"Is Tidiness Next to Godliness?"

I Corinthians 4:1-5

Luke 15:1-3, 8-10


You have heard the proverb: “Cleanliness is next to godliness”—but don’t go looking for it in your Bible.

It’s not there.

Those are the words of John Wesley, the eighteenth century Anglican priest who was the founder of Methodism. And Methodism took its name from the “method” that Wesley’s followers used to develop their spiritual lives.

I thought of Wesley recently mostly because of another “method” that has captured our nation’s attention—KonMari—the wildly popular system for tidying your house. It is a distinct method and comes with its own checklist—although I don’t think that “Tidiness is next to godliness” is actually its official motto.

I don’t have a Netflix machine—or whatever it is you need to be able to watch Marie Kondo’s  show—but it’s been hard not to notice the craze that has swept our nation since “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” was released by Netflix on the first of January.

In case you are even more cut off from these kinds of things than I am, Marie Kondo is an organizing consultant who was born in Japan and now lives in the United States. Her 2011 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has been an international hit and Time magazine declared her one of the 100 most influential people in 2015.

Kondo’s “method” focuses on finding the things that you own that bring joy to your life—and tossing the rest. Or, you know, giving them to someone else or recycling, selling, or donating them to charity. At the start of each New Year organizations such as Goodwill experience an increase in donations as people clear out unwanted “stuff.” But this year, across our nation there have been long lines of cars backed up at such places—a larger than usual increase, attributed to the number of people watching Kondo’s show and suddenly buying into her method.

It led to the New Yorker cartoon showing a woman holding two overstuffed black garbage bags in a room in which all the dresser drawers were pulled out and empty, saying to her partner: “I’m not so much keeping what sparks joy as getting rid of everything that sparks rage.”

Let’s be honest. We could use more joy. And if we can find it right in our own homes, in our closets, our drawers, or out in plain sight, so much the better.

But as Marie Kondo’s method—and our own experience—shows, it can take some effort to find those things that spark joy.

Kondo’s method and her Netflix show remind us of the shallow consumerism that has descended upon us. At every turn we are encouraged to buy more and told that buying more will give us the joy that we seek.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way.

In fact, it seems that quite often, those things that spark joy are buried underneath other “stuff.”

Now, the Bible really doesn’t have a lot to say about keeping things neat and tidy.

In the parable that we heard this morning, however, Jesus tells of a woman desperately cleaning her house. She has obviously not found a place for everything. You probably know what that’s like—unless you’ve been practicing the KonMari method for some time now: where did I put my keys, my phone, the remote? I don’t think I’m the only one who has had those kinds of experiences. I even look at my bookshelves, where everything is supposed to be in some kind of order, and ask myself: “Where is that book?” Or if I’m willing to take a modicum of responsibility: “Where did I put that book?”

Oh—just an aside here. Marie Kondo suggests that you only keep thirty books. I don’t know how that’s going to play here in the City of Literature. I do know that clergy everywhere have been asking: “You mean only 30 books on each subject, right?”

But back to the parable: This woman had ten drachmas but one is missing. Now a drachma is a coin that was worth roughly a day’s wages—not an insignificant amount even though this woman still has nine other coins of the same value. So she lights a lamp, she sweeps her house, and she searches until she finds the lost coin.

Searching leads to finding.

And finding leads to rejoicing.

This woman is so filled with joy upon finding the lost coin that she gathers her friends and calls to her neighbors, saying “Rejoice with me for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Joy wells up and is shared with others.

Jesus told this story to explain to his opponents why he welcomed and ate with “sinners”—those on the outside of polite society. Just as this woman shared her joy with friends and neighbors, so there is joy, Jesus says, “in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Good, sincere, religious people might expect God to be less concerned about, well, tax-collectors or “deplorables.” But as one New Testament scholar said in reflecting on this parable, “God’s most precious possession is humanity and God searches until all are found.

The opening chapters of Genesis tell a similar story—again, a story, not science, not history. I didn’t read it today, because it’s somewhat long, but perhaps you know this story of God seeking out the man and the woman who had disobeyed God.

Genesis tells of a strikingly human God, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. At first this seems to be a childlike, if not naïve picture of God.

Yet this simple picture presents a profound understanding of how God chooses to enter into the life of the world and relate to the creatures. The Creator is not distant and removed. The Creator is intimately involved with creation.

Then we hear what Genesis presents as God’s first words spoken to the human race: “Where are you?”

What astonishing words! The All-knowing One asks a question. The Creator seeks the creature. It is the cry of the abandoned, the pleading of the lonely. It is the question of one who desires the presence of another.

“Where are you?”

When God asks questions, we do well to listen and consider them. “Where are you?” suggests a God who is not only puzzled but also loving, respecting us even in our fear and insecurity.

Knowing our sin, sensing our shame, for which nakedness is a symbol, we would hide from God. “But where,” the Psalmist asks of God, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” Still the One who created us for life does not push, does not rip away the pathetic leaves of self-righteousness with which we try to cover ourselves.

In the cool of the day, in the gathering darkness, the God who, as Paul says, “will bring to light the things that are hidden,” simply calls: “Where are you?” God seeks us out—not to punish, but to bring us back into relationship.

There is rejoicing. There is joy—which is missing in so much of life.

God seeks out what sparks joy—and finds you and me.

I think this is a big part of the appeal of tidying up—the promise of once again discovering joy.

As I said, the method is to take everything in a room—out of drawers and closets, off of tables and chairs and desks and any other place—and put it all in a pile in the middle of the room. Then one at a time, hold each item in your hands and see if it gives you a spark of joy.

My friend, Tim Haut is the minister at the Congregational Church in Deep River, CT—and an Iowa native. He says that this process is something like “the spiritual discipline of attentiveness: taking notice of the little and big things we encounter each day rather than barging mindlessly through our life.” Tim says that “sometimes we get so caught up in our agenda, or fixated on a problem or worry, that we don’t even notice the people around us. Days, months, and years can pass before we suddenly realize that we have missed too much, and that we have forgotten to savor our children, our spouses, our friends.”

So much gets lost—and we will have to seek once more if we are to find joy. And often we will find it buried among all the clutter that has developed around all the things that we have accumulated.

Sometimes we might need to throw everything into a pile on the floor as we begin our search.

Other times we need to walk slowly and with open eyes in nature or around our neighborhood.

Or again, we might look closely once more at those we love, family and friends, co-workers and congregation members and feel again that spark of joy.

We’ve been talking a lot about climate change and sustainability in these wintry days. And I think that there is something in tidying up that might be of use to us here. We need to find once again those things in the world that spark joy—things that are often covered up, or disregarded, or seen as unimportant. We need to, as I’ve said, fall in love with this world and care for it as a loved one.

Vincent Van Gogh famously said that “the best way to know God is to love many things. Love a friend, a wife, something, whatever you like, and you will be on the right way to knowing more about it; that is what I say to myself. But one must love with a lofty and serious intimate sympathy, with strength, with intelligence, and one must always try to know deeper, better, and more. That leads to God,” he said, “that leads to unwavering faith.”

Let us love this earth with a lofty sympathy, with strength, always trying to know more.

Let us be those who seek the joy of the earth and share that joy with others.

It may be for us in our time, the way to God.