Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Infectious Skin Diseases

Starting now texts of Daniel Harrell's sermons preached at Historic Park Street Church on the Boston Common will be posted here. The audio files can be downloaded at the Park Street Church site. Feel free to interact!

“Infectious Skin Diseases” (Leviticus 14)

As we Levites were discussing this month’s Living Leviticus experiment over dinner the other night (the exploits of which we hope you’re following through the links on the church web site), we couldn’t help but discuss those issues Leviticus raises regarding sexuality, issues I plan to address next Sunday night. I wanted to give you a heads up since I guess most of you might be watching some football game next Sunday. I would have covered sexuality in Leviticus tonight, but I didn’t want to skip what Leviticus has to say about infectious skin diseases. I’m going out on a limb here guessing that none of you has ever heard a sermon on infectious skin disease before. Am I right? Too bad, really, given our society’s obsession with perfect skin. From oils and creams to sprays, lasers, waxes, herbs, cosmetics and diets, there is no shortage of methods designed to give you a flawless, glowing complexion. For a closer look, two of our intrepid Levites, Mary Frances Giles and Kristi Vrooman, took to town yesterday and have this report.

For Kristi’s video reflections on grace being skin deep, I invite you up to the Living Leviticus Facebook site. Of course if none of these products work on your skin, turns out there’s always perfectskinphoto.com, a software package I discovered that automatically removes zits, wrinkles, cellulite, snot and unwanted facial hair from digital photos before you post them up on e-harmony or match.com. I was also interested to discover that e-harmony sponsors a Christian website for singles where one article asserted that all women in the Bible “knew the importance of having healthy beautiful skin.” I didn’t know that. I was always taught that good looks don’t matter to God. 1 Samuel 16 says, “People look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Likewise, last time I checked, Jesus did not say it was the pure in skin who get to see God, but the pure in heart.

So what’s up with Leviticus? Here, you get a big zit and not only do you get banished from God’s presence but you get run out of town. For two whole chapters God goes on and on about bad skin—everything from a rash to a pus-spewing sore. Get an infectious skin disease and God commanded that you tear your clothes, tussle your hair, cover your mouth and scream “unclean” as you made your way to the city limits. Your NIV pew Bible tries to mitigate this complexion obsession by relegating the concern to “ceremonial” cleanness; a part of the Old Testament’s tabernacle ritual now obsolete. Others suggest that these Levitical injunctions were simply God’s way of managing ancient Israel’s public health. Infections have been known to wipe out entire populations.

But Leviticus says nothing about purity being reserved only for the erstwhile Tabernacle, even though it is true that having a skin infection no longer gets you barred from church—barred from the church nursery perhaps—but not the church service. Moreover, Leviticus does not express any particular concern for ancient health and hygiene, though, again, if you stood to greet your neighbor with the peace of Christ and a hand covered in fungus, you probably received a wave offering in return. The concern in Leviticus for cleanness, an important category of Torah, remains important throughout Scripture. It goes beyond health and hygiene, and beyond the merely ceremonial too.

In the Bible, cleanness and purity are related to holiness. Holiness is that high standard to which God called his people, a reflection of his own character manifest in their interactions with each other and the world. “Be holy because I am holy,” is the way God put it. But to get to holiness, you first had to be clean. Purity or cleanness was the average, normal Israelite baseline. Chosen by God, saved out of Egypt and made his people by grace, purity was their basic identity. They were clean people, made so by God. You see the same thing in the New Testament. Jesus says to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The trick, however, was staying clean. Jesus warned his disciples, “Abide in me and I will abide in you… apart from me you can do nothing.” The same was true for the Israelites. Staying clean meant staying away from those ungodly things that could sully their souls. They were headed for a land flowing with milk and honey, but it was also a land oozing with Canaanite culture, a bad thing when you’re trying to stay clean. They needed to be wary.

Growing up, I always thought it silly how the kids from fundamentalist Christian families never got to go to the movies. Their parents didn’t want aberrant values and sleazy ideas getting into their heads. I’d roll my eyes at this puritanical logic back then, yet these days I sit in the movies and find myself sickened at what I’m seeing—the gory violence, the obscene sexuality, the abusive language, the drugs, the deceit—and that’s just the PG stuff. But I never get up and leave. No, just like always, I sit there and soak it all in, ironically amused by the very things that disgust me. And while no movie has yet caused me to do drugs, cheat on my wife, blow away my enemies or careen my car through city streets, surely I’ve been desensitized to these things? My soul has been sullied.

God rightly worried that his chosen people would choose to go with the perverse Canaanite flow, threatening their own identity and witness as God’s people on earth. Thus more than mere purity, God called his people to holiness, a step above the standard cleanness. He called them to be set apart, different and distinct, or as the King James puts it, peculiar. God called his people not to be conformed to this world but transformed by his grace into a counter-cultural community of righteousness and love. Purity was their identity. Holiness was their vocation. Yet because you had to be clean before you could be holy, uncleanness jeopardized everything. Which is why, I think, God made such a big deal about cleanness.

Psalm 24 asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Answer: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Purity goes to motivation and intent; it’s what’s going on in our hearts.

