Have you ever been really lost? I mean… way, way, way off course?
Many, many years ago, I spent a summer in South Central, Los Angeles volunteering to serve the families affected by gang violence. I lived in a rectory of a vibrant Church, and I met many wonderful people. But it was a rough area. My first week, as I was lying in bed with the window open, I heard a gun fight right behind the church. Then, someone ran right past me down the alley. I could hear him huffing and puffing.
Like all volunteer programs, we got a break day, and so we decided to head out to the California beaches about 20 miles away. This was Los Angeles, after all, and we were young, scrappy and hungry. So we hopped in a car and, with a general idea of where to go, and we were off.
Now, if you’ve been out there you know there are some long, straight roads… and we just kept driving and driving, talking and talking.
I’m not good at geography, but I remember growing more and more confused as I saw hills and mountains getting closer. When we finally pulled over, we ask this a man where the beach was. “Dude,” he said, “the Pacific Ocean is about 60 miles that a-way.”
We were way off course. When we had left our neighborhood onto the main road, we should have taken a left, not a right.
That wouldn’t have happened today, of course. No, today I have an iPhone and GPS. Google Maps. Now if I take a wrong turn, it doesn’t yell at me, or make me feel bad. No, with incredibly patience, it whispers in my ear… “rerouting”.
It’s amazing how that works, isn’t it? Analyzing all that traffic history, collecting thousands of real-time data points from people travelling, projecting how long it will take to get me where I need to be. The safest route.
Like Lent, if you think about it. Like when you fail, when you miss the mark, when you sin against God and neighbor – and end up feeling guilty, anxious or depressed. You might be feeling like that right now. You feel way off course. Truth be told, we all do at times.
But today – Ash Wednesday – if you can look beyond your guilt, your shame, your suffering, you’ll realize that God is showing you a new way. You’ll realize that Jesus will take you right where you’re at – on that dead end street, in that relationship heading south, in a group of friends that at times seems like they are not moving — and patiently suggest the right path, a solid blue line.
Imagine God’s voice for a moment…
“I know you’re lost. I know you’ve sinned. I know you’re not the person you want to be.”
“You might feel terrible right now, but I won’t let your guilt destroy your identity.”
“You are not the sum total of your sins. A contrite heart is My delight.”
“Come travel safely with me.”
“I only desire prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving.”
You are on the fastest route.
There are many ways, of course, to find your right course. After all, it’s been done many times. Like maybe stop using foul language, to stop eating when you are not hungry, to stop trying to be funny at the expense of others.
Just another way of saying “fasting…” from today’s Gospel.
Or maybe for you rerouting means a little more solitude. In your room, in Church before you receive the body and blood of Christ. Taking a break from your racing mind going on and on about your GPA, about college, about co-workers.
Or, maybe committing a few dollars to our mission collection, or giving up Starbucks for 40 days and donate the money you saved.
You know, our Catechism says that the call of Jesus is “radical reorientation of our whole life, a return to God with all our heart, a turning away from evil with the desire and resolution to change our life with the help of God’s grace.” That’s our promise.
So this morning, let’s re-imagine what those ashes on our foreheads will mean. Let’s see them for what they are — a sign. A sign that says we trust in our Tradition, our community, our GPS system.
The same Tradition that guided C.S. Lewis and his favorite book – Sacred Scripture. The same Tradition that gave us Pope Francis and Gregor Mendel. The same Tradition that gave directions to Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and St. Thomas Aquinas.
A Tradition that reminds us, again and again, that we have been saved by Almighty God.
We finally made it to the beach that day. And I promise that if you open your hearts and listen very carefully to the Lord this morning, you will make it to your destination.
“Repent, and believe the Gospel.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”