August 20, 2017, The Paradox of Purity – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

To listen to this sermon, click here:  Z0000038

We have recently watched two really good movies about racism – both true stories.

Hidden Figures, about four brilliant women scientists who worked for NASA in the 1960’s, during the “space race” between the US and Russia, and particularly about Katherine Johnson. The movie shows how these women, who were African-American, were treated with contempt even as they were needed for their skill and knowledge. Segregation was in full force; the Black women working as “computers” worked in a separate, small crowded room with minimal equipment. They were required to use the “colored” rest room, so that when Katherine was called to work with the “white” team that was trying to get John Glenn into orbit she had to run about a half mile to use the rest room, which was at the other end of NASA’s huge campus. One of the most instructive episodes in the movie was when Katherine Johnson first arrived in her new work space she went to get a cup of coffee at the communal coffeemaker and someone had put a junky little electric pot – empty – beside the big office coffeemaker with a sign taped on it that said “colored” so she would know she wasn’t welcome to share the coffee with the white engineers.

Loving, is the story of the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were married in 1958. But their marriage was against the law in their home state of Virginia, because Richard was white and Mildred was black. They were dragged from their bed in their own home and put in prison for committing the terrible crime of loving somebody who was the wrong color. The law they had broken was part of a whole series of laws called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was designed to prevent interracial relationships. The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored. (which meant essentially all non-European races). It defined race by the “one-drop rule” – in other words, any amount of African or Native American heritage made you “colored”. It also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage, criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons. Because of the love and courage and of Richard and Mildred Loving, in 1967 the law was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in its ruling on Loving v. Virginia.

The theme of both of these movies is the evil of racial segregation, which is based on the assumption that white people are superior to black people and therefore that white people are “contaminated” if they come in contact with black people in any way, from coffeemakers to intermarriage.

Listen and understand,” Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” And the disciples took Jesus aside and warned him that he had offended some important and influential people when he said that. Because he seemed to be saying – and in reality, he actually was saying – that the whole system of dietary laws and careful attention to regulations like handwashing, the system that they had followed rigorously for their whole lives, was irrelevant when it comes to purity and righteousness. Infractions of the law like eating pork or not washing your hands before eating or going into the home of a Gentile – those external things are not what makes you unclean. Uncleanness, the evil that contaminates our world, doesn’t come from anything outside of you, it comes from within you – from the depths of your heart. “Out of the heart,” Jesus said, “come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

This past week, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a large group of people, maybe as many as a thousand, gathered together to take a stand for the very kind of “purity” that Jesus was condemning. They identified as members of white nationalist groups or neo-Nazi groups or the KKK. They came armed and ready for violence. They shouted things like “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.” Beneath the hatred and violence that they openly displayed was their belief that the white people of this nation have been contaminated, or polluted, by all those people they consider inferior and unworthy: black people, people of color, Jews and Muslims, people who are gay or transgender.

But in their actions of hate speech and violence – and even murder – the truth of Jesus’ words was plain to see: that the real contamination, the real pollution, of Charlottesville didn’t come from the diversity of people who had been living peacefully side by side, in that college town, for the most part. The contamination came from the hate-filled hearts of that mob, carrying torches and waving Nazi flags and shouting slogans designed to terrorize everyone they consider their enemy. Racism pollutes our world. Hatred pollutes our world. Violence pollutes our world. The Racial Integrity Act has polluted our country. Segregation has polluted our country. All those things are evil, and the harm they have inflicted is incalculable. They must be denounced. And the source of all those things was the human heart.

And here’s where things get tricky. Because as we denounce the very real evil proceeding from the heart of that man waving a Nazi flag, or any other of the many evils that surround us in this world it is altogether too easy for us to lay claim to a false sense of purity and self-righteousness in our denouncing. It is very easy to wallow in our righteous anger and our disgust and our fear. It is so easy to let ourselves be blind to the part we play ourselves in the pollution of God’s good world and get lost in our righteous indignation – because as Jesus said, if the blind lead the blind they’re both going to end up in a pit. It is easy, in the face of such raw hatred and violence, to forget the truth that we are all sinners. John wrote in his first letter, “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us….[in fact] If we say we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar, and his word is not in us.”

We need to oppose the very real evil that we see every day, now more than ever. But the first evil we need to oppose, always, is the evil in our own hearts. Only when we have confessed the hatred and violence in our own hearts can we oppose and denounce a person who is spewing all kinds of hatred and racism – but still affirm that they are human beings created in the image of God just the same as we are.

Trying to avoid being contaminated by things outside of ourselves, whether that means shunning or condemning people who are different from us or trying to achieve purity by living a virtuous lifestyle, that’s a lost cause. That’s what Jesus was telling people. We can’t make ourselves pure by getting rid of or avoiding the people we despise. We can’t make ourselves pure by being “good people” and living moral lives. We can’t make ourselves pure or righteous at all because the evil that pollutes God’s good and perfect world comes from us, from our own hearts. You or I could be the last person on this planet and there would still be sin in the world because we are sinners. We condemn the evils of racism and hatred and injustice and violence that are polluting our world as those who acknowledge that we also have polluted God’s good world with the hateful outpouring of our own sinful hearts. We are, all of us, utterly dependent on the grace and forgiveness of God.

I want to close by praying all together the Collect for the Human Family in the BCP.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


  1. Thank you, Reverend Mother, for a wise statement that reflects Jesus’ words. May each of us take these words to heart.

    There is a related perspective that I recommend: the Paradox of Tolerance.

    My you and your congregation be blessed.
    ~ Jim

  2. Thank you Jim – “defending a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant” is just exactly what is needed in our day – the intolerance so brutally on display in Charlottesville that seeks to exterminate the perceived “other” – as well as what I recommend here – an honest confession of our own intolerance. K+

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