Sermon: Jesus, the Impure

“In the Incarnation God crashes through the quarantine of holiness and purity erected around Him. Often, the church is found running the other way.” – Richard Beck

I suspect many of us know the name: Elizabeth Smart. Elizabeth was kidnapped from her Utah home at the age of 14 and held by her captors for nine months. Many people gave up hope that this young woman was still alive. But she did survive and today actively works to protect children from violence and sexual abuse through a foundation she created.

 Elizabeth Smart is, by all measures, an amazing person who has through personal resiliency and support from family and friends come back from an unbelievably horrible experience. She is now leveraging that experience in order to help young women and girls who have gone through similarly horrible experiences.

For Elizabeth Smart, the teachings on sexual purity she received prior to her abduction were intended to encourage teenagers to live chaste lives. This is a good thing. Yet, for Ms. Smart she remarks that these teachings backfired:

From the Christian Science Monitor:

 Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

 “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

 Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” – RHEvans

 In the process of teaching someone about the sacredness of sex (an unmitigated good) – the teachings about purity created a negative backlash against the persons they were supposed to help. In this case Elizabeth Smart.

It appears that the various regulations for ritual and moral purity in the Old Testament, and some that we glean from the New, can backfire and be destructive. People who advocate for and teach sexual purity do not intend for these results to happen.

Purity always has a purpose. It is not an end unto itself. Note these words from Exodus 19:6:

“Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

Purity had a purpose but it was not an end unto itself.

Purity in the Old Testament was important because it gave the people of Israel a specific identity that was separate than those around them. They were a unique nation a “holy priesthood” they were to serve a specific function of blessing the planet as YHWH’s special people, his servants to the world. As the Levites were to Israel, Israel was to the entire world. Purity had a purpose. It was not an end unto itself. Yet what have we done with it? How have we wielded this preference for purity?

 We have used purity as a means to make us feel like we are doing the right thing. Purity, by which I mean “right religious and spiritual behavior that emphasizes appearance” serves the purpose of making us feel like we have accomplished something with our spiritual lives. Yet, it sometimes does this at the expense of excluding others, mistreating others and making the other, well, the other.

 Sexual purity is a term that has entered the Christian vocabulary the last few decades. We used to use the term chastity or more likely we just didn’t talk about it. Here is an example of how our thinking about purity, which is motivated by pure motives, ultimately works against us in the purity culture. Let me explain.

Christians need a solid, clear ethic regarding sexual behavior. In an effort to provide this we began using the language of sexual purity that seems innocent enough. However, not unlike the purity codes of the Old Testament that served to exclude as well as protect, the new purity culture of today can end up inflicting pain and shame upon those who have not maintained a sexually “pure” lifestyle. The sad truth is that this kind of “purity” culture negatively impacts women more than it does men. This is especially the case with teenage girls who are sometimes viewed as “used up” or “spoiled” or “damaged goods”.  Questions are posed such as this one recalled by Elizabeth Smart:  “Who would want to be with someone who was already used up like a piece of chewed gum?”

Here is an example of something that was intended for good ending up wreaking havoc on the lives they were intended to help, encourage or save? The method for help has now become the means of shame. This is not a new problem but it goes all the way back to the stories of Jesus where we find him interceding when the law was used to shame rather than strengthen; where the Torah was employed for the purpose of excluding rather than bringing all people in to sit at the feet of the Master.

Now, for today’s reading:

When he saw her, the Lord had compassion for her and said, “Don’t cry.” He stepped forward and touched the stretcher on which the dead man was being carried. Those carrying him stood still. Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. – Luke 7:11-17

The compilers of the lectionary are very attuned to multi-valence in the Bible. They pick up, quicker than most, the harmonies that are being sung from one end of the Bible to the other and they work hard to bring them together. In the story today we have Jesus touching the funeral bier, the stretcher carrying the dead body of a young man, in order to heal that boy. In the OT passage we see Elijah climbing upon the dead body of a young man, getting so close and becoming ritually unclean, breathing the breath of life into the young man again. Note that this young man was the only son of a poor widow. Note also, that both Elijah and Jesus enter into the realm of ritual impurity for the sake of healing.

(I am curious if Jesus and Elijah had to go through the process of the purification rite since the dead bodies they had touched had also come back to life?)

Jesus is always found jumping in where he isn’t wanted and where he doesn’t belong. He is a pious Jew. Mary would call him a good boy. Yet this pious Jew and good boy routinely made himself unclean while fulfilling his divine mission.

In the story today Jesus does it again.

Death results in impurity. Whether it be the death of an animal or a human. What do we do with dead bodies? The purity codes gave explicit instructions on how to make oneself pure after having been in the presence of a dead body. There are even explicit instructions on how to take care of a dead person who has died inside the tent as opposed to the one who has died in the field. (This is because the entire dwelling has become unclean and in need of purification.)

