February 10, 2016
Ash Wednesday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 + Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
On one occasion, I made the journey with a family to spread the ashes of their beloved mother. We went to a beautiful garden in a churchyard with a wooded path, blooming with azaleas, huge magnolias over head. The family carried the ashes in a gorgeous ceramic bowl. As we got to the place that seemed right for them, I expected to be handed the bowl to sprinkle the ashes on the ground under the bushes. But, instead, the family passed the bowl around, each taking a handful of the ashes. They said something about their mother, and spread their handful of ashes. I had never touched the ashes of a human being. As the bowl moved toward me, before my left hand knew what was happening, my right hand grabbed the ashes and joined the family. The bowl went around and around until the ashes were gone and our hands were gray with the remains.
I will never forget standing there not knowing what to do with my hand, covered in ashes, my body marked by another body, caught between a desire to wipe it off as soon as I could and a profound awareness of the sacredness of human life. I didn’t know if I should feel shocked or captured by the sacredness of life. I certainly felt awkward.
It is profoundly awkward to mark one another with ashes: Remember that you are dust to dust, ashes to ashes; to the earth you will return. Every year, I’m struck by black crosses on the foreheads of newborns and our oldest members, on the heads of college students just dreaming about what they will become and friends who haven’t told anyone yet about their diagnosis; black crosses on spouses and colleagues, children racing through the halls before the liturgy and those in middle age running from death as fast as they can.
I wonder if it’s too much to tell one another that we’re going to die. When I was a seminary student, I was assigned to a church that couldn’t bring itself to speak of death. We made a cross on hands and said, “God bless you on your Lenten journey.” Of course, it’s fine to bless one another for our journey into these forty days. There’s not enough blessing in our lives. But on Ash Wednesday, it’s not entirely honest.
More than any other day of the year when we gather in this room, today we’re honest, despite what we say and do on all the other days. We’re honest that each of us is going to die. For most of the year, we tend to live in denial of death and so many other things that are killing us. We deny the behaviors that are kills us and the very earth to which we will return. We suffocate authentic relationships by acting like we have it all together, by pretending we’re not terrified. We make great displays of our resources or our gifts, while secretly convinced that we are of no value. Some of us are so good at looking good; some of us are so good at looking dismal; some of us are good at saying, “I’m just fine;” some of us are so good at controlling; some of us are so good at righteous anger; some of us are so good at being so ashamed or critical.
Maybe this tiny ritual act of making crosses with ashes creates a safe space for us to name what we are terrified to say. We’re honest that death comes to entire races of people because some of us will not share access or wealth. We’re honest that when push comes to shove, we really do trust death as a strategy for making peace. We’re honest that we are generally willing to let some be hungry or homeless to continue our economic system as it is. We can be mean, unkind, hypocrites, who do everything that Jesus mentions in the gospel of Matthew. We give when we think we’ll get recognition; we pray when we think we can get something, we fast from our addictions just long enough to post on Facebook; and we store up all kinds of treasures that we’re sure will build a wall between us and suffering.
The point of this day, however, is not to leave us standing awkwardly in our shame or shock or embarrassment, covered in one another’s ashes. The point isn’t to judge us into obedience, or shame us into change. The truth is, even for those of who keep a holy Lent, we won’t be much different by the time we get to Easter than we are today. Our hope for the future isn’t in our ability to get it right.
The point of today, once again, is to put our life our death into God’s hands. We simply take everything we are afraid to name; the end that will certainly come; and we bring it to God. We bring it to God and we say, “You do something with it.”
One poet says,
“Did you now know what the Holy One can do with dust?”
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
and the stars that blaze
in our bones
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
Today is not, in the end, about our dying or our sin. It is about a God, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, who takes us, with whatever we bring into this room, with whatever we face when we leave, and gives us a new way forward.
Today is for those who cannot believe that they can stop doing what is killing them.
With your higher power, you can.
Today is for those who carry death in their bodies.
With God, you will live.
Today is for those who are profoundly afraid about tomorrow.
You are not alone.
Today is for those who are deeply ashamed.
You are precious
Today is for those who lost.
You have been found.
Today is for those who sin.
You have been forgiven.
Today is for those whose lives are on Christ’s hands, he covered in our ashes, facing the same death we will all face, his body marked with our bodies, our bodies marked with his, all of us dying and mysteriously captured by sacredness. Today, we return to earth. At dawn, we return to God.
 Jan Richardson, “Circles of Grace,” Blessing the Dust, Wanton Gospeller Press, Orlando, Fl, 2015.