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Doing Dishes

 
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts
January 24, 1999

Readings:


Exodus 30:17-21 The basin for washing

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come."

Matthew 23:23-26 How to wash dishes

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill, and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean."


Arcana Coelestia #5120.6 Washing the inside of the cup

In the Bible's inner meaning, a cup stands for the true ideas in our faith. If we cultivate these ideas without the goodness that goes with them, we are "cleaning the outside of the cup"--especially when there are hypocrisy, deception, hatred, revenge, and cruelty inside of us. When we are like this, our faith is only in our outward self, and not at all in our inner self. But when we cultivate and become filled with the goodness of faith, then truth is united with goodness in our inner self, even when we have accepted mistaken ideas. This is what it means to "first clean the inside of the cup, and the outside will also be clean."

Sermon

First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean. (Matt. 23:26)

Today's theme, "Doing Dishes," came to me one evening last week when I was . . . doing dishes. We had spaghetti for supper that night--which can be quite exciting with a three-year-old and a nearly two-year-old! So there I was, standing at the sink after supper. Some of the dishes were piled up in the sink, and the rest were on the kitchen table (where our family eats our meals), or scattered around on various countertops. I washed what was already in the sink, and then began to work my way outward through the kitchen, gathering and cleaning the various plates, cups, bowls, and silverware.

The moment I laid eyes on Caleb's post-spaghetti bowl, I knew the text for my sermon: "First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will also be clean." As I looked at that bowl, I said to myself, "Obviously, Jesus never did the dishes for my two boys!" Yes, the bowl had the remains of Caleb's spaghetti on the inside, and I would have to wash the inside of it. But that bowl also had spaghetti sauce on the outside. It even had spaghetti sauce on the bottom. And there were distinct signs of spaghetti on a one foot radius of table top around where Caleb was sitting--not to mention on his chair and on the floor underneath. Let me tell you, I had a lot more to clean than the inside of that bowl!

Well . . . some of us are messier eaters than others. Chris, at 31/2, does a much better job of keeping the food either in the bowl or in his mouth--though his accuracy is not 100%! Heidi (9) has long since perfected the art of keeping the mess on the inside of the cup and dish. This is a long way of saying that as we grow up, we gradually learn to contain our messes so that there is not so much cleaning up to do. Or at least, that's the idea. Heidi can still do a great job of scattering various projects throughout the entire house. And now that I've brought it up, I must confess that my study is not the tidiest room in the house.

Still, whether we are neatniks or like to arrange our things in piles all over the place, by this time most of us are pretty good at keeping the outside of the cup and dish clean while we are eating. Jesus was speaking to an adult audience--the Scribes and Pharisees. And when we are washing dishes for adults, we do indeed mainly have to wash the inside of the dishes for them to be entirely clean--perhaps giving the outside a quick once-over just to be sure.

Of course, Jesus wasn't really talking about doing dishes at all. The genius of his teaching was that he took common, everyday activities such as doing dishes, and used them to illustrate the deeper issues of spiritual life. Our mind holds onto the concrete image of washing cups and plates, helping our spirits to hold onto insights that can help us to live in a more thoughtful and constructive way. If we can build up these associations of everyday tasks with the everyday tasks of the spirit, then none of our daily activities--even the menial and repetitive ones like doing dishes--will be a waste of time for us, because as we are doing those dishes, we will be growing spiritually as we do our inner dishes as well. So let's take a deeper look at dishwashing and see what help we can get from the Lord's words about it.

What does it mean to do the dishes spiritually? To get our minds steered toward some answers to this question, let's go back to our reading from Exodus. The passage we read is a snippet from a much longer section of over a dozen chapters describing the way the ancient Jewish Tabernacle (a sort of portable temple) was to be set up... Let's read the section on the basin for washing again:

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come."

Earlier in the week, some of you noticed the sermon topic out on the Wayside Pulpit, and we were joking that for this service we could have ushers standing at the doors handing out basins of soapy water. Well . . . in some ways that would be appropriate. After all, as we just read in Exodus, the ancient Jewish people had a wash basin in their church!

