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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


Sinners at the Laundromat

Isaiah 1:16-18

February 23, 2014

One Sunday morning last summer, when everyone else was in church--like all good Christians should be--my husband, Toby, and I were at the laundromat, where all of life's sinners apparently congregate.

We have a little cabin in the great northwoods of Wisconsin, and our Sunday routine is to get up, go out for breakfast, and then head to the laundromat to wash our clothes for the week.  On that particular Sunday, just as we started loading our laundry, the door opened and a scarily clean-shaven gentleman walked in and said, "A blessed morning to you, brothers and sisters"--a warning sign, if ever there was one. 

I could see he had a number of brochures in his hand, but I tried my best not to make eye contact. Sure enough, he came to me first. 

"Sister," he asked in the most earnest of tones, "have you met Jesus?"

I thought about telling him my full testimony, including the fact that I was an ordained Baptist minister and that Jesus and I were about as tight as you could get.  But I just couldn't do it.

"I'm sorry; I haven't seen Jesus at the laundromat this morning."

The Jesus-man looked at me with an expression akin to what your elementary school teacher might have offered when you spelled "January" with a "G."  He then handed me a tract with a picture of Jesus on the front holding a tiny lamb, looking a bit queasy, and said, "You know, Jesus can wash your sins away better than any of these machines." 

Deciding I had been snarky enough, I nodded, took the tract, and said, "I don't doubt it, brother."  And with that, he went to the sinner next to me at the industrial-sized dryer and started his pitch again.

Toby, being an ex-prosecutor and knowing when to speak and when not to, stayed silent during my exchange.  However, as the Jesus-man moved to the next person, Toby turned to me and mumbled under his breath, "Sinners at the Laundromat--sounds like a sermon to me."  And so this sermon was born. 

During the drying cycle, I spent some time thinking about spiritual laundry, how one might go about doing a little washing of the spirit.  I think it's the same as normal laundry.  For example, what's the first thing you do when beginning laundry?  Sort your clothes, of course.  Like most people, I separate mine into three piles.  The first?  Things that don't need to be washed. 

Now, I don't know about you, but I tend to leave clothes on the floor sometimes.  And when I get home at night, I can't always remember if they are dirty or clean, so I just throw them in the hamper anyway. 

In sorting laundry, you have to find the things that don't need to be washed; things that are just fine the way they are, or that you can put right back on and wear with pride.

Life is the same way.  There are so many things in our lives that we try to wash that don't need washing: things we try to change or fix, things we are ashamed of--things like our physical characteristics, our ethnicities, the color of our skin, our sexual orientation, our gender.  These are things that we are given at birth, gifts we are given at birth...gifts that should be celebrated, not washed or forgiven.

As Psalm 139 tells us: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

So our first pile consists of the things that don't need to be washed, things that are fine just the way they are, things you can put on and wear with pride.

Now the second pile consists of things that do need washing, but that just need the delicate cycle--the cycle with the least agitation and spin.

In regular laundry, these would be things like silk or polyester; in life, these would be things like little slipups, hurt feelings, silly mistakes, misunderstandings, being rude to someone on the train, snapping at your partner over breakfast, or using colorful language because you couldn't get into your jeans in the morning.

Don't waste time getting agitated over this stuff.  These type of things just require a short and delicate wash cycle.  Acknowledge that you're wrong, say you're sorry, forgive and forget, move on, and let go.  

I place emphasis on letting go because if you hold on, these small slights might turn into prisons of anger.  I am reminded of a story I saw in a local newspaper about a family in Northamptonshire, England, who came home to find their pet hamster, Smurf, stuck to the bars of its metal cage. They weren't sure what the problem was at first.  Then the mother realized that her children's pet had wedged a tiny toy magnet in its cheek that had enough power to hold the little creature tightly to the cage.  The mother was eventually able to dislodge the magnet and free the hamster.  Smurf survived the ordeal with no lasting effects. 

I say again: Let it go.  Don't be held by the bars of the prison of anger; let small slights go.  And do it now!  Small, delicate stains can become hard, nasty stains if you wait too long to wash them.  As explained in Ephesians 4:26: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger and give no opportunity to the devil."

So, back to our piles.  Pile #1 is for stuff that doesn't need to be washed, pile #2 is for things for the delicate cycle, and pile #3 is for the heavy duty, nasty things--things that need maximum agitation and spin, several rinse cycles, and an industrial strength spot remover to get them clean.

We all know about having dirt like this in our lives, things we have carried around for a long time, things deep in our psyche.  Stains that won't come out because we keep grinding them in deeper and harder--things like shame, self-doubt, and self-loathing.

The only thing we can do with this nasty pile of laundry is to get ourselves a spot remover-- something that will get into those places where stains are so deeply ground...something or someone who will forgive us, even if we can't forgive ourselves.

And we know where that place of forgiveness is. As it says in Isaiah 1:16-18:

16"Wash and make yourselves clean....Stop doing wrong. 17Learn to do right....Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool."

Here God through the prophet Isaiah offers Judah a warnings of judgment and yet a promise of restoration.  Today, 2700 years later, these words still ring trueFor God tells us when we "wash and make ourselves clean...our sins shall be as white as snow."

Just like our spot remover.  When we realize that we have been given grace--forgiveness by God--then something deep inside us loosens up a little bit; and as we begin to realize that God has forgiven us, we begin to forgive ourselves and the stains start to break up and disappear.

Why does God forgive us, you may ask.  Because God sees through the stains to the spirit, the holy gift that each of us was given at birth and one that still shines as bright as the day we were born.  We just need to be cleaned up a little bit every once in a while.

Take, for example, all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs as you may have heard them called, which are so popular in Wisconsin.  People take them out four-wheeling, get them all covered in mud, and then go home, wash them off, and put them back in the garage, sparkling clean.  The mud doesn't change what's underneath--just like sin doesn't change who we are at our core.  We just need to do a little laundry. 

So, that's it.  That's all you have to do.  Once a week, or whenever you are doing your regular laundry, ask yourself three questions:

1)    What in my life does not need washing?

2)    What in my life just needs a delicate cleaning?

3)    What in my life needs a spot remover with maximum agitation, a spin cycle, and a double rinse?

Do a little spiritual laundry in your life; in the end, it will all come out in the wash.

Prayer:  Gracious God, thank you for the grace you offer to wash us clean.  Help us to tell the difference in what needs washing and doesn't.  Most of all, give us the faith to know that you see through our stains to the pure and beautiful spirit that remains within.  For that we give you all thanks and praise.  Amen.

 

 


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