Fourth in the Series, Seven Stories: Jesus’ Big Story, and the Other Stories by Which We Live
Loving and beautiful God, would you bring to light your word? Would you come near to us now, enlighten us with your truth? Would you touch us with your beauty, your delight, your love right now. As we seek to know you. This we pray, in your precious name, Jesus. Amen.
There are certain stories that people live by. Ask anyone. Why do you do what you do? How do you think you became to think and be who you are today? What story, incident, or person shaped you to be this way? Even though at first, most of us might think, “oh well, I don’t know, there’re many things, and accumulation of many different experiences.” And yes, I’m sure many things added, reinforced, or nuanced you, but there are a few key moments. That clicked you into the you that you are. A story or two that define you. If there was a movie about your life, what would be a few of those scenes in the beginning, that start the whole movie you know the ones that like establish your character. Or what are the key flashbacks, that really shaped you?
Here’s a story from my life. When I first moved to the United States, I was 9 years old, I feel like I share this piece about me, everytime I preach, it was a formative time can you tell? And I was one of 2 and half asians in the whole school, me, a philipino boy, and a half korean half white girl. And kids used to ask me, “are you chinese?” and I’d say, “no” and they’d say, “are you japanese?” and I’d say, “no” and they would go, “then what are you?” And I’d say, “I’m korean” And they would say to me, “There’s so such country!” And I was like, oh, maybe I’m wrong and they are right. I mean, what do I know, I don’t even know English. And since then I’ve doubted myself, who I am, learned to depend on what others said who I was. But they never got it either. The thing that mattered to me the most at that time, me being from Korea, didn’t matter to them, in fact, it didn’t even exist in their minds. That became my narrative, always trying to show, to explain to people who I am, even though they’d never seen such a thing.
Stories shape us. We’ve chosen to talk about particular seven stories these days in our sermon series, based on a children’s book that tries to capture our generation, our current stories most of us tend to live by. According to these authors, there are 6 of them that the world lives by. They are the story of domination, revolution, isolation, purification, accumulation, and victimization. And the children’s book presents these stories through owls and foxes, and turtles, snakes, and so forth to say–none of these stories work. They do not serve us and they do not give us life. These are all stories of US vs. THEM. And those are not the only stories we have to live by. There is a seventh story. That serves us all toward one another, towards fullness, love, and peace, thriving of all kinds, where there is no us and them.
Today, I’m talking about the story of purification. In the children’s book it illustrates this core value of purification through a moment when they decide that all those who do not have fur, and look weird with scales like reptiles, must leave the village and not allowed back in. It’s actually a story that most of us really do live by, not only as a natural physical tendency but also as a moral and religious code. Like remain with likes. In fact, religious folks, Christians particular have used and over used, thereby (ab)used this concept of purification to hurt, harm, reject people. We’ve used it as a theological foundation to carry out marginalization and exclusion. And it has hurt people.
Purification is deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition. It’s a metaphor that’s used all over the Bible. In Leviticus, purity codes determined way of life, the boundaries of religion. It managed and controlled every aspect of life from land, to table, to the body, to sex. These were based on some natural and yes, even helpful ways to operate in a community. Careful as they were, thoughtful as they were, in their best efforts and practices of containment. This was their science. What were contaminants, things that kept them quarantined and safe. If someone was visibly sick or bleeding after childbirth. Some of these things I do think really did help the community and that was their hope and intention, of course.
The power of these life wisdoms were carried over, not only as protocol, but as the answer, not only physically but also morally and spiritually. It came to dictate what was clean and unclean, who was clean and unclean. And it’s a powerful thinking and it almost seems intuitive and it works. In the book called “Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality” by Richard Beck, he takes a look at this thinking through psychology, particularly a thing called ‘disgust psychology’. To illustrate, he begins by explaining the work of Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on disgust and contamination. His focus had been on human reaction to food and has evolved as of late to investigating “forgiveness, aversions to ethnic groups, and ethnic identity.” Take his Dixie Cup research.
