The Second Sunday after Epiphany 2017 ~ John 1.29-42
Have you seen the film ‘Flushed Away’?
Released in 2006, it’s about a mouse called Roddy who lives in a posh London flat, unknown to the owners of course. One day a rat called Sid emerges through the sewers, and after a skirmish the rat flushes the mouse down the toilet. Consequently, Roddy the mouse finds himself cast into the dangerous rodent underworld where there are threats at every turn, not leastly from the frogs and toads who despise rats and mice and want to destroy them. Perhaps you have seen it: it’s all good clean fun - well, sort of.
It has taken many years of film history before anyone dared make a film that begins in the loo. Yet ‘flushing away’ is something we all do every day, and always have done, ever since the flushing toilet was invented back in Elizabethan times. Yes – Elizabethan times - by none other than Sir John Harington, the Queen’s Godson, who, having been exiled from her Court for translating a naughty poem, got back into her good books by inventing a flushing loo. Loo – incidentally, comes from the French word ‘lieu’, meaning ‘place’. As in, ‘taking holiday in lieu’, and lieutenant (as the Americans say). Elizabeth had her Godson’s invention installed at Richmond Palace. Harington even came up with the idea of having reading material in the loo, and following the example of her father Henry VIII who insisted that every church have a Bible chained to the lectern, Harington actually came up with the idea that one of his books should be chained up in every privy. He got in trouble for that too, because the book in question was a sweeping satire on court life.
Talking of Protestant theology…The great Martin Luther, whose anniversary we celebrate this year – 500 years since he kickstarted German Protestantism – he was someone who had great difficulty in this department, such that he had a permanent toilet installed in his study – one of his many progressive ideas. His efforts at both desk and stool became legendary, and both became the subject of his writings.
I could go on, and if you think that German practice unsavoury, a mere glance at Louis 14th court would open up vistas of public consultations, meetings, even meals taken while the King was simultaneously, shall we say, conducting other business. Nevertheless it is ultimately the French we must thank for the convenience of today. Two French architects, a decade apart in the late 18th century improved on Harington’s idea and the French aristocracy finally got the hint and moved from the back of the hygiene queue to the front, and rather interestingly called the new ‘place’ the ‘Lieu a l’Anglaise’. This was apparently because they believed we would appreciate such places more than they would. I’m sure they were right.
And to be fair, it was we British who deserve the credit for the flushing loo. Josiah Jennings developed it all a bit, but it was the Great Exhibition of 1851 that got things moving. Literally, for an event in Victorian times that attracted 6 million visitors, merited some serious attention to a fundamental problem. Jennings installed sets of facilities – the first public lavs since the mediaeval period – and charged everyone – yes you guessed it - a penny to go. Note that that was the same price as a postage stamp, and would now be about 20p.
In the 1880’s the famous Thomas Crapper arrived on the scene with his commercial toilets, and the rest is, as they say, history. The Deanery in Westminster Abbey still has one. And now we all have at least one flushing toilet in our homes. Or rather, we do in the western world. The recent trend for ‘toilet-twinning’ reminds us that some outhouses and sheds are the best some people can expect, if they have proper sanitation at all. Almost 2.5 billion people worldwide do not – that’s nearly a third of the world.
Toilet-twinning, if you haven’t come across it yet, is the means by which you can make a donation to help improve this imbalance and get a framed photo of your twinned loo to put in your own small room, to remind you of how lucky you are and to spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s a bit like saying grace before a meal – only in reverse.
John the Baptist, when he saw Jesus approaching, exclaimed ‘behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. John soon baptises Jesus, and in doing so he introduces Jesus, and all Christians to ritual washing, by which sinners are cleansed, spiritually or metaphorically, and we still do this regularly in our churches today. In the River Jordan, then as now, and in every font worldwide, sins are washed away, rinsed away with flowing water. Washing the outside of our bodies symbolises the inner cleaning brought by Christ, the so-called ‘lamb of God’ who takes away not only my sin and your sin, but the sins of the world. That’s a lot of sin. That’s a lot of sin to wash, or flush away.
Yet, actually, sin is more like what we flush down the loo, than what we rinse off our skin. For sin is not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside. Sin is on the inside. We need to be cleansed internally. Jesus accused the Pharisees of being like whited sepulchres, looking lovely on the outside but dark and full of death on the inside. (Matthew 23:27.)
So it is with most human beings, we hide part of ourselves, we try to look good, paying attention to our outward appearance while there are darker, dirtier parts of ourselves we keep locked away, even from ourselves if we can. Sigmund Freud described this in terms of id and ego – or of the West End and East End of the mind, likening it to London. Like what we do in the loo, we don’t talk about it, and pretend the bad doesn’t exist or happen and keep it private. Similarly when it comes to what we do in the loo, we are reluctant to discuss it with our doctors, even though if we did it might even save our lives. You’ve no doubt seen the NHS adverts encouraging people to be less reticent, to prevent some people literally dying of embarrassment.
We don’t discuss our secret sins with our spiritual doctors much either. The old habit of regular confession has pretty much died out, except perhaps in the Roman Catholic Church. Regular confession is a regular motion of repentance and cleansing - flushing away all the bad stuff, and entering each day renewed and refreshed by forgiveness. There is a lot to be said for some kind of daily routine that involves not only the acknowledgement of sin, but recognition of the reassurance that Jesus Christ really is the one who ‘takes away the sins of the world’. Which means, whatever we have done, there can be forgiveness. However dirty we are, inside or out, we can be cleansed by the loving mercy of God made real and present among us in Jesus Christ, Light of the World, Lamb of God and Saviour of the World.
So, think about that next time you pay a visit to the little room. Think about how, when you go, you are getting rid of something which you can then flush away. And remember that that is exactly what Jesus Christ does for us all, as Lamb of God and Saviour of the World. We repent - we acknowledge our sins – we get rid of them – in the light of forgiveness, and assured of that, we really can flush away our sins and be cleansed by the living water of Christ.
To whom be all praise and honour, now and always.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 15/1/17