Cleanliness and Godliness

Sometimes our messages are inspired by lofty moments—a breathtaking sunrise, a deeply kind gesture, a moment of peace that is so perfect it simply must be God. Today’s message is not one of those. Today’s message comes to you courtesy of Mike’s Car Wash. This week I noticed that my car was carrying much of the dust from the country roads I travel so often, so I decided to take a quick moment to clean things up. They’ve built a new car wash just across the street from our office at hospice, and so I pulled in, told them what kind of wash I wanted, and got into the queue.

Before I even entered the car wash, a set of automated spray nozzles covered much of the windshield with a thick pink foam. The flashing sign let me know it was a pre-wash step to remove bugs. Then as the rollers kicked into gear, my car—which was now in neutral—was pulled into a soapy, good-smelling experience of colorful sprays and thick wipes and huge descending rollers. There’s so much coming at you in that moment that if it were your first time through, it might be frightening. In fact, I remember a trip through the car wash long ago with two-year-old Christopher in his car seat in the back. I hadn’t thought to prepare him, and the poor little guy screamed the whole way through, thinking some aggressive mechanical machine had swallowed us, car and all. (He’s 34 today–I hope he’s forgiven me by now.)

But this week when I went through the car wash it wasn’t scary, and one by one the various devices scrubbed and swabbed my car as it traveled through the space. It was then baptized by a high-powered rinse and blasted with the high pressure of the hot air-dry chamber—so much pressure it felt like the sunroof might pop off. About half a minute later, we—my car and I—were delivered at the exit; the light turned green; and I happily drove away, feeling renewed and refreshed and sparkling clean, ready to face the world.

What is it that feels so good about getting clean? I wondered. And I remembered the phrase Cleanliness is next to godliness. Why do we feel so relieved when we’ve released the residue of past experience, turned loose the memories of things that held us back, confessed behaviors we felt bad about? Getting clean—inside and out—is not only good for out outlook (and aroma) but it is also of course good for our souls.

The first record we have of the idea, Cleanliness is next to godliness, came from English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon at the beginning of the 16th century, just about 20 years before George Fox was born. Bacon wrote, “the cleanliness of the body was ever esteemed to proceed from a due reverence to God, to society, and to our selves.” So being clean, Bacon proposed, was a way of showing respect for others and for ourselves and most importantly, for God. The effort we put into “looking presentable” showed others that we valued our time and relationships with them, and that whatever event we’d been invited to, it mattered enough for us that we spruced up a little.

More than two hundred years later the phrase as we know it today showed up in the writings of the co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley. He wrote,

“Let it be observed, that slovenliness is no part of Religion: that neither this, not any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly this is a duty, not a sin: Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.”

And I know you’re probably thinking—boy, are we in trouble today! Norms have certainly changed; Over decades, clothing and appearance become less about a show of respect and more about expressing the personal taste and style of individuals. We’ve seen fashions go from very formal to extremely informal, and while a focus on presentation (how we look to the world) is still important, perhaps even more important is the question of comfort. Now we have yoga pants at work and tennis shoes at funerals, and there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s part of the nature of the time we live in, and it’s important for individuals to be who they are and do what seems best to them. But it does point toward a deeper truth that we hopefully all recognize collectively: Judging by appearances is a mistake, because it’s not the whole story—what’s on the inside is what matters most.

When my daughter was a teenager, one of her best friends—who I loved dearly—spent the night at our house on a Saturday, and Sunday morning both girls told me they wanted to go to church with me that day. I was surprised and glad. When it was time to leave, my daughter’s friend came downstairs wearing the clothes she’d on the night before—a leopard-print mini-skirt and torn fishnet tights. For just a moment, I worried about that, because I’d been attending a Southern Baptist church that had a Bible study group I enjoyed. I wondered how the church ladies might react and I thought—probably because at the time I considered them old, even though they were likely my age now or younger—they might not react too well. I worried that someone might say something unkind or cast a judging look, and I was concerned that a disapproving gesture might make a lasting impression on this 15-year-old, who I so hoped would experience something of God’s grace and welcome.

I prayed silently about it on the way to church. What do you think happened next? I’m glad to say that every single person we met that day was absolutely lovely to the girls. God’s welcome was evident, and God’s grace prevailed. I have been grateful to the people of that church ever since for their love and acceptance and genuine Christly hospitality that day.

Both Francis Bacon and John Wesley seemed in their ideas to be pointing toward the care we should take with our outward selves, but if we’re not careful that gets us stuck on the mini-skirts and fishnets. The true understanding of this statement—what really matters–starts inside. The outward is simply an expression of the inward. More important than the clothes we wear or the cleanliness of our skin is what’s going on inside us—the state of our hearts and minds and souls.

