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"Spark Blessing" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 17, 2019

posted Feb 18, 2019, 3:39 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

This Winter, on New Year’s Day, Marie Kondo released a new series on Netflix, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”  The series features Kondo arriving at the home of Americans bewildered by their belongings - their stuff. Sweeping in like a modern-day Mary Poppins, Kondo helps the families face their mountains of materialism, tossing and organizing and tidying her way through the chaos.

In the show, Kondo regularly introduces her hapless Americans to her trademark question, “Does this item spark joy?”  The central practice of her method involves holding up an item - say, the Hawaiian shirt your husband got for a party with friends back in 1988 (hypothetically) - and asking, “Does this spark joy?”  Kondo wants to know if the things in our lives still give us a shiver of excitement when we hold them. If not, Kondo suggests we thank the item for what it gave us and then put it in the donation bin.

This prompted a fair bit of cleaning out at my house, as I looked at books and dishes and the detritus of closets.  I don’t miss anything in the boxes that went off to the Purple Heart Donation Center. But I did wonder why I held onto them for so long?  What purpose did they serve?

Still, I wonder about Kondo’s question, “Does this spark joy?”  While practical when sorting through a closet, I think we need to ask a different set of questions.  And that thought came to me while watching the first episode of her show - Tidying Up; admittedly, the only one I’ve seen.

The episode featured a young couple with the last name of Friend; the Friend family included the mom and dad, married five years, and their two children, 4 and 2.  Like all reality television, the show opened with an interview, laying out the problem in the house. The wife explained, “He’s cleaner than I am; more organized. I feel like I came into his house and messed that up.  Right baby?” The husband nodded and rolled his eyes while his wife added, “But it was worth it, right?” He shrugged, “We got two kids out of it - that’s the answer for everything.”

That scene alone made me wonder if they needed Dr. Phil more than Marie Kondo.  For certainly I’ve learned over the years that a dismissive eye roll spells more trouble in a relationship then all the overt reasons people give for problems.  The look of dismissive contempt spoke more to the lack of joy then all the disorganized closets.

As the interview went on it came out that the couple often fought about laundry.  He worked, she stayed home with the kids, and yet they hired someone to do their laundry; which clearly made him mad.  As they went back and forth about this on camera, the husband cut off his wife, ending conversation with a “We’re different.”  Sparks; no joy.

As Kondo worked with the family, they learned her method of folding every shirt tightly, down to about the size of a postage stamp.  Dressers and cabinets and closets emptied. But it seemed like the real transformation came not in the tidying but rather in the Friends, husband and wife, spending time together, discovering long put away photos of their wedding, reminiscing on life before it became so busy with kids.  Along the way, the husband came to realize about himself, “Rachel and the kids are not getting the best side of me.”

While the show meant to market the positive effects of Kondo’s tidying up method, the organization or disorganization of the house seemed immaterial to the change between the spouses.  How they looked at each other - critical, dismissive, judgmental, defensive - presented the real problem. The husband realizing his family didn’t get his best self, learning again to work together, share responsibility as a couple, and compliment the other proved transformative.

The kind of cultural moment Marie Kondo and her spark joy mantra received made me think about a very different kind of lifestyle advice, the Beatitudes of Jesus.  Both the Gospel of Matthew and of Luke record the story, each slightly differently. In the Gospel of Matthew - which is how we usually remember the story - Jesus gave a “sermon from the mount.”  Matthew wanted the scene to replicate Moses bringing the law down from the mountain; like Moses, Jesus gave a law to his disciples, a way of blessing for us to follow.

Luke tells almost the same story.  But this time Jesus gave a “sermon on the plain,” down amongst the people who came out to hear him.  Luke’s setting may seem less symbolic than Matthew's, certainly less dramatic. But I prefer it. The “Sermon on the Mount” seemed hierarchal, Jesus coming down with the Ten Beatitudes and giving them to the hapless disciples.  But in Luke, Jesus stood with the people; Jesus with us, an act of solidarity. And I think solidarity turns out to be the central point of the Beatitudes.

(You might want to open up to our reading, which can be found on page 64 in the New Testament section of your Pew Bible.)  Jesus set out two ways of being in the world - one of blessing and one of woe. Jesus named four experiences that cause God to bless us: poverty, hunger, grief, and oppression.

Luke’s version of the story differs from Matthew's not just in the setting - mountain vs plain - but also in the kind of situations named.  Matthew spiritualized the very real conditions Luke named. In Matthew, Jesus called blest those who are poor in spirit. But in Luke, Jesus doesn’t treat poverty as a metaphor.  Instead, Jesus took his place with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the oppressed.

