March 6, 2019
Ash Wednesday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
The Lutheran church is about to publish new collection of pastoral resources for those in prison. One of the writers, a chaplain in a women’s prison, tells of the difficulty of serving behind bars where the rules are designed to keep the women “in line.” Most often, the women are referred to by their number. “Hey, you, #19577,” move along.” Being reduced to a number means that most in the prison, even the other inmates, never know one another’s names. They are never allowed to touch one another. Hugging or shaking hands is not allowed on family visits. Ostensibly designed to reduce violence, the rule means that these women are never touched in any way. It does violence to their souls. Some of the women go years without anyone ever touching them. Some who will never leave prison will never again receive a loving touch. Even the chaplains are not allowed to touch the women who come to the weekly service. No hand on the shoulder; no sharing of the peace; no comforting touch.
One year the chaplain asked for special permission to make the sign of the cross on the inmates’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Surprisingly, the request was granted.
As each woman comes forward, she asked their name.
Who are you?
I am Olivia.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Who are you?
I am Caroline.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Reaching into lives that are broken, isolated, cut-off from affection and community, with a thumb darkened by ash, she names them, one by one, as a children of God, sentenced to eternal life.
This is the fast that I require, says the Lord: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If the church shows up where people are dying and does what it has been taught to do—making the sign of the cross—God will re-make the world. The lonely will be loved. The hungry will be fed. The naked will be clothed. The alien will be welcomed. The prisoner’s heart, as well as her future, will be set free. The sinner will be welcomed home. And every one will be seen as beloved, possessing a beautiful dignity, worthy of grace, and a new life.
In the gospel of John, when Jesus shows up with wounded hands and pierced side, marked by the cross, the first thing he does is breathe forgiveness into his disciples. The ones who had done everything wrong and had no reason to expect anything other than a furious Christ are greeted with peace. The Greek word for forgiveness that John uses literally means to untie something. To be forgiven literally unties our knots, sets us free to breathe again, to take in the love of God as oxygen. When we breathe the oxygen of God’s love, freedom and justice are the inevitable result.
Hana Malik writes in her book, “Raw”, “Forgiveness is taking the knife out of your own back
and not using it to hurt anyone else
no matter how
they hurt you.
Forgiveness, Confession, Repentance, Change, Waking Up–whatever you want to call the work of Lent–breaks the cycle of hatred, consumption, projection, violence, abuse, addiction—wounds that create cascades of hurt and pain for others. It’s usually those who cannot be honest about their failure, or who are hopelessly they’re stuck, who do the most damage. The work we do together in Lent, honest even in the face of great suffering and death, will mend the entire universe.
I suspect there may not be much difference between those women in prison on Ash Wednesday and us. We come into this church broken by what we’ve done or not done. Maybe we were caught; maybe not; maybe we wish we would get caught, just to end the shame that never allows us to be at peace. We come dying by our rigid expectations or addictions or behaviors that strip away our identities and steal our dignity. Certainly, we have all built prison walls around our fears, living isolated and lonely, all the while brightly answering, “Oh, I’m great. How about you?” All of us refuse, in some way, to look at the ways that we are killing one another and the planet. Some of us know we’re dying; most of us will have to be honest about it eventually.
All of us need the sign of the cross, our sinful and broken selves put to death by the death of Christ, raised up from baptismal water to live as eternally healed.
I invite you into this work of Lent, of coming forward to be honest about yourself, and whatever it is that your dying from, to receive the sign of the cross, to be reminded of baptism, to be named once again as a beloved child of God, to be untied and set free to breathe again, to die with Christ, and be raised up in glory.
And then, from the table of grace, to go into the world to mark it with the love of Christ, to touch the world’s woundedness, to stop looking away, to speak kindly and with beauty, to gently set the neighbor’s heart at ease, to restore the streets, and to repair the breach, or to simply ask, “What is your name?