bringing about among us. It all starts with an awareness of the truth. It starts with naming the fact that our lives are on loan to us, that the little things we do matter because we don’t know how long we have here.

I have a friend named Ed who survived cancer. He told me that he and a number of his friends who had also had cancer talked about something they called the “gift of cancer”. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that everyone who has cancer should consider it a gift. God knows it is a terrible disease that causes a lot of suffering, and a lot of death, in this world. But Ed and his friends said that even though they would never have wished to have cancer, the fact that they had come so close to their mortality meant that they treasured each little thing in this world. Every breath of fresh air, every feeling of warmth, every smile in every person that they saw. He said that because of cancer, they didn’t sweat the small stuff.

We don’t have to wait to get cancer to recognize this precious life that is a gift from God. We can do that today. We can even have the courage to face the ways we’ve been living that don’t lead to life—the ways we’ve not done what was important and spent too much time on what isn’t.

This lent, knowing that our lives are always something of an exile, and always on loan to us, I’m inviting the St John’s community to make some time every day to reflect on one of the seven practices of the way of Jesus through this little book, Living the Way of Love. Lent is about the first practice, which is “turn.” It is about turning from the illusion that we will live forever, turning from the illusion that we have control and self-sufficiency, and turning toward a radical openness to the generosity of God for us and through us. This book isn’t full of life-shattering insights. It is full of small, ordinary practices we can use to follow the way of Jesus together—to live our lives in a way that matters, that endures because the one thing that does last is the love and healing and forgiveness of God.

Before I close, before we turn to the rest of our liturgy, I’d like to invite you to think about a situation in your life that is bothering you. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would change about what you did with that situation today? Would that situation still even matter to you? What about it would become less important and what would become more important?  Who would you make time for? What would you let go?

What we will do next is to receive ashes on our foreheads, to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Here is what poet Jan Richardson reminds us:

 

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

 

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

 

did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust? ….

 

This is the moment

We ask for the blessing

That lives within

The ancient ashes,

That makes its home

Inside the soil of

This sacred earth.

 

So let us be marked

Not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

Not for shame.

Let us be marked

Not for false humility

Or for thinking

We are less

Than we are

 

But for claiming

What God can do

Within the dust,

Within the dirt,

Within the stuff

Of which the world

Is made

And the stars that blaze

In our bones

And the galaxies that spiral

Inside the smudge

We bear.[1]

 

Amen.

[1] Selections from Jan Richardson, “Blessing the Dust: For Ash Wednesday,” in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015). ©Jan Richardson. Janrichardson.com