Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
March 2, 2022

Ash Wednesday, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

I have a confession to make.  A few weeks ago, I told many of you that I went to a pastor’s conference.  I didn’t say that it was in Arizona at a resort and spa.  (Paid for by a foundation, by the way.)   There was a thick booklet of activities and treatments.  Many of the specialized services at the spa were designed to get the gunk out of your body.  Facials that extract all the nasty stuff that apparently gets stored in your face under masks.  Massages that wrestled the toxins out of your muscles.  Stretches that released store-up hormones, trapped by hunching over or hunkering down. You could lay in a circle of gemstones and have the negativity drawn right out of your body.  You could also order a detox smoothie.

I thought as I read the materials, “This is what we need for Lent this year.”  We want to get the gunk out.  The things that flow under the surface that keep us living as beautifully and as grounded as we know we want.  The accumulated grudges and resentments that make our worlds tiny and protected.  The residue of the virus.  The distorted politics. The flow of injustice that surges unabated through our institutions.  The toxins of greed and power that invade our relationships and lead to justification for war and murder.

Just get it out.  Get it out of me.  Get it out of the world.

I had a spiritual director once who told me to imagine I was holding all the stuff that was killing me in my hands like it was one big ball, and then just throw it away.  He made me literally act it out.  Throw it away.  He made me do it over and over again.

We stand at the gateway to Lent this year with a deep yearning for a return.  We need so much this seasonal thaw, a melting away of all the things that have keep us locked up inside.  In some ways, it’s felt like we’ve been living in Lent for two years, this desert wilderness between the world’s infection with COVID and a world where its threat is not on our threshold every day.   Could Easter really bring the kind of life we deeply yearn for?

In a devotion for staff this week, Pastor Javen talked about the things we give up for Lent, not as a way of falsely depriving ourselves of things that we will just pick back up again after forty days, but giving up the things that we never want to pick back up again.

I sometimes think we imagine the Lenten God to be wagging the divine finger to say, “It’s about time to get your act together.”  But I think God is more the cheerleader who does back flips when we have enough courage to let go and throw away the things that only wound ourselves and our neighbor.”

This God, who says, “I’ve been here all along, not ready to judge you, but to give you what you need to live as fully as I made you to live. You don’t have to come home because I’ve already made my home deep within you.”

In each and every living thing there is a door to the divine, a gateway to love, the place of the Big Bang and the first chapter of Genesis, the curtain between God and the cosmos torn in two.

This is the invitation to Lent:   Be at home.  In this body.  In this divine world.  Love has found you.

So here’s the thing about the spa at that fancy Arizona resort that was really too much for this Lutheran sensibility:  it took a little risk to get the gunk out.  I put off signing up for my massage for two whole days.  Some people–way more healthy and centered than me–signed up right away.  They just put their bodies on the line.  It took me awhile.  Because it required peeling away the layers of Minnesota winter, layers of protection, to reveal to a downright stranger this aging, doughy, way-too-white, body.  To allow another’s hands to press on the pressure points, to lean into tension, the stored-up history of little traumas.  Literally, to strip down and reveal me just as I am.

Isn’t this Lent?  This call to come home to God calls for a vulnerability, an honesty, that is risky, embarrassing, and frankly comedic.

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

Life begins by reminding one another that we are going to die.  Not all of us in this room, or online, will make it to the next Ash Wednesday.  And eventually, our mortality will catch all of us, no matter our current detoxing or Lenten discipline plan.

Here at our most vulnerable, as we dare to step forward and acknowledge that, in the end, so much of what we thought mattered really doesn’t, we all step into this mysterious place, on a Wednesday, the day in the middle of the week, as awkward as the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

We say, “You’re really nothing but dust.”

And at that precise place, where our failures and our illusions surface, on this line between death and life, we make the sign of the cross.  We place the symbol of God’s redeeming and loving presence on the very spot where we experience pain, and loss, and grief, and the surging gunk in our collective life stream.

(making the sign of the cross) Here is God.

(making the sign of the cross) Here is Christ.

(making the sign of the cross) Here is your life.