Did you happen to get a star word this year on Epiphany? This is the second year I’ve had a star word. My word for 2020 was “pray” which made a lot of sense, even before the pandemic and other cataclysmic events of last year unfolded. Although we couldn’t pass out star words in church this year, Immanuel Lutheran made them available in a basket outside the church office. I picked up mine a week or so after Epiphany, wearing my mask and keeping six feet between me and the Immanuel member who kindly let me in the door.
My practice with star words is not to look at the word until I’m alone and someplace quiet. So I slipped the thin star shape, cut out of balsa wood, into my pocket and forgot about it until I got home that afternoon. Just before I looked at the word, I felt a tingle of anticipation. But this immediately turned to a kind of bewildered let down. My star word for 2021 was purity. What?
My husband’s comment when I told him was “You couldn’t get any purer.” He thinks I should loosen up and have more fun. This wasn’t helpful. I kept returning to the word lying on my dresser. Why purity? What did that have to do with the current events in the world? What did it have to do with where we as people of God find ourselves in this time and place?
I happened to be reading Father Greg Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart about his decades-long ministry to gang members in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In a chapter called “Success” Boyle writes that “Jesus jostled irreparably the purity code of the shot callers of His day.” He is referring of course to Jesus’ insistence on hanging out with people the Pharisees deemed unclean, sinners and tax collectors and women caught in the act of adultery. The purity code of Jesus’ day was designed to keep some people outside and others safely on the inside. If you were on the inside, as the Pharisees deemed themselves to be, you didn’t fraternize with those on the outside.
Boyle suggests we have a new purity code today. It doesn’t have to do with whether you collect taxes for Rome or what you eat or if you work on Sundays. Our new purity code is success—whether you have a prestigious job, a nice home and other material things, a string of accomplishments. When people are successful in this way, we want to associate with them and put ourselves in the inside circle of belonging with them. People who are not deemed successful—the poor, people in prison, the long-term unemployed, drug addicts, the homeless, refugees, the uneducated, and anyone we assign the qualities of failure in some shape or form—do not meet our modern day purity code. And we hold the unspoken but ardently held belief that we have no obligation to bring people who have failed in some way, whom we believe are failures, into our circle, to have what Boyle calls “kinship” with them.
He writes, “Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified—whichever came first.”
Maybe it was just a coincidence I happened to be reading Boyle’s book when I got my star word purity. Regardless, it gave me a new way to interpret it in the context of this time and place.
There is no shortage of people who are on the “outside” of success today, who fall outside of our current social purity code. I don’t need to list them. We know who they are. And we have created even more restrictions in the purity code of success by placing people inside or outside according to their political views, their sexual orientation, their gender, the color of their skin, or where they were born. We seem obsessed with who is inside our circle and who we can put outside it. We have an abundance of modern day outcasts.
I confess I often feel powerless in the face of the actions of some political leaders that are counter to everything I believe about inclusivity, community, and Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor. But Boyle says “For no amount of screaming at the people in charge to change things can change them. The margins don’t get erased by simply insisting that the powers-that-be erase them.” He argues that the way to erase the margins is to stand with those on the outside. To live in kinship with those outside the circle. In this way, “locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest.” And “The powers bent on waging war against the poor and the young and the “other” will only be moved to kinship when they observe it.”
Purity. Not about making ourselves purer, as if we could do such a thing when Jesus did this with His life. Not about making ourselves somehow worthy of God’s love, when God looks at us and sees only God’s beloved. It’s about asking ourselves how we use our notions of purity to justify keeping some people out of our circle, out of kinship with us, and therefore out of the ocean of love it’s within our power to share. I’ve decided it’s a good star word for 2021 because the circle of belonging to each other—just as we belong to God—needs to be endlessly bigger.