We humans have a tendency to complain about things. We look around the world and see suffering, inequality, injustice and cruelty. We hear of people in Third World countries actually dying of diseases that we in North America thought were eradicated decades ago. We complain and condemn the state of our world because that is a lot easier than getting involved in some effort to actually change the world. The reality is that we can’t wring our hands and roll up our sleeves at the same time!
So, we can either complain about things or we can choose to do something. We can either wring our hands or we can roll up our sleeves—but we cannot do both.
The church memorial garden has been a labor of love for the past 5 years when I asked Rev. Julia if I might be allowed to begin renovating it. It was thick with thistles as high as my knees, and although I sprayed them and pulled them repeatedly, they always seemed to come back. That first year was especially rough and the work was endless to the point that I wondered why I had even attempted to remake the garden. It might have been easier to just complain about the weeds and to wring my hands and just let the weeds grow for yet another summer rather than “roll up my sleeves” and tackle the garden one weed at a time. Because of my persistence and the addition of a lot of other people since that first year, the garden is what it is right now—a lovely oasis of color and life and beauty.
In a similar manner, our politicians have often find themselves accused of misdeeds and always seem tempted to “wring their hands” and hope the investigations will go away because they don’t know how to “roll up their sleeves” and right the wrongs they’ve committed.
Like most people, I have been disturbed and heartbroken by reports of other priests in the Catholic Church who have violated boundaries in their relationships. And I have watched as the church’s leadership stood by for decades, doing nothing but wring their hands, unable or unwilling to roll up their sleeves and actually do something to fix the problem.
A long time ago, I used to have a babysitter who would watch our son—we only had one child at the time—at her house. She was inexpensive and very good with infants, however, her standard of cleanliness was very different from ours. Her carpets were never clean, she always had stacks of dirty dishes all over the kitchen, and the kitchen floor was so sticky from spilled soda and juice that whenever I had to walk on it, my feet would stick to it. Fortunately, Chris was an infant and wasn’t crawling around yet or that situation would not have been acceptable.
The woman had three kids of her own, her husband was incarcerated, and she was overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to be a single mother. We could have just wrung our hands or complained to each other, but instead, we decided to pitch in and help get her place back in order. One Saturday we arrived at her apartment with cleaning supplies and equipment and began the process of cleaning up. I don’t mind playing with young kids, so I got the task of taking the kids outside so they wouldn’t be in the way. It turned out that the first step to “rolling up our sleeves” was to remove the mess-makers!
In 1886, Leo Tolstoy wrote a great story called “The Godfather.” It’s about a man who was trying to learn how to make up for some wrongdoing. The man is never named, but the story begins with him looking for and finding his mysterious Godfather. When the Godson finds his Godfather, he stays with him for a while but breaks one of the rules of the house and is sent away. He is told to watch for clues about how to right his wrong on his journey home.
One of the clues he gets is the scene he encounters in a small restaurant. While sitting there he watches a waitress scrub a table over and over again. When he asks her what she is doing, she looks at him blankly – one of those “stupid” question looks – and points out what should have been obvious, that she is cleaning the table.
He suggests that she rinse her rag once in a while. Without realizing how important that would be, she thanks him and in short order, the table is clean and her work is complete.
But it isn’t until years later that the Godson realizes the message of the dirty rag for his own life’s story.
The kitchen floor doesn’t get cleaned if we don’t get rid of the dirt.
The garden isn’t going to be thistle-free if we just pull a few weeds and leave them laying on the ground.
Politicians will never repair their tarnished records by trying to keep our attention on only the good things they’ve done, without ever holding them accountable for the other things.
The church – whether Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, or Methodist, or Evangelical or Baptist – cannot expect to “clean house” by simply allowing pastors or priests who’ve violated ethical boundaries to be reassigned or rehired.
And the table isn’t going to get clean if we’re always using the same dirty rag—regardless of how great our detergent is! That rag must be rinsed out and the dirt removed.
In our second reading this morning, Peter suggests that being forgiven of our sins is only one part of the process of purification. It is the most important part; it’s the most difficult part. It’s also the part that God does for us so we don’t have to “wring our hands” about the mistakes we’ve made in our lives.
But accepting God’s forgiveness is only the first part of the process of becoming God’s people. We must also work on a day-to-day basis to remove the unworthy things from our lives so they don’t resurface.
It’s the equivalent of taking our shoes off at the door so there won’t be as much dirt on the carpet to vacuum up.
It’s like planting a lot of ground cover in the garden to keep the thistles from springing up in the garden.
It’s the process of looking closely at our lives to ensure that there is nothing there to distract us from doing God’s work.
Every Saturday growing up we kids were expected to dust, mop, vacuum and otherwise clean the living areas of our house. We rotated duties so that one week I would vacuum, the next week I would dust. There were 4 of us kids at that time, so if we stayed on task, it would only take half a day to get everything done. I remember wondering where on earth all the dust came from since there didn’t seem to be any dust anywhere by the time we were finished with the Saturday chores. Even in the winter, with all the windows sealed tight, the dust was everywhere. The same is true of our hearts: sometimes those negative and unworthy attitudes continue to find their way inside.
It’s God who continually cleans up our lives. We just can’t do it on our own, so God always offers cleansing and renewal. The fact that we are always in need isn’t something we can simply wring our hands about, nor is it something that we can simply roll up our sleeves about. Rather this is something that invites us to raise our hands in prayer, to clap our hands with gratitude, and to reach out our hands to others who are also struggling.
Our lives may not be “squeaky clean,” our home may not be dust-free and our garden may not be completely free of thistles, but by the grace and goodness of God everything has been made fresh and clean and new.