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What We Were Made For

St. John’s Lutheran Church
14 February 2024 + Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Rev. Josh Evans


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“Do you guys ever think about dying?”

Nothing brings a party to a screeching halt quite like an existential crisis. Barbie Land was a perfect utopia … until it wasn’t. Until the worries and anxieties of the very much not perfect Real World began to creep in.

Soon, in an effort to restore order, Barbie embarks on a journey to the Real World – only to be confronted by the world as it actually is. There she experiences human emotions for the first time. “Achy, but good,” she observes, as a single teardrop begins to fall down her face. But her journey is still far from over, and the trouble only intensifies.

While Barbie seeks out the apparent source of her trouble in Gloria and her daughter Sasha, whose own strained relationship and subsequent healing plays out over the course of the film, Ken – of “Barbie and Ken” – begins his own journey toward self-discovery … however cringey at times.

When things don’t go so well in the Real World, Barbie offers to bring Gloria and Sasha back to Barbie Land, where everything will presumably be back to normal and all will be well with the world again. Until it isn’t. And they find that Barbie Land has succumbed to the very same problems of the Real World – brought on by Ken’s aforementioned and cringey journey toward self-discovery.

***

Movies have a lot to teach us, and Barbie is no exception – as it confronts head-on the broken and often harmful reality of the Real World – our world – offering us a fresh perspective on why we gather this Ash Wednesday.

Here, at the beginning of the holy season of Lent, we confront again our own brokenness, even marking ourselves with ashes, a stark visual reminder of our creatureliness and our finiteness. It’s a peculiar thing to do. Come to church. Get a little cross of ashes on your forehead.

Recently, Facebook reminded me of another Ash Wednesday eleven years ago in Chicago. “Ashes to Go,” we called it, as we planted ourselves outside of bus stops, train stations, and bustling intersections across the city, offering the imposition of ashes to passers-by.

Frankly, it was more than a little self-conscious and intimidating for this introvert: What must these people think of us? Am I turning into that kind of Christian? And yet, the interactions and conversations we had, however brief, with those who stopped were deeper and more meaningful than I ever could’ve imagined.

Something about this day, this ritual, these ashes, speaks to people. It seems there is some good news among the dust and ashes.

***

However awkward and cringey Ken’s journey to self-discovery is, his own existential crisis takes center stage as the film progresses. As he struggles to learn who he is apart from all the things he thought made him him, there is a relatable yearning as he sings, “I wanna know what it’s like to love, to be the real thing.”

What is this all for? This day, this ritual, these ashes, the Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving? For the sake of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen and recognized for how observant we are – as Jesus so emphatically warns us not to do?

It’s never been about the ritual itself – let alone the recognition – as good as it is to be here to observe the beginning of Lent together in community. If we came here tonight out of a sense of guilt or duty or obligation, I’m afraid we’re here for the wrong reasons.

But if we came here tonight to remember what it is to be human, to confess what it means to be imperfect and broken creatures, then we’re on to something.

Remember that you are dust. There is power in this ritual. It is freeing to confess our humanness.

What is this all for? “I wanna know what it’s like to love.”

To love is to be human. Today, we confess that we are human, that we are broken, that we are fallible. And because we are human, we are capable of love, of healing, of being remade and remaking.

There’s a certain danger in that, but it’s a risk worth taking, as C.S. Lewis writes:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

To love is to be vulnerable.

***

Ultimately, Barbie herself finds freedom in becoming human, quite literally so. It’s not without its risks, as the fictionalized portrayal of Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator, pointedly reminds her, “You understand human beings have only one ending … Being a human can be pretty uncomfortable. Humans make things up like patriarchy and Barbie just to deal with how uncomfortable it is. And then you die.”

But it’s a risk Barbie is willing to take: “I want to be a part of the people that make meaning.”

Through their own unique journeys from existential crisis to self-discovery, Barbie and Ken have something to teach us this Ash Wednesday:

We are called to be a people who make meaning. Which means that we first have to confess that we are people … to confess that we are human.

In that confession is freedom. Being human is something that we continually discover we are – in all the messiness, in all the feelings, in all the dust and ashes.

In that confession is mission. Being human means being called to love. It means no longer living for ourselves, but living for one another and for the sake of the real and hurting world.

Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, love to love.

This is indeed what we were made for.

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