Say I asked you to spit into a dixie cup. Now what if I asked you to drink that cup? Would you? Most of us would not, as it’s gross! And it’s apparently interesting to psychologists why we do this. Because we swallow our own saliva all the time, and yet, if it comes out, it’s now been contaminated somehow, even if it was done in a matter of seconds, and now it’s spit. It actually has nothing to do with reality, whether it truly is dirty. Psychologists call this, “magical thinking”. Yes, magical thinking is what we tend to do. Beck gives another example. If he dropped a cockroach in a glass of juice, took out the cockroach, would you drink it? What if it was filtered? What if it was filtered, boiled, and filtered again? Disgust is illogical.
But it’s natural! You might say. Well you don’t know a baby. Baby put everything in her mouth. She drops it on the floor and put it right back in her mouth. Well, and now I do too. I put it in her mouth, she spits it out and drops it on the floor and says “all done” and I’m like, uh uh, nom! I don’t want to waste…. Cause this happens a lot!
We’ve taken this same magical thinking not only to our food, but to other’s food, other’s way of life, other’s lives.
One time my co-worker brought green tea mochi with red beans to happy hour and I was legit excited. It was on the table, next to the cookies and brownies, and a few of them turned to each other and with a disgusted face was like, “what is that?” “I don’t know. It’s… green!” “It’s got beans in it!” “Ew!” And I felt embarrassed, ashamed, like I was disgusting for loving it. Thankfully, my friend was much cooler than I was, walked up to them and was like, “uh like a billion people in this world would disagree with you.” and bit into the mochi like a champ. Not this place, another work place I was at… in the past…
This whole disgust psychology displayed in mere food, eventually and inevitably moves into a more robust set culture in all aspects of life. And even at food level, it hurts a little. But when it starts moving into, oh why does he eat that. Oh why does he wear that? Oh why does he look like that or act like that? It becomes not only a little embarrassing but life altering.
That’s what the Levitical laws ended up doing to people. All the rules that were meant to keep people “safe”, to keep things in order, began to divide and exclude people. Those who had bodily discharge, and didn’t have the means to have proper ceremonial bath or the money to buy two doves to for the cleansing offering. Those who had mildew in their house and couldn’t afford the priest to come and do an inspection. A woman who didn’t have the money for young pigeons for her purification after childbirth. Patches on skin, if a man loses his hair, if you touch blood, if you touch dog poop, I’m serious all of these are in Leviticus and where does it stop? And funny enough, it was about money.
These were the same rules that the Pharisees were applying to Jesus and his disciples. He was eating with sinners! Contamination! Letting a sinful woman touch him. Blasphemy!
But Jesus was giving us a new story to live by. We see it again and again in the New Testament, where he reshapes the old stories they grew up hearing. Reframing and re-embodying them in ways it never existed. Here’s just one.
Luke 5:12-16 New International Version (NIV)
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
What happened here. A man with leprosy, which was a general term for any kind of skin disease, was outcasted from the town and usually lived in their own quarters. They were prevented from interacting with anyone who was clean. Which meant from their families, from the temple. They couldn’t eat with others. They couldn’t worship with others. They were estranged. We heard last week what isolation does to people.
Look at the story carefully. Jesus did not seek out a sick man. He wasn’t going around looking for people to heal. In fact as this text ends, he would often withdraw himself to pray by himself. But the man came to him. He begged Jesus and said, if you are willing, make me clean! Because he had been told again and again that he was unclean. But he knew inside, that somehow, he could be made clean. Even though priests have written him off. Even though leprosy was something that was incurable. Something inside him compelled him to seek Jesus and say otherwise please. And you know what happened? Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. And then said, “I’m willing.” He touched him. He touched him, first. He broke Levitical purity code right there, before he said a word, before healing, before a miracle. Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. And with that, he overturned the tables of moral codes, religious codes, spiritual and physical codes of its time. With one touch, he shattered the magical thinking that leads to disgust and rejection of a whole human being. The man did not contaminated Jesus as widely accepted norm suggests. It simply wasn’t true. And with that touch Jesus proclaimed what everyone always thought was true, that when you touch someone unclean, you become unclean, to be untrue and flipped it on its head.
Here’s how Beck explains it, “…consider the attribute of negativity dominance. The judgement of negativity dominance places all the power on the side of the pollutant. If I touch (apologies for the example I’m about to use) some feces to your cheeseburger the cheeseburger gets ruined, permanently. Importantly, the cheeseburger doesn’t make the feces suddenly scrumptious. When the pure and the polluted come into contact the pollutant is the more powerful force. The negative dominates over the positive… What’s striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine.”
