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Facing Jerusalem – Ash Wednesday

The Reverend John Leedy

March 6, 2019
Luke 9:51-56

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

A few years ago in 2013, I traveled to the Holy Land with a small group of friends from UPC and Austin Seminary. Our pilgrimage began around the Sea of Galilee for a few days before heading south into the mountains toward the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a deeply spiritual place, but Galilee holds a special place in my heart. Galilee and the surrounding countryside is special to me because there is a sense of peace there – a sense of peace I have yet to experience anywhere else on earth. It’s a peace that overwhelms you, a peace that grounds you in the mysterious presence of God. On our last morning in Galilee, I stood on a hill overlooking the sea – not far from the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. I stood there looking out over the sunrise, at the distant hills softly cloaked in mist.

I watched as the clouds soaked in the colors of the dawn – purple and peach and gold. I closed my eyes and listened to the seagulls calling out over the glittering waters. I smelled the air, fresh with the scents of dew and living things. After a time, I took a deep breath and turned from that magnificent view, turned from that sense of peace, from that place of groundedness. I turned toward the waiting tour bus, set to depart for the city of Jerusalem. I had been to Jerusalem before, back on my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009, so I knew what I was headed toward. Jerusalem, though steeped in history and populated by a beautiful mosaic of people, traditions, and cultures, was a city of conflict. You don’t see barbed wire in Galilee. You don’t see the surveillance cameras. You don’t see IDF troops armed with automatic rifles. You don’t see the carefully drawn lines that separate the haves and the have-nots, or in this case, the carefully erected 40-foot walls of concrete. Jerusalem, for all its wonders, is a city of conflict, of pain, of suffering.

I knew what I was headed toward that day in 2013. I knew I was leaving behind a sense of home – a sense of peace. And when I turned from that view of the sea toward what awaited us in Jerusalem, it wasn’t a dramatic moment. It was a quiet one, almost a resigned one. It was a deep breath – a shuffle of my feet in the grass. It was knowing that the peace I felt there, in that Galilean oasis, wasn’t the end of the story – nor was it the point of my journey in the Holy Land. While tempting to want to stay in a place of security and comfort, I knew that without leaning into the discomfort, the conflict, the vulnerability of the road ahead, I would be buying into the mirage of a false peace.

True peace, the shalom of God, is not merely the absence of open conflict. True peace, abiding peace, is when we wholeheartedly connect with the lives of others and actively seek their wellbeing. True peace requires us to first open ourselves to the pain and suffering of others – to open our eyes to the unjust burdens they bear. True peace requires us to reorient ourselves within the structures of power and realize that when peace for the privileged is built upon a foundation of violence toward the marginalized, the forgotten, the widow, the orphan, and the alien that resides in the land – then there can be no true peace. When Jesus turns and sets his face toward Jerusalem, he knows he is walking directly into a confrontation with the powers of violence and injustice and even the power of death itself. The disciples may not know it yet, but Jesus knows. And today, we stand with the disciples, watching this quiet moment with Jesus. Watching him take just a moment, watching him take just a breath, watching him turn away from what was and set his face toward what will be.

As we enter the season of Lent, these 40 days of journeying with Jesus toward Jerusalem, we take this moment to pause, to remember and give thanks for where we’ve been, to take a deep breath, and to turn toward the road ahead. We turn, setting our faces toward Jerusalem, knowing the path that lies before us and the confrontation that awaits. We know that we must encounter his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, his standing trial before the powers of the world, his pain upon the scourging pillar, his suffering as he carried his cross, his thirst, his tears, his blood. We turn, knowing that we must encounter his death, and in so doing, will encounter our own death – our own recognition of our life’s end. We turn, leaning into the ashes upon our foreheads, reminding us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But reminding us of our mortality is not the only reason for ashes this day. The ashes also remind us of our life’s worth, of our place in the great story of God’s salvation. The ashes remind us of what abides at the end of all things – that wealth and power are the vanities burned on the pyres of time – that what is left is our faithfulness to the work of discipleship.

So we lean into our ashes. We lean into the ministry of Jesus and the story of his life’s end. We lean into the reality of our own life’s end and the meaning of why we’re here. We turn and set our faces, walking with Jesus into the sunset, into the darkness of death. And only once we’re there, in that darkest of nights, will our eyes be ready to see the true sunrise of peace.