Br. Sean Glenn

Mark 1:40-45

There are many words in Scripture that, as it were, set my teeth on edge. True, some words or concepts in the pages of scripture are supposed to make us uncomfortable, meant to make us squirm in our seat, posed to turn us from our self-regard. Yet there is one word, which never ceases to clasp at the throat of my soul with heavy hands of sterile ice. The word is clean.

This morning we hear Jesus encounter a character for whom this word doubtless signified a need as urgent ad life and death. If you choose, said the leper to Jesus, you can make me clean.

Of all the vocabulary of the spiritual life, the notion of ‘cleanliness’ or ‘purity’ is the most difficult for me. It is all too easy to use it to reify or protect the power or privilege of a select group. Yet it is not clear that our leper had any of that kind of analysis in mind. To be sure, the symbolic resonances of ‘cleanliness’ or ‘purity’ language are not in themselves suspicious or bad. There are spiritual truths to which this language points, and much of what might scandalize us about ancient Israelite liturgical prohibitions probably served more as a teaching tool—a way of unlearning deeply engrained residues of idolatrous worship inherited from ambient Canaanite religion.[1]

Yet it is nonetheless difficult to ignore the kinds of people and bodies Levitical purity laws necessarily prohibited from full fellowship with the people of God, and the ways we have generally used this like of language to judge the sick, the chronically ill, or the differently abled. For no one who has a blemish, reads the 21st chapter of Leviticus, shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or. . . .[2] Or, or, or…

In January of 2011, I received news that would change my life forever: I had contracted the HIV virus. More than ever could I feel the chill of cleanliness language, the horror of realizing the world and those I loved might no longer necessarily read my body—or my soul—as ‘clean.’ For the first time in my life, words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ ceased to be mere adjectives: they swelled and oozed the moral and spiritual bile of judgement and rejection.

And yet God moved mountains in my soul in those days following the diagnosis. I discovered very quickly, by the unqualified choice of love and charity shown me by my friends, church, and family that despite the world’s categories ‘unclean’ or ‘dirty,’ God had already looked at me and said I do choose. Perhaps this is why our leper comes to Jesus and asks him, plainly, to choose. 

No matter how uncomfortable we are made by language of cleanliness or purity, the choice of God in Christ speaks a Love that knows and companions us no matter how ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’ the world may tell us we are; no matter how dirty or unclean we tell ourselves we are. Our cleanliness or purity is of concern, in the end, to but one person. A person who asked us once, who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you were dirty? He has already chosen us, sisters and brothers; and choosing us, he invited us to lay these categories aside and rest in His words, I do choose.

[1] See the chapters on Mark in New Jerome Biblical Commentary

[2] Leviticus 21:18-20

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  1. Jim Prevatt+ on January 27, 2020 at 08:14

    Thank you for this sermon, Sean. It brought back memories. I’m almost 82. When I was in elementary school in the deep south I was taught by a poster in the classroom that said “CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS”. I did not know what that meant and the teacher never gave much of an explanation. So I assumed she put up the poster because there were several fellow students who lived in poverty and looked as though they seldom, if ever had a bath. She must have thought it would make them think they were far from God who was do doubt angry with them and that those of us from more privileged families had regular baths and were therefore very close to God or maybe she thought that since most of us were southern baptists baptism would clean us up.
    So thanks for triggering this moment of reflection. At any rate I’ll contemplate this today.

  2. liz gabbert on January 27, 2020 at 07:30

    This is one beautiful thought and as a women who by my very nature would be unclean, it washes over me with great peace. Hopefully as a society or a church we have lost the purity laws but choosing is still our job and the people of Christ fall short of this so often. I can not think of all the ways we have not chosen. This reminds me, I do not just belong to Christ and I am his no matter what but that I must look at everyone in the same way.
    Lovely, Lizg

  3. Robert H. Mace, Jr. on January 23, 2020 at 18:37

    Br. Sean, thank you for being the loved and lovely person that you are. I now am besotted with the mental imagery of Jesus walking among us, reassuringly, “I do choose.” Moreover, he bolsters that assurance with another: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43). We are chosen, accepted, redeemed, called by name and belong to Him. I was someone who spent far too many years internalizing the damage of cultural and often personal rejection, marginalization, condemnation, and calling by denigrating names. I was someone failing to belong almost anywhere (other than smoky, dingy tavern in a remote warehouse district peopled only in darkness by other “less than’s” much like me). Then the day came on which I was brought to my knees and a hand extended toward me and gently touched my face; ‘I do choose, you are mine,’ He said. From then on I began haltingly to claim my own identity as Beloved. It is a lifelong process, once you’ve been nearly destroyed, yet somehow manage to begin the slow crawl back from decimated pieces of maligned personhood. I embrace the Love of Jesus as the most precious jewel, and bank all my faith on Jesus’ assurances: “I do choose; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Thanks be to God for the gift of Christ, the gift of love, the gifts of redemption and belonging. There are millions of us on the margins, and other millions who used to be on the margins, who would trade absolutely anything for those particular gifts. My heart reaches out to Br. Sean with gratitude and love. God bless.

  4. Alan Rollins on January 20, 2020 at 17:49

    When the shootings at the night club in Orlando happened, our church, along with most of the other parishes in Exeter, NH held a vigil at the town hall; I attended. And, I attended, for the first time in my life, as an openly bisexual man. I was so angry about the incident, I felt strongly that I needed to show my support, with all the other people that attended the vigil. I was welcomed by people I had never known, and people I had met or seen before, and of course a few of my fellow parishioners, as well as our rector. For the first time in my life, I felt more “clean”, more “pure”, and more welcomed (and welcoming) for who I was. As I read your sermon, and look at that evening, I hope and think that I was chosen to be there, to pray for the people who lost their lives, to thank the people honking and waving as they drove by, and to thank God for who I am.

    God bless you, Sean

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