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In a small town there was a family in one of the congregational churches with the reputation of being the poorest family in the county. One Sunday, the family just stopped coming to church. After a couple of weeks, the preacher had a theory that the family was so ashamed of the way they dressed that they didn’t want to come out into public.
So the preacher put out the word to his congregation that he needed clothing for the family and got some real nice children’s clothes and some for the mother and the father, too. He took the clothes down to the family and they seemed grateful. They said they would come to church the next Sunday.
But Sunday rolled around and they weren’t there. Sunday afternoon, the preacher went to see them and asked: “Where were you this morning?”
And the man of the house said: “Well, preacher, we got all cleaned up and got on those nice clothes you brought, and we looked so good we decided to go to the Episcopal church.”
The numbers are fun: worldwide, the soap bar industry earned $19.2 billion dollars last year. In the US alone, it is estimated that we go through 11.7 billion bars of soap a year. That’s a lot of lathering up to get clean. The most expensive bar of soap is made in Lebanon and cost $2,800 a bar. It is infused with gold and diamond powder dust. The people who make that bar of soap are very smart, because they know that there are plenty of idiots in the world who will buy it.
Anyhow, when we think of soap, most are only concerned with removing the dirt and unpleasant aromas—to get clean—but when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures, clean and unclean are something very different.
For example, there are foods that are unclean: most know that bacon is unclean, but did you know that grasshoppers are clean? The lowly shrimp is off limits, but the chicken is fine. There are also things that you can do to become unclean. Touching anything dead will make you unclean. And then there are some things, completely out of your control that can make you unclean, one of which is contracting leprosy (which in this context is a very broad term that defines a variety of skin disorders.) And it was these unclean that Jesus encountered in our Gospel reading today.
As Jesus “entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’”
The Mosaic Law was very clear about what was to take place when a person contracted a certain variety of leprosy, “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46) By today’s standards, that sounds harsh, but they didn’t have modern medicine, so a true case of leprosy or other communicable disease (perhaps like the measles) could easily spread to many others, so these persons had to be cut off and removed.
What did it mean for the individual to be cut off? No job, no family or friends (except maybe other lepers), no resources, out in the wilderness outside the city gates, and unprotected, but this wasn’t the worst part. You see, clean and unclean are more accurately translated as pure and impure, and those terms are referring to a person’s relationship to God. And to be impure, with no access to the means of atonement—being made right with God, becoming clean before God—meant that not only are you cut off from the world, but you are also cut off from God. Separated from Him. So, you stand alone, out in the wilderness and cry out, ‘Unclean. Unclean.’ But, you see, I hear those words and they seem more than just a declaration of a person’s current state. Those words also sound like a prayer. A plea to God for washing.
When King David had sinned, when he was impure and cut off from God, he wrote Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
To me, David is crying out, ‘Unclean. Unclean.’ Yet, even in that state of impurity, David has hope. Hope in God’s love and mercy, for he goes on to say:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
(Psalm 51:1-3, 7)
Lord, I am unclean, but you can wash me. You can make me whiter than snow.
What is the Lord’s response? I refer back to the story of the healing of the leper that I shared with you last week. The leper came up to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me well.” And the Lord responds, “I do choose, be well.”
The Lord’s response: God chose to make us well, chose to make us clean, and he makes it possible through our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. How do we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus?
“All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
We participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus through our baptism. When we enter the waters we are unclean and when we rise we are clean. The old self dies and we are “set free from sin” and raised to an eternal and resurrected life in Christ Jesus. What did our Gospel say: The leper that returned “prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him…. Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Those words, “get up,” have a very specific meaning… resurrected. Jesus said to the man, “Be resurrected! You have been made clean.”
Prior to our baptism, we are like the leper at the feet of Jesus. We are lying in the dust, we are dead in sin, we cry out, ‘Unclean,’ but through our baptism, Jesus says to us, “Get up! I choose to make you whiter than snow. Be resurrected into eternal life with me.”
And what is our response to this gift? Consider the words of the Psalm from today:
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation….
He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
Our response to the Lord is thankfulness, because “he sent redemption to his people.” He sent Jesus… “For God so loved the world…” that we might be with Him.
This morning, I pray, that as we baptize Angelica Rose, you will recall the great work that was begun in you through your own baptism—how you passed over from unclean to clean, impure to pure, death to life—and that in your heart and with your words, you will also return to the Lord and give him thanks.
Let us pray… a few more verses from Psalm 51:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.