Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we tackled the difficult issue of forgiveness, and since a number of you expressed to me that the topic hit a nerve, I thought I’d begin this morning by telling a story on myself that reflects some of my own feelings on the subject.
The setting? A crowded tv room in our first-year seminary dorm. The occasion? Movie night, complete with popcorn and a classic video – “African Queen” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The prompt? Deep in the thick of the jungle, as they’re trying to tow their sad, little boat to safety, Hepburn’s giving Bogart the silent treatment, furious with him over something he said hours earlier. He laments, “What’s a guy got to do to show he’s sorry?” And the Deb Sunoo quote that now lives in infamy among my seminary peers? Talking back to the tv, as I am wont to do, when Bogie asked “What’s a guy gotta do to show he’s sorry?” I naturally blurted out: “PENANCE!”
Forgiveness can be hard, to be sure…
Then again, sometimes the hardest people to forgive are ourselves.
God calls us to lives of holiness and righteousness, and God knows we won’t always get it right. God asks us to keep every one of the commandments; if that’s not enough, Jesus raises the stakes still further in the Sermon on the Mount. And the Scriptures make it clear that we are lost causes, without God’s help.
Enter this morning’s texts, written for early Christians trying to understand these complicated truths. God is all about forgiveness and mercy – but that doesn’t mean we should screw up on purpose just to be forgiven. There’s not a thing we can do to earn our salvation – but that doesn’t mean we should dispense with good works. Good works come as our grateful response to God’s grace.
The delicate balancing act we’re introduced to here in Ephesians and Romans is something the Church has had to wrestle with countless times throughout its history, and one that can be tough for us as individuals too, because it’s so easy to err on one side or the other.
On the one hand, it’s always interesting to listen in on those denominational, ethnic, and family rivalries over whose background instilled in them the most profound and lasting sense of guilt. Some of us are a little too good at wallowing in it, aren’t we? “I’m a terrible person. I don’t do enough good works, don’t pray enough, don’t have enough faith.” Whether it comes from a sense that there are perfect Christians out there in the world, and you’re just not one of them … or the conviction that we’re all just worthless, miserable wretches in the eyes of God, clearly the overwhelming emphasis in this case is on our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our guilt. God’s grace, when it comes up at all, is mentioned primarily to emphasize how badly off we are without it.
But there are dangers on the other end too. At first glance, the ‘grace upon grace’ angle sounds far safer. But there’s an enormous difference between taking God’s grace seriously, and taking it for granted. Between saying “Thank God I’m forgiven” and saying “God will forgive me no matter what, so anything goes!” Paul tries to pre-empt that danger here in Romans 6: “Shall we sin all the more that grace may abound? Certainly not!” But that card has been overplayed throughout Christian history too. Costly divine grace cheapened to the point of being seen as a get out of jail free card. Doesn’t matter what I do, I’ll be forgiven, so I have every intention of continuing along this same path.
If the first danger involves an overdeveloped sense of guilt, the guilt of those who opt for the second path strikes me as rather underdeveloped. We can’t confess our sins and be forgiven, if we don’t acknowledge them in the first place. Can’t appreciate the lengths to which God will go to save us, if we don’t realize how far gone we are. Further, if we don’t value the gift of forgiveness, we won’t be spurred on to show our appreciation. Again, doing good works, as I understand biblical teaching, is neither to earn favor with God in the first place, nor to make up for bad behaviors in the past (so much for good old “penance”); instead, our good works are a natural and joyful response to God’s grace.
An overdeveloped sense of guilt can be paralyzing. Convinced that I can’t do anything right, why try at all?
An underdeveloped sense of guilt can be equally stagnating. It’s been my experience that some folks think feeling guilty sort of counts, you know, as a spiritual exercise, so that they can then just keep on doing what they’re doing. As if the feeling of guilt were the goal, so as long as I feel bad enough about what I’m doing, I’ve done my bit.
The fact that it’s so easy to err on one side or the other is precisely why we include both a prayer of confession and an assurance of God’s pardon in our order of worship every week. Lest we forget the error of our ways, a humbling reminder. Lest we fear we’ve past the point of no return, a gracious welcome back and encouragement to change course and begin to move again in the right direction.
