“First clean the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may become clean.”

(Matthew 23:26b)
Siegfried S. Johnson

A Time magazine essay describes life in the 90's, playfully measuring the increase of clutter in the average American home. The article quoted published research by a Harvard economist, which pointed to the vast number of women now working outside the home as one of the chief causes for the 'rise in grime.” Women, the research concluded, have eliminated roughly one-half hour of housework for every hour employed outside the home. (1) I

It doesn't require a Ph.D. from Harvard to observe the lack of tidiness in today's America compared to, say, thirty or forty years ago. With the vast majority of families in the 90's having two full-time income producers, that often translates to roughly a thirty foot mound of dirty laundry and a dust ball the size of a Greyhound bus.

In general, younger generations don't subscribe to the same exacting standards of home economics and domestic orderliness their parents chose to keep. During my childhood in the 50's and 60's, our Ozzie and Harriet lifestyles required that every kid's bedroom was to look like the Presidential Suite at the Hilton. I'm surprised we children weren’t required put little mints on the pillows. And, the thing I remember most - the floors. Floors were to be in pristine condition. Sterile. Just in case. One never knows when their guests might decide to eat sitting on the floor. High standards, those. The alternative to this level of domestic decorum was the public scorn of the community, if not death by the plague.

No more. Welcome to the speedy, messy, cluttered 90's. Meals are rarely prepared with the luscious aroma of oven preparation, but instead are the zapped results of our microwave lifestyles. We are no longer Ozzie and Harriet. We are Rosanne.

Good Housekeeping jokes that the mealtime decision for families today is, “do we go out, take out, or thaw out?” Who would have dreamed in the early 50's that fast food would become such a boom industry? I yet clearly recall the first McDonalds in Pine Bluff, a scandal for traditionalists like my mom and dad. We boys had to beg and beg our parents to let us visit the Golden Arches for the first time to enjoy that first, lucious, 15 cent hamburger.

Vegetables? Are you kidding? With billions and billions of burgers sold, who remembers them? An entire family, teenagers included, sitting down to a meal together? Not likely! Today, dinner arrives at the front door in a rectangular cardboard box, kept piping hot with new technology. “Quick dear, press the pause button. I’ll go pay the guy at the door. Kids, you go fix the drinks while mom sets up the TV trays.”

Lamentable, but true. Tidiness seems to have dropped several notches in the top ten rankings of household priorities. Younger generations have found that the human immune system can survive a few dirty dishes in the sink and the kids probably won't get typhoid if we don't change the sheets twice a week. (However, I heard the other day that if you've started vacuuming your sheets, it might be time to change them.)

Just before her death, one of my favorite theologians, Erma Bombeck, wrote a wonderful column celebrating “Clean Your Refrigerator Day." (Much of what you've already heard in this sermon is inspired by Erma's article.) (2) Erma is old enough to be sympathetic to standards of a bygone era. She confesses to come “from a family where clean ovens are a religion, bleach is considered holy water, and rough hands are a sacrament.”

But as she compares 90's standards to those of her childhood, she suggests the new mentality is not so bad. She accuses the old standards of seriously jeopardizing one's health, labeling this old compulsion to clean as a "suicide pact with domesticity." She offers proof of how dangerous cleaning can be, telling of her grandmother who annually displayed her bloody hands with pride after mounting her lace curtains on a frame of sharp nails for cleaning. Mrs. Bombeck says that her mother was forced to take pain pills for her back all her life -- she swears as a result of spring cleaning chores such as annually hauling mattresses and boxsprings outside for cleaning. One relative was even rumored to scour and wax her mailbox regularly. “She was dead at 38,” Erma says. “Why did she die so young? You figure it out.”

For final proof of her contention that house cleaning can kill you, she quotes the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which published statistics that 40% of illnesses reported to their division are caused by disinfectants and cleaning products used by women energetically scrubbing without proper ventilation. "Enough California women become ill while cleaning, Erma claims, "that their doctors can afford to buy a second home on the fairway at Pebble Beach."

Evidently there are some out there still cleaning with gusto. Indeed there are signs that younger generations are tiring of their slovenly ways and are prepared for a return to the good old days of spic-and-span. Believe it or not, there is now a support group for those who need help in moving from chronic clutter to cleanliness. The group is called “Messies Anonymous," founded in Miami in 1981 by Sandra Felton. The group's genesis was Sandra's frustration with her own messiness. So much junk was in one bathroom she just closed the door and declared it a storage room. Her three children refused to have friends over because the house was in such embarrassing disarray. She decided to do something about it. Some 2O,OOO members have since received help in making their lives more orderly. Mrs. Felton has authored six books including Meditations for Messies -- A Guide To Order and Serenity, and The Messies Manual, the Procrastinators Guide to Good Housekeeping.