Have you seen this happen in churches? Separate, withdraw, and quarantine? Have you experienced it first hand? I have. Harshly. Mercilessly. I considered sharing it but I can’t. I’m sorry. It was too painful. Maybe another time, another sermon… I’ve shared bits and pieces of it here and there to some of you. I shared the gist of it briefly at the Neighboring and Justice meeting a few weeks ago, as we talked about organizing power at Reservoir. I have been learning through the work with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a way to do radical powerful “missional” work that isn’t just about going out to those in need and helping them, but a way we lock arms with our Jewish and Muslim siblings, Catholics, and even those that might not believe in any God, gasp, to partner and support one another in a common goal of doing public good. Apparently this organizing work starts with telling our stories. Why we do what we do. Why I care. Why I’ve had it with the way things always have been, the stories they tell us that we should all live by. Why I am sick of seeing the powerless forgotten and pushed out by those with power. So I shared my story real quick. And it’s funny, even sharing the story is scary, as if if you knew, you might reject me. Stupid right? I’ve been singled out. scapegoated. Have you?
So has Jesus. If purification is the story that drives the ugly over the cliff, Jesus became ugly. And that’s why I find Jesus so beautiful.
He touched the ugly. And the text says that “the leprosy immediately left him”. That was positivity dominant, or as I would say because I don’t think Jesus operated on dominance but the power of positive embrace. Again, let’s look at the text carefully. When Jesus says, “Be clean!” the words weren’t some hocus pocus words. They were more like, I pronounce you clean, which is something a priest would have said to someone in a cleansing ceremony. A priest that didn’t follow the levitical codes and just pronounced people clean? That was the scandal. And the incident doesn’t end there. That wasn’t the end point. I would go as far as to say, that wasn’t the point. Leprosy leaving. Jesus goes on to say, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Some scholars think that he may have suggested this to not bring himself more attention, but trying to forward people to their laws.
This brings us back to Leviticus. Jesus subverts the purity codes and then goes back to them, utilizing them, equipping this newly energized man to go back to the system that oppressed him to take back his power, through the system. With Jesus, it wasn’t just about getting rid of his leprosy, but incorporating him back into the fold of the community. Jesus touched him and said, I care. You’re mine. You’re included. Get up. Go, show them. That you are welcome in the house of God. That you are God’s beloved. No longer are you casted out of the realm of the people.
We’ve gone personal, biblical, and psychological angles at this. Let me share with you one more, anthropological. This one is from one of our own. Working on his Phd in anthropology at MIT now, is Tim Loh. He told me about his research on Deaf Christians, which fascinated me. He forwarded me his paper, let me read you the beginning real quick:
“This anthropological research paper explores how Deaf Christians negotiate their identity as members of two distinct identity groups: Deaf and Christian. The historical perception of Deaf and other disabled peoples in the church has not been positive, and a number of Christians today also view disability as one consequence of a fallen world that God will eventually restore. Since—beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present time—many Deaf people believe that Deafness is a cultural, even ethnic, identity centered around American Sign Language rather than a disability (Lane, 2005),”
Interesting. I’ve never thought of it that way. But I’m not deaf. And honestly, I don’t think I know closely many deaf people. Tim mentions the Bible verse that’s been used in the Christian tradition to distinguish those who are saved and those who are not, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17), one that has been taken literally and applied irresponsibly to say that deaf people were beyond salvation. But when Tim interviews these folks, they didn’t seem to see the contradiction as starkly, being deaf christian, and in fact displayed a cohesive meaningful identity in being deaf and it being a purposeful part of God’s plan. Listen to a story from the study:
“The formation of a Deaf Christian identity was in many ways a rejection of and a form of resistance against the label of “disabled”—and often, “in need of healing”—that hearing Christians impose on them. This is seen in that the discourse of “God’s purpose” that was utilised by many participants was often linked to specific instances of misunderstanding or ignorance by hearing people. For example, Vikram recounted an incident when he visited an interpreted service at a church in Chicago. During the service, he saw two people close by whispering among themselves, and knew immediately that they were going to pray for his healing. Sure enough, they laid their hands upon his ears and started praying. Nothing happened, but after they finished praying, one of them handed him a piece of paper, on it asking him if he wanted to give a testimony. He agreed, walked on stage, and said through the interpreter: “Thank you to the two of you for praying for me. For me to hear—you all want it for me, I understand, because you have pity on deaf people. BUT God—He sees me and He doesn’t [have pity on me]. He gave me everything. This body is what He gave to me and I’m happy with it”.”
