Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Something new is about to happen. Something will change. The old things should not be remembered, the former things forgotten.
The Book of Isaiah is one book within the Bible, but it is generally considered to be of three distinct parts. These parts relate to different periods in the history of the Israelite people, spread out across centuries. In the part known as First Isaiah, the Kingdom of Israel still stands though it is about to get into some trouble. Trouble coming from its northern neighbors, the Assyrians and later the Babylonians. Second Isaiah deals with the period of exile in Babylon. This was not a time of anticipating trouble; it was about enduring trouble. Third Isaiah comes after the exile, once those troubles have passed or at least have been reduced.
Our reading is from Second Isaiah. When the prophet states that God is about to do something new, he is speaking about the state of affairs, the sad situation of the people of Israel. But what were those former things, those things of old? Is the prophet referring to all the troubles they had endured? Good riddance to them.
Or perhaps this refers to the bad old ways, the misbehaviors, the sins, that got the Israelites into trouble in the first place. Remember that God is the source of all blessings and all difficulties in the Ancient Israelite understanding of the world. So the people’s suffering could be coming to end, meaning the end was in sight, or that their behaviors were improving or were expected to improve.
So what have the people been doing up there in Babylon? Isaiah shares a few thoughts on that:
You have not brought me your sheep for burnt-offerings,
or honored me with your sacrifices.
Not really the level of engagement God was expecting from his chosen people.
You have not bought me sweet cane with money,
or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.
But you have burdened me with your sins;
you have wearied me with your iniquities.
The people offer no sacrifices and yet God is burdened with their sins. The pattern of worship has been disrupted and so the relationship between god and the people has suffered during the years of exile.
Which brings up a question: what do we owe God? What do we owe God for this life, for this world, for the blessings of our days? Nothing? Everything?
One might argue that there is nothing that we can give God to match these blessings, these gifts. Therefore, we can either guilt ourselves into abject submission, worrying about living a perfect life, or we can simply declare this an impossible hurdle and excuse ourselves from offering anything back to God, anything of our life, our worldly works, our sweet cane and burnt offerings. If we understand our relationship to God as a bargained for exchange, then these imbalances with God might seem irreconcilable. That is one way of considering things. There are others.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is visiting the family of Lazarus, the man he raised from the dead. They are having a dinner for Jesus, which was the very least they could do, all things considered. Jesus comes in for dinner and he is being attended to by Mary, the younger sister of Lazarus. Martha the elder is getting dinner ready.
Mary takes a pound of perfume, a perfume called nard, and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet. That is a lot of perfume. Judas Iscariot complains. He declares it a waste of money that could have been used to take care of the poor. The scripture contains an actual aside, a parenthetical explanation by the narrator about how Judas really did not care about the poor and was stealing from the disciples’ common purse. Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone, suggesting that Mary had bought the perfume to use when Jesus died – sort of a downer over dinner when you think about it.
There is a lot of imagery embedded in these few words, connections to other passages of scripture not readily apparent from this short portion. There is the story of Lazarus raised from the dead. There are Martha and Mary, Martha the hard worker and Mary the prayerful woman sitting always at the feet of Jesus, sitting there listening. There is Judas, said here to be a thief and emblematic throughout history for being disloyal. So much meaning represented by a few sentences. So much meaning to be found hidden under this economy of words. So much more if we dig deeper than the surface of things.
These two readings, from John and Isaiah, also have a below the surface connection, one not readily apparent at first glance. They are about change and transition, about loss and purpose. The old, former ways are falling away in Isaiah, the people’s suffering finally over replaced with rejoicing. And Jesus is about to make another important change, one to wipe away the old and the former. Triumph followed by death followed by triumph. This reading about Mary’s anointing directly precedes the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as presented on Palm Sunday.
To be honest with you, at first this all struck me as a mess. A big swirling mess of history and theology, of scraps of stories overlapping and shifting. It can be hard to follow, and I went to school for that.
