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Clothesline Controversy

December 12, 2004

Matthew 11:2-11

2000 words


I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 11 and follow along as I read verses 2-11.  Hear what the Spirit says to us.


2  When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

3  and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

4  Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:

5  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

6  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

7  As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

8  What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

9  What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

10  This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11  Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Amen.  The word of God.  Thanks be to God.




Steve Comisar is a con artist.  He has been a con artist all his life.  His first scam was an innocent-looking ad in a national magazine selling a SOLAR POWERED CLOTHES DRYER for $49.95. “Scientifically proven, space age method,” the ad declared, “using only the power of the sun.”  Suckers who ordered Comisar’s product were surprised to receive a short length of clothesline.  Now I thought Comisar’s con was rather amusing, but I do not suppose that I would think so if I paid $50 for a few feet of cord.

Let us talk about clothesline for a few minutes.  Several years ago, the clothes dryer in Nichols Fox’s house stopped working. It was old and worn out, and Nichols came to the conclusion that it was not worth repairing or replacing. Instead, she began to hang her laundry on a clothesline, believing that this would spare her the cost of a new dryer, save a little money on her utility bill, and give her some exercise.

Nichols’ decision to string up a clothesline unleashed a political firestorm.  A friend of hers asked in horror, “You hang out your clothes?”  The Washington Post interviewed Nichols about the elimination of unnecessary technologies from her life, and she had to defend herself against charges of being a “Luddite” — a destroyer of labor-saving machinery.  Utne magazine [Fox, Nichols. “The clothesline question.” November-December 2003, 47-49.] reports that a critic in New Zealand wrote a one-act play making fun of her clothesline.  An American free-lance writer in Costa Rica accused her of “sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness,” implying that she was insensitive to the plight of women around the world who were forced to hang their wash on the line.  But Nichols Fox asks: “When precisely did the clothesline become the symbol of oppressed womanhood?”

What Nichols discovered is that science and technology are the real religion of our culture.  We assume without question that it is always good to buy a new machine, and that the latest model is worth whatever time and money it costs to buy it.  

But the most cutting-edge technology, as we know, is not necessarily going to make us healthier and happier. Perhaps Nichols Fox is better off without a clothes dryer, since hanging her laundry gives her a chance to breathe fresh air, listen to the birds, check on her plants, and enjoy the warmth of the sun.  You simply do not get that kind of pleasure from the newest Maytag Electric Dryer.

Nichols Fox is embroiled in a clothesline Controversy.  She has challenged conventional wisdom and flaunted cultural norms — and in the process she has been labeled a heretic by the worshipers of science and technology.  But she is not giving up — she continues to hang her clothes on the line, because she believes that technological progress has not always kept its promise to make us happier and healthier. For her, hanging out the laundry is an act of defiance against a soulless, machine-made culture.

Now all this brings us to the question: What choices do I make to live a life of meaning and significance?  What really matters?  These are important questions for us as we look toward Christmas and begin the mall crawl in search of the Next Best Thing for family members and friends.  Before we whip out the credit card and purchase another device or gadget, another MP3 player or video game system or kitchen appliance, we ought to ask ourselves: Is this really going to help anyone live any better?

And then, there is our busyness this time of year, and really all year round.  Our culture is in love with being busy.  I cannot count the times people have told me that they were too busy and too stressed out over being busy.  For some people, life seems to have become like a tape that has been speeded up, or like a film running so fast that all one sees is a blur. But our busy-ness prevents us from taking time for things that we need.  Our culture leave us little time for God.

We have little time to explore the deep wisdom of our Christian tradition. We find little time to pray and just "be" with God. Coming to church for Morning worship seems a struggle enough, let alone finding time for Bible Study, or leadership in the church. Quality time with Jesus is in short supply.

Yet, in our hearts, we know that we ought to find some time to be nurtured by God. The Prophet Elijah tells of not hearing God in the thunderstorm, or the earthquake, but in the still small voice of the breeze Like Elijah, we can often find God only in the quiet moment.  What a blessing it is when we are quiet and still, like on in the early morning when we drink in the new day and we hear these words in our souls, "Be still and know that I am God."

The very wealth of our culture makes life complicated for us.  We are so busy paying off mortgages and/or acquiring "stuff" that we miss out on the wisdom of God.  We get caught up in getting "toys" and forget about living in the Spirit.  We get sucked into secular lifestyles that have no place for God.

On TV, in books, and in magazines, we are told how to have the "good life". Look at the magazine racks. We oooh and aaaahhh over the lives of movie stars.  The advertising media feeds our hopes for that dream car, that dream home, or that dream body.

“The Swan” is a TV Program on which women say they have low self-esteem.  They say, “I just cannot stand myself.  I do not like myself.   Something needs to change.”  But they do not say I need God.  They do not say, I need some kind of spiritual life.  They do not even say that I need to develop a more positive personality, or I need to become a more charming person.  Instead, they say cut me up and make me look like a Barbie doll.  That is what the program is about: A group of plastic surgeons cut these poor women from head to toe in an almost insane quest after surface beauty.  There is really something sick about people who will go through all that pain and agony just to look better on the outside.

Now the program does not show what happens to them afterwards, but I suspect they still have the same problems afterwards that they did before.  They have spiritual and psychological problems that can only be worked out by bringing meaning and significance into their lives.  In a word, they need Jesus.

Let us return to Matthew chapter 11.  John was imprisoned because of his criticism of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.  John had rebuked Herod for marrying Herodias, wife of Philip.  Herodias was the half-niece of Herod and, according to Jewish law, such a union was prohibited.  John’s repeated reminders of this fact resulted in his imprisonment and eventual execution.

While he was in prison, John tried to work out some things of significance in his life.  He sent some disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one.  Jesus did not directly reply to John’s question.  Instead, he pointed to what he was doing.  “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (v. 5).

There is a lesson about God here.  The lesson is that God is known by his actions.  God is not some being who resides in heaven and only occasionally looks in on his creation.  God is here with us, acting in history, acting in our lives. 

In v6, Jesus says that anyone who recognizes in God in his actions, as he puts it, anyone “who takes no offense at me” is happy and fortunate.

Then Jesus begins to talk about John, emphasizing the importance of the Baptist, saying in v11, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”  Then he makes a startling statement, “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  John the Baptist was greatest man who has ever lived, yet the least citizen of the kingdom of heaven is greater than John.

So the point of this passage of scripture is the kingdom of heaven.  How do I attain meaning and significance in my life?  Not by buying the latest toy, not by being cut up by plastic surgeons, but by becoming a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  And I can only become a citizen of that kingdom, through Jesus Christ.  It is his kingdom.  Thus, it is Jesus who gives meaning to my life, to any life. 

The actions of Jesus show us God. This is not only true in this text, this is true in the whole world.  Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet that begins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”   As we look at the world around us, we see movement, energy, and change.  The power behind all this is what Hopkins called “the grandeur of God.”  It is the power that we call Christ.  The world begins in Christ and proceeds toward Christ.  Jesus is the purpose of all that is and all that there is to be.  Jesus is working among us even now in all aspects of human life to bring about his purpose for the world.  Our purpose is to align ourselves with what Jesus is doing. 

Understand what I am saying.  I am not saying that owning and using gadgets are necessarily wrong.  Since I wrote this sermon on a computer, it would be hypocritical for me to say that.  I appreciate labor saving devices.  I like technology.  However, meaning and significance for our lives are not found in those things, but only in Jesus.  Jesus did not directly answer John’s question, but his actions answered John’s question.  He was, and is, the one.  He is creator of the universe, and he is creating a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem for his people.  Thus, we adore him and we worship him, now and always.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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