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The Community of the Washed

September 5, 2021 Series: Identifying the Church

Topic: On the Church Passage: Zechariah 12:10– 13:1

*Please Note: This manuscript is unedited and uncorrected; please be charitable!*

Some of you may know the language of what has been called "purity culture." It represents a movement that was big in the American church-world of the 80s and 90s. Much of the movement was about words, a set of words to frame the otherwise biblical stance of marriage as the proper location for sex—and words matter far more than sticks and stones. The whole dynamic of purity culture has come under attack recently, which is neither new nor a surprise; most generations seem to come to critiques of their parents rather easily. But this morning I'm less interested in the question of sexual practices in so-called "purity culture" than the language of that was adopted in that whole movement. Someone was to be "pure" until marriage. To fail was to be "stained" or "polluted." Purity was a thing that, once lost, could not be un-lost. I grew up around a lot of that language and it seemed to make a straightforward kind of sense. 

The imagery proved powerful, sometimes brutal, and in many cases—including my own—left some scars. But a big part of its failing lies, in part at least, with a shallow and poor understanding of the words chosen for the movement; words like "purity."

Purity ideas have a very, very long history and cross just about every culture—especially the cultures around the ancient world of the Mediterranean Sea (Rome, Greece, Babylon, Egypt, and ancient Israel too). Where we are going is a line from a book I recently read on baptism. He sets part of the discussion in the context of what are called "purity rites"—rituals that cultures have for getting rid of impurities.

The author remarked as a simple aside:

"We don't observe purity rites, yet we still experience shame and sense our pollution." [Leithart, Bapitsm, 64]

That struck deep. We think of ancient purity rites as primitive things, long-dead. But every culture has shame, us included, and we continue to sense our own pollution. And that was the context of purity rituals. We still carry the shame, just don't have rituals to become clean. We still know the reality of being defiled, and of defiling. We feel shame; not always for the right things, not always in the right ways. We know that shame is important and not itself evil because we despise those who act horrendously towards others and feel no shame. That's awful.

Yet we don't know what to do with it. We're not the first culture to have shame and feel it, and wonder what to do in a world filled with shame. The best picture I know for shame is the medieval practice of the guy in the stocks who was caught doing something wrong. It was a symbolic punishment, a public expression of this person as hereby disgraced, and to be viewed as such. It could be painful, of course, but the pain wasn't the main point: the main point was to isolate this person away from the honorable, make clear that he is (by this act) disgraced, shamed.

Our own feelings of shame, of which we are all quite aware, are not separate from that picture. Most writers on the subject speak of shame as a fear of abandonment, of being excluded, of being drawn out in public and cut off from the honorable position we otherwise hold (or at least more honorable than that position, once they find out). Even before we can articulate it, the story in our heads runs: if they find out, you will be shunted over to the shameful side of the community; you will lose your standing; you will be abandoned.

Being polluted is another metaphor for this same dynamic, except it brings out that shame spreads. It's not just the isolated person who is disgraced, but those attached to her or him. Your family name, your employer, your tribe. It works for both sides of the spectrum: you can bring honor to your community, but you can also bring disgrace. Pollution is the contaminating reality of shame.

And none of this is foreign to our own culture. We could point to celebrity failures—the spectacular downfalls of the rich and powerful. How no one wants to be associated with the name Weinstein or Epstein or Madoff anymore. We even know these realities in the symbolic world we don't think about too much. The military is a great example for this because it is such a structured world. There are symbols that are important. Imagine hanging a flag upside down at a military base, and doing it on purpose. Symbols matter in that world. Think of a purple heart; a small little gold star pinned to a lapel or a shoulder. These are symbols. And if you don't believe me that they are in the same ballpark as purity laws and rituals, then imagine spitting on a purple heart in front of a soldier.

