“A Thorough Scrubbing”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
March 22, 2015
The first time I traveled to Scotland, the locals I met made a big deal about single malt scotch. For those of you who don’t know about single malt scotch, it’s whiskey, but it’s different from the cheaper stuff in that it isn’t blended. It’s made in small batches from the same ingredients and water and has a purer taste. Each region of Scotland has a single malt scotch that has unique characteristics.
Yes, fusion cuisine is amazing. Musical mashups are fun. And mutts tend to live longer, healthier lives than purebred dogs. But purity is powerful.
Some people are into highland scotch and others are into thoroughbred horses. Jewelers prize 24 carat gold because it has no other metals mixed into in it. Pure chocolate is way better than the kind that’s processed with a lot of other junk. Whatever our tastes may be, most of us have a healthy respect for things that are pure.
Of course, there are times when we can take the idea of purity too far. When it comes to race, for example, there have been many throughout history who have used the idea of racial purity to do great evil. So we have to be careful when we talk about purity as a good thing.
But in Judaism, purity is an important concept. Many of the laws in the Hebrew Bible are about purity of diet, of clothing, and of behavior. Outward purity is meant to show God that the inward heart is pure, that faith is pure.
Although I don’t personally follow the food, clothing, and Sabbath laws of the Hebrew Bible, the idea of purity before God makes a lot of sense to me. When we come to God in prayer, asking forgiveness… When we decide to devote ourselves completely to our wife or husband or partner… When we drink water from a mountain spring… Or when we commit to living life in a way that preserves a clean environment…
We feel the power and importance of purity.
One of the ways that Jewish people have lived out their commitment to purity (which again is a way of showing devotion and faithfulness to God) is through ritual cleanliness.
Cleanliness in the presence of God is not unique to Judaism. Hindus and Muslims practice ritual washing. Native Americans have the sweat lodge. In Japan, men and women bathe in naturally running water to purify themselves.
The mikveh, or ritual bath, that Jewish people entered before entering the Temple in Jerusalem, inspired John the Baptist to dunk people into the Jordan River as he admonished them to repent. That, of course, was in turn the inspiration for Christian baptism, which also seeks purity — or cleanliness — before God.
Jesus of Nazareth, who according to the evidence we have, was an observant Jewish man, appreciated the concept of cleanliness. But he also redefined it.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, two religious figures pass by a man who has been beaten, presumably because they didn’t want his blood on them, making them unclean before going to the Temple. The hero of the story, the Samaritan, cares more about helping than about ritual cleanliness. To Jesus, compassion is what really defines cleanliness of heart and devotion to God.
What does cleanliness, in that deeper sense, mean to you?
All of us feel soiled at times, stained by the muck of life, filled with the filth of accumulated bad choices. Sometimes we try to purge our bodies of the poisons we eat and drink by doing three day cleanses. Have you ever done one of those? I’ve tried a couple of times, but those shakes you’re supposed to drink are just gross.
The psalmist writes in verse 7: Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean. The hyssop plant has medicinal qualities. One of those qualities is that if you make a tea out of the oil of hyssop and drink it, you’ll be visiting the bathroom much more often than usual.
I guess that’s one way to purify yourself!
A few of you have told me that, sometimes, you just need to get away from work for a while to feel clean. At other times, a visit to the spa, yoga class, an AA meeting, or church is like taking a bath. We feel like new again.
Because, let’s face it. Human sin is real and all of us participate in it. This is not about making each other feeling guilty; we are not into that here at HCC. But we are all in the same boat. None of us are able to be anything other than human.
And so I do hope we are able to be honest with ourselves.
Each of us knows in our hearts that we’ve done things that have hurt other people… We betray, we abuse, we bend the truth to suit ourselves, and sometimes break it completely. Sometimes, we hurt the people closest to us, and that is really hard deal with. When we leave important things undone, when we fail to be present and active in our roles and relationships – as parents especially — that is sometimes just as destructive as actively doing something wrong.
As baptized people, we have the assurance that God’s grace cleanses us from sin. The Reverend Mary Luti, whom some of you know, says, Human sin is a chronic condition, but it’s survivable with the right treatment. That treatment is there for all of us. God’s forgiveness is real. And when we truly accept it, it changes us for the better.
But how good are we at accepting forgiveness?
Offering forgiveness is very challenging. Everyone in this room has a story of someone who has hurt us in some way. A few of you have had to put up with years of abuse. Offering forgiveness can be a spiritually cleansing experience, but it often takes years or even decades to get there.
In Jesus’ day, people were scandalized when he forgave people their sins. It’s one of the things that got him into trouble. It was presumed that only God could do that.
Remember the story of the group of people who brought their sick friend to Jesus’ house, and it was so crowded, they cut a hole in the roof and lowered their friend down so Jesus could heal him? It turns out that he was paralyzed by sin and maybe by guilt. Jesus says, Son, your sins are forgiven. Get up, take your mat, and go home.
One of the gifts I receive from that story is that Jesus gives us permission and power not only to seek and accept forgiveness for ourselves, but to help each other to seek and accept it as well.
But it’s hard to accept forgiveness. Forgiving others can feel wonderful. It can unburden us from all sorts of poisonous anger. It can make us feel morally strong.
But receiving forgiveness cedes the moral advantage to someone else. When someone forgives us – whether it’s God or a family member or friend — we have to admit to having done something wrong in order to accept that forgiveness.
But I think the hardest part of accepting forgiveness – really accepting it – is that we then have to change our hurtful behavior. And change is perhaps the hardest thing of all for human beings. For better and for worse, we are creatures of habit.
But remember the man whose friends lowered him through the roof so that Jesus could heal him. He was paralyzed by his guilt. But we don’t have to be.
We can cry out with the psalmist, Create in me a clean heart, O God. Put a new and right spirit within me… Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Asking for and receiving forgiveness frees us, motivates us, and mobilizes us to get up and do what God is calling us to do. Sometimes that may be some impressive accomplishment. Sometimes, all we’ll need to do is to get up, take our mat, and go home to those who love us best.