Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We find ourselves almost halfway through the season of Lent today, Lent traditionally being a six-week period of reflection in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Our schedule’s a little off this year in terms of a Lenten sermon series, with our interfaith guest speaker last week, and our guest speaker from Operation Nightwatch coming next week, but Marisa Gronholz did a beautiful job a couple weeks ago setting us up to talk about spiritual practices in a spring series that will now be spilling over beyond the six weeks of Lent into the Easter season as well.
Why spiritual practices?
Maya Angelou once remarked, “I’m always amazed . . . when [people] walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.’ The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmmm. I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.’”
Being a disciple of Jesus is on one level as simple as responding to his invitation: “follow me.” But following isn’t always easy. So we’re all works in progress. It takes practice to be a person of faith. Fortunately, we can benefit from the experience of generations before us. Saints of every age have practiced their faith through prayer and Scripture study, for instance, and through acts of generosity and service. Which begs the question: what are the spiritual practices that have been most formative and transformative in our lives? Have we been searching for something to deepen or strengthen our faith? Might we want to experiment with a new spiritual practice this year?
As I heard our Muslim friend Aneelah Afzali speak about her prayer life last week, I thought – there are up sides to not being required to engage in prescribed prayers five times a day, prayers that would interrupt our lives at set times, but there are down sides to not having those prescriptions too. The freedom we enjoy to pray anytime and any way we wish, as Christians, is lovely, but it may also leave us at loose ends sometimes. Perhaps there are some of us here today who would appreciate a bit more structure or grounding, or at least a tool kit of practices to try on for size, to see if one or more of them would help you feel better connected to God between Sunday mornings.
So our sermons this spring will focus on some of the tools in my own tool kit, a handful of spiritual practices that have been particularly meaningful for me. They’re really only meant as a starting point; the goal is to prompt conversation so that we can all learn from one another. Because as Marisa mentioned, there is not a single exhaustive list of Christian spiritual disciplines. There are a great many to choose from, and I know any number of you have found for yourselves meaningful spiritual practices over the years too.
Lent being a time when many Christians choose to give something up, I thought I’d start with the category of doing without, or letting go, or simply not accumulating quite so much, in other words, the spiritual discipline of simplicity.
Simplicity for me is as much about a shift in perspective as it is about letting go of a particular item or habit. It’s related to the practice of fasting – going without food for a period of time, which is a spiritual practice in a number of faith traditions – but it’s broader than that, which makes it a bit more inclusive than fasting for those of us for whom going without food would be either unwise (medically speaking), or impractical (in terms of what we need to get accomplished in a given day).
And the practice of simplicity can be as simple as regularly asking yourself a question like this one: In a world that proclaims – loudly and often – that more is always better, where might I find that less is actually more?
How important is it to squeeze that one extra event (or 5 extra events) into your already busy calendar this week? How much stuff is weighing you down around your house? How badly – really – do you need those additional items in your shopping cart? Do you truly have to sign your kids up for one more after school activity?
You can ask the question so many different ways, but it’s all the same question at heart. Where might less be more?
Less Facebook (or screen time generally), more actual face time with people you care about? Less clutter, more space? Less rushing around, more peace? And – here’s the spiritual discipline part – would less in any of those areas leave you with more bandwidth for listening to God, more time to study or reflect on God’s Word, more financial resources for practicing generosity with God’s children near and far, more space to simply rest in God’s love? Where might God be inviting you to the spiritual practice of simplicity?
You may have noticed that a secular movement toward simplicity has been regaining traction in recent years. Tiny homes. Downsizing. Articles and blog posts on minimalism. And this year’s newest Netflix series on the topic – “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Now obviously there is more to the spiritual practice of simplicity than deciding which physical objects no longer “spark joy” in us as they lie around our homes. But I do think Kondo’s onto something. Because the individuals who take on her challenge of eliminating clutter in that show so often speak of finding healing and freedom for their spirits after sorting through mountains of paper and piles of clothes.
This wouldn’t be news to the apostle Paul. He knew the importance of holding onto possessions lightly rather than tightly. We just heard him say to the Philippian Christians: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:12) We hear in that perspective, I think, a healthy detachment from material things. Having them can be nice, certainly; but not having them often isn’t the end of the world.
That spiritual healing and growth can come from letting go also wouldn’t come as news to Jesus. In today’s text from the Sermon on the Mount he talks about the importance of storing up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Earthly stuff has a tendency to gather dust; so how much good is it really doing us? In fact last month we heard Jesus, asked a by a rich man what he could do to inherit eternal life, say to him: give it up, all of it, all your possessions. Sell them and give the money to the poor and you will find for yourself that treasure in heaven. Meanwhile, back in today’s text from Matthew, Jesus points out that spending lots of time worrying about the logistics of our life doesn’t do us a bit of good either. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink or … what you will wear.” (Matthew 6:31) You can almost hear him cuing the now-classic Disney song, “Let It Go.”
Granted, it’s a tremendous luxury even to be talking about too much today. Let’s not forget most of the world not only can’t join us in the task of minimizing or downsizing, they would be stunned by the whole conversation. What is this ‘too much’ you speak of? Too much food? Too many overflowing drawers and closets? Too many choices, too many channels, too many impulse items on which to spend our disposable income? Really, that’s our big concern? Less really is less when you don’t have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep at night.
But for those of us whose challenge is too much rather than not enough, what a joy it can be to share from our abundance with those who could put it to far better use than we ever could. So I caught myself, on a recent Target run, having already found what I actually came in for, reminding myself that spending $10 more on that little spring decoration for my home just meant one more thing to store in a closet somewhere off season, but $10 more in my One Great Hour of Sharing envelope this spring could mean a few more meals for hungry kids.
The thing is every time I remove a pile of stuff from my home, it’s freeing. My heart and my spirit actually feel lighter. And when I occasionally remember to cram less into a day, I feel more at peace. And certainly when I hold onto less for myself, opening my heart right along with my wallet and finding ways to be generous, it does my soul a tremendous amount of good.
Do I always get it right? Of course not! My Target runs do not, if I’m honest with you, always end with those same gems of insight. Nor have I mastered the art of letting go in other areas – of worry, for instance (that ‘do not worry’ text from Matthew gets me every time), or of a long to do list to which I probably stay a little too closely tuned in. That’s where that wonderful Maya Angelou quote comes in. “The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmmm. I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.’”
But I have so often learned valuable lessons when I have let things go that I know it’s well worth the practice. I keep circling back to this spiritual practice of simplicity because each time I do, it brings with it a sense of freedom, and peace, not to mention the sense that my life has one more small step toward faithfulness to God.
So I want to extend an invitation this morning, and give you a couple minutes to reflect on the questions you see printed there in your bulletin.
Would simplifying some aspect of your life, or minimizing something you own, help you take a step toward greater faithfulness as a follower of Jesus? What sort of clutter, physical or metaphorical, would lighten your heart, revive your spirit, or help you better hear God’s voice, if you let it go?
Pick a category, give it a try, and consider for yourself the value of practicing simplicity. Where might less be more?