The First United Presbyterian Church
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 17, 2019
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD," and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
11 Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them-- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."
6 Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.
7 So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'
8 He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.
9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
The KonMari phenomenon has been sweeping the nation. Beginning with the 2014 publication of her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo has been transforming homes and lives through personal consultations, speaking engagements, and now a new Netflix series.
The approach is simple. Pull out all your junk. Look at it. Hold it. And ask yourself, “Does this item spark joy for me?” Discovering what exactly it means for something to “spark joy” is a process that requires practice. Kondo encourages people to start with things that are easier to discard, like clothing, and move along through your books and kitchen clutter, to your garage storage and, lastly, sentimental items.
Since the Netflix series, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” began airing this year, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts from friends bragging about how many loads of stuff they’ve donated and bags of trash they’ve thrown out. Kondo’s clients and others who follow her advice report happier marriages, more peaceful homes, and less stress and anxiety in their lives. It seems that tidying up by only holding on to those items that “spark joy” is truly life-changing for people.
The house of Israel in the first century was a cluttered mess. It was littered with centuries of tradition and oppression, disagreements and dissension. No one was cleaning up the corruption or collusion that lay about in open sight. Piles of laws stacked on rickety shelves obscured the original volumes that lay buried beneath their weight.
And this mess was making everyone irritable. They were fighting and blaming each other for the problems caused by this clutter. They couldn’t focus on what they all knew was most important – loving God and their neighbors.
And so when terrible things happened to them – a massacre in the temple and a construction accident at Siloam – they were more concerned with who was to blame than with compassion for the families of the victims. And it was easier to blame the victims themselves than to seek any deeper source or meaning in this tragedy.
They couldn’t blame God. That was apostacy, a total rejection of the fundamental principle of their faith that “God is merciful and kind, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” If the people were good and righteous, God wouldn’t let something this awful happen to them.
They couldn’t blame Pilate for the massacre. That would have incited more violence, fueled the flame of rebellion that caused the massacre in the first place. Galilee was known to be the breeding ground of the Zealots, Jewish people determined to overthrow their Roman oppressors. Many of them had been violently put down already, and Jewish authorities hoped to quell the bloodshed by assimilating into Roman society as much as possible.
They couldn’t blame the architect of the tower. Possibly, he died in the accident. If not, there were strict rules governing taking a fellow Jew to court, and it would be difficult if not impossible to prove a flaw in the design led to the tower’s collapse.
That left only one group to blame: the victims themselves. A common assumption among first-century Jews was that those who experienced pain and affliction were being punished by God. This is the assumption expressed by Job’s friends as he suffers inexplicably. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is asked if a man’s blindness is the result of his own sin or that of his parents.
And so the rumor has clearly been circulating that the victims of these latest tragedies must have committed some great sin against God.
Jesus roundly refutes this notion, saying that all of those listening to him right now are doomed to the same fate, unless they repent. The time is coming to tidy up the house of God.
Leading up to this episode, Jesus has been encouraging the people to not worry so much about things, like clothing and food. Don’t obsess and stress about your stuff. He warns them to get their house in order because the master will arrive at any moment. He expresses the urgency of the times, predicting division and accusation.
Stress, anxiety, shame and blame. All the things that happen in households before Marie Kondo comes in to clean them up.
Jesus comes in to clean up God’s house, to get rid of the garbage and the clutter that is tearing it apart.
And what does Jesus say we must do? “Spark joy.” Yes, I know, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus actually says, “repent.” But if we listen to the Psalmist, we know that they are one and the same thing. “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” In other words, “happy are those who repent.” The Psalmist says “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." Those who repent as the Psalmist did are happy, they spark joy.
The Psalmist goes on to describe what it was like while he kept silent, while he hid his sin away in a closet or stored on a shelf in the garage, pretending his life was perfect. His body wasted away, like a fruitless fig tree. His strength was dried up, like the barren branches of that tree.
What is the point of having such a tree around? It is a waste of soil. Not only that, as my household learned this week, it is dangerous.
On Wednesday morning, as the blizzard raged, wind whipping through the branches of a cottonwood in our backyard, I heard a large crack. I looked outside to see the cottonwood cracked at the base of the trunk, the tree laying across the shattered remains of our fence. I’d noticed last summer that there were some dead branches on the tree, but I had no idea it was dead enough to crack and fall as easily as it did. Fruitless trees are not just a waste of good soil, they are a danger to everything around them.
And so, as the master in Jesus’ parable declares, they should be cut down and made into firewood.
But, in Jesus’ parable, there is another character – the gardener. Now, as in any parable, the real-life correlating identities of the characters are ambiguous. Is the master God and the gardener Jesus, who comes to temper God’s justice with grace? Or is the master Jesus, instructing his disciples, the gardener, to tend those fruitless trees, lest they be destroyed? Or is the master the Triune God, and we are the gardeners, and the tree our souls?
St. Augustine insisted that in this parable, the manure represents humility, the humility we must each have for repentance, so that we give God’s grace an opportunity to grow in us and produce fruit.
Any of the suggestions I shared are plausible, but I prefer the last one. In this scenario, we are entirely dependent on God’s grace. A tree cannot will itself to produce fruit. But if we dig deep into our souls, removing self-righteousness and pride, and fill it in with humility and repentance, we are giving it a better chance. But the final outcome is still up to God. This interpretation describes that mysterious dance between God’s grace and our response. God has given us a reprieve. Another season. What we do in that season is up to us. What comes of it is up to God.
Frederick Buechner wrote that “True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I'm sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” We hear this in the Psalmist’s declaration that God is a hiding place, preserving him, and all those who humbly and honestly repent, from trouble, surrounding them with glad cries of deliverance. The result of repentance is not guilt. It is wonder.
In this season of Lent, this season of God’s grace, given to us for repentance, soul-tending, and wonder, let’s tidy up our spiritual homes. Let’s pull all our junk out of closets and drawers, all the places we’ve hidden our sin and brokenness, our self-righteousness and pride. I imagine we’ll find many things in our spiritual homes that spark joy. Hope and truth and compassion and generosity.
But as part of our Lenten practice, I would invite us to look at all our spiritual stuff. Examine it intentionally. Hold it. And ask ourselves, “Does this spark joy for me?” Does that grudge against my sibling spark joy? Does my anger at my ex spark joy? Does my certainty that people who belong to a certain political persuasion are horrible people spark joy? Does my self-victimization spark joy? Does blaming people for their own misfortune spark joy?
Start with the easy stuff, things you know you don’t need like anxiety about little things and minor frustrations. Clear through the bigger clutter, things we think we need but really don’t, like defensiveness and self-centeredness. And then move on to those sentimental items in our spiritual home. The old grudges and well-worn resentments.
This exercise takes time, and practice. Marie Kondo works with a family for about four to six weeks to tidy up their home. We’ve got five weeks left in this Lenten season. So let’s use it wisely, tidying up our spiritual homes.
After we throw out all the garbage and get rid of all the extra stuff weighing us down and causing us stress, I trust we will begin to see the fruits of our labor. The happiness the Psalmist promises. More peace, less anxiety. More love and less blame. I imagine this will truly be a life-changing process.
And then, with the Psalmist, we can sing, “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” We, too, can become something that sparks joy for others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.