In his book, Light to Live By: An Exploration in Quaker Spirituality, British Quaker Rex Ambler spends quite a bit of time talking about how the Light of Christ inspires us to see what—inside us—needs to be recognized and washed away. The Light shows us where we have work to do, where we might be more honest with ourselves and with God, how we can live more harmoniously—through our words, thoughts, and actions—in tune with the principle of God’s goodness within us.

In 1654, George Fox wrote, “Let the light of Jesus Christ, that shines in every one of your consciences, search you thoroughly and it will let you clearly see.”  Ambler writes about this,

 “This simple, everyday experience is the starting point of the Quaker journey. Start with yourself, they are saying, with your present situation, identify whatever it is in your life that you already feel uneasy about and take a look at it. Does that mean the light is the conscience? I don’t think so, though sometimes it sounds like it. Early Friends all make a point of referring to the light in their conscience, implying that it was something distinct. And I take the difference to be this: your conscience makes you feel good or bad about things you’ve done, and the light then shows you precisely what those things are. The function of the light is to show you what’s really happening: ‘the light is that by which ye come to see’, ‘for with the light man sees himself’.”

Our Old Testament reading from the book of Isaiah echoes this same idea, offering that washing ourselves clean is not about the surface of our lives but about the realignment of the intentions, the ideals we start from:

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah offers that seeking justice begins with a heart that has been washed clean. The outward actions will naturally arise from the right inward state. This is a principle near and dear to Friends’ hearts. In 1943, Quaker Howard Brinton, a writer and professor at Haverford College, said:

“For Friends the most important consideration is not the right action in itself but a right inward state out of which right action will arise. Given the right inward state, right action is inevitable. Inward state and outward action are component parts of a single whole.”

This principle is the foundation of one of our dearest testimonies, the testimony of Integrity. Our testimonies give us a guide, serving as the dependable track that draws us along in the soapy rinse our souls need. Our testimonies are Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (which is sometimes called Sustainability). They are ideals that help us navigate in the world, steering by the qualities of God we hope to demonstrate and share.

In his book, A Living Faith, Wilmer Cooper, the founding dean of Earlham School of Religion, writes this about the testimonies:

“A testimony is an outward expression of an inward leading of the Spirit, or an outward sign of what Friends believe to be an inward revelation of truth…They are an outward expression of an inward spiritual discernment, constituting faith incarnated in action. The testimonies provide the moral and ethical fruits of one’s inward life of the Spirit.”

And then he quotes Worth Hartman—who was pastor here long ago—saying, “[The testimonies] arise more out of a concern for purity, holiness, consistency with divine order than from a passion for social justice.” But when the right inward state is present, as Howard Brinton said, right outward action will result.

This is what Jesus was trying to drive home to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in our New Testament reading for today. Jesus didn’t often speak in such a pointed and direct way, and the truth he spoke so forcefully would certainly have upset those he was speaking to and likely increased the danger he was in. But he wanted those in power to grasp the truth he was telling them. In the Temple court, he called out repeatedly, “Woe to you!” and called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites in no uncertain terms. He gave examples of how they did their best to appear Godly and virtuous on the surface, while in their hearts they exploited the powerless and neglected the needy.

“…you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate,” he said, “but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also become clean.”

He also compared them to whitewashed tombs that looked beautiful and cared-for on the outside, but inside are full of bones of the dead. “You may look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” he told them.

Strong words and biting statements from Jesus! And yet judgment wasn’t his intention here. He didn’t want to simply vilify those in power in an effort to tear them down. He wanted them to see the emptiness of their pretense and to recognize that a true, redemptive faith was possible for them, even though at present their every act was designed to protect and perpetuate their power. Jesus wanted them to see that the faith they practiced was an empty faith–just a mask, hiding corrupt hearts and selfish intentions.

Of course, we know the end of the story. As far as we know, the Pharisees and scribes did little to change their ways. In spite of their high intelligence and all the years they studied the law and prophets, it’s possible they never came to know the true grace and love of God. They weren’t able to humble themselves enough to let Christ teach them how to love. Perhaps their hunger for power was too strong. Thankfully we have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and because Christ comes to teach each of us himself, we have the best and most faithful guide possible.

In closing, I offer these words of George Fox, which speak so clearly to the loving way the Light of Christ cleanses our hearts so that our faith continually deepens and more and more, we’re able to act and live in accord with God’s best hopes for us and for our world:

Mind the light of God in your consciences,
which will show you all deceit;
dwelling in it, guides out of the many things into one spirit,
which cannot lie, nor deceive.
Those who are guided by it, are one.

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