Ezra 10:1-5, 44; Acts 11:1-18

May 15, 2022

  • Who or What is Truly Clean?


Don’t you hate it when hitchhikers are stuck all over your pants?

Of course, that is a really strange image if your mind went right to people traveling along the side of the road with packs and their thumbs extended.  Yes, having a bunch of those people stuck to your pants would be a great inconvenience, and you would probably hate that situation.

On the other hand, what I mean as “hitchhikers” are those little seeds you might pick up walking through some field or the woods.  They are small, roundish but flat, and have a shell that resembles Velcro in their stickiness.  I used to get them as a kid and would find them in all kinds of folds of my clothes for a long time.  If you managed to remove one from one spot, it would likely end up somewhere else being so small and sticky.  They were a big pain to remove, and I was one who wanted to get each and every one of them off my person.  I would think that is normal.  If any of us were covered in something invasive or annoying, we want to get it off as quickly as possible.  We generally don’t enjoy being tainted or contaminated by other things.

Now, if you are paying attention to the readings for today and aren’t asleep, yet, then you might have an idea of where I might be going next with today’s message, but first, I’m talking soap, soap, soap.  Soap is one of the most remarkable and wide-reaching inventions of all time.  It can be made at home, and through the generations, many people have made their own soap.  It is a simple, beautiful, elegant way to ensure health and sanitation and has, no doubt, saved many lives through the years.  Soap is such a remarkable thing to me that I have begun making it myself as some of you know.  Cleanliness is next to godliness, as they say.

And THAT is it.  Maybe the message today is not directly about soap but about what soap represents: clean vs unclean; godly vs ungodly.  This is a perennial issue that has been with the human race since the beginning of time.  The advent of soap greatly helped this issue: clean is better than unclean or dirty.  But the quality of cleanliness goes much further and deeper into our society than our hands and feet and faces but into our psyche and even into our very souls.

Yes, friends, God made being “clean” a spiritual issue – which is really a strange thing to say if you think about it.  After all, a soul or spirit cannot really be dirty or tainted.  There is no soap for the spirit because the spirit is exactly that – spirit.  Somehow, however, being clean does relate to our insides, too.  God seems to be very concerned about the spiritual cleanliness of the people of God from the very beginning.  Somehow being clean applies to our whole selves.

The story from Ezra is one picture of this – a later picture in the life of the people of Israel a few hundred before Jesus.  For generation after generation, the law was to NOT marry people of other faiths.  Keep the spiritual life of the family pure.  Keep the faith of Israel’s God at the center of the family.  We saw how destructive it was for Solomon to abandon this idea by marrying so many other women and sharing in their faiths.  He had altars and idols for them.  That may even be in the mind of Ezra hundreds of years later as he returns home from the Babylonian exile and finds so many people had married non-Jewish women and had children by those women.  His response is harsh and swift.  Put them all away.  Send them to THEIR people.  Put out all the wives and children who are not Jewish.

Are you squirming, yet?  You should be.  These were real people with real families and real lives.  I struggle with this.  It seems cruel and unloving.  I understand the point that the people of God were to maintain their distinct identity and that allowing the worship of other gods into their midst was opening a can of worms.  They would be right back where they were before the exile, and the spiritual health of the people would be at risk.  Again, they do not make a soap for that, but there is no getting around how difficult this is to read and process.  I cannot help but wonder why they did not allow the families to become Jewish.  Also, through Scripture, we see non-Jewish women very much accepted into the people of God, just think Ruth, Bathsheba, Rahab, Tamar who are all named in Jesus’ own bloodline.  This is not an easy passage for everyone to read.  It should not be an easy passage for any of us to read.

Sometimes, religion and religious practices can be used as a weapon.  The things of faith can hurt people when used abusively.  Extremes of this are times like the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, or moments in European colonization when so many people were killed in the name of Jesus.  In the case of Ezra, they were given a choice.  The people who had intermarried could leave their people, people of God, or leave their non-Jewish families.  It is a lousy choice that does not reflect much goodness.  It is trying to force the people to be clean in some respect.  What comes out is that cleanliness is a choice to follow God’s heart. That is something to remember.

That is something to remember in the current, resurrected abortion debate.  No one actually thinks we should be killing babies, but is anyone seeking God’s heart with women who are hurting or who feel lost or who feel they have no other choice in life?  They do not need judgment but compassion.  They need help and support and understanding.  Begin there.  It is very easy and tempting to label people clean or unclean, godly or ungodly, but the real heart of the crisis is finding where God is at work.  We cannot legislate morality.  Changing a law will not change people’s hearts or their capacity to live closer to God.  Kicking out pagans will not make us a more godly people in our hearts.  Unless we understand this, we will continue in hateful conflict after hateful conflict with each other.  Unless we see all of God’s children differently, we will never find a way forward together.  Our change has to begin with the innermost being.

Of course, maybe we would rather be on our own.  It is easier to not deal with people with whom we disagree.  It is easier to jettison the unclean, those we perceive as ungodly.  My wife has a story she likes to tell about when she was visiting a church, and at the end of worship, everyone was in a circle praying while holding hands.  She happened to be hand-in-hand with a homeless man.  During the prayer, she noticed a definite stench.  She fought through the smell, reminding herself that this was the godly thing to do, to love the poor, smelly homeless man.  She was being a good Christian, after all.  After the prayer and departing, she noticed that she had stepped in dog mess.  She was the unclean.

When Peter was called by God to go share the good news of the salvation of God’s children through Christ Jesus TO A ROMAN FAMILY, he shook the world of faith.  Church leaders were irate with him.  The apostles at home were angry, confused, betrayed, and concerned.  Forever and forever, God had told them that foreigners were unclean.  Forever and forever, God told them to stay away from those other people.  Romans were even the enemy.  Now, God was telling them something completely different.  God rocked their world, again, and flipped their notion of right and wrong on its head.  Being clean or not clean is a choice to follow God’s heart, but that choice begins with Jesus.  He is the only one who has ever lived who has actually followed God’s heart.  The rest of us may try hard every once in a while, but we also like to follow our own hearts quite a bit, too.  We like to draw our own lines and make our own rules and even put words in God’s mouth about what is clean and not clean.

Thankfully, there is something better, but it is not simple.  It comes down to what is loving.  It comes down to what honors our service in Christ.  It comes down to how well we live in Jesus’ example and look to his faith.  He dared to embrace the unclean.  How many times did Jesus go specifically to those marked by society as unworthy, abhorrent, sinful, and dirty and love them just as they were?  The ones Jesus called out were the ones who thought they were already clean enough.

Maybe none of us is clean enough to call anyone unclean.  The best soap we have cannot cure our love for ourselves.  The Good News people that we are in Christ Jesus, however, means that we can embrace our sister and brother, even the ones we do not know are our sister and brother.  We can see past and through the issues that divide us and look for ways we connect.  We can lift up the ones who are hurting or lost or broken and share in their suffering.  We can find that those who are precious in God’s sight are those who are right next to us, and when we acknowledge that we stink sometimes, too, we prove to God that we have room to grow in grace.  To God be the glory.  Amen