When I encounter someone beating themselves up, I’ve been known to say: “Hey, we’re in a guilt-free zone here!” Certainly we don’t want one another wallowing in feelings of guilt for no reason. And if the guilt is real rather than perceived, then I suppose it’s not so much a matter of guilt-free as post-guilt. Because obviously the point would be to recognize where we’re wrong, to repent, and to move on in a better direction. To be honest about what’s weighing down our hearts, and then, through forgiveness and repentance, to let the guilt go.
Because guilt is only a step along the way right? “I’m sorry” by itself is incomplete. We don’t want to get stuck there. It seems to me the gospel movement of repentance takes us beyond “I’m sorry” to “you are forgiven” and “go and sin no more.”
Guilt is not a destination!
Sometimes the ‘guilt’ we feel is more like a flashback to some brand of bad theology we were taught as kids. Sometimes it even reflects an inflated sense of how perfect we think we should be – instilled by family or culture – rather than by anything biblical. When it is any of these things, for heaven’s sake let’s help each other shake it off and move on to something more worthy of our time and introspection. That kind of guilt is such a waste.
And when our guilt highlights something that actually needs our attention, let’s not delay in attending to it. Let’s recognize the sins that are making us feel distant from God and one another, ask for God’s forgiveness, ask God to help us truly repent – meaning turn our lives around – and then move on from that point, in a healthier, holier direction.
To let go of guilt doesn’t mean to err on the side of not acknowledging our mistakes. It means not to allow those mistakes to paralyze us. Not to let the fact that we mess up from time to time to keep us stuck in old ruts, locked into patterns of behavior we know aren’t helpful or healthy, much less the way of God’s kingdom.
Will God forgive us each and every time we feel genuine guilt, and ask for forgiveness? Absolutely. That’s the amazing thing about Grace.
But does God want us to spend our lives feeling guilty? I just can’t imagine God has any interest in that. Guilt is a prompt, a wake-up call that invites us to notice where we are and how far that is from where we’re called to be. Insofar as guilt can serve as a vehicle for reaching out to embrace God’s forgiveness and love, it can be a valuable thing. But guilt is not a destination, no matter how comfortable or how masochistically uncomfortable it may feel to remain there.
The good news of the gospel is: God loves us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it! As it turns out, we don’t get graded on how perfect we are, or how guilty we feel. We don’t gain extra credit points for beating ourselves up. We don’t even get graded on whether we always get that delicate balance right, between acknowledging God’s forgiveness and responding with good works. Grace covers all of this and more.
Will God welcome us back every time we wander off, embracing us in spite of our weakness? That’s one of the important reminders we’re given every time we gather in this room.
Does God love us enough to go to extreme lengths to save us? That’s precisely the story we tell one another every year as we relive the events of Holy Week, now just a couple of weeks away.
Does every last one of us have a chance for a fresh start, a changed course, a new life beyond “I’m sorry?” That’s the incredible message of Easter morning, the most amazing evidence of God’s grace. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We find ourselves today in the midst of a Lenten sermon series focused on the theme of “Letting Go.” We began by talking about the need for each of us to evaluate our physical and spiritual clutter, asking “What is mine to keep, Lord? Where are you inviting me to loosen my grip?” Next we talked about letting go in the sense of trusting God to be in control - a shift in perspective from the way many of us are used to thinking, that it’s all, always and forever, up to us.
This morning’s texts address the topic of letting go of wounds, or hurtful experiences.
This topic can be deeply personal. So many different dynamics could be at play that I want to steer very clear of offering one-size-fits-all comments. Instead, I’ll simply share with you three different images from the gospels today in the hope that something in the mix might prove helpful as you reflect on any wounds you hang onto that are difficult to let go.
First this text from Matthew’s gospel in which Peter asks Jesus – “Lord if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Seven being the number of completion in ancient Israel, Peter’s pretty sure he’s got his bases covered here. He’s starting to get the hang of the way this guy operates. He knows Jesus won’t think one time is enough to forgive someone – so let’s go for the gusto, pull out all the stops and suggest SEVEN times! And of course Jesus’ reply goes so much farther – not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or in some versions, seventy times seven). I suppose we could get all bogged down in whether the final answer is seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety; clearly the point is we’re going to have to forgive people a lot.