Now, lest you think home and kitchen too mundane for holy lessons at such a solemn season as Lent, let me remind you that Jesus was fond of using ordinary kitchen implements as an analogy. The Pharisees were spotless on the outside, they looked as if they had it all together. But, inside lurked the ugly sins of selfishness and pride. Calling the Pharisee's to repentance Jesus said, “Woe to you, for you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”

On "Clean Your Refrigerator" day, Mrs. Bombeck spoke of refrigerators which, however shipshape on the outside, contain such rottenness within that those who dare open them should be prepared to call 911. In like manner Jesus speaks of those who “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of bones of the dead and all kind of filth." That's how Jesus' portrayed the Pharisees. Appearances are kept up. Outside they appear so holy, so spotless. Yet inside their spiritual arrogance was rancid filth and crud.

The other story we read this morning, from Matthew 8:14, is quite opposite. The Pharisees were beautiful outside, filthy inside. The leper in this story of miraculous healing is precisely opposite - filthy outside, but yearning for spiritual cleansing within. The leper looked hideous to others and was quickly isolated. Leprosy was a vile and infectious plague greatly feared by the public. It began with pain and numbness in certain areas of the body. The skin in those spots gradually lost color and texture, growing thick, glossy, and scaly. (The Greek word lepis means “scale” and lepros means "scaly" or "rough.")

As the sickness progressed, these spots become dirty sores and ulcers. The skin, especially around the eyes and ears, began to bunch, creating deep furrows. In severe cases, fingers and toes could drop off or were absorbed in the swellings. It was a public disease. There was no hiding leprosy. Others could see the disease. Those who dared touch could feel it. No doubt they could also smell it. Perhaps they could hear it, since the leprosy often affected the larynx. Some claimed that the vivid smell produced a taste in their mouth. In other words, all the senses of the well person were engaged in the detection of the leper. (4)

Isaiah 1:5-6 is a gruesome description of bodily decay. “The whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds that have not been drained or bound up.” I ask you. Does that description fit better the leper, or the Pharisee? Our eyes tell us, the leper. Jesus shows us that God looks past what our eyes can see. Jesus saw this kind of filth in none other than the Pharisee.

Our eyes look on the exterior. Jesus looked inside. The outward appearance of the leper was every bit as vulgar and disgusting as Isaiah's description. The leper might think, "God has abandoned me. No one, not even God, could stand to look upon me." Instead, the leper's heart was full of faith. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus looked upon the leper's heart and said, “I do choose. Be clean.” Jesus saw the beauty of faith in this man's heart.

So, what can we learn from ordinary and mundane chores around the house? In the movie, Karate Kid, young Daniel is threatened by the school bullies. He asks a man from Okinawa, who takes care of his apartment building, to teach him karate. The mysterious Mr. Miagi agrees to teach Daniel -- with one condition. Daniel must submit totally to his instruction and never question his methods of teaching. Daniel accepts the condition and shows up the next morning eager to learn karate. But instead of a karate lesson, Mr. Miagi tells Daniel to paint the long fence surrounding his house. He shows him the precise motions of applying the paint -- up and down. Mr. Miagi goes fishing. Daniel spends all day painting. Is that any way to leam karate?

The next day Mr. Miagi asks Daniel to scrub the deck behind his house. Once again, an exact method of doing the job is emphasized. Daniel is by now wondering, “What does all this have to do with karate?” But Daniel remains silent. The next clay Daniel is told to wash and wax three cars. Miagi again prescribes the precise circular motions to put the wax on, and the reverse to take the wax off. Daniel does the job, but he has now reached the limit of his patience. He explodes. “I thought you were going to teach me karate. But you just wanted someone to do your chores.”

Daniel has broken Mr.Miagi's one rule and Miagi is angry. “I have been teaching you karate. Defend yourself.” As Mr. Miagi advances toward Daniel with offensive karate attacks, the motions Daniel has been mundanely repeating countless times are now put into action. Each motion -- the up and down, the scrubbing, the circular wax on and wax off -- each motion now protects Daniel against a specific karate attack. Daniel wards off all the blows.

The lesson over, Miagi simply walks away, leaving Daniel in a daze. Daniel has learned a valuable lesson of life which goes far beyond karate. Success comes from the discipline of repeating the correct, however mundane, actions over and over. Success is in mastering the fundamentals. (5)

A man filled out a questionnaire for a physical at his doctor's office. One question was, "What kind of exercise do you do? " The man answered, "None."

The next question was, "How often do you do it?"

"Regularly, " the man wrote.

T'hat's the Pharisees approach to Lent. Don't need it. Regularly Nothing. Lent is not for Pharisees. Their inward inspection reveals a faultless spiritual life, scoured and scrubbed to the point of pure, disinfected self-pride. No, Lent is not a time for Pharisees, but for lepers, for those who look to God and say, "If you will, you can make me clean." God, I believe is still in the cleaning business.

(1) Barbara Ehrenreich, “Housework is Obsolescent,” in Time, October 25, 1993, p. 92.

(2) Erma Bombeck, “An Immaculate House Is NoLonger To Die For,” 1995.

(3) “Support Group Tries To Come Clean,” by Denise LaVoie of the Associated Press, 1993.

(4) Altered from the description of a leper by William Hendrikson, New Testament Commentary on Matthew, Baker, 1973, p. 388.

(5) Leadership, Fall 1995, p. 40.

Siegfried S. Johnson
First United Methodist Church
Fordyce, Arkansas