I don’t know whether this sermon happened on a mount or a plain, but I think Luke captured Jesus’ words best.  Blessed are you who are poor. And I say that because the whole arc of the Bible, the whole underlying message of God’s word, speaks to this same commitment of God to be with the poor and the oppressed - the widow and the orphan in the Old Testament’s description.  God’s solidarity, God’s blessing, God’s heart - all with the poor.

Liberation theologians working in Latin America and then influencing people around the world read these stories as proof of what they called “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  But there is more to the story - the woes; what one scholar calls proof of “God’s preferential annoyance of the rich.”

Think about those woes.  “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  In each of these woe statements, someone has already experienced something good.  Riches. Food. Laughter. Praise. But the enjoyment will not last. Even when sparking joy, it will not last.

We often overlook Jesus’ message of woe.  Naturally so; because he’s talking to us. While we can all think of someone who lives in a better house in a better neighborhood with a better view, in fact we live better off that most people in the world - so rich we rent whole storage units for our extra stuff, so well fed we try every fad diet.

We can easily get defensive in such moments, to feel judged.  I know how natural that response can be; to gird myself when I hear someone say, “why don’t you - or why didn’t you - do such and such.”  But this morning I want to open my heart to what Jesus says about me. For I know Jesus speaks to me with these woes. (He might even be looking at my Facebook feed with a new dessert every day, “Woe to you who are full of macarons.”)

It can be hard to let go of our defensiveness.  This last week I attended a lunch in which the Board Chair of America’s Black Holocaust Museum spoke to business and community leaders.  He described the work of the museum to document the lives of people of African descent, from pre-contact with Europeans, through the middle passage and enslavement, to the modern day.  He ended his talk by naming the challenges we face today in Milwaukee, America’s most segregated city. After the talk, a white man asked a question. He spoke of the excellent Boys and Girls Clubs he donated to and then asked, “How can we change the misperception of Milwaukee as segregated?”  Sometimes it’s just hard to hear what’s really going on.

A great preacher of the last century, William Sloane Coffin, once pointed to a scene in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy.  Two friends reconnected after the war, one a collaborator with the Nazi regime and another part of the French resistance.  The collaborator kept talking about his own woes, his sense of shame, until his friend interrupted, “I don’t want your guilt; I want your responsibility.”

When I set aside defensiveness, when I take responsibility, I realize Jesus is trying to tell me where God and joy can be found.  In the blessings, Jesus wants to comfort those who were poor or hungry with the promise of God’s protection. But with me, Jesus wants to direct me where I could find God - by seeking solidarity with the poor and hungry, the grieving and the oppressed.

A biblical scholar I like summed this up as, “The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God.”  I like it. “The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God.” But I want to tease out some of the meaning.  All over the Gospel, Jesus proclaimed the “coming of the kingdom.” We pray for it all the time, “thy kingdom come.”

Now I’d use a different phrase.  Where Jesus says “kingdom of God” and the scholar says “Realm of God,” I like to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, “beloved community.”  I think all of these phrases point to the same reality. God works to create beloved community.

And the poor need it, certainly.  But also, and I realize this more and more, we can’t have a beloved community in which some are excluded because they’re too poor or too hungry or too much of this or too much of that.

Years ago, the feminist theologian Letty Russell summed up why this is so.  “Jesus' message is that he is found with the outsiders, not because they are any more righteous than the others, but because, as a group, they are the ones who help us know when justice is done and all are included.”  She went on to quote an African American spiritual, “All kinds of people around that table one of these days! Hallelujah! All kinds of people round that table! Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.”

The sermon on the plain comes just as Jesus began to enlist disciples for his great movement.  To the poor, he proclaimed welcome; to the rich, he made a challenge to find ourselves with the poor; to know that singing Hallelujah someday only comes when all kinds of people can gather around that one table.

Recently a critic of Marie Kondo proposed a new question in place of “Does this item spark joy?”  Instead of sparking joy, he and his wife ask, “Does it help us fulfill a greater purpose with our lives?”

Frankly, that’s a much harder question.  There’s plenty that might spark joy but doesn’t help me fulfill a greater purpose in life.  But I think that’s the kind of question Jesus asks too: does this way of life draw you closer to people who are poor, hungry, grieving, or oppressed?  For that is how to spark blessing.

Alleluia and Amen.


Feasting on the Word

  • Bartlett, David, “Woe to Us,” Journal of Preachers, 2008 (Source for the William Sloane Coffin sermon illustration).

  • Becker, Joshua, ““Does It Spark Joy?” Is the Wrong Decluttering Question,” 2019.

  • Russell, Letty, “Worrying with God,” Christian Century, 1983.