Date: August 23, 2015
Title: “Cleanliness is Next to…What?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Mark 7:14-23
I always appreciate it when somebody pays attention to upcoming sermon topics. It is especially great when they pay such close attention as to offer me resources to consult, or stories to consider, or tales to tell. David Poindexter is someone who pays attention, and he offered me this nugget of inspiration just for this sermon today:
It seems that during the second world war, there was a US Army airman who found himself at a formal dinner party, seated next to an Anglican bishop. To make conversation, the airman said to the bishop, “Your Excellency, I really like the Bible.” This pleased the clergyman who said, “You do? And What part of the Bible do you like the most?”
The airman replied, “What I like most is when Lady Macbeth is striding back and forth, wringing her hands and crying, “Out, damned spot!” Then, thinking he had recovered splendidly, he said to the bishop, “And you, your Excellency, what part of the Bible appeals to you the most?”
The bishop didn’t miss a beat, but replied with a totally straight face, “The part of the Bible I like best is when Scarlett O’Hara stands looking back at the burning Tara and exclaims “Never again will I go hungry!”
This morning we begin a three part sermon series on “Scriptures That Aren’t”, as we look at just three in a multitude of common platitudes, folks wisdom, or sayings which may sound like something Biblical, but which really are not. This series could have gone on a lot longer, given the confusion that exists about the Bible, and given the various ways the Bible gets misused in our culture. Benjamin Corey offers us some help with this as he outlines some quick and easy ways to misuse the Bible.
Number 1: Just start quoting Old Testament rules when you want to govern someone’s behavior. Corey says “Who cares if the Mosaic law was given to a nomadic tribe some 3,000 years ago – just pick one of the ancient rules they lived by and quote it whenever you need to win an argument with someone.” We need to remember that the Bible is a large collection of writings. Some are designed to tell us the story of a people gone before us. Some are meant to describe a healthy relationship between God and humanity – what that would look like, how that would work. Some are given to help us recognize a healthy relationship between people. But as a whole, the Bible is not intended to be a rule book for the here and now.
Number 2 way to misuse the Bible: Assume the Bible is all about YOU. Again, Corey says, “Who cares if these books were written to multiple different cultures, times and places – it’s a book all about you, right?” Wrong. We must recognize that this book was written for us, but it is not always written to us and rarely is all about us.
Number 3: Attempt to arrive at meaning without first understanding the culture it was written to. Biblical scholars are fond of saying that the primary meaning of Scripture is whatever it meant to the original audience. If you try to read it out of its context, if you do not take the time to understand when Scripture was written and why you are misusing the Bible once again.
The fourth way to misuse the Bible: Discount the fact that it wasn’t originally written in English. You have probably heard someone say “If it was good enough for King James, it is good enough for me.” Unfortunately not all the words or phrases in Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Greek will translate clearly into English. There is simply no way a translation is going to express the original thought in exactly the same way.
Given our propensity to misuse the Bible, and in light of its complexity, it is not surprising that we want to ascribe to the Bible any little bit of conventional wisdom that comes our way. So it is always a good idea to consider the source of our wisdom, and the origin of our sayings, like this one: Cleanliness is next to godliness.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to tell you, up front, that Erma Bombeck disagrees. She says:
Cleanliness is not next to godliness. It is not even in the same neighborhood! Nobody ever had a religious experience out of removing burned-on cheese from the grill of the toaster oven!
Maybe you feel that way, too. But still, the question remains, where did this saying come from? Some of the laws in Hebrew Scripture make it clear that God cares about cleanliness. There are a host of instructions around food – how to choose it, how to prepare it, how to consume it. There are rules about personal hygiene and rules about housekeeping. There are rules for individuals and rules for families and rules for the whole community. The Talmud, which was assembled by rabbis beginning in the second century, includes a list of virtues outlined by Rabbi Phineas ben Jair. His list includes carefulness, vigorousness, cleanliness and godliness. It is very possible that because of the placement of those last two virtues, we get the maxim “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Because it is – at least in the Rabbi’s list!
Our own John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached a sermon in 1769 on appropriate dress, in which he proclaimed “cleanliness is next to godliness”… so maybe, we only have ourselves to blame!
But Mark’s Gospel clearly tells us this morning that Jesus was not the originator of the phrase. In the text we read Jesus is responding to the Pharisee’s criticism of his disciples. Making a valiant effort to keep Judaism pure, the Pharisees had been busy expanding the laws of Moses down to the most minute of details. Over time, they had begun to believe that their own additions to the Law, and their interpretations of it, were as important to follow as the original. They had lost track of the distinction between their laws and THE Law.
Given the human inclination to justify ourselves while judging others, the purity laws became one more way to create levels of spirituality. Those who were ritually “clean” considered themselves close to God and looked down upon those who were “unclean” as being far removed from God. And the law became more about excluding people than it ever was about God.
Until Jesus comes along. Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned – in fact, he seems to shrug off all the fuss about laws and interpretation of laws. As Marcus Borg suggests, Jesus is all about a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion. This is a radical alternative vision, substituting egalitarian inclusivity instead of hierarchical exclusivity. This is a new way of looking at humanity and at faith, emphasizing an internal transformation rather than any outward ritual. Again, in Borg’s words:
In place of Leviticus’s admonition to “Be holy, for I am holy”, Jesus deliberately gives us the call to “be merciful, just as God is merciful.”
Biblically speaking, then, outward cleanliness has no connection to godliness. Jesus makes it clear that what we think, the attitudes we cultivate and the actions which arise out of them – this is what determines how close or how far we are in relation to God.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth instructs her husband to commit murder. It is later, when she is consumed by guilt, that she tries to wash her hands of the crime, but cannot get rid of the stain. She cannot be relieved of the oppressive inner turmoil any ore than she can bring Duncan back to life. No matter how many times she cries “Out, out, damned spot!” her hands will not be clean.
I wonder, this morning, how many of us are still trying to rid ourselves of some inner guilt, some self-perpetuating shame, some burden which we just cannot seem to leave behind? Put it this way, it might be easier if cleanliness really was next to godliness. It might be easier to worry more about the outside and forget the inside. It might be easier, but it would not be better. Because Jesus calls us to live our lives from the inside out. And when we do that, we can stand with Scarlett O’Hara and proclaim, truly, “Never again will I go hungry!” Never again will I face the inner turmoil without respite, never again will I feel as if I am unloved and unlovable, never again will I be left empty and bereft of hope. Living from the inside out, never again will I go hungry…regardless of how much cheese is still burned onto the toaster over. Thanks be to God! Amen.