It matters that we offer forgiveness. Why? For one thing, consider the alternative – what does it do to our hearts to carry around an old injury or a grudge? Sometimes the person we hold the grudge against isn’t even aware of it, yet it continues to eat away at us, inflicting in the end far more pain than the original offense. Letting go can be a healing thing to do for ourselves, as individuals.
Notice too that Peter specifically asks the question about another church member – in other words, part of the body, part of the family. And just how long would a family survive without forgiveness? Think about the number of times over the years you’ve gotten into an argument of one kind or another with a brother or sister … a child or a parent … a spouse? How many times do we need to forgive each other to continue the relationship? The question becomes nonsensical if an actual number is expected – there is no magic number – you simply forgive your little brother, your big sister, your child or spouse as many times as are necessary to stay a family. So, too, with the church. As my grandpa, a Baptist minister, used to say: “The only problem with the Church is it’s made up of people!” While we’d like to think people will always behave kindly, lovingly, appropriately in churches, that’s not always the case. Toes stepped on and noses bent out of joint – unfortunately, they come with the territory in a church family, like they do everywhere else. How many times should we forgive? As many times as we need to forgive, to stay in relationship with one another – seven, seventy-seven, seven hundred, whatever. Letting go can be a healing thing for a community, too.
Now I will say it relieves me greatly that in Luke’s version of this same teaching of Jesus, he says, “if there is repentance, you must forgive.” Otherwise we’d be left with the sense that forgiveness needs to happen in a vacuum. How often will people annoy, offend, or hurt you? Even the people you are closest to will do it from time to time. Not always intentionally, and often they’ll apologize, and particularly if the repentance is real, it’s appropriate to forgive, as many times as necessary. Forgiveness being in these circumstances one way to let go of our hurt, to unclench our spiritual fists, as it were, and move on.
But there are wounds, and there are wounds, right? What if a blow is inflicted quite intentionally, precisely in order to injure you, and there seems not to be the slightest regret, or at least not true repentance, in the sense of changed behavior. Allow me to tread on some dangerous ground here for a minute, calling to mind a text that has been used all too irresponsibly over the years – but one which I believe has a very different meaning than what we’ve been taught.
In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” How many wives have been battered, how many children cower in fear of a cruel parent, only to think the Bible has told them not to resist, or to protect themselves? Worse yet, how many preachers over the years have taken these dangerous words and gone precisely that route – explicitly telling their congregations that such treatment at the hands of another, if not justified, is at least to be tolerated.
But here is a place where careful cross-cultural translation is critical. Certainly at first glance Jesus’ words “sound like ludicrous counsel to those living in a violent world. It sounds as if Jesus is not just standing on a mountain, but is living with his head in the clouds, as if he’s saying, ‘Just lie down and let the world run over you.’” But Tom Long urges us to take a closer look at his words. “’If someone strikes you on the right cheek,’ assuming they are right-handed, they are most likely not using their [fist or even the palm of their hand]. Think about it. Most likely they’re backhanding your right cheek...In other words they’re humiliating you.”
Walter Wink observes, “The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. And notice Jesus’ audience. He says, “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” In other words, if they’re going to hit you, don’t also let them humiliate you. Change the terms. Change your stance. Thrust forward your other cheek; in other words, position yourself so they must take you on as an equal.
Sometimes the only way to let go, to free ourselves from a cycle of hurt, is to change the terms. There are things we can control in life and things we cannot. For better or for worse, one of the things we cannot control is another person’s behavior. This is why I find Long’s interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” passage so powerful: I can’t change the fact that someone has hurt me. But what can I change, so that I won’t be hurt again, at least in that same way? Turning the other cheek, in order to preserve my dignity. You may be a bully – but I get to decide how deeply I let you hurt me. You might slap my face, but you can’t take away my worth as a child of God.