When I was reading over these confusing ideas and images, I found myself thinking about a book I have been reading. The book is entitled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. Not an obvious choice, mind you. Not a likely contender for understanding the meaning of the return of the Israelites from exile or the impending death of Jesus leading to the most transcendent moment of Christian thought. This is a book on tidying up. But bear with me.
Marie Kondo seems to be a dedicated tidy person, a little obsessed even. She lives to tidy, to organize, to straighten. Marie Kondo is, frankly, a bit of a tidying zealot. She writes books that sell quite well about something fairly simple, how to more effectively clean up and declutter. I bought the book with some vain hope of taming the chaos that seems to permeate my life. Maybe there was a trick to it, a secret way of making everything fall into place. So I read.
The cornerstone of her system, the so-called KonMari method, is first to organize by category. You do not organize the kitchen and then the living room and then the bedroom. No at all. You organize your clothes, all of them. You organize your books, all of them. You need to take all of your stuff of a certain type and gather it all together into one place, all arrayed on the table or, in my case, the floor.
Then once you have everything gathered, there is the patented KonMari method for discarding items. This method is said to have been a great epiphany for its author, the triumphant breakthrough that makes KonMari organization the be all and end all. It came to her from a disembodied voice, as if from a god of tidying somewhere in the heavens. This is all in the book, with only minor embellishment by me.
What do you do? Instead of getting rid of items, you decide what you should keep. Just what you should keep. And you make that decision to keep per item by applying a simple test, a quick but perhaps not so easy evaluation. Does the item in question spark joy in you?
Does it bring you joy?
The term “sparking joy” in Japanese could also be translated as “flutter,” “throb,” or “palpitate.” That seems to be a hard mark to hit. It is a lot to ask of a sweater, a high hurdle for a blender. Our houses and offices would be pretty much empty, if joy were the true goal. Not utility, not necessity, not sentiment – joy.
It is worth noting that Marie Kondo served as an attendant at a Shinto temple for five years. Perhaps this is as much a religious outlook as a worldly sensibility, serving to create a place of personal sanctuary and peace. Perhaps.
Lent is a season of repentance and self-denial. You give something up for Lent, an indulgence or favorite luxury. No candy or chocolate, no cigarettes or alcohol. Maybe it is also a time for tidying up. Not just those few bad habits, but for tidying up everything.
I can imagine taking the KonMari method to its ultimate self-help conclusion. Tidy up my life. Gather up my life’s baggage into varying categories. The things that I do, how I spend my time. My job, my relationships, even my family. Gather them together into categories and then apply the KonMari rule for keeping something in your life. Does it make your heart flutter, throb, or palpitate?
Who or what in our lives brings us joy?
It is a hard question, one that I do not imagine Marie Kondo expected to be asked using her handy dandy theory of tidying. But it is Lent. It is a time in which it is suggested that we take stock of our lives. Think about what we have done or not done, about what we are doing or are not doing. What we will do in the future or what we will no longer do. Lent could be described as a time for tidying the soul.
So there are those parts of our lives that bring us joy. And then there is everything else. Sparking joy is a lot to expect of a sweater or a blender. Should we expect more or less of the people in our lives? The activities that we undertake? Should my job give me joy, my hobbies and past-times? What about my spouse, my friends, my family? Joy, joy, joy. And if any of those parts of my life fail to spark joy, or to cause my heart to flutter, what then? Place it on the curb, in the recycling bin? How should I tidy any of that up?
Marie Kondo also said in her book: “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.” Again, she was talking about possessions, not people, not practices. But I could not help but wonder.
Do we think of the people in our lives in this way, having a purpose that could ever be outlived? The old and former ways as described by Isaiah? The past we need to place behind us for good, the bad habits we should let go of, and the acquaintances we have outgrown?
These rules about tidying have a harsh edge to them. Little is spared. Even sentimental items get the same treatment. Another quote: “No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past. The joy and excitement we feel here and now are more important.”
Would any of this work? Is that true? It may be true about keeping clothes from high school or textbooks from college, both of which I realized yesterday that I have. But is it true about what we are doing with our lives, and who we have in our lives? Should these all be gathered on the proverbial floor of life and tidied up into a spare and workable pile?
