Sunday Sermon – 9 June 2019

Cleanliness and Godliness

In 1993 I wrote and spoke these words in this pulpit.

At one time it was samplers, bible texts, comforting sayings and stirring exhortations that were displayed upon the walls of the home. “Waste not the golden hours”, “Keep thy tongue from speaking evil”, or simply “Home, Sweet Home” reminded our Victorian fore-bearers of their duties and responsibilities. But now these artefacts have gone; relegated to museum pieces or collectors items found in what were once second-hand shops, but now given the grander title of Antique outlets.

Instead, the printed cardboard or plastic plaque is displayed in the office or perhaps the car rear window. “Look busy, the boss is coming”, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps”, “Don’t hoot you’ll wake the driver” or boastfully and improbably, “My other car’s a Rolls Royce”.

A much favoured saying of Victorian time, now seldom heard, was “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. A thought struck me the other day as I walked through a litter-strewn back street that perhaps the saying ought to be revived in the form of a modern wall or car sticker. Though whether those who so thoughtlessly drop their cigarette packets, empty crisp bags and soft drink cans on the ground would be deterred by the injunction that they were moving away from a holy state is a mute point.

There is much truth in the statement that present day society generates rubbish in a more prodigal manner than has ever previously been the case. We are described as a throw-away generation. It seems nothing is built to last. Our goods are wrapped and then wrapped again to cover the wrapping. Items are purchased pre-packaged to an extent never before seen. Not infrequently, the container is heavier than the goods it carries. Public or commercial buildings, erected less than forty years ago, are demolished so others can be put up in their place.

Industrial processes create the waste that poisons land, sea, rivers and the air we breathe. The things that should last, whether cars or clothes, washing machines or gas ovens, are obsolete in next to no time, whilst it seems the plastic rubbish we discard will be preserved for ever. The advent of bathrooms in all houses and of modern sanitation generally means our bodies are cleaner than those of our fore-fathers, but the environment in which we dwell has surely deteriorated.

Why is it that, though we are surrounded as never before with amenities to make life easier and more comfortable, we carelessly fill our streets with rubbish, our open spaces with debris and unthinkingly, uncaringly, pollute the waters of the earth, and the air we breathe?

That was fifteen years ago, almost to the day. I wonder if anything had changed in the decade and a half that followed. The answer, as to so many questions, is not straight-forward; yes and no one might respond. In the negative column we note that streets and public places still are strewn with the detritus we carelessly, thoughtlessly throw down. After any large gathering literally truckloads of rubbish is removed the following day. Most goods and commodities are still sold encased in packaging. Throughout the world millions starve, yet prosperous nations like our own daily discard huge quantise of edible food.

But there is a positive column too. A greater awareness of the problem now exists. The word re-cycling has found a place in the common vocabulary of the street. Supermarkets encourage us to bring re-usable bags, as we used to do years ago before plastic bags were invented; low energy light bulbs are now the norm, or nearly so.

It may be argued that this is a social problem, and little to do with religion or spirituality. Yet is this so? Can we be truly concerned with our neighbours if we drop our unwanted goods and walk away? If we extravagantly use finite and irreplaceable resources without regard to generations to come, do we live a good and wholesome life? Is it really possible to separate social behaviour from private belief?

The language of religion is full of references to cleansing, to purity. Sinning, to use an old-fashioned word, or evil-doing and the contemplation of evil, are frequently illustrated in metaphors, comparing these baneful actions to dirt and infection. The soul may be purified just as the body may be washed clean, we picture. To sink into the mire is a graphic picture of a person defiled spiritually as well as physically.

Is it then mere coincidence that in a decade where crimes have grown and public morality standards lowered, that many of our towns and cities grow dismal with graffiti covered walls and litter profligately strewn on street and pavement?

The problem of waste and litter is a three part one.

First there is the sheer volume of unwanted and unnecessary material which is created; bottles within plastic containers within boxes. Packets are intended to attract the eye and to deceive as to the quantity. We have moved a long way from the injunction of Jesus to those selling corn – pressed down within the measure and over-flowing. The postman delivers daily quantities of so called “junk mail” which few want and which largely goes, unread, straight to the bin. We walk the shopping precinct where leaflets are pressed upon us and dropped unread on the floor.