Dawn and I were down in North Carolina last week, showing off Violet to the Southern side of the family. My little brother’s daughter Lindsay, Violet’s cousin, is a high school senior and my brother, wanting perhaps to give me some pointers, shared his rules for dating his daughter. It seems that on one occasion, some boy pulled up to their house and rather than getting out of his car and coming to the door, he called for Lindsay by laying on his horn. Lindsay was on her way out when my brother stopped her, telling her in no uncertain terms that any boy who wanted to date his daughter had best respect her and her father by coming to the door and introducing himself. After blowing the horn a couple more times, the boy got impatient and called Lindsay on her cell phone and told her to hurry up. Bad move. My brother got on the phone and gave him a piece of it. Needless to say, that boy and my niece never went on that date. It’s not that my brother minded his daughter going out on a date with this boy, it’s just that my brother wanted him to demonstrate the good intentions of his affections by showing some respect, that kind of regard that signals you think of somebody as more than just a pretty face.

It’s the same with God. If you read Walter’s recent post on Facebook and the blog, you read his citation of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who asserted that purity is all about “willing one thing;” wanting God with a pure heart, with genuine desire. “Father in heaven!” Kierkegaard prayed, “Who are we without you? What is all our knowing, but a chipped fragment if we do not know You.” Yet each day, Kierkegaard despaired, “something is being placed in our way: delay, blockage, interruption, delusion, corruption.” Unclean things that make us unable and unwilling to want God.

I think all of us on this Leviticus project have discovered this to be true on one level or another. There are constant obstacles to holiness. As Ophera bemoaned on the video, holiness is too hard. Yet God does not give up on us. Knowing that holiness is best for us, but unwilling to coerce us into it, his only option is to show us how much we need it so that we’ll want it bad enough to do something about it. How does God do this? Skin infection. If there’s one thing we cannot ignore, it’s our skin. So God decides to use it as an object lesson to teach us what wanting purity and holiness is like.

Now whether you interpret skin infection as a random act of bacteria, the effects of living in a fallen world or God’s direct punishment against immorality is not the issue here. That’s a sermon for another day. The object lesson was not the infection itself, but what happened once you got it. God declared the infection unclean and ruled that you were to be quarantined from the community and from the tabernacle. You stayed outside the camp until you healed up. Now if health and hygiene been the lesson, you’d have thought that once you healed up, you could just come back to camp. But that’s not how it worked. Look at what getting back in required once your skin cleared up: you had to have a priest. Two clean, wild birds. Some cedar wood. A piece of crimson yarn. Hyssop. Fresh water. A clay pot. Some soap to wash your clothes and body. A razor to shave yourself. Three lambs without blemish. Six quarts of choice flour and a cup of olive oil. That was your ticket back inside.

Now all of these things had ritual meaning. The priest served as the intermediary between you and God. But note that the priest was not a doctor. He only checked whether you had healed up yet. God did the healing. Once healed, the priest killed one of the birds, then dipped the live bird into the blood of the first bird (all mixed with the water and the cedar and the yarn and the hyssop in the clay pot). He then took the hyssop and sprinkled you with the mixture before releasing the live bird back into the wild. The reason the bird was wild was so that it wouldn’t come back. It was sort of like a scapegoat with wings, transporting your uncleanness far away. The cedar and the crimson yarn, both colored red, further symbolized blood as life and atonement. The fresh water was literally “living water” and the clay pot represented our own frail, jars of clay-self. The hyssop plant worked like a sponge, soaking up the life and washing you with it, reminiscent of the way we pray every communion Sunday, “wash me with hyssop and I will be clean.”

You weren’t done yet though. After all that you still had to wash your clothes, shave and bathe, and then wait seven days, echoing creation. You could then come back into camp, but no getting near God until another seven days passed. On the second seventh day, you washed and shaved off all your hair, which made you look clean as newborn baby, another important symbol. On the eighth day, a day in the Bible that always signals heaven and new creation, you finally entered the Tent and offered your reparation offering of lamb, flour and oil. The whole ritual indicated the massive and glorious movement from death to life, new birth, resurrection, a new start. You moved from the realm of impurity outside the camp and were first restored to your community and then to God. You get clean and then get holy. It’s a trajectory that the book of Hebrews picks up on in chapter 12: “Make every effort to live in peace with all people and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

Now I hope you’re a little overwhelmed by this. Hopefully you’re thinking, “who in their right mind would go through all of that?” But then again, when you’re infected with sores and cut off from your friends and your God, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to get well and make things right again? You would want that with all of your heart, you would crave with the purest desire the very thing that was best for you. You’d want it so bad that no obstacle could get in your way—no matter if it took fifty wild birds and a whole cord of cedar, you’d want to get clean and holy. Thus endeth the lesson.

Unfortunately for the Israelites, they never really learned the lesson. Instead, they confused the ritual with reality thinking that by going through the motions they could control their own righteousness. The prophets tried to set them straight. Micah famously thundered against their obtuseness, sarcastically asking, “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? He has showed you what is good. What does the LORD require of you? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Similarly Jesus chastised the Pharisees who refused to heed the prophets’ correction. “You hypocrites!” he said, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence.” Another one of our Levites for the month described growing up in one of those fundamentalist families where he wasn’t allowed to go to movies. However he was allowed to watch the same movies at home on his VCR. All that mattered, it seemed, was how you looked to others. Just keep that cup and dish clean.

Psalm 24 asks: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” Answer: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity is a big deal because it goes straight to motivation and intent; it goes to what’s going on inside. But precisely because of what’s going on in our hearts, we still try to fake it. Which is what makes Leviticus so important. By getting at our skin it gets under our skin and exposes us for the fakes and the failures we are. But isn’t that really a good thing? When you see yourself as you are, covered with sores and living life on the outs, all you want is to get clean and get right with God. As Kierkegaard prayed, “Father in heaven! What is a man without You! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know You! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all! So may You give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. In prosperity may You grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing. Oh, You who gives both the beginning and the completion, may You early, at the dawn of day, give to the young man the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may You give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”

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