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