If you're as dissatisfied as I am with the offerings on network television, you may spend some time channel surfing through the hundreds of strange shows on the cable channels. I came across one that caught my attention in the same way that a horrific crash on the highway. You know that moment, even if you find it hard to admit, when you see something like that and you just can't tear your eyes away.
That program, that train wreck moment, for me was a program called "Hoarders."
Some of you may have seen it. The focus of the show is on the efforts of friends, family and professionals to help people whose homes have become crammed to the rafters with stuff. Broken things that they think they will someday fix and sell. Newspapers and magazines that they might want to go back and reread one day. Canned goods years past their expiration date. And all these things are useless and unusable, either because they are past an expiration date, or have been nibbled on by vermin, or because they really have no commercial value any more. Even if they did have value, how would the hoarder find them in the mess?
So there is usually an intervention, because the city is about to condemn the home or because the family is so concerned about their loved one that they know that some of this excess has to be removed for the person to stay in their home.
The hoarders struggle with this - they have saved these items for quite some time and look upon the loss of those 8-track Earth Wind and Fire tapes or old National Geographics as a painful amputation. But slowly, and with help from mental health professionals, they start to strip away the things that weigh them down and cause them so much psychic and physical harm. This process is not without pain and stress, but the result - if the hoarder is willing to fight their way through it - is so much better.
Stripping away the excess that weighs us down - isn't this the very process that we seek to follow in Lent?
We do it in small ways when we "give something up for Lent." Usually it's drinking or chocolate or something small - lately, I've had friends who gave up FaceBook or playing video games for Lent. The common theme, whether what we give up is small or large, is this: strip away the things that are extraneous to our lives, the things that are really unimportant but loom large in our own minds, the things that keep us from being fully who God has made us to be. If you're spending hours glued to FarmVille of BeJeweled Blitz, you're not living into your full potential as a child of God, and you certainly are not doing the work of God in the world. If you're more worried about when you're going to go get your next caramel macchiato (hold the whipped cream, because it's Lent, after all), you are not that fully realized child of God. If you're spending time thinking about that box of chocolates that's in the pantry, calling your name, you're not listening for God's voice.
And so we strip away those things for Lent, partly because we expect to sacrifice something dear to us during this season of self-examination, but also because we realize that the things that loom large in our minds are not about God, they are about our own petty needs.
We realize we need an intervention to remove the extraneous wants and musts that clutter our souls and get in the way of our relationship with God.
Lent gives us the excuse and the tools to do just such a thing, and it also gives us the ultimate model of stripping away.
It is Jesus, of course. He is in this, as in all things, the perfect model.
He has been traveling light throughout his active ministry, and has been advising his followers to do the same (Go, and take nothing with you, not even a second tunic…sell your belongings and give them to the poor). And in this final part of the story, what little he has is stripped away as well.
His companions abandon him. His sense of physical privacy is torn from him as his garments are torn by the whip with which he is flogged. His appearance, always so riveting to those who have witnessed his teaching, is marred by deep scratches from the crown of thorns and bruises from rough handling. The final indignity is the removal of his robes, so that as he is nailed to the cross, he wears only a linen undergarment. Everything is gone, stripped away: the adulation of the crowds as he rode into Jerusalem the prior week, the fellowship and love of his followers at that last supper, the voice of his heavenly father like thunder proclaiming him as his son, the hope for a better life in the hearts of the oppressed Jews of Roman-occupied Israel.
And in his last moments, when he cries out, it seems he wonders if his heavenly Father has abandoned him: “Eloi, eloi, lama, sabachthani! My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The anguished cry of a dying man with nothing left….
…and yet there was something left – that divine spark of love, of willingness to allow it all to be stripped away so that we might be redeemed from our sins.
It was a moment that came back to me as I recently re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Papers and Letters from Prison.” Bonhoeffer, was, as our Lutheran friends know so well, a Lutheran pastor whose opposition to Hitler’s regime led to his arrest and subsequent execution. While he was in prison awaiting his death, he wrote, and in the latter letters, he stripped away from himself the extraneous things that he no longer needed. He sent letters to his parents instructing them to give away his clothes. He grieved what was coming – the wish to have a child so that he might not die without leaving a trace of himself – but he faced it. He knew that what he had done, and what was about to happen to him, was what was necessary and right.
And so, the prison doctor said, before he went to the gallows Bonhoeffer removed his prison clothes and knelt in prayer.
Did he ask if the cup could be passed from him? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t doubt it. No one goes to their death without wishing for a little more time. But his process of stripping away that which he no longer needed was the purest expression of his acceptance that only God’s love really mattered.
On this Good Friday, we see Jesus stripped of all except his love. He needed nothing more to complete his work. For us, who sometimes think we can be defined only by what we want to have, by our material possessions, it might serve us better to remember what we really need. Just God’s love, nothing more, nothing less.
Everything else can be stripped away.