This flips completely the implications of that text for abusive relationships, doesn’t it? You may be a bully, but I still have value and worth; I am made in God’s image, I can change the terms, I can change my posture, my stance. I can also walk away.
So sometimes letting go of a hurt is a matter of forgiveness – particularly when our refusal to forgive has been as hurtful to us as to the person we can’t bring ourselves to forgive. When we’re the ones with the festering sore. At times like these, for something not to consume and control us, we need to release, forgive, and move on.
But sometimes before we can ever let go or forgive, we need to remove ourselves from the source of injury, to get ourselves out of a hurtful situation, or at the very least to change the terms, focusing on what we can control and planting our feet there. At times like these, for wounds not to consume us, we need to take decisive action.
And now to our final text –as he sends his disciples off to travel around the country Jesus says “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet…” Did you happen to notice the contrast between the opening verses of that passage (Jesus giving the disciples power and authority over demons and diseases – that’s a serious amount of power!) and then this blunt observation - this doesn’t mean Joe Shmoe down the street is going to be impressed. What a terrific reality check Jesus offers his disciples here. Sometimes this ‘fishers of men’ thing is going to work out, sometimes it’s not. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about the times it doesn’t work. But you’re going to be far more productive if you can recognize those moments for what they are worth, shake them off, and move on. You have far too much important business to be about, to waste any time on this. Remember what you’re here for. Keep your sense of perspective and priorities. Give it your best shot, and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. I can almost hear a Taylor Swift soundtrack in the background as they knock the dust off those sandals: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate … Shake it off!” Not every battle is worth fighting. Don’t wallow in your disappointment. Let it go…
So again letting go can mean accepting that someone is really sorry – letting go of the hurt and offering forgiveness in order to maintain the relationship.
Letting go can mean releasing yourself from the expectation that someone’s hurtful behavior will change, that genuine repentance will come. In this case, letting go could mean releasing yourself from your role as victim, taking charge and taking control – changing the terms of the relationship.
And sometimes letting go can mean just that – shaking that proverbial dust off our feet so we can move on. Not every battle is worth fighting, not every hill worth defending to the death.
So there is our trio of gospel images this morning, all of them invitations to let go of old wounds.
Image one: Seventy times seven – and more – opportunities for forgiveness within the church family, as in our own families …
Image two: Cheeks once slapped to inflict humiliation as well as pain, now turned proudly in a new direction, changing the terms of the fight …
Image three: Dust shaken off feet that simply have too many places to be, people to see, things to do, to remain stuck in one place.
Noses bent out of joint, turned cheeks, dusty feet – where do you hear your invitation to let go?
 Tom Long, “One Christian’s Voice Against the Death Penalty,” in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2006, p. 41.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 99-100.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last Sunday we began a new sermon series on “Letting Go for Lent.” Because the word “Lent” at its root means spring, we played with the idea of spring cleaning, and asked how it might be connected, for each one of us, to the psalmist’s prayer: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” What might God be inviting us to hold a little more lightly? What is ours to keep and where might we be better off letting go?
Before we move on, allow me to state the obvious. There may be things you’re holding onto right now that you don’t have the luxury of letting go. Lovely as it might sound to play hooky from a difficult job, for instance, or from school or home responsibilities, that’s not an option most of us really have. Nor can we simply walk away from a frightening or exhausting medical diagnosis, for ourselves or for a loved one, no matter how much we wish we could. Nor should we completely let go of trying to be a good parent or caregiver. There might be creative ways to lighten our load in some of these areas, and perhaps those are well worth pursuing, but to really let something go implies an element of choice, and for better or for worse, choices aren’t available to us in every aspect of our lives.
In any event, we began the season of Lent last week on a fairly pragmatic note by talking about simply evaluating our physical clutter, asking God what is ours to keep, and where we are invited to let go. Conversations after worship and throughout this week indicated this was a topic some of you resonated with, and while I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to see how many drawers and closets have since been cleaned out, how many useful items given away to those in need, I would encourage us all to continue to find ways to ask ourselves even about our stuff – What is mine to keep, Lord? Where are you inviting me to let go? Beyond how this might impact the level of chaos in our homes, how might this impact the generosity of our spirits and the clarity in our hearts?
