Sociologists have talked about this for decades. Emile Durkheim spoke about the sacred and the profane. He said that society functions at its best when we all know our place. Durkheim and others like Mircea Eliade wrote volumes on the sacred and the Profane. In their view, the church is sacred. The world is profane. Power is sacred, chaos is profane. Thought is sacred. Feeling is profane. The Spirit is sacred, the body is profane. This pervaded Paul’s writings and you see where that brought us. We might not think like them these days, but ideas such as these come into our collective consciousness. White is sacred, black is profane.
Think of what we see as sacred and profane:
Sacred Christianity Profane, Islam
Sacred fidelity Profane adultery
Sacred Heterosexuality Profane homosexuality
Sacred masculine Profane feminine
Sacred richness Profane poverty
A few weeks ago, I received a call from someone who looked me up in the phone book. She was having trouble with the presence of religious tracts at her doorstep. Their presence made her feel unsafe. It was as if those profane things had invaded her sacred space. She called me up to get advice on how to get rid of the tracts. I told her that the tracts could not harm her. They were just words on paper. You could even throw them away and not incur the wrath of God. But it wasn’t until I visited and removed a tiny statue of a gargoyle from her apartment that she felt safe. Now, the demons with which she was struggling were legion, but they were symptomatic of how much energy we give to that which keeps us bound up. If I could remind her of her sacred worth, I would—and I did. I told her that God didn’t make no junk and that she was loved by God. But the seemingly profane in her living space was more than she could bear.
Back to the scripture. This story is so important that it is told in the 10th chapter and then repeated in the 11th chapter. We know the story. Peter has a vision in which he sees a smorgasbord of animals, but being a good kosher Jew he refuses to eat. The vision happens three times and finally God says, “what God has called clean, you shall not call profane.” (v. 9) That verse is repeated twice in chapter 10. Just like Peter needs the vision three times, we need the word three times, “What God has called clean, you shall not call profane.
What is profane and what is sacred? Back then profane meant anything not kosher, meaning not conforming to the Hebrew dietary restrictions. These restrictions were put in place for health reasons. People got sick when they mixed milk and meat, therefore it was not kosher. Same thing with pigs and shellfish, they were harder to preserve and important to cook thoroughly. Therefore they became unclean, profane.
The implications for this vision were far-reaching. If the kosher laws no longer applied, then could the other exclusionary laws also be subject to a hermeneutic of suspicion? Was the Jesus movement just for the kosher-abiding sacred bloodline of the Jewish people, or was this something different that could welcome in the profane uncircumcised nations of the world? Is God big enough for even that? “What God has called clean, you shall not call profane.” Remember that the next time someone quotes Leviticus to you.
So much of the work of the church, at least the public work is to protect the sacred church from the profane world. “This world is not my home I’m just a passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me to heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
But my reading of the Gospel is that what God has made clean, we shall not call profane.
Jesus’ work was to play with the definitions of sacred and profane. He sacralized the profane. He ate with sinners. He even liked tax collectors. Eschewing all of the Levitical and cultural taboos, he let women into his inner circle. He called into question the power structure. It was probably that audacity—that messing with the notions of sacred and profane—that got him crucified. Remember how he was accused of blasphemy?
Bruce Bawer wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.” In this book, Bawer argues that Jesus preached a love-ethic and the church has embraced a law-ethic. The law-ethic loves the sacred and hates the profane. In the love-ethic of Jesus, the profane and the sacred are loved side by side. When we only focus on the so-called sacred, we are missing a big piece of the Gospel.
So which Jesus do we follow? The sacred one adorned in stained glass, beatifically smiling down at us and keeping order, or the profane one that turned over the tables of the moneychangers, set in motion chaos, and set people free? The truth is that we probably adore the sacred one more, because he demands less of us. We like the profane one when we are in our questioning power-mode. Most creation stories start in chaos. We need a little profane chaos to create sacred hope.
I’m reminded of a speech in Warren Beatty’s film Bullworth where he challenges the use of the word obscenity when talking about language and not about how corporate media and even elections are corrupt. It gives us a lot to think about.
The rich is getting richer while the middle class is getting more poor/
Making billions and billions and billions of bucks/
well my friend if you weren't already rich at the start well that situation just sucks/
cause the richest in five of us is getting ninety eight percent of it/
and every other in the world is left to wonder where we went with it/ Obscenity?/ I'm a Senator/ I gotta raise $10,000 a day every day I'm in Washington/
I ain't getting it in South Central/ I'm gettin it in Beverly Hills/
So I'm votin from them in the Senate the way they want me too/
and I'm sending them my bills/
But we got babies in South Central dying as young as they do in Peru/
We got public schools that are nightmares/
We got a Congress that ain't got a clue/
We got kids with submachine guns/
We got militias throwing bombs/
We got Bill just gettin all weepy/
We got Newt blaming teenage moms/
We got factories closing down/
Where did all the good jobs go? Well, I'll tell you where they went/
My contributors make more profits Hirin' kids in Mexico/
Oh a brother can work in fast food/
If he can't invent computer games/
But what we used to call America/
That's going down the drains/
How's a young man gonna meet his financial responsibilities workin at Burger King? He ain't!
Obscenity? We got a million brothers in prison/
I mean, the walls are really rockin/
But you can bet they'd all be out/
If they could pay for Johnny Cochran/
The constitution is supposed to give them an equal chance/
Well, that ain't gonna happen for sure/
Ain't it time to take a little from the rich and give a little to the poor?
I mean, those boys over there on the monitor/
they want a government smaller and weak/
but they be speakin for the richest 20 percent when they pretend they're defendin the meek…
It goes on from there, but you get the point.
Sam Keene in an essay entitled “Sacred and Profane Power” said that it is good to challenge what is sacred and profane. He writes, “The moment we pass through the looking glass into the realm of the sacred everything changes, turns upside down, is transvalued. We become convinced that the sacred vision reveals the true nature of reality and the profane vision of a desacralized cosmos is an illusion. Because an encounter wit the holy changes our identity it causes words to twist and turn and mean just the opposite of that they meant when they appeared on the front page of the NY Times. No word undergoes a more radical transformation than “power.”
God tells Peter, what I have made clean, you shall not call profane. This opens up the Gospel and the community to the gentiles. But the implications are greater than that. Do we just accept the easy world view that we are to protect the sacred from the profane? Or do we see the idea of profanity transformed in such a way that we can seek to embrace a different kind of relationship.
Maybe we need to call different things sacred and profane.
Maybe suspicion is profane and trust is sacred.
Maybe individualism is profane and mutuality is sacred.
Maybe racism and sexism and compulsory heterosexism is profane and equity is sacred.
Maybe conformity is profane and diversity is sacred.
Maybe possessions are profane and stewardship is sacred.
Maybe unbelief is profane and faith is sacred.
What God has made clean, let us not call it profane.
And let us rethink what it means to be sacred vessels of God’s love in this world.
Look at marriage, the most sacred of our institutions. A majority of Minnesotans now believe that it is profane to restrict it to just heterosexuals.
Sacred is becoming a bigger tent. That’s what Jesus was after.
When we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, we are to recognize the holy, the sacred in our most profane opponents.
We advocate for environmental stewardship and preservation because we view this world as sacred, not a profane storehouse of minerals to be exploited.
We do our best and most inspiring work when we are quick to recognize the sacred holy and slow to condemn the unholy profane.
What God has made clean, we shall not call profane.
Thanks be to God.