You have defiled something that stood as a symbol; it is a deep offense, and no amount of pleas that it's just a piece of metal will change the offense. And I think we know why it's a problem. Sometimes this kind of thing is dismissed as "magical" thinking, but I believe in that kind of magical thinking. It recognizes that the world and things in the world matter. If someone spits on the grave of your loved one, you feel according to that premise that symbols really matter.

Imagine (this is from a book on the subject by a psychologist): you are at someone's house and they take an old box out of the closet wanting to show you something. They open it and pull out an old sweater, worn and obviously not washed. They tell you that their grandfather was really into WWII memorabilia and this was, in fact, a sweater that belonged to Adolf Hitler himself; worn by him in the week before his death. Then they say: "Would you like to put the sweater on?"

In studies, people don't want to do it. They are horrified; don't want to be in the same room as the sweater. That's not magical thinking; that is recognizing that things in the world matter. We pollute and are polluted.

The psychologist writes:

What studies like this reveal is that people [in our own day] tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. [Richard Beck, Unclean]

He's very close to the world of the Bible, to the whole ancient world. In ancient Israel the purity rituals all (or nearly all) centered around the dynamic of life and death. To have God living in your midst meant, among other things, that death was a thing to be hated. The continuum of honor and shame expresses what a community loves and what it fears or hates. God hates death. He created a world to be filled with life, and he hates death. Some of you have heard me say it before, and if you stick around you'll hear it a lot: God does not hate sin like a snooty aunt who insists that things must be done "just so," and thumps you if you don't. God hates sin because it brings death. Every sin brings death, and God wants life to flourish in his created world.

And there were lots of things that symbolized life and death. Blood symbolized life; it flows through our bodies and stops flowing upon death. Blood was—and in many places remains—a powerful symbol of life. And blood flowing out of a person then becomes a symbol of the loss of that life, and so death.

It's important to remember that in Israel everyone would sometimes be polluted by death. Everyone got sores sometimes, or got cut, women had a period, men sometimes lost semen in the night—these were all normal things that happened and made you "unclean" or "impure." Not a moral declaration, but true in this symbolic world (and really true).

A good example comes from the laws about being polluted by a dead body. If your child died—well, death is the great unclean thing. To touch that body is to make yourself unclean. But you were expected to do so. You would touch the body; weep over the body; bury the body. Not to do so was immoral; you were absolutely to make yourself unclean; that doesnt mean you're not unclean, it means it is not a social stigma sometimes imagined by people.

One problem with the language of "purity culture" around sex was here: that in biblical terms, impurity was actually a given for everyone, sometimes. Everyone was expected to become "impure" at some points, and often regularly. It wasn't a sin to become "impure" in this sense. But it would have been a sin to pretend you were not stained or polluted by death in the world, and waltzed into God's presence with everyone else as if God did not care about death.

In other words, the issue was not whether you might find yourself in the unclean/polluted/shame side of the social world. Death is all around us and within; you will find yourself there. Everyone becomes impure in a world like ours. The issue was how to be clean; how to become pure.

The same holds for moral failures or sins—the kinds of wrongs we do (sometimes by not doing anything) that bring harm to the world, whether ourselves or others. To sin is to bring death into the world, so it is to make one's self unclean. You had to be made clean again—there were purity rituals that had to do with sacrifices. The question was not whether there is any shame or stain of pollution; it was what to do about it.

There is a push in some places simply to come to terms with the stain, to embrace it and so not feel ashamed. But that fails because we know this isn't, in the end, just a social reality: it is built into the world. I have things in my story that I know are shameful, and to pretend otherwise is foolish and wrong. So how do I get clean?

How do you undefile something defiled? If someone spits on the purple cross, how do you make it clean again? If you hold the body of a loved one as they lie dying (as you should), how do you wash out the pollution of death? If you wrong your neighbor, defraud your employer, abuse a spouse or child—how do you get clean? Or can you?

The same question held in moral failings: if you, by your action (or by your inaction) sinned, bringing death into the world, then how do you become clean? The old line from Lady Macbeth, the stain of blood on her hands:

"Out, damn spot!