Secondly, there is the prodigal consumption of scarce and irreplaceable commodities. Fossil fuels developed over millions of years used in vast quantities over a mere handful of years. Scarce metals consumed in armaments; trees are felled in their millions without re-planting. Indeed, much is burnt in order to clear the land for other purposes, and so the timber is not even put to use.

Thirdly, in the midst of all this extravagance we strew the rubbish which we have so thoughtlessly created, around us. Some of our streets and public areas are a disgrace, made so by the indifference of so many of us. Towns and cities are running out of sites in which to bury waste. Even the very seas around us are polluted; land is sterilised and rendered useless without regard to the future. The fish of the sea die, and the birds of the air perish as a result of our greed.

One of those Victorian texts which used to be displayed read, “Waste not, want not”. Like many of the homilies our forebears were found of repeating, the words contain more than a grain of truth.

There are some who will say that criticism of social conditions are matters for politicians and other agencies, and that the churches should stick to their own last. But I reject that argument. The spirituality of a man or woman is not to be measured only by frequency of church attendance, by how fervent the praying, or how lustily the hymns are sung.

Spirituality has to do with the whole person, and that means how he or she behaves and thinks in the community at large, as well as in church on Sunday. I refer, as I frequently do, to James on faith without works. You cannot divorce the one from the other.

Some years ago the Unitarian General Assembly decreed a theme for the year ahead should be “Cherishing the Living Earth”. My dictionary says that “cherish” means “to protect and treat with affection”. If we cannot protect the earth in which we dwell, how can we pretend to treat those who share the world with us with affection?

That was certainly a large part of the message Jesus was preaching. His parables were taken from ordinary life; the emphasis was frequently upon relationship between the individual and community; his scorn was for the isolation of the Pharisee or scribe from everyday life; he castigated the hypocrisy of preaching, as a substitute for practising.

Cleanliness has a kinship with godliness. The cleanliness of our towns and cities, of our open spaces, of the air we breathe and of the water which surrounds us, is a measure of the real regard we have for our colleagues and neighbours. It measures our love for those who will follow us; sincere regard demands that we strive to hand on a world of beauty and not a barren, stinking slag heap.

Blest are the pure in heart, said Jesus. But how can we attain purity in heart if we are indifferent to what has been described as public squalor? A pure heart must look with concern upon a polluted ocean, a barren sea, a tainted atmosphere. The adjective attached to sin is habitually “ugly”. The ugliness of sin is a phrase in one of our prayers. Yes, that which is unclean is ugly. It stains and mars; it distorts, it infects the whole.

The world God created is one of beauty, of infinite variety, rich, but not limitless, in resource. If knowingly, or through ignorance, we defile and debase the living environment, we sully ourselves. But more importantly, we are reckless in our attitude to others.

I posed the question earlier, “Is it then mere coincidence that in a decade where crimes have grown and public morality has lowered, that our towns and cities grow ever more dismal with graffiti covered walls and litter gaily strewn on street and pavement?” I believe that it is not a coincidence at all. The two go hand in hand. Love is a multifaceted jewel. A flaw on one face destroys the beauty of the whole. What then to be done?

First, of course, we must practice that which we preach. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, is a powerful text to observe.

Secondly, we should join forces with those who also abhor the waste and filth we create.

Thirdly, we should impress upon all legislators and those who would achieve that position our deep concerns and anxieties. The best known verse of a children’s hymn goes

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all.”

That which has been created beautiful is all too easily defiled or even destroyed. Ugliness is the contribution of men and women, not the creation of God. And he or she who mars the landscape imports grime within the heart. Cleanliness, public and private, material and spiritual, is next to godliness. The sincerity of our belief is measured not so much by what we say, as by what we do.

A notice often seen in a room hired by others reads, “Please leave this place as you would wish to find it”. Not a bad thought for all of us who reside in this land, and upon this planet.

C.J. Rosling 8 February 1992

Fulwood 9 February 1992
Mexborough 6 December 1992
Hucklow 16 May 1993; 29 Aug 1999; 1 June 2008
Mexborough 11 June 1995


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