The challenge I hear in today’s Scripture texts is on one level simpler, but for me at least, also more difficult. It is the challenge to TRUST.
First in the twenty-third psalm, a favorite for many of us. Rich imagery, memorable lines. You are the shepherd, Lord, I am just a sheep. You lead me, guide me, grant me rest, protect me, anoint me, restore my soul. Think with me about the implications of this metaphor – what would happen if the sheep set off on her own in search of green pastures and right paths, trying to navigate those dark valleys, and face down those enemies? The odds would hardly be in her favor, poor thing, that is, unless the shepherd were still close at hand, keeping a careful watch, ready at a moment’s notice to get her out of her latest scrape. So how would it sound for the sheep to insist at the end of her journey that her ingenuity, her resourcefulness, her carefully laid plans and hard work were solely responsible for her success? A little silly? Surely her very survival depends on the gracious watchfulness of the shepherd, whether she acknowledges his presence or not. And of course that’s what the psalmist wants to convey to us here. You are my Shepherd, Lord; you’re in control.
And then our second reading from Matthew 6, which I sometimes fear was included in the Bible to provoke me, and people who share my personality type. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” says Jesus. Are you kidding me? I have an advanced degree in Worry! I can obsess about tomorrow with the best of them! Calendars and to do lists – these are our friends, people of God. My life is all about thinking ahead, planning ahead; so worrying ahead just goes with the territory. To trust that God has the big picture so well in hand that I can simply focus on my responsibilities for a given day? To relax in the confidence that God knows what’s coming a week from now, a year or a decade from now, so I don’t need to worry about it? It’s just not natural, I tell you! I’m more than happy to trust God, as long as God lets me continue to obsess about all the details…
Oh, right …
“Functional atheism?” she quietly asked. A wise mentor and I were having a conversation a few years ago about just this sort of struggle to let go, to remember that God is the one in control. “Functional atheism,” she gently noted, is what we are left with if we can’t bring ourselves to trust the God we love, the God in whom we say we believe. Faith isn’t about agreeing with a long list of doctrines, it isn’t a matter of intellectual assent, of saying “sure, this God thing sounds pretty good on the surface. I think I buy it.” Faith means actually joining up – putting our lives on the line and living as if what we believe actually makes a difference to us. The alternative? “Functional atheism.” In other words, saying there’s a God, but acting as though there isn’t, at least not a God worth following, a God worth trusting with my life… I can’t tell you the impact that had on me, to hear it put so starkly.
Now obviously there’s a difference between planning ahead to the point of worrying and obsessing … and just plain planning ahead. We are after all called to be good stewards of our time, talent and resources, we are challenged to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. God’s not asking us to sit around and twiddle our thumbs to prove our trust, nor have I found the Levitical command yet, that forbids me to create a to do list. But it’s a profound difference of perspective, isn’t it? Instead of grasping and clutching and clenching at all the details of every possible scenario, to simply do what we can with what we’ve been given, and then let it rest in God’s hands.
After all, they say if you want to give God a good laugh, you should start making plans. And at times it is almost comical (at least when it’s not tragic) the number of reminders we get that we are not in control.
I’m guessing I’m not alone here. You probably know what I mean when I say that just when I begin to labor under the illusion that things are settling down into a manageable, predictable pattern, just when I feel I’m starting to zero in on that promised land called ‘Under Control’, a reminder comes along that my grand plans for organizing my life are only ever tentative. These reminders can be dramatic things like a serious car accident, a job loss, a sudden death in the family … but even less serious things like a flat tire or a power outage or a nasty virus can do their bit to throw us off our game, can’t they?
And the person I want to be would trust God not only with her to do lists, her schedule, her plans … but with her whole life. With her loved ones’ lives even. I’m not always that person—I imagine the white knuckles, some days, are a dead giveaway – but God knows this better than anyone, and I believe God will honor my desire to become more trusting over time, and meanwhile God doesn’t love me any less for my areas of weakness.
