March 6, 2019, Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
If you are at all into the current trends of organizing and decluttering your life then you likely have heard of Marie Kondo. She is an organizing consultant, author, and television host of the show, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” She’s become so popular and has so many followers of her KonMari method of organizing your life that thrift stores across the country have noticed an uptick in donations this year since her show hit Netflix. In fact, while they couldn’t solely attribute it to the so-called “Kondo effect”, donations in Washington, DC area Goodwill centers were up 60% this January over the year before and at one Maryland Goodwill location they were up 372% over the previous year!
Marie Kondo’s KonMari method of organizing is different from other methods of simply purging what you don’t use or need anymore in that it asks you to hold each of your possessions and ask yourself if it sparks joy, if it doesn’t then you thank it for its service and let it go. For some reason, this method of tidying up and organizing has struck a chord with people and the nation has gone into a KonMari decluttering frenzy. It seems that this country that is known to be so entrenched in its consumer culture that hoarding reality shows have been popular cable television staples over the years, has now done a complete turnaround and is purging all that clutter it has been accumulating for so long.
When I think about this decluttering trend on this Ash Wednesday, I think it offers us an example of how we might have a holy Lent this year. After all, often when we think about Lent we think about the practice of giving things up. Chocolate, alcohol, red meat, swearing, smoking. We tend to think of Lent as a time to give up things that we have an attachment to in some way. As a time to abstain or fast from such things as a Lenten practice or discipline.
While the Lenten fasting practice usually means giving up things you love or find joy in for the forty days of Lent as it is thought that by doing so it allows you to make more space for God in your life, the KonMari method of decluttering tells you to keep only those things that bring you joy while getting rid of the rest. I wonder if this focus on holding onto more joy might actually be a better spiritual practice for us to try for Lent this year because when we let go of those things that are unimportant to us, we let go of things that distract us and allow us less joy for what is the most important joy in our lives – our relationship with God. Thus, I wonder if Marie Kondo’s wild popularity stems from the fact that she really connected to some truth about our spiritual lives? That perhaps what she tuned into in our culture is our need to connect more deeply with the holy by ridding ourselves of all the unnecessary clutter in our lives that monopolizes our joy in life’s non-essentials and takes us away from the one true joy we really need in our lives?
In fact, her method seems to be right in line with our gospel reading from Matthew for today. “ 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It seems that Marie Kondo really zeroed in on the great spiritual truth that Jesus offers here, that when we let go of what doesn’t give us joy, then we let go of what takes up space in our lives distracting us from the treasure that is most important in our lives, which for us as Christians is our relationship with Jesus Christ. Because only when we let go of what doesn’t give us joy, can we enter more deeply into relationship with him and find joy most fully there.
And isn’t that what Lent is really about? Deepening our relationship with God in Christ? I think often we tend to think of Lent as a time of misery that is necessary to accomplish this deepening. That it can only happen through depriving ourselves of the things we love through fasting of them and then feeling sad or angry about it as we let everyone around us – in our immediate personal lives or through our wider circle on social media – know all we are sacrificing and doing for our faith as we suffer in giving up our beloved chocolate, sweets, alcohol, swear words, or fill your personal sacrificial item in the blank here. Jesus, however, warns us to avoid such behavior in our gospel today. He warns us that such a public show of piety won’t allow us to gain what we attempt to seek from it.
Instead, he offers the way of joy as an alternative. A way to reveal to God alone the acts of our lives that draw us closer to God – giving alms or money to the poor, praying, and fasting. He invites us to incorporate these practices in our lives in such a way that we can’t focus on our public suffering or misery by doing them, but instead we can focus only on all they add to the joy in our lives through the most intimate and personal relationship we have in life – our relationship with Jesus. When we allow Lent to be a time of stripping away of what doesn’t bring us joy in life, it allows us to narrow our focus to reveal the joy we find in the treasure of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Of course, it always begs the question why on the day we read of Jesus saying this we then almost immediately go and mark our foreheads with ashen crosses. Isn’t this more of that showing of our piety and wallowing in our misery and suffering in a public way we are told to avoid? It could be seen that way to some if we view the ashen crosses solely as symbols of our mortality and sinfulness. And indeed, for many when on Ash Wednesday we hear, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we think about how short life is and how quickly it is slipping away from us. We think about our sin, failures, and shortcomings as human beings
However, the ashen crosses on our foreheads are more than signs of our mortality, sinfulness, and all we will never be. They are also reminders of who we are, whose we are, and all that is possible for us to be because of those things. They are reminders of our baptism and the cross that was marked on our foreheads that day as a promise from God that marked with the cross of Christ forever, though we are joined to him in a death like his, so too are we joined to him in a resurrection like his. Therefore, the ash marking our foreheads on this day isn’t just a reminder of our mortality in the ashen remains of death, but also the promise and potential of new life that lies hidden within them. They are reminders that though we are constantly sinning, failing, and dying, God is constantly making us new and bringing us again and again to life from the way of death. They are reminders that God always has a vision and hope for the new life and possibility hidden deep within us beyond what we or others may see on the surface as the dusty remains of sin and death. They are reminders that we are not self-made, but God-made and God can make A LOT with just a little dust.
And so as we begin Lent on this Ash Wednesday and you are marked with a dusty cross on your forehead in a few minutes, may you receive it as a reminder. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are loved and to Love you shall return. Remember that you are God’s and to God you shall return. And finally, remember the joy that you will uncover in your identity as the beloved dust of God throughout this Lenten season when you take the opportunity to clear away the clutter in your life in order to discover more deeply the treasure of your relationship with Jesus Christ. Amen.