 11 The person who touches the dead body of any human will be unclean for seven days. 12 That person must be cleansed with water on the third and seventh days to be clean. If he fails to be cleansed with water on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches the body of a human who has died and doesn’t cleanse himself defiles the Lord’s dwelling. Such persons must be cut off from Israel because the water of purification wasn’t sprinkled on them. They remain unclean. – Num 19:11-13

Do you see the enormous mistake that Jesus is making in our passage from today? Jesus throws himself into the space of impurity. No hesitation and no regrets. He hurls himself headlong, fueled by compassion for a woman who has lost her only son, and by the way, her only means of providing for herself, into a demonstration of kindness, compassion and love. He touches the dead person. Jesus gets way too close to the corpse. This is not the behavior of a pious religious teacher. This is not the behavior of a pious Jewish boy.

Just previous to this story Jesus heals the slave of a centurion. Do you notice the difference between healings? In the first one Jesus does a remote healing. The centurion, conscious of Jesus power tells him not to bother coming to the actual location of his servant but to heal him from wherever Jesus is because Jesus can do that. No problem.

In today’s passage Jesus is anything but remote. He is not healing the person because he has been asked to but simply because he is moved by compassion. He is so moved because he sees the sadness and sorrow of loss. He is so moved that he violates convention and walks forward touching “the stretcher” on which the body was being carried. This body was not in a wooden casket and was not going to be buried in the ground. Instead, it was laid on top of this “bier”, a stretcher holding the deceased. But the text tells us that he was being carried out, presumably out of the house, so he’s probably not yet prepared for burial.

Couple of important thoughts about what would happen to you, were you a 1st Century Jewish person, and what your friends and family would do for you:

In the 1st century if you were a good Jewish person and you died your body would be carried out from wherever you lived by your closest relatives or friends. These people would then be ceremonially unclean for a week. They would have to go through specific purification rituals. They did this, by the way, because they love you and you matter to them. In short, you’re worth the trouble.

Your body would not be embalmed but wrapped up in clothes that were caked with spices to fight the stench of decay. Your body would be entombed in a cave like space and left to deteriorate. After a long period of time your bones would be collected and laid into a stone box or ossuary where they would be kept along with the bones of other family members and ancestors. For someone to even touch the bone of the deceased person would be made unclean.

So this deceased, unclean and unprepared body is being carried out of the house. People are in mourning, the mother is especially because now she has not only lost a child that she loves but she is also placed in a difficult position. She is a widow and this child was the one who would take care of her. He’s gone and now she will likely be reduced to begging.

Jesus knows this. He cares about the dead and the living. (the child and his mother)

Is it any wonder that Jesus was moved with compassion. No. Is it any wonder that he behaved in the way that he did? Yes.

Jesus, once again, leaps into the dangerous waters of compassion, and, in the process forgets himself or at least his pious Jewish self and becomes unclean. This reminds us that according to Jesus mercy always trumps sacrifice. For Jesus compassion always trumps ritual and graciousness always supercedes law.

In fact, God’s grace in the person of Jesus Christ fulfills the Law’s purpose.

He is not indifferent to the Old Testament Law, to the covenant or the Law of Moses. He cares about it but he is not going to be controlled by it. The Torah, the Law of Moses, God’s law was intended to bring compassion, to everyone … absolutely. Remember this?

“Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”  – Exodus 19:6

So Jesus sets out to reach all of us in whatever condition of impurity we find ourselves. Whether we are:

Samaritans,

pig-loving prodigals,

lepers,

whores and other women hanging out at wells;

de-sexed eunuchs from foreign countries,

demon possessed people,

children of foreigners,

demon possessed-naked-he men who cut themselves in cemeteries

                        … and folks not unlike you and me.

Let’s finish by talking about art. In specific the Isenheim Altar Piece.

 What words would you use to describe this image? Think if this weren’t an image depicting Christ. What words would you use then?

This altar piece has been both praised and rejected due to its intense realism. The images that it depicts are disturbing and hard for many to look at. Some of us will look at this picture and because we know the story and because we know the central figure of the story we will be moved and we may even be able to say:  that is beautiful.

But, let’s examine its beauty, if we can call it that, in context. Richard Beck says:

These are difficult images. So difficult that we might ask: How could this horrific picture be the central worship image of a church?

The answer to this question comes from noting that the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony specialized in hospital work, particularly the treatment of ergotism, the gangrenous poisoning known as “Saint Anthony’s fire.” In ancient times ergotism was largely caused by ingesting a fungus-afflicted rye or cereal. The symptoms of ergotism included the shedding of the outer layers of the skin, edema, and the decay of body tissues which become black, infected, and malodorous. Prior to death the rotting tissue and limbs are lost or amputated. In 857 a contemporary report of St. Anthony’s fire described ergotism like this:

“a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.” – ExpTheoRichardBeck

The theological power of the Isenheim Altarpiece is that Grünewald painted the gangrenous symptoms of ergotism into his crucifixion scene. As the patients of St. Anthony’s Monastery worshiped–and a more hideous, ugly and diseased congregation can scarce be imagined–they looked upon the Isenheim Altarpiece and saw a God who suffered with them.

These people suffering from egortism, St. Anthony’s fire, looked at the altar and saw the God who had become impure with them.

“In the Incarnation God crashes through the quarantine of holiness and purity erected around Him. Often, the church is found running the other way.” – Richard Beck

Can we look at Jesus and see the Son of God who has become impure with us – in order to reach us – in order to bring us into relationship with him and his Father?

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