Letting go in the sense of really trusting God to be in control is a huge shift in perspective from the way many of us are used to thinking, that it’s all, always and forever, up to us. But you know, all that stuff we spend so much time worrying about, it’s only ours on loan anyway. And our loved ones are God’s beloved before they’re our own. And this church is God’s church before it’s ever ours. Even our very lives are not our own – we belong, body and soul, to the God who made us.
“Guide me, Lord, into an unclenched moment” … so reads a prayer I ran across recently. May God guide us into those unclenched moments in this Lenten season. Helping us to let go. Freeing us from illusions of control that we might trust, as sheep, our Good and Loving Shepherd.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Have you heard about the Tiny House movement? For all that Americans still, as a general rule, pride themselves on going big – particularly when it comes to their dream homes – some are going small, and moving themselves into spaces that are as little as 400 and even 200 square feet. I’m not sure I’m ready to attempt it myself, but I love the personal reflections I hear as these folks are interviewed. The word “freedom” comes up a lot, as in freedom from debt, freedom from being tied down in one spot (some of these tiny homes are portable), and over and over I hear the tremendous freedom these Tiny House pioneers feel in trimming down everything they own so it’ll fit into one small room. In other words, freedom from stuff. And this freedom from holding onto so many possessions in turn frees them for all kinds of other adventures: time with family and friends, travel, a new job opportunity they might not have risked while carrying that huge mortgage, and so on.
It’s important to remember, of course, that the choice to live in a Tiny House is entirely a 1st world option, and even then, only for those with the financial means to purchase one. Much of the world’s population already lives in homes far smaller than these photo-worthy models of elegant simplicity, and certainly without all of the bells and whistles. All over the world, large families crammed into small mud huts, or under make-shift tarps. Families in our own city living in their cars, or in tents, or under the freeway. There are far too many children of God in this world who don’t have the luxury of pondering what it would be like voluntarily to live “small”… they’re already doing it, like it or not.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between these two phenomena recently. They seem so different on the surface. One a voluntary move toward simplicity, to achieve peace of mind and freedom. The other a symptom of poverty, making due without, simply because one has no choice. There are some beautifully pragmatic ways to connect the two, though, some concrete things we can do when our hearts long for simplicity and we live in a world full of desperate needs, and we’ll return to those in a moment.
Meanwhile, back to the season of Lent. A 40-day period of repentance and reflection leading up to Holy Week and Easter, Lent has traditionally been associated with fasting. Some take the fasting prescription literally, going without food for a period of time. Some go without particular foods, or make other personal sacrifices, fasting in a more symbolic way. Giving up caffeine, or chocolate. Giving up sugar, or television, or social media. Six weeks away from something you love a little too much, with an idea toward focusing more deeply during that same time on your relationship with the God you love. They can be helpful spiritual disciplines if they help us loosen our grip where we’re holding on far too tightly, and learn to depend on God instead.
Where else might we let go?
For some of us getting rid of physical stuff is highly therapeutic. Some of you know exactly what I mean when I say that, much as I dread it in advance, finally cleaning out that scary desk drawer or giving away a load of items from an overcrowded closet is a freeing experience! It always reminds me of a children’s story I heard years ago. As Mouse reminds Mole, “You can have stuff, or you can have space; you can’t have both!” Others of you, though, might really struggle to free yourself of tangible objects, even when the clutter is getting a little overwhelming. Letting go can be hard.
And remember - this is only physical stuff we’re talking about. How much harder is it to let go of other, less tangible things?
As I thought ahead this year about the season of Lent, I kept coming back to part of today’s text from Ecclesiastes – “a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away.” In other words, a time to hang on, and a time to let go.
Author Kathleen Long Bostrom sees the season of Lent as an invitation to do some spiritual spring-cleaning. “Every so often,” she says, “I take down all the curtains throughout the house and wash and iron them. I go through closets and pull out clothes that haven’t been worn in years. I dump out the contents of desk drawers and put all the clips, cards, pens, and pencils in order. I designate large bags for ‘put away’, ‘throw away’, and ‘give away’. When the curtains are hanging wrinkle-free over clean windows, the clothes are no longer squashed into masses of wrinkles in the closets, and I can actually locate a pencil sharpener in a moment’s notice, I feel as though I’ve accomplished something grand.