I think most of us have felt something of that spot. And scrub and scrub and scrub, and it won't come out. So we either hide it, or we minimize it. It wasn't really that bad. It didn't really bring that much death into the world—at least, not full, physical death. It's not like anyone was really hurt by it, especially if I don't let anyone know. And the age-old, 'well, it wasn't as bad as so and so.'

But how do we live in the presence of God, before whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, having been stained by death around us and within?

In Israel there were two things used to cleanse, to make clean objects and people stained and polluted by impurity: one was water. You would wash the thing. It wasn't a hygeinic concern, it was symbolic (we would say "sacramental"). The other was blood. The life of a thing was in its blood, so life was given to cover the death that had been brought. In either case, through water or blood (and sometimes both), you were made clean. You were once again pure, able to see yourself as no longer polluted, no longer stained by death, which had no claim on you even in the presence of God who sees all things. He had cleansed you.

Imagine that: being clean. Part of the great harm that purity culture did was impart a sense of permanence to being "impure". Now, I'm old-fashioned but I'm actually ok saying that moral things like sexual sins of all different kinds pollute in the sense we're talking about. Paul uses just this kind of language in our reading: sexual sins go along with idolatry, stealing, greed (that's a tough one in a culture built upon greed), and so on. These things stain or pollute. In purity culture, if you sinned in sexual things it was the greatest of sins because you could not take it back. But can you take back words that cut a friend or when you betray someone? Can you take back greed? Wrongdoing pollutes, yes. And that's always the case about big and small pollutions.

So we return one last time to the short comment:

"We don't observe purity rites, yet we still experience shame and sense our pollution." [Leithart, Bapitsm, 64]

Here is the center of our theology of baptism. The word for the washings that made you clean of impurities in Israel was: baptism. To be baptized was to be washed clean in this symbolic world. The contamination that had come upon you through sin and death was washed away.

When Zechariah says in our reading that in the great day of salvation God would open up a fountain to cleanse from sin and unrighteousness, he is drawing directly on this way of thinking. Stained as the people of God are by their sin and the sin of the world around them, God would open up a fountain that would pour out and wash over the people. He would baptize the whole city, all the people!

When John the Baptist came and began to baptize people for their sins, he was playing off the same theme. And in our Gospel reading we find the two cleansing things put together:

John is there washing clean with water, and points to Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, language of sacrifice. Water and blood. And it is in this same Gospel where John writes that a soldier took a spear, plunged it into Jesus' side as he hung dead on the cross, and from his side what poured out? Water and blood. The two great symbols of life being poured out onto the world.

This series we are in during our preview services is about the church: how do we imagine the church rightly as we head out on this venture of becoming a church? The church is a single people, a community that God gathers to himself in mercy, and whom he washes clean. It's why baptism is a big deal for us—why eating at the Altar here is for those who are baptized. There's nothing magical in the water, at least in the modern dismissive sense of magic; it is the means by which God himself washes you clean. And if God washes you clean, you are clean. "One baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

In other words, among the central failings of purity culture was to grasp baptism: that I was really washed clean in baptism. The things done to me could not stick; and even the things I did were washed away. I always have that cleansing marking me out in the world—and it is given to me as a gift. It's why I can say that there are shameful things I've done and known; I hate them. I feel that they are shameful. I don't have to excuse them by my ignorance, my youth, the ways others hurt me—I don't have to pretend that they are not shameful, not polluting, not bringers of death. They are all those things. And yet I don't (in my truest moments) have to carry the shame they deserve; I get to say that they are washed away, and I am clean. Paul lists what would have been the top polluting wrongs, then declares:

"Such were some of you, but you were washed."

The church is the place of the washed. Not the place of the pure through their own abstention; but pure because of the water and the blood. 

More in Identifying the Church

October 3, 2021

A Feasting Community

August 1, 2021

The Fullness of the Church

June 6, 2021

Church as a Community of Mercy