Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Isaiah 55:1-3a, Luke 13:6-9 ~
I’ve never liked the fig tree parable. It makes me sad, and kind of mad at Jesus, who seems unduly harsh. I mean, isn’t he supposed to champion “the least of these?” And yet, this story features a character who threatens to cut down the little ficus simply because it’s not “productive” enough!
But then I remember: it’s a parable. It was never meant to be taken literally. This story isn’t about a poor little plant and its missing fruit. It’s not even about us and whether we’re bearing fruit. It’s about parts of ourselves, or aspects of our lives that are or are not fruitful and juicy. And the question is: can they be?
Since this is the season for spring cleaning, I thought it might be a good time to focus on what in our lives is bearing fruit, what isn’t, what needs more time and nurture, and what should be pruned away.
But first, why spring cleaning? I mean, why is this the time of year for washing drapes, beating rugs, and turning mattresses (all traditional practices in spring)? There are many answers, most of them having to do with the fact that houses (at least in more northern climes) tended to be closed up all winter without the chance to air or get cleaned out. I’ve chosen two to share (you’re welcome to google others yourself).
The first is connected to Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which falls on the first day of spring. In preparation for this holiday, Iranians practice khooneh tekouni, which literally means “shaking the house.” Everything, from drapes to furniture, gets thoroughly cleaned.
The second is associated with the Jewish Feast of Pesach or Passover. Because they aren’t permitted to eat leavened bread during this holiday week, observant Jews spend the weeks before Passover in a flurry of housecleaning intended to remove all traces of chametz, or flour and yeast.
Now I must confess; I haven’t even begun to spring clean my own home this year. Though I did manage to sweep off my back deck and put some pillows on the patio chairs this weekend so I could sit outside. Come to think of it, I also pruned four bushes—oh, and picked up some sticks from the front and back yards! But that’s it.
On a more serious note, I’m clear the good life does not depend on a swept deck. But I do think there’s something to this spring-cleaning ritual. For, internal or external, there’s only so much clutter we can handle. And, sadly, we westerners live with a lot of clutter. So much stuff, noise, media, busyness, shoulds, and to-dos… No wonder over the past few years our desperation has reached such a pitch we’ve turned to decluttering gurus such as Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
Now, for those of you who have an opinion about Marie (and everyone seems to), let me acknowledge; I’ve read her book, I like her book, I haven’t seen her TV show, and I’ve followed some, but not nearly all, her advice. For those of you who’ve never heard of Marie Kondo: she’s a Japanese decluttering expert, with a wonderful Shinto sense of the living spirit or kami of individual objects. In her book, she encourages readers to question every material item in their homes, keeping only those that “spark joy.”
I don’t think Marie is anti material, rather, she’s pro simplicity. It might even be fair to say she’s so pro material she doesn’t want us to view any item as disposable or just one more thing to store in the basement or garage. In what I see as a very Japanese, Shinto approach, she acknowledges the “is-ness,” rather than “it-ness,” of objects. And I love this: it’s the antithesis of materialism and consumption. For, not only does she encourage us to live with less, she inspires us to live only with those things that make us truly happy.
And this isn’t just an “eastern” concept. It reminds me of a quote from over a hundred years ago by British designer William Morris, who wrote: “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” I remember reading this quotation as a child and thinking how “right” it sounded. And he and Kondo are sympatico. Though Morris was a designer, he didn’t claim to know what was useful or beautiful for others, he left it up to their experience and aesthetic. Thus, his quote means: have only things you’ve experienced and found to be useful, that you love and know in your heart to be beautiful: in other words, that “spark joy.”
The prophet Isaiah understood this, too. Tonetta Landis-Aina preached on a longer version of this morning’s scripture passage a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll only highlight one sentence. But, for me it’s the crux: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Isaiah was referring to a food everyone in the ancient near east would have known as the staff of life. Bread was essential, an inexpensive, filling food that went with every meal. Thus, his question meant: why would you spend your resources (time, energy, talent, money) on things that aren’t essential? Or, at the very least, why would you spend so much of your time, energy, talent, and money on these things? Why are you wasting your resources on things that don’t really matter, that don’t fulfill a necessary function, gladden your heart, or spark joy?
A few weeks ago, twenty of us gathered for a Lenten Retreat, and I read a passage from Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook, which I highly recommend to you all. The sentence that captured me was this: I can only find what belongs by clearing away everything that doesn’t.
This may be the ultimate decluttering statement. Because it implies, as Marie Kondo advises, we need to pick up and examine everything in our lives to find out what’s meant to stay and what needs to go. Or, in Jesus’s words, what’s bearing fruit and what needs to be cut down, or from Isaiah, what delights and what does not satisfy.
Now, I realize, this may sound overwhelming. And, frankly, while some of us have the bandwidth to “Kondo” our lives (meaning, tackle it all in one weekend and start fresh), most of us don’t. But I think we can each use these maxims to create a process for living. Whenever we encounter a new idea, person, object, or activity, we could ask: does this belong? Or, as I’ve preached in the past: “is it mine?” And, if the answer is “yes,” wonderful! Allow that idea, person, object, or activity to spark joy, bring delight, and bear fruit. If not, thank it and let it go. I’m grateful to Marie for reminding us: whether human being or material object, there is always something for which to be grateful before saying goodbye.
Yet, it’s not easy. So, I’d like to suggest a few more questions you might wish to ask when deciding whether to hold on or let go. I discovered them while on sabbatical a few years ago and continue to find them helpful. “Is it joyful? Is it effective? Is it sustainable?” For me, the first two align with the quote from William Morris, since I think joy pairs with beauty and effectiveness with utility. And the third, about sustainability, gets to the heart of whether we’re able to keep going, do what we do, day after day, amidst all the craziness and chaos of our culture.
“Is it joyful? Is it effective? Is it sustainable?” Keeping these questions in mind, I invite you to join me in a short spring-cleaning visualization:
- Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a lovely but cluttered room with an open window and door. How does it feel?
- Then, imagine everything that isn’t “yours” blowing out through the open window. How does that feel?
- Next, grab an imaginary broom and sweep out the door anything that’s still cluttering your space— heart, mind, or soul. Ask yourself: what I am letting go?
- Now, breathe into this clean new space, allowing fresh energy to enter. Picture the love and light of God flooding the room. Remember, both the window and door are still open. Ask: is there anything else that needs to go or that I want to let in?
- Continue to breathe in fresh spaciousness and breathe out old clutter.
- Look around and see what’s left in the room. Ask yourself: Does it bring me joy? Is it useful or effective? Is it sustainable?
I’m not suggesting one spring-cleaning meditation is going to declutter your life! Remember, this is a process, not a quick fix, a lifestyle change, not a magazine or TV makeover. But I am claiming that asking the right questions and being open to God’s guidance makes it far more likely you’ll come up with answers that, to use Isaiah’s word, “satisfy.”
Does this idea, person, object, or activity idea spark joy, bring delight, bear fruit? Is it joyful, effective, sustainable? Does it belong? Is it “yours?” I think these are the questions Jesus urges us to ask in the fig tree parable. Remember, the gardener refuses to cut the tree down right away, asking for more time: Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down. And we presume the vineyard owner agrees. Yes, you may have another year: to ask the questions, reflect on the answers, and discern whether this is a planting that will bear fruit or get pruned.
We have time, too. Time to ask the questions that allow us to discover and nurture the parts of our lives, inner and outer, which bear the most delectable figs. And, gratefully, to let go of those parts whose produce is neither fruitful nor sweet.