“Even more fulfilling than spring cleaning,” she continues “is a reorganization of the soul—a careful examination of the clutter and garbage we’ve collected inside over the years; a full-fledged honest-to-goodness scrutiny of the spirit. What do we keep, and what do we throw away?”
For all its somber associations with sin and penitence, it turns out the actual meaning of the word Lent is “spring.” I say let’s capitalize on that meaning and make it a season of new life – new realizations, new behaviors, newfound freedom, fresh starts … all in preparation for that most amazing gift of new life we will celebrate together on Easter Sunday.
But to do so, we’re going to have to let some things go, pry our fingers away from whatever it is they are clenched so tightly around that we’ve become unable to attend to God’s voice and God’s direction. Because in the end it’s as simple as that children’s story. It’s as if God says, “you can have this” [a clenched fist, grasping, clinging, holding on], “or you can have a clean heart, a whole spirit, a peaceful soul. You can’t have both.”
Now here comes that ultra-pragmatic connection between cultivating a willingness to let go, and keeping in mind the needs of others. What if we were to give the whole spring cleaning idea a stewardship twist this year? Asking ourselves as we look around: are there things here that I don’t use, but that someone else truly needs? If so, what on earth are they doing sitting here? Let’s get them to Queen Anne Helpline or Tent City, to World Relief for resettling refugees, to Share House for folks moving out of homelessness…Jesus says where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Clearing out physical clutter, it seems to me, is an excellent way to remind ourselves to ask that question periodically - where does our treasure lie? If it’s sitting around taking up closet space or gathering dust, that’s a good clue it’s not the kind of treasure Jesus has in mind for us.
And whether for you the clutter tends to accumulate fastest in file drawers or dresser drawers or “What drawers? Let’s talk floors!” …we all know that there is analogous clutter in our hearts and spirits. So it could also become a spiritual exercise this week for us to pray a single line from Psalm 51 as we go about a fairly mundane task of spring cleaning: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” a simple reminder that this physical task has a spiritual counterpart. Or how about while clearing your e-mail inbox on a stressful day at work? “Create in me a clean heart, O God. What is mine to keep here, and where are you inviting me to let go?”
What is your Lenten “spring cleaning” invitation from God? Where might you be invited to loosen your grip, to open your heart, to let go?
I’ve asked a couple helpers to distribute some questions for reflection that you can bring home with you today. You’ll see these Lenten challenges range from quite simple and pragmatic to a little more complex. Because as we make our way through these next several weeks, we’ll be considering together areas of life in which we’re called to let go in more abstract ways, as well as letting go of physical possessions, and those kinds of areas might even already be coming to mind for you, as needing your attention, and God’s help. But you’re also welcome to focus on something truly pragmatic this season. So pick any of these Lenten challenges that you wish, or try more than one. Whatever you choose to do, I invite you to picture yourself letting go, unclenching your fists, loosening your grip. And I invite you to repeat to yourself as you do so, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
Let us pray.
Lord, you remind us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven.
Speak to us, in this quiet moment, show us where to begin…
A time for laying down… A time for picking up…
What are you inviting us to hold tightly?
What might you remind us to hold a little more lightly?
What is ours to keep, Lord? … Where are you inviting us to let go? …
In our time and in your time, God, fulfill our prayers and let your kingdom come. Amen.
Letting Go for Lent: Spring Cleaning Challenge
Easter Sunday is six weeks away. How might you use the six weeks of Lent to respond to God’s invitation to let go?
Consider the following suggestions, or create a challenge of your own.
Are there six objects in your home that someone else needs more than you do? What are they? For whom might they be especially helpful? As you find them, and share them, pray “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me.”
Are there six areas of your home that could use a good spring cleaning, and would likely unearth things others could use more than you can? As you find them, and share them, pray “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me.”
Do you feel weighed down in an emotional or spiritual sense, rather than a physical sense? If so, where else might God be inviting you to let go? As you picture yourself unclenching your fists or loosening your grip, pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me.”
 Kathleen Long Bostrom, For Everything a Season: A Study of the Liturgical Calendar, p. 37