A sermon for Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

These words we say during the imposition of ashes. They’re a reminder of mortality. The remind us that we’re all going to die. And every year when it comes time to face writing an Ash Wednesday sermon, I come up against that reminder, and I don’t want to face it.

I think of the times when I said those words to a mother whose child had died, or people who were dying, and asked myself if they really needed to be reminded about death. And I’m asking myself the same question as I stand here in front of you this evening. Does this community really need to be reminded of death? We know about it. We’ve seen it up close. There are too many beloveds who were here with us last Ash Wednesday, who are gone now.

Do we really needed to be reminded?

But what I come back to every year as I think about it is, yes. Yes we do. Maybe we don’t think about death often enough. In our culture we’d rather pretend that we don’t die. And we forget that there are worse things than physical death, than breath leaving the body, no matter how much it hurts when that body belongs to someone we love.

We forget about all those little deaths that happen when we lose sight of what really matters in life. When we get lost along the way. We forget that we’re made in the image of God. We’re made to be like God. We’re made for love.

We forget about the many little deaths that take place when we lose touch with love.

So maybe we don’ t think about death often enough.

And when we don’t think about death, we can’t think about Resurrection. We forget that life doesn’t end with the death of the body. We forget God’s promise to us through Jesus Christ that life will ultimately triumph over death. Life will win in the end.

Lent is about remembering all of this. Lent is a journey is a journey from Ash Wednesday through Good Friday to Easter. Lent—like life itself—is a journey toward life.

Our whole lives are a journey. A pilgrimage, you could say. In ancient Christian tradition, a pilgrimage is a particular kind of journey. It’s a journey toward a holy place. And faithful people still go on pilgrimage. I’m going on a pilgrimage myself in April, right after Easter, to Assisi in a tally, home of St. Francis and St. Clare. And I’ve been reflecting on what’s involved in making the most of this opportunity.

I’m thinking about three things in particular that I’ve been learning from other wise pilgrims.

The first is that pilgrimage begins with choosing a destination. And setting your internal GPS so you can travel the right route, without worrying about getting lost along the way.

And sometimes you have to keep resetting it. I was thinking about that last week when we traveled up to the Poconos to visit a young man who is like a son to us, and his family. I set my GPS to their home, but we were driving through the mountains and the GPS kept losing the signal. And it kept resetting itself to a different destination. To the wrong destination. And I had to keep stopping to reset it and wait for it to recalculate the route directions. I lost count of how many times I had to do that.

Lent is a time to think about the false destinations that keep cropping up in our own lives. What are the false destinations that keep attracting us? What mountains are getting in our way? What do we need to do this Lent to reset our soul’s own internal GPS, to keep heading in the right direction?

The next thing to think about is packing. Traveling light. What’s essential to take along on this journey? And what is there that we need to let go of and leave behind? What in our lives has become too heavy to carry? What hurts and grudges do we need to let go of? What misplaced desires do we need to put behind us? People think we preachers mean sex when we say something like that, but there are all kinds of misplaced desires that can take over our lives. Maybe Lent is a good time to let go of them.

And the final lesson of pilgrimage I want to mention here is the importance of paying attention to the journey itself. A pilgrimage is a journey where the traveling is as important as arriving at our destination. We need to pay attention. To everything. But especially to our companions on the way. A good pilgrimage is all about the community of fellow travelers who make the journey with us.

And I’m not just talking about this wonderful church community, but all the people our lives will brush against, even remotely. How do we treat our brothers and sisters in this world? In what ways do we need to change our way of being with them?

On the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage to the traditional burial place of St. James in Spain, the customary greeting to fellow trawlers is, “Buen Camino!” which means good walk, or good pilgrimage. So today on Ash Wednesday, as we set out on our own journey to Easter, I wish us all a very good Lent!


Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol PA.