Sermon for Year B, Proper 17
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
September 2, 2012
Wherever you go, you can’t escape the concept.
“Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”
“Brush your teeth and go to bed.”
“We can’t eat at that restaurant anymore – the Inspector shut it down.”
Those are our basic health concerns.
Marketers know how to employ the idea:
“Ivory Soap is 99.4% pure” … “Be free of unsightly blemishes.”
But there are plenty of other ways the concept of purity plays itself out every day.
How many times have you heard the following:
“The candidate wasn’t elected because he didn’t meet the litmus test on social issues.”
“He had to drop out of the race. He had some problems with an impure past.”
We heard this week of how Christie Vilsack didn’t come to Sioux City yesterday
Because her campaign managers thought it wise
That she not be able to be tied to the President later on.
Spin was, She didn’t want her campaign to be “tainted.”
With respect to religion, the concept of purity can be an amazing thing to behold.
To start with something that not very many of us know much about,
We might consider the Muslim concept of ablutions.
It’s a detailed set of steps one must go through prior to prayer,
Which, you might remember, takes place five times a day,
And involves washing the hands, mouth, face, ears, and feet, up to the ankles.
Their holy text the Koran says simply that prayer is not accepted without purification.
I racked my brain trying to come up with a visible parallel for our own faith system.
There is no real equivalent for a number of reasons, but here’s my list of items anyhow.
First, in our house, before we make dinner, we wash our hands.
Then, in the act of coming to the table,
The younger ones of us wash up first, then come to the table,
Then we pray, offering thanks to God while holding hands, and then we eat;
But before eating, especially in the months of the cold and flu season,
I usually tend to get up and go wash my hands again before eating.
That’s ostensibly about health, but understand, too,
That sometimes just doing something a thousand times makes it a ritual
And imbues it with meaning.
Second: In some liturgical churches there is the practice of Vesting Prayers,
Where the priest, or anyone who is putting on holy vestments,
May pray prayers as those special clothes are going onto the body.
For example, putting on the cincture (the white rope that goes around the waist),
The priest may pray these words:
“Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity
And quench me [from strong desire]
That the virtue of continence and chastity may remain in me.”
Third: Week by week you see celebrants at our altar washing their hands in ritual.
This does have a health related side effect, but its purpose is spiritually motivated.
The celebrant washes his hands with water with the help of an acolyte,
And may recite the words of Psalm 26:
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord,
that I may go in procession round your altar,
Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving
and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
Lord, I love the house in which you dwell
and the place where your glory abides.
Do not sweep me away with sinners,
nor my life with those who thirst for blood,
Whose hands are full of evil plots,
and their right hand full of bribes.
As for me, I will live with integrity;
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
I can’t remember all that, so instead I usually end up thinking about Pontius Pilate,
Who washed his hands in “innocence” before sending Jesus to the cross;
I remember that, and I allow that it is not by my own doing
That I should stand among you as one who presides;
That if it were up to me, rising or falling on my own merits,
I would never deserve to approach the holy table other than maybe by crawling
And by taking up as bread any little crumbs left over from supper on the floor.
But as it is, I am covered by the amazing grace of a God who loves me beyond my faults,
And that I have been dressed in garments of washing,
And have been washed whole in the permanent and indissoluble bond of baptism.
Or I remember fishermen of the Bible, washing their nets,
Or I remember Jesus healing people by instructing them to go and wash and then rise,
Or I recall Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
Ah, but washing the hands: that’s about the outside of the body.
Do it long enough and it eventually leads to this question:
To what extent does the outside match the inside? How clean are things, really?
Do you think the sight of the exteriors
Of all those neatly kept homes and lawns up in Orange City
Is a perfect reflection of the inside of those homes?
Or that folks who keep a tidy house lead equally tidy spiritual lives?
Wait – forget Orange City – let’s talk about my house!
Sure it looks perfectly fine on the outside,
But with two young children with a love of toys
And two adults with a deep love of printed material – books, magazines, and the like –
And me with no healthy respect for dusting or vacuuming on a super-regular basis …
Well, the outside and the inside don’t always match up one for one.
For more on this, we need to look at our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community.
You have probably seen or heard over the years
About the things Jews do in order to keep pure.
These are identity markers, boundary markers –
Places where people of God say to themselves and others,
Because of my faith system and who I am, I will go this far and no further.
The clothing, the hair, the diet, the prayers, the language,
Differences between men and women, the hygienic practices, the everyday rhythms –
In a sense, the whole way Jews see themselves before God
Is as a people destined to practice purity for as long as they live –
And not for purity’s sake, and not just because God said so,
And not because practicing purity somehow makes me better than you,
But for a much deeper and much more compelling reason.
When you find your way to the heart of the Hebrew Bible –
What we call the Old Testament –
You get your hands on the following cosmic vision:
God has pity upon the plight of the Jews, and God comes to love them so much,
And so God makes a covenant – that is, God makes a deal with them:
I will be your God, and you will be my people,
And you will be a great light to all the nations of the peoples of the Earth
Until all the nations, every last person, will see your light
And come, in an endless stream of creation, to me, to worship me,
And we will all truly be one in perfect union.
That’s what’s at the bottom of it.
So, you don’t keep kosher for kosher’s sake.
You don’t wear the clothes for the sake of the clothes.
You don’t give your money and get up and pray and make pilgrimage to Jerusalem
Just because you’re expected to.
You do it because you’re a light to all the nations,
And light is different; it cuts through darkness.
To be pure, to be unstained, is to be different.
Whatever is different is not the same as everything around it;
It is distinct, so you can see it.
It won’t apologize for being different any more than a zebra apologizes for his stripes.
It is the same with followers of Jesus.
Baptism doesn’t qualify you for being different at some point down the road;
It’s about here-and-now different;
It’s about the good you do, Now, because of who you are,
Your whole life, from now until you die.
Beyond that, I am happy to say only God knows,
Except that I know that I have always been loved,
And I have no reason to believe that will ever cease to be the case.
So with tradition, scripture, and reason as our guides,
We the people of God and followers of Christ
Seek purity in order to be different:
Not to flaunt it – not to brag about it –
Not to draw a line just so we can tell everyone why we’re on the right side of it –
Because that really is childish religion and immature faith –
But to be a great light to all nations,
One person at a time.
That’s it; that’s all.
That’s a concept that’s freely available to anyone.
You’re different because you’re the light of God.
People need to see that light because these are dark times –
Just as dark and hopeless, in a sense, as they’ve always been,
And people desperately need to know joy and life.
Or doesn’t the word Gospel mean “good news” anymore?
Therefore, sisters and brothers, we strive to live lives that are pure:
That the holy name of God may be blessed,
And all may prosper.