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The Rev. Susan Sparks The Rev. Susan Sparks
The Rev. Susan Sparks is a former trial lawyer who now serves as senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

American Baptist Churches USA

Representative of:

Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York, NY


The Mulch Pile

Colossians 3:1-10

11th Sunday after Pentecost - Year C

August 14, 2011

It's about this time each year that Toby and I head up to our beautiful, little cabin in Chetek, Wisconsin.  Now to find Chetek, you just locate Madison, Wisconsin, on a map and go about two hundred miles north.  Every year on the first day of our visit, we have the same routine:  we make a huge breakfast, complete with cheese eggs--of course, it's Wisconsin, we have to--wild blueberry muffins and fried sunfish caught right off our dock. It's a wonderful tradition.  However, last year that tradition taught us a lesson we will never forget.

Last August, after lingering over our cheese egg and sunfish breakfast, we cleared the table and put the left over eggshells and fish carcasses in the trash and left to run errands for the day.  Two critical pieces of information you need to know:  1) It was 97 degrees that day, and 2) there is no air conditioning in our cabin.  When we returned, the smell from the baking fish carcasses and eggshells almost knocked us flat.  In an emergency rescue effort, I quickly donned a "gas mask" made from paper towels and took the smelly trash and threw it on the mulch pile.

Ahhh...God bless mulch piles.  For any of you gardeners out there, you know the magic of a mulch pile:  a place where smelly fish carcasses and eggshells transform into rich, dark dirt, dirt that gives life to things like aromatic lavender and brilliantly colored daylilies.  

Later while fumigating the house, I couldn't help but think of our scripture in Colossians 3.  Who knew the Apostle Paul was a gardener?  "Get rid of all such things--anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth (which is, of course, the "trash") and cloth yourself in something new."

Two thousand years later, Paul reaches out and asks us all: 

  • What trash--what anger, fear, shame, or jealousy--do you need to throw on the mulch pile? 
  • And what beautiful new things will you grow in its place?

It's a very simple concept and because of that, I think the mulch pile metaphor makes a lot of sense.  For example, think of an emotion with which you are struggling right now.  Now given my fiery Scotch-Irish genes, I personally would vote for anger.  (Don't you just love people who blame their emotional issues on their ancestors: "Why, yes, I have a temper, but it's because of my Mother...you know, she had red hair.")

Notwithstanding where it came from, what do you do with your anger?  How do you work through it?  Well, you throw it on the mulch pile, of course!  Now it's easy enough to understand with trash, but how does that really work in life?  It works--the exact, same, way.  

First, you take out the trash, which means you have to find it and bag it up.  So many times, we don't even realize we have trash in our house.  It's hidden behind and around and under years of denial.  But here's the thing:  you can't take out the trash when you don't know it's there.

Last year I threw my back out.  Maybe some of you listening have had the same experience.  It's a helpless feeling because you can't do anything except lay on the floor and just wait it out.  The first few days are okay, as you are just so thankful to be out of pain.  But then you hit the place where you have read everything in your entire house and you have watched every rerun of Dr. Phil.  And at that point, you have no choice but to start looking around.  And from the vantage point of the floor, that can be a scary thing.  

For example, from my place on the floor, I had a direct view under my couch.  Much to my dismay, I found all types of trash there:  huge dust balls and pens and coins, an old Verizon bill, and the worst thing I found was a small yellow cube, which turned out to be a wayward cheese appetizer someone had dropped at a party several months prior.  I had no idea all that mess was under there.  I guess I'd never looked.

Sometimes you have to stop and force yourself to look around your house and find the emotional trash.  Remember, you can't take it out when you don't know it's there.   

So you gather up your emotional trash and you throw it on the mulch pile.  You gather it all up--the anger, the wrath, the malice, the fear--it's trash for goodness sakes.  Realize it's trash and let it go. 

Of course, letting go is easier said than done. It's like the story of the man who was walking along the edge of a canyon and all of a sudden he slipped.  As he went over the edge, he managed to grab a tiny branch.  Clinging to the shrub, he yelled up to heaven, "Lord, please help me!"  In a moment, a voice from heaven said, "If you believe in Me, my son, let go."  The man thought for a moment and then yelled back, "Is there anyone else up there?" 

We have to find our trash, throw it on the mulch pile and let it go.  Now, I'm not talking about giving up--I'm talking about letting go.  Unlike giving up, letting go is an act of power.

It's that moment we let go that greater forces take over. Like the eggshells and fish carcasses that decompose and become rich dirt, when you hand over your trash--your anger or your fear or your pain--to a greater power, it fades and begins to change.

Ultimately, you begin to grow something beautiful in its place or as Paul says, you "clothe yourself in something new."  On the mulch pile, anger can become empathy, fear can become insight, pain can become strength.

This is a powerful yet simple message that Paul shares.  Of course, many of us love to listen to a message like this, nod, mumble "um hum" and then turn around and offer every excuse in the book why we can't do it:

"Oh, I can't give up my anger.  I was wronged. I was abandoned.  I was mistreated."

"Oh, I can't let go of my fear because it might happen again and I need to protect myself."

"I can't release my pain because it still hurts...."  

If there is any lesson from our scripture today, it is this:  STOP with the excuses!  If you leave this stuff in your life too long, it will stink up your house.  And the longer you leave it, the worse it gets.

NOW HEAR THIS:  This is your house now--it's not your parents' house, your siblings' house or your friends' or your partner or spouse's house.  It's not their job to take out your trash, even if they brought it in!  It's your house now.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, wrote:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"  If you care about this "wild and precious life," then you have to ask yourself:

  • What trash do I need to throw on the mulch pile?
  • And what beautiful things will I grow in its place?

Don't waste this life on trash that brings you down and stinks up your house.  As Paul says, get rid of these things.  Take out the trash, throw it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something healing and wonderful and new.

Let us pray.  Gracious and loving God, we know that there is so much trash in our life, things that are weighing us down, things that are smelling up our house.  Please give us the faith to hand these things over to you and to finally, ultimately...let them go.  Amen.  

 


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