This linguistic anthropology, when listened to and understood in their terms through their experiences in their words or signs, shows a people who identify themselves in a way that is different from maybe most others, but just, human, fully thriving apparently. Tim asked one of them, “do you think there will deaf people in heaven?” And he answered, “Why not? Maybe Jesus knows sign.” Which is the title of his paper. Maybe Jesus knows sign. And his finding and conclusion was their desire for better inclusion in the church.
It’s not about figuring out what’s right or wrong. Though sometimes that’s a helpful tool. It’s not about figuring out what’s broken and fixing it. Though sometimes we talk about things that way, like relationship or even people. But it was only meant to be a metaphor. That sin needs to washed in the blood of Jesus. That here’s a debt to be payed. That those who are sleeping need to wake up. All of these are true AND but not the whole truth, that they are trying to get at something much bigger. That no matter what, whether dirty, in debt, or sleeping, that God runs towards us, see us, touches us. That we are worthy being touched first, before anything needs to be changed. The miracle only follows after, and that’s up to God. The miracle only follows if needed, and that’s up to God. That’s why I believe that at Reservoir, it’s about belonging before believing. I come from a Presbyterian background and this is to be honest a bit ludicrous. That people who might not have “crossed the line of faith” can become members. Anyone belongs before they sign some belief creed even. What? Anyone can come to the table of Jesus, communion, we’re not going to check if you’re a member or even baptized. What? This is actually quite radical. And it’s not because at Reservoir, all goes. No, this is very intentionally very well thought out theology centered on nothing but Jesus. We think that we’re not gatekeepers. We don’t check your status for you to join the church. We don’t ask who you’re having sex with or not. We don’t police people’s lives, we just hope that you join our community and journey with us together, humbly, so we can just be together no matter what. And we put up with each other. We ask questions to one another. And sit in the questions without answers! And wonder together, Maybe Jesus knows.
Purification was only supposed to be a metaphor. But that’s the thing with metaphor, they reveal things but also conceal things. They show us truth but it’s limited in its frame. I believe that we’ve taken the metaphor of purification too literally at times. Who gets to decide what is pure? Where is the line? That’s the thing, if we’re not really careful and if we’re not really listening to the people, then we get it wrong and begin to discriminate, cause fear, based on nothing.
Jesus was holy and pure yes. And, not. Jesus constantly contaminated himself but touching those who had leprosy, eating with tax collectors, breaking all the rules of sabbath, talking to women, letting sinful woman touch him with her hair and oil. Jesus kept moving and moving and moving towards the those who everyone else proclaimed to be unclean, unworthy. So much so that, eventually everyone did agree that since he hangs out with criminals, he must be a criminal, and they treated him as a criminal. He was incarcerated and tried in court and sentenced to death. A gruesome undignified death on the cross.
Who gets to decide who is clean and unclean? Jesus never distinguished. It was always those who are in power.
Maybe our job isn’t to decide who’s in or out. Or who’s clean or unclean. Or even try to figure out how to make ourselves clean, perfect, good, or better. Our job is to be close to Jesus. The rest is upto God. May we have the courage, patience, not the sacrifice but the mercy to know the power of positivity embrace, and touch those around us. May that power bring all of us healing, redemption, wholeness, and love that we need.
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Think of those that might feel excluded from religion or society. What would it look like to move toward them, to touch them, and to include them back into the fold of your community?
Spiritual Practice of the Week
If you’ve ever felt like you’ve been excluded or rejected from a dominant group, imagine Jesus putting his loving hand on you, to say, “you’re fine, you’re good, you’re loved and accepted.”
Jesus, Jesus, are you willing? Give us the willingness to reach out. Not only to know we already know, we get along with, those who want to only help but in a distance. Give us the power to reach out and touch and eat with people we never thought we could. Help us to cross boundaries that we’ve put up, to include all into the fold of your love and care. Give us the strength to do so, in our day, in our church, and in our lives we pray. Amen.