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Fifth Sunday in Lent: “Spring Cleaning”


Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13
John 12:20-33


Happy spring! Of course, I’m not basing this greeting on the weather outside. The Sierras once again have been unpredictable: months of not much winter; snowfall likely tomorrow. (For which I give great thanks!)

Yet this past Friday, March 20, was the vernal, or spring, equinox in the Northern Hemisphere―when the plane of the Earth’s equator passed the center of the Sun, and, all over the world, day and night were approximately equal.[1]

From this point of balancing, the Earth begins to tip toward new light. Longer days after the darkness of winter. New life, new beginnings, new energies in nature emerging around us—the reason why we always celebrate Easter after this turning point in the seasons.

In the words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of John, death is necessary to the cycle of life at this time: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Ancient cultures, of course, were very much in touch with these natural cycles of earth and sun: with accurate circular calendars to record them; sacred structures aligned with them; and rituals for the precise moments of celestial alignment.[2] In spring, many of their rituals involved both literal and energetic cleansing of their homes and temples to make way for the new. And these rituals have translated into our modern-day custom of “spring cleaning.”

That’s what I’d like to explore with you today—in the sense of spiritual spring cleaning, spring cleaning of the heart. I’d like to go deeper with you into the compelling verse we prayed aloud in Psalm 51 this morning, a direct request to God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

What are we asking for in this prayer? What would it mean to be “clean-hearted”? What must we do—and what must God do—this spring for us to be renewed spiritually and energetically?

We have many adjectives, positive and negative, that describe a person in terms of his or her heart. I’m sure you can come up with many off the top of your head. Positive: Warm-hearted, tender-hearted, kind-hearted, light-hearted. Negative: Hard-hearted, cruel-hearted, faint-hearted, chicken-hearted.

In everyday language, in Biblical language, the heart signifies so much more than the hollow muscular organ that propels blood through our circulatory system. The heart signifies the center of our emotions, the center of our character, the center that drives our actions—practical and spiritual. It is the innermost chamber of our identity—indicating who we are “at heart.”

In the passage from Jeremiah we read this morning, when God makes a new covenant with the house of Israel, to replace the one the people had broken, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

From now on, we are promised, each one of us will be able to know God intimately. Within us. In our hearts. We will know who we are. Fully. In our hearts. In this interior, private space, we can each touch God, listen to God, belong to God, be loved by God.

Yet, the truth of human experience is that our heart space—where God invites us to enjoy a deep and wide sense of love, calm, peace, and refreshment—gets continually cluttered up. Cluttered up by what I call “habits of the heart” that can get bigger, heavier, and harder to move the longer we let them sit.[3]

These may be habits that begin just because we’re a bit too rushed: “I really don’t have time to stop and say thank you, or I remember you, or I appreciate you.” They may be habits that begin because we’re afraid of something we can’t control: “I can’t be honest, truly who I am, or fully present in this moment because it’s just too scary.” They may be habits that begin because we’re wounded or angry: “I can’t forgive you or myself because I’m too agitated or ashamed.” Or they may even be habits that begin because society rewards them: “I have to keep going, going, going—working, working, working—because everything will fall apart if I don’t.”

Does this sound familiar? If left in place, these habits can grow and grow. The spacious sense of who we are, of God within, constricts. We spend so much effort protecting our status, avoiding our fears, feeding our grudges, hiding from ourselves that we become “dis-heartened.”

And sometimes, at that point, things do fall apart. An injury, an illness, a loss, a death may suddenly change everything. Pain forces us out of our usual habits of living—breaks them open. We have to clear some new space within in order to go on. We become “brokenhearted.” And then we can be renewed again: “open-hearted.” Then, “clean-hearted.”

I believe this cycle of broken to healed, dark to light, winter to spring, death to new life is a universal rhythm in our human experience, just as in nature. And in our relationship to God.

Consider the story written in your own heart. The times when you felt what the Psalmist calls God’s “bountiful spirit” within. When your life was in alignment with something greater; when new growth was expanding. And then the times of darkness or constriction, when your heart was heavy or in pain or somehow blocked from connecting with that “right spirit.” Maybe that’s where you are today.

And I suggest that the way forward is a spring cleaning of the heart with God’s saving help. Once again, in a cycle of renewal, in these remaining days of Lent, examine and acknowledge the habits that are blocking your true identity, holding you in pain. That have become too heavy to move yourself.

In prayer, in meditation; in silence or out loud; perhaps with the help of this church community, a circle of healing, your family or friends—let go of these habits and let God lift them. Set the intention to reclaim your heart and come back to life. You will have the season of Easter.

I believe that when we pray “Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit,” our healing God will do the heavy lifting. That is the covenant. That is my experience. But we have to open our hearts to allow this change. Again and again and again. Throughout the circle of our church calendar; throughout our lives.

I lift up as a great teacher of this lesson our dear Rev. Dave Mussatti, whose 81st birthday we honor today. He is in a season of new life and healing, by witness of his celebrating Holy Eucharist with us today. We are so grateful.

And he has shared with me, and given me the blessing to share with you, that his journey back to health from injury required more than surgery and physical therapy (although he did a lot of that). It required his letting go of old habits of living—living in his words, as a “human doing” rather than a “human being.”

Letting go of the weight of old obligations and impossible standards of perfection that blocked him. Clearing away habits of overwork that cluttered his heart. Being open and still during his recovery. Asking God to create in him a new heart for a springtime of new energy.

In thanks, in inspiration, I ask you to join me, to join Dave, in a prayer for this kind of inner healing. That we too may open to God’s saving help and become “clean-hearted” once again.

To feel of the beat of love at my core and find calm in its universal rhythm,

            I open my heart. 

To give thanks for the pulse of life’s blessings,

            I open my heart. 

To acknowledge the weight of life’s pain and sadness,

            I open my heart. 

To delight in the world’s radiant beauty,

            I open my heart. 

To seek healing for all that is broken within me and the world,

            I open my heart. 

To create a space for Holy Spirit deep within me and to use its transforming power,

            I open my heart.

And together we say, Create in me a clean heart, O God. Amen.


~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Associate for Parish Life

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada

March 21, 2015


[1] www.almanac.com/content/first-day-spring-vernal-equinox

[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_equinox#Human_culture; www.nataliakuna.com/equinox--solstice-spiritual-meaning.html

[3] More on this, especially the power of contemplative prayer to “unclutter,” in Wayne Teasdale, The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1999), esp. pp. 132–34.