As a matter of fact, we already do have a wash basin in our church. But we call it by a much fancier name. Our wash basin is our baptismal font, which dutifully keeps its post on the lower level of our chancel week in and week out. Of course, we don't use the baptismal font for washing dishes! The point is, the symbolic act of washing holds an honored position in our church's ritual and life. In fact, the sacrament of baptism, which is a ritual of washing, is the way Christians welcome newcomers to our faith--whether they are infants, children, teenagers, or adults. There is something about the act of spiritual washing that is so important that we re-enact it symbolically whenever someone enters our faith.

As Swedenborgians, when we wish to understand the meanings of Christian rituals, we turn to Emanuel Swedenborg's teachings about "correspondences"--that living symbolism that describes how spiritual realities manifest themselves in physical objects and events. When it comes to rituals of washing, the spiritual meaning is clear. Just as we must wash our bodies regularly to get the dirt and sweat and smell off of ourselves, we must also regularly wash our spirits by using the water of spiritual truth to purify ourselves of any faulty attitudes or mistaken notions that we may have picked up along the way, and that cling to us just as dirt and sweat cling to our bodies.

Getting back to the dishes, when we do the dishes we use water (and soap) to wash the remains of our dinner off the dishes so that they will be clean for the next time we use them. Doing the dishes may seem to be a waste of time day after day. But just think what would happen if we didn't do the dishes. If the leftover food stayed nice and fresh on our plates and in our bowls, it might not be so much of an issue. But have you ever come across a bowl or plate of something that was forgotten in some out-of-the-way corner of the house--or of the refrigerator? Ugh! Sometimes it's so bad that you just want to throw it away dish and all, and be done with it! When it comes to dishes, the result of not washing regularly is all sorts of mold and rot too fierce to mention.

The very same thing happens to us emotionally if we never bother to do our spiritual dishes. Spiritually, our cups and dishes are those everyday ideas that we use to help us nourish our souls. A good example of a spiritual dish would be the Golden Rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you." This is an idea that we can live by every day. And it is an idea that contains good things, just as a cup or bowl contains the good things we eat. What are the good things we would like people to do for us? Most of them are simple: a kind and supportive word when we're feeling down; a friendly, listening ear when we have something on our mind; a bit of help on that project around the house that we haven't been looking forward to; maybe even some help with the dishes! These are some of the spiritual foods of human kindness that we can heap onto the plate of the Golden Rule, to serve up a meal that nourishes our own souls and the souls of those around us.

And yet, each time we enjoy these meals of human kindness with one another, there is a bit of messiness left behind. Perhaps when we lent that helping hand, we patted ourselves on the back saying, "What a good boy am I." Perhaps when we lent that listening ear, we were a little too sure that we had all the answers to the other person's problems, and gave advice instead of giving sympathy. Perhaps when we offered that kind word or did that kind deed, we mentally filed it away, noting that now that person owes us one in return.

We're all human. We all have mistaken attitudes that cling to our spiritual dishes like the sauce and bits of noodle after a spaghetti dinner. Just as we need to wash the dishes after each meal, we also have to wash our spiritual dishes daily to keep all that fierce psychological mold and fungus from growing inside us--the mold of creeping self-righteousness and the fungus of pride and insensitivity. Each time start mentally building up those brownie points for all the good things we've done today, we need to quickly wash our spiritual dishes. Each time we start feeling resentful because nobody is doing for us what we're doing for them, we need to wash our spiritual dishes. Each time we start thinking we know what's best for the people around us, we need to wash our spiritual dishes.

Yes, it's a bit of a chore to keep on using the water of our spiritual beliefs day in and day out to wash away those less-than-noble attitudes that regularly flit through our heads. It's a bit of a chore to do the dishes each day. But let's remember what those dishes do for us day after day: they enable us to feed our bodies so that we can do our work, pursue our goals, and be with our loved ones. Doing our spiritual dishes may seem like a chore; but keeping our attitudes fresh and clean each day is what enables us to continue toward our spiritual goals. Doing our spiritual dishes helps us to keep our minds and hearts fed each day with fresh and nourishing spiritual foods of thoughtfulness and kindness, so that we can move toward our goals of useful service and loving relationships with each other and with God. Amen.

 

Music: On a Distant Shore
1999 Bruce DeBoer

 
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