Wasn’t that what Isaiah was getting at? Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Wasn’t that what Jesus sought to do by casting off the old ways and replacing them with new ways of thinking? Tidying up the clutter of centuries of religious accumulation, the dogmatism and ritualization. These are what I have called the table manners of God – not really of God, but that we trot out before God because someone decided that God expects this or that from us.
This is where the rule about sparking joy becomes interesting. What is it about church, about religion, about Christianity that sparks joy? Anything at all? And is this even a worthy measure for assessment? Does it make sense to use joy as the yardstick? I think the answer is yes and no. Just to be definitive, mind you.
The answer is “yes” because there has to be some joy in the mix. Some deeper feeling for what we gather to on Sunday. The music, the sounds, the cycles of the year and the manner of our worship. It might not be full-on-joy, but it should be warmth and comfort on some level. Joyish.
But the answer is also “no.” No, because there is more to church than joy. There is more to religion than personal satisfaction. And, quite frankly, there is a lot more to God than merely affirming who we are already, what we do and have done. If we tidy up Christianity to include only those aspects that spark joy, we are left with no way of understanding grief, no way of approaching suffering. And absolutely no way of assessing the question of sin.
Do I, me personally, occasionally do things in my life that I regret? Yes.
Do I make mistakes, fall short, miss the mark? Yes.
Do I fail to love others as I have been called to do? Yes.
Have I sinned? Yes.
And does God care? Does God care if I love less well than I might? I think the answer is yes.
Why should God care? Think about it this way. If God is with us always, present in our hearts and minds and souls, that presence is a measure of spiritual comfort for which I am personally grateful. And that presence is not unique to me. So God is present when I suffer and when I cause suffering. God sees through the eyes of the sinner and feels in the heart of the sinned against. God cares because God is there, feeling the love we offer and the anger we share. That which you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me. Everything we do is directed at God.
None of that is tidy. None of that is marked only by joy. If I keep only the joyful, the pleasant, the happy, then I will not understand the sorrowful, the painful, and the sad.
There is a tension in Christianity, one that is hard to reconcile let alone tidy. There is a dark streak to it all, the crown of thorns, the nailing to a cross, the death by crucifixion, the darkness of a tomb. And there is the joyful part, the love of God and one another, the hope and promise of new life, the light breaking on Easter morning.
There have been times when the focus has been more on one versus the other, the blood and gore to make us fearful of God and the rainbows and happy pastels to make us happy with God. One cannot exist without the other, there is no way of tidying that up. This has to be a mess because, honestly, it is all a mess. A mess that shifts from dark to light, fearful to happy, back and forth, and so on and so on. We might want for it to be orderly, but life will rarely cooperate.
And, in a similar way, you cannot get rid of the past. It will always have been there. We are living in the stream of life, flowing from the past and flowing to the future, changing all the time. You can honor the past, learn from it, without submerging yourself in it. You cannot throw away who you were, tidy it up into categories for quick judgment and final disposal.
It might work with sweaters. But it is not so easy to build our current lives around joy, to plan our lives only toward and for joy. Honestly, joy is a big deal. And I have never felt joy from a piece of clothing or a household appliance. Joy for me is a feeling of transcendent happiness, something beautiful and fleeting. There are, and were, people in my life from whom I have experienced such happiness. And yet joy is not a daily occurrence with me – my heart does not always flutter or throb or palpitate, which is actually quite reassuring.
Love is not about joy. Care is not about joy. Our relationships with one another, in life and in church, are not about joy. Joy can find its way into our lives, a fleeting gift that finds us in unexpected moments. The rest of life is a balance of feelings, positive and yes negative, marked by ups and downs that we have no choice but to navigate.
Joy is the high mountain top that we get to see once in a while. Love and care are how we climb up that mountain. And love and care are how we find our way back down again. Because we cannot stay up there all the time.
This going up and coming down may not be an easy way to go through life. It is by no means tidy. But that is how it life is – a mess in which, God willing, we occasionally find joy.