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.