Saturday, January 23, 2016

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Grab a Bucket

Psalm 51:1-17; Luke 4:14-21
Myers Park Baptist Church 
Charlotte, NC 
January 24, 2016

It was an annual ritual when I was growing up. It was practiced religiously and without fail. On the first opportune day, spring cleaning began. There was no nook or cranny in the house that was not dusted, vacuumed, swept, or otherwise harassed. Drapes and curtains were taken down, rugs were taken up, and nothing—not furniture or major appliances—went unmoved. Floors were scrubbed—not mopped, mind you; they were routinely mopped. In spring cleaning floors were scrubbed, walls were washed, and the windows inside and out squealed for mercy.

I always wondered why my mother did it. I always wondered why she worked so hard at spring cleaning. It’s not like the house stayed clean. What I’ve come to understand these many years later that I didn’t understand then is that the annual ritual of spring cleaning had less to do with the condition of the house than it had to do with the condition of my mother’s heart and soul. What I couldn’t hear when I was younger was that in and around all the orders to move this, move that, “stay off that floor” (and always and still my favorite: “Don’t use that bathroom; I just cleaned in there”), there were other sounds—the sounds of my mother’s heart and soul being refreshed, renewed, revived.

It turns out that our care for our living space can be a window on our care for our souls. Most of the time, most of us get along pretty well, given how busy we are. We manage to keep things mostly in order and more or less clean. One day years ago, when there was more than the usual cleaning going on, our five-year-old announced that he was wise to it all. He said, “I know why you’re doing all this cleaning.” “You do?” I said. “Yes,” he answered. “Grandma’s coming, isn’t she?” And he was right. While it is sometimes true that children have no clue what is going on their parents’ lives, it also true that they see right through us far more often than we realize. And it’s just as true that most of us don’t get around to the spring cleaning of our hearts and minds and souls these days any more than we get around to the spring cleaning of our living space.

And of our congregation. Some years back, the congregation I was serving hired a consultant to visit Sunday School and worship as a “secret shopper,” as it is known in the retail industry. We asked him to provide us with the perspective of a fresh set of eyes on our grounds and our facilities and our worship and our congregational interactions. What he saw and reported to us was “eye-opening.” He pointed out things that we were so accustomed to that we couldn’t see them for what they were. On February 1, a new set of eyes will arrive in this place. That set of eyes is attached to a mind and a heart and a soul to whom you are entrusting the proclamation of the gospel and the leadership of this congregation. As they did in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4, you will hand the Scriptures to a new preacher; and like his predecessor in the Galilee, Ben Boswell will “bring good news to the poor. . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And on the first opportune day, impelled by his vision of the gospel and a fresh set of eyes in this place, he will call on you to begin spring cleaning: to roll up your sleeves, grab a bucket, and to get to work.

You may think that it’s too soon to start thinking about spring cleaning when we are surrounded by ice and snow. But there is a considerable body of literature in the field of psychology that lines out the stages of thinking that precede any significant new action, whatever that action might be. The first stage is Precontemplation. Precontemplation is the stage at which you have not yet acknowledged to yourself that you need to make a change. Clueless, I call it. The second stage is Contemplation. Contemplation is the stage at which you recognize that you need to do something, but you’re not ready or even sure you want to do it. Clued In, I call it. The third stage is Preparation or Determination. Preparation or Determination is the stage at which you decide and get ready to do what you have recognized needs to be done. Dialing In, I call it. The fourth stage is Action or Willpower. Action or Willpower is the stage at which you finally do what you have recognized, determined, and prepared to do in your life—or your congregation. All In, I call it. Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action. Clueless, Clued In, Dialed In, All In. It takes a while to get there, so it’s not too early to start thinking about spring cleaning in your life individually and together.   

Since the early centuries of the Christian faith, Psalm 51 has served as a guide for what I’m calling spring cleaning for the heart and soul and mind of individuals and congregations alike. The first Action in spring cleaning is to open all the doors and windows. Throw open the doors and windows of your life to God’s mercy. Psalm 51 begins this way: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy” (v. 1). Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message starts this way: “Generous in love—God, give grace! Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record.” What Peterson’s paraphrase gets right is that spring cleaning for the heart and soul and mind and church is a God-given opportunity. If God is not “generous in love,” as Peterson paraphrases the Hebrew word חֶסֶד, and if God is not “huge in mercy,” as he renders the Hebrew phrase כְּרֺב רֶחֶם, then every one of us and all of us together are doomed to live our lives stuck in the mess we make of them from time to time. But because God is “Generous in love” and “Huge in mercy,” we have God-given opportunities to clean up our lives and our church and to start all over again.

The second Action is to take down all the drapes and curtains. Take down all the drapes and curtains that cover and conceal your sin, your shortcomings, whatever is unsightly or unseemly, inadequate or inappropriate in your life. The first two verses of Psalm 51 include a triple confession of sin: “my transgressions,” “my iniquity,” “my sin.” Taking down the drapes and the curtains on our sin means acknowledging to ourselves and to God that we have sinned. For some of us, that is the hardest step of all. We live in an age of euphemisms, of evasive good-speak. We “fall prey to indiscretion”; we “err in judgment”; we “get a little carried away”; we “don’t know what came over us.” Some of us just can’t bring ourselves to call our sin “sin.” Taking down the drapes and the curtains means confessing to God that have missed the mark individually and congregationally in things we have done and things we have left undone, in things we have said and in things we have left unsaid, in things we have thought and in things we have failed to think. Taking down the drapes and the curtains that are concealing our sin allows the purifying and life-giving light of the presence of God to shine into the nooks and crannies of our heart and soul and mind for the cleansing and healing that comes only from God.

And that’s the best part of spring cleaning for the heart and soul and mind. The third Action is this: God does the scrubbing. God does the scrubbing. Listen again to verses 1-2: “Wipe away my transgressions.” “Scrub away my guilt.” “Cleanse me from my sin.” Verse 7 says it too: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Peterson renders the idea of verse 7 this way: “Soak me in your laundry, and I’ll come out clean; scrub me, and I’ll have a snow-white life.” We cannot cleanse ourselves from sin. There are no do-it-yourself antidotes, no self-help remedies, for sin. Only God can do that kind of scrubbing. According to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” “Generous in love” and “huge in mercy,” God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves when we turn our hearts over, broken and contrite to God, who wipes away our transgressions, scrubs away our guilt, and cleanses us from our sin.

Peterson captures life on the other side of spring cleaning in his paraphrase of verses 8-12: “Tune me in to foot-tapping songs, set these once-broken bones to dancing. . . . give me a clean bill of health.   God, make a fresh start in me, . . . . breathe holiness in me. . . . put a fresh wind in my sails.” Ever felt like you needed a fresh wind in your sails? That’s what spring cleaning for your heart and soul and mind—and your congregation also—does for you.

Along with a fresh set of eyes, Ben Boswell will bring a fresh wind in your sails. I hope and pray that you will make the most of the God-given opportunity that is just ahead of you: Open the doors and windows, take down the drapes and curtains, roll up your sleeves, and grab a bucket. 

Copyrighted © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Rogers. This material may be copied or disseminated for non-commercial use, provided this notice is included. The author can be contacted at