A Love Beyond Purity – Br. Sean Glenn

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. Frederick Adams on February 11, 2021 at 14:37

    Br Sean, I was going to respond “do not publish”, but after reading the most recent responses, I now say “do it as you ‘choose’ “. It must have taken “bagoons” of guts and strong faith in divine love to open up and speak your mind, and I salute you and thank you for it. I have struggled most of my 81 years with the word and idea “dirty” from from my early youth on… and in ps 51 where it says (in my daily readings) “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”, it still grabs me and I still struggle trying to make it mean more than how it hits my mind.Thank you brother Sean. I know I am not alone, but is a comfort to read your words and other comments. Thank you, Br. Sean. I will keep your message.

  2. Ed Greene on February 11, 2021 at 10:46

    Thank you, Brother Sean! Your truth makes a lot of us free. I remember Brother Tom Shaw asking me one day if I ever prayed about sex. I spluttered a panicky denial, but he gently persisted, “Why don’t you? It’s important to you, isn’t it?” The SSJE has changed my life, encouraging me to accept and cherish as a gift from God an important part of myself that had been a life-long source of conflict and shame.

  3. Suzanne Haraburd on February 11, 2021 at 08:58

    Thank you for this. I, too, have been repelled by the notion of purity in relation to faith. Your words are a help.

  4. John McDargh on February 11, 2021 at 08:53

    dear Sean .. thank you for the power and candor of your preaching.. The Purity Codes of ancient Israel have made their way into Western Christian culture in so many ways – and these were in full display with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.. As a gay man who was in his early 30’s when GRID (gay related immune deficiency) was the first medical term for the mysterious illness that was striking down friends and colleagues your eloquent and vulnerable scriptural reflections brings back those memories. Some years later when the illness had a name but still no cure I recall a phone call from a colleague who was Benedictine monk who worked with the pastoral care committee of AIDS Action. He asked whether I had room on my spiritual direction roster to see another person. When he heard the hesitancy in my voice he said, well let me tell you the story.. “Bob”, a young gay art teacher at St. Colletta’s School for the Handicapped had gone into the hospital for what he thought was a bad chest cold and was given a diagnosis of AIDS. When he was well enough to be discharged and returned to the school he met with the Catholic lay woman who was his spiritual director. When he shared in anguish the news of his diagnosis she got up and announced that she would not put her life or her family’s at risk being in the same room with him.. “Will you meet with him now?” the monk asked me. “I would walk across coals to companion him.” was my spontaneous reaction. I had he privilege of serving him in that role for the last six years of his too short life . By grace and by the sacrament of presence of so many in his life, he came to know what I must continually re-learn , that the God we know in Jesus wants to touch us and remind us again and again that we are always and ever worthy and whole in God’s sight . It is a reality I must relearn every day. Thank you for a powerful mediation, Sean .

  5. Carney Ivy on February 11, 2021 at 08:44

    Brother Sean,
    This is beautiful! I marvel in your ability to be vulnerable and to speak of your diagnosis. It is quite counter cultural to make oneself vulnerable; however, true growth comes from ripping off the scab! I have found that to be true in my life probably to the point that I have made others uncomfortable. Maybe that is not my problem; however, it may have cost some friendships.

    As I have done with many of these sermons that have inspired me, I will pass this along. We have struggles in our family (don’t all families?) that your message may help whether the problem is too much purity or not enough. Being judgmental kills relationships. Love heals.

  6. SusanMarie on February 11, 2021 at 07:48

    Beautiful and important. Thank you for this sermon and for your vulnerability in sharing your truth with all of us.

  7. 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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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