"Clearing Out the Clutter":
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Clearing Out the Clutter”
Rev. Amy Morgan
December 6, 2020
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
While many retail stores have suffered tremendous losses during the pandemic, one sector of the retail industry has prospered. Thrift stores have received record-breaking donations of home goods, furniture, clothing, toys, books, and other items for re-sale. One thrift store owner in Denver mused that, with people spending more time at home, they got tired of looking at the same stuff every day and started shedding furniture and cleaning out closets.
This trend doesn’t surprise me in the least, as I’ve carted several carloads of my family’s belongings to local thrift shops, often waiting in long lines and seeing pick-up trucks piled to the brim with my neighbors cast-off things. We do an annual culling of my son’s toys and gadgets, clearing room for the deluge of new things that come with the Christmas/Birthday combo he experiences in late December. There’s something refreshing and exciting about getting rid of things we don’t need, especially when we’re preparing to get new things.
Just this week, I did another winnowing of our book collection. And I realized what a spiritual exercise it is to get rid of your things. To remove a book from your collection, or a toy from your child’s room, or a piece of furniture from your home, requires reflection, honesty, vulnerability even.
We have to examine the object’s past. How did it come to us? As an impulse buy or a gift from someone we love? Does it have a history, or is it something new-fangled? Has it brought us joy, or does it bring up painful memories?
We have to admit the truth about ourselves in relationship to this object. I’ll never read this book because I’m really not smart enough to understand it. My son will never play with this toy again because he’s too grown-up. I’ve always hated this couch, but I’ve kept it for years because I want to please my parents to gave it to me. That sort of honesty is required to get rid of things you shouldn’t keep.
And letting go of our stuff opens up this place of vulnerability in us. What if I want to read this book someday but can’t find it or afford it? What if I get rid of a toy my kid really loves and he hates me forever? What if my parents get angry at me for ditching their old couch?
Getting rid of stuff is challenging sometimes, but oh so worth it. Instead of books piled up and packed together, my shelves are now open and organized and filled with things I’ll read or read again and enjoy. You can see the floor of my son’s bedroom again. I can find the dining room table so we can actually eat dinner there. There’s less clutter and more serenity. We’re prepared for something new, even if that means just living in a new, more orderly way.
This experience of getting rid of our physical stuff helps us understand John the Baptist’s popularity.
It seems odd that everyone from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside would make the arduous, dangerous trip out into a deserted, wilderness place to receive a baptism of repentance, to confess their sins and participate in a ritual that, as far as scholars can tell, John himself pretty much invented. I can’t image that if I opened up the church and advertised free baptisms with every confession, we’d have mobs of people flocking here, even without a pandemic. Confession is just not really our favorite thing to do. Maybe for folks in the first century it was the novelty of the thing that attracted them. But maybe there is just something deeply gratifying about getting rid of what we don’t need, especially as we prepare to receive what we do need. People flocked to John to dump their spiritual junk, to make room for something new.
But to do this, they had to engage in some reflection, honesty, and even some vulnerability.
Mark reflects on Jesus’ history, how he came to us, in a way that is unique among the four gospels. He doesn’t begin with Matthew and Luke’s genealogies, infancy narratives, and angelic visitations. He doesn’t reflect on Jesus’ mysterious cosmic origins as John’s gospel does. Mark begins his good news of Jesus Christ by linking him to his Jewish roots, to the prophets who came before him. He quotes not just Isaiah but also a snippet from the prophet Malachi. And John’s wardrobe and diet cast him as a new Elijah, who was to be the last prophet before the coming of the Messiah.
Hearing the call of the ancient prophets to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, people then had to honestly explore their relationship to the God of those prophets. Were there false idols they held on to or sins they hid in the closets of their hearts like boxes of high school mementos? Did they really believe the doctrines they recited, or had they outgrown them like an old t-shirt? Did the rituals they practiced hold meaning, or were they just keeping them around because they didn’t want to disappoint their elders?
And when they found things in their spiritual household that needed to go, they had to grapple with vulnerability. What if I need the security of these idols or the comfortable habit of these sins someday? What if I pitch the wrong doctrine and God hates me for it? What if the elders find out I’m not practicing the rituals they way they taught us and they get angry with me?
I’m sure that getting rid of their spiritual rubbish was challenging. But from Mark’s description of the popularity of this practice, like the surging popularity of donating our stuff to thrift shops, confession and repentance were worth it. Instead of their lives being cluttered with guilt and shame, resentment, and false idols, they had space to welcome something new.
In this season of Advent, we are preparing to receive something new. Christmas gifts, sure. And with a vaccine for COVID-19 on the horizon, we can begin to see a glimmer of hope for the new life that might emerge on the other side of this pandemic. But to prepare for these things, we’ve got to make space. Clearing out the old stuff, the old fears, the old ideas about normalcy. We’ve got to spend some time preparing the way for what is next.
Each Advent brings us the opportunity to clear out our spiritual clutter in preparation for the One who has come, who is coming, and who will come again. We are invited to sort through our spiritual household, reflecting, with honesty and vulnerability, on what we should keep and what we should discard. Where do our beliefs come from? How were they formed or who gave them to us? Do they still serve us well, or are they just taking up space? Are there practices that are worn out and feel shabby? Are there idols we hold on to because they give us a false sense of security? Are the closets of our hearts filled to overflowing with the sins we hide from ourselves and others?
Advent gives us the opportunity for repentance and confession, a time and space to dump our junk. It may not feel like an easy or comfortable thing to do. But it’s well worth it. To be free of the clutter, and open to what new gift we might receive.
Mark’s gospel makes this process a good deal easier. Unlike in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t pronounce judgment on those coming to be baptized. Instead, he is depicted as the pinnacle of humility. Garbed in the simple trappings of the prophet, he prepares the way for one who is so much greater, he is not fit to be his lowliest servant.
This is the guy I want to help sort the stuff I bring to the thrift store. I have to admit that I’m relieved to be wearing a mask when I go to donate my old stuff. It’s embarrassing to let people see the crap I’ve been holding on to. The shabby, out-of-fashion clothes, the computer manuals from 1998, the stained rug. The stuff I throw away or take to the recycling center is worse. I don’t want people to know I’ve kept stuff I know is broken, stuff I know is completely useless to anyone. Fear of judgment is real. So I’d much rather face Mark’s humble, inviting, non-judgmental John than the “You brood of vipers” John found in the other gospels.
None of us want to be judged, but we do want to be rid of our junk. Sometimes that means we need someone to force us to face the brokenness of the things we’re holding on to. When my son and I play the “keep or pitch” game with his belongings, it’s not uncommon for me to have to explain to him why he can’t keep a toy or game that doesn’t work anymore. Sometimes people have to explain that to us. We might experience it as judgmental, but in reality, it is love.
Even as we sort through our own spiritual junk, we can be John the Baptist for one another, ideally Mark’s version of him. We can offer a non-judgmental presence that invites one another to dump our spiritual garbage, get rid of what doesn’t work anymore.
And when we have cleared out space in our spiritual households, we can joyfully receive the gifts that are coming to us. Maybe gifts of peace and serenity. Maybe practices that work or beliefs that hold real meaning for us. Maybe we will even be prepared to welcome Jesus himself into our hearts and lives again. Maybe we will just be ready to live in a new, more orderly, way.
Or maybe we will be able to find our way to the table again, so we can eat there and be nourished.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.