“Sometimes a sermon just has to have a subtitle,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 9:15 a.m. Friday Ecumenical Service in the Amphitheater. “My title today is ‘Taking Down the Tree,’ but my subtitle is ‘God is making a way, so get out of the way.’ ”
The Scripture text was Isaiah 43:16-19.
Sparks listed a number of things she hates, including vacuuming, running out of potato chips with half a bowl of onion dip left and long lines at the car rental agency when first-time renters want an explanation of all the insurance options.
“What I hate most is taking down the Christmas tree,” she said. “My husband, Toby, and I must be the last people in the galaxy to take down our tree. I think this year the azaleas were blooming when we did it.”
Sparks said her family is the type that rushes out the weekend after Thanksgiving to get a tree. They buy theirs from Sébastien, a French Canadian tree dealer who sets up at the corner of 3rd Avenue and 31st Street in Manhattan.
“He’s a great salesman,” she said. “When we first met him, he asked where I was from; I told him North Carolina. He said, ‘Just like this North Carolina fraser fir.’ I didn’t care if it was true because it brought a feeling of my North Carolina mountain home to New York.”
Sparks puts cowboy boots under the tree instead of a traditional skirt.
“When I walk in the door, it smells like I walked into a forest on the Blue Ridge Parkway,” she said.
Yet, the magic fades, the needles fall into the cowboy boots, the tree turns brown, and it is time to take it down. There is a hole in the living room where it stood.
“Our life transitions are like taking down the tree,” Sparks said. “We have a range of emotions — the sadness of loss, and anger with the transition. The cleanup is messy, and anger and tears come at unexpected moments. We have to fill the hole where the tree used to be. That hole can be made by the transition from Chautauqua to home, a child going off to school, the loss of a loved one.”
The emotions are the same, and there is a messy cleanup followed by a bare spot.
“But life is nothing but change,” she said. “How do we face this inevitable heartbreak and fill the hole in our hearts?”
Through Isaiah, God was speaking hopeful words to the people of Israel who had been in exile in Babylon for 70 years. But to pick up, clean up and head out after 70 years was scary.
“God was trying to get them excited because God was going to do a new thing,” Sparks said. “But many wondered if they had to go. They wanted to hold on to things that were past their time. They had forgotten what is possible.”
She asked the congregation, “If God has something in mind, what should we do? God is making a way, so we need to get out of the way. I have three suggestions for how to do that — let go, clear out and move on.”
Humans can never know why God is doing what God is doing.
“When we face change, God is making a way, so we need to let go,” Sparks said. “I hate the saying, ‘When God closes a door, he opens a window.’ I prefer the saying, ‘When God closes all the doors and windows, perhaps there is a storm and God is keeping us safe.’ ”
Many in the congregation knew the book by Marie Kondo, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
“Kondo tells us to ask of an object, ‘Does it bring me joy?’ If yes, then keep it; if no, give it to Goodwill,” Sparks said. We need to apply that to our hearts. Is that anger bringing you any joy? No? Then let it go. The most influential person in your life is the one you refuse to forgive.”
To move on, Sparks told the congregation, we need to drop all the things that block us from being present with God.
“I was researching ancient doorways, as one does, and the Romans, Greeks and Vikings thought thresholds were sacred,” Sparks said. “Monks and nuns would stop at the doorway of the church and perform an act to shed any burdens so they could be present to God.”
Sparks said again, we have to “let go.”
“Whatever the doorway is in your life — a new job, a geographic change, a meeting at work, family tension, the line at the car rental agency — we have to let go of the messiness and walk in the full light of God,” she said.
Sparks told the congregation that something wonderful waits on the other side of transition.
“Things happen when we get out of the way because God is making a way.”
She closed by reading the poem “George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters:
“I have studied many times / the marble which was chiseled for me, / a boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor. / In truth it pictures not my destination / but my life. / For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment; / sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid; / ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances. / Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life. / And now I know that we must lift the sail / and catch the winds of destiny / wherever they drive the boat. / To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness, / but life without meaning is the torture / of restlessness and vague desire, / it is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.”
The Rev. Natalie Hanson presided. Cheryl Chandola, longtime Chautauquan and volunteer teacher with Literacy Pittsburgh, which works with low-literate adults, read the Scriptures. For the introit, The Motet Choir sang “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The anthem was “O Come, Desire of Nations,” by Gerald Near. Rebecca Scarnati was the oboe soloist. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Harold F. Reed, Sr. Chaplaincy and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provided support for this week’s services.