Rocks and Lustration



These are the songs that make men glad of inclusive language in our generation.  I think I have Mary Lautenslager to thank for this.

I learned a new word last week on NPR: LUSTRATION.  That’s the word that describes the process at work between the Ukraine and Russia as they disentangle the enmeshment of lives between them.  LUSTRATION also describes other processes, like divorce, and what happens after a pastor leaves a congregation, (whether for good or ill) .  Lustration has a rather sordid history.  In American history what we now call “The McArthy Era” sums up a little too neatly the destruction of lives when we became caught up in shining a bright light into all the dark corners to see if communism was lurking there.     Lustration has its etymological root in the same word as illustration:  Light.  Lucem.  In short, when we take our search lights and go looking for trouble, we usually find it, if not actually create it.  Heresy trials are lustrations.  I remember vividly the effect of heresy accusations and trial for my systematic theology professor in undergrad, during the years of the Missouri Synod’s lustration against historical critical methods of reading scripture, ordaining women, and the lurking dangers of liberalism.  Some of the best gifts given to the ELCA were given by the Missouri Synod as it lustrated these evils from their seminaries and congregations.

It’s an interesting word that came to my attention just as I was reading about the martyrdom of Stephen for last week’s sermon…and about the woman who has been sentenced to death for not renouncing the Coptic Christian faith of her upbringng in South Sudan.  One rarely has to wait more than a few days for another example of lustration.  It’s rarely good news for more than a few.  That’s rather the definition of the thing.   If men go to hell, who cares?   By lustration, we are able to separate ourselves from the Other and wish them well on their way to hell.

I worked my sermon last week around a word study of rock and stone.   The law of Moses 

imagesprescribed stoning for blasphemers, adulterers, and idolators.  There are a lot of stones in Israel.  When I was there with a group of pastors, Hillel, our archaeologist tour guide, showed us a lot of piles of rocks.  Most of my pictures are, well, piles of rocks.  Hillel kept telling us that every tourist had a moral obligation to take home a suitcase full.  The stoning prescription was not too difficult to fill, since there are always a plentitude of stones on hand, and hands willing to propel stones.  The first stone to be thrown in fulfilling the stoning prescription belonged to the one who was wronged, and then the whole congregation was expected to participate.  Stoning is lustration in extremis.   This is how the law of Moses proposed to purge the evil from the midst of the people.  

Jesus comes on the scene of a mob about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery.  Her guilt was indisputable.  She was caught in the act.  Of course, I’m not sure how she could have been caught in the act alone.  Where was her accomplice?  Obviously he must have been dead already, maybe dying in the ecstasy of the act, or wouldn’t he have come along?    Their stones in hand, the mob was eager to purge the evil from Israel using the Stoning Prescription.  Jesus engages the crowd.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Remember what I said about the first stone?   The person wronged would have been her husband, or her father, or her brother.  No one came forward, and those rocks in their hands started to get pretty heavy as Jesus drew circles in the sand.  Lustration is hard work.  Dirty work.  And you don’t have to look far to find volunteers to do it.

images (2)I wonder how that woman got up from the ground?  How did she go back to her family, the market, the well?   How did those who had their rocks ready in hand ever manage to look her in the eye again?

There are some canyons too great to cross without wings.  Lustration gets us out of each others’ hair so that we can go on, as though stones were never raised and men were ever gladly sent to hell.

When I was in 7th grade, I shared a bus stop with a group of boys.  No other girls.  They taunted me from the very beginning of the school year.  I was more developed than the average 7th grade girl, and their overtures began to take on the flavor of sexual harrasment.  They exposed themselves to try to embarrass me.  They tried to grab my breasts.  I don’t talk about this very often.  When my parents complained to the principal at school, he said boys will be boys, and I had to learn to stop being so sensitive about it.   Now I was also shamed, not only humiliated.  After this, they started stoning.  Flicking pebbles at first, trying to get my reaction.  When I tried to ignore them, they chose bigger rocks.

I think about this whenever I come to the stoning of Stephen and the near stoning of the woman caught in adultery.  In a way, they won.(Those)  Men can go to hell and I don’t care.  I separated, first by withdrawing deeply inside myself.  Then Sr. Agnes came along.  I think she saved my life, and I’m not being figurative about that.  She fished me out and hauled me in, and I started school at St. MAry’s Academy, a convent’s high school, the next fall.  It took a long time to lustrate those boys from my life, even  without ever seeing them again. When Ray Muse, the leader of the pack, was killed when he drove 80 in a 35 mph zone high as a kite, driving the steering wheel through his chest, I didn’t know what to do with my feelings.  The light was shining again in the dark corners of my soul where I had shoved what remained of him in my life.  That man could go to hell, and I couldn’t care, unless it was to pack him a basket to go in.  That’s what I told myself.

Sirach, a book of wisdom in the Apocrypha, says that the person who throws a stone over his head is a fool.  It comes back down on his own head.  Lustration is like that.  Those who are most ardent and dedicated to purging the evil from their midst so often bring their stones down on their own heads, and to their own destruction.  How many Christian “evangelists” have been brought down by their own homosexual affairs after years of throwing stones to purge the evil from their midst?

I tried to purge the shame and humiliation of those years and move on.  I changed schools, I left town and I made my life somewhere else.  Those were all good things to do.  But by the very act of purging, I continued to be caught up in the sickness and sin of that situation.  I hated to go back to O’Fallon forever.  Now all I have left there are graves in a cemetery.  I don’t gfor everything a seasono back anymore.  Ray Muse is dead.  Nothing there but ghosts and vestigial remains.

In luce tua videmus lucem.   In your light, we see light.  That was the school motto at Valparaiso University. In the light of lustration, little good is accomplished.  We set out to excise a wound, and quickly find that we have amputated the whole limb.  Is God’s light different?  Aren’t we supposed to be God’s little lightbulbs, all around the neighborhood, shining, shining?  Exposing sin.  Improving the world with surgical skill as we wield the scalpels of lustration:  stoning, cutting, criticizing, destroying others with our words as much as with our silence?

Just when we’ve scrubbed the world thoroughly with antibacterial soap, we discover that some of that bacteria was actually good for us.  Go figure.

Jesus said, “Let the one who is without sin….”   and then he turned to the woman and asked her where her accusers were.  Only he was standing there.  Neither do I accuse you.  Go and sin no more.

Forgiveness.  Mercy.  Throwing down the stones.  That’s real lustration.  That’s seeing the  light finally in and because of God’s light.  That’s the kind of light that finally purges the wounded soul and frees it  to only take from the past what can be learned.  Drop the rocks.  .   Easier said than done.  I’m working on it.  Sometimes the best I can do is walk away.  But then there’s always the grocery store, Target or Michael’s, the gas pump, the newspaper:   there’s always somewhere and some time that I want to retreat again and find a place where the light can’t find me.  I keep finding a lot of other people there too.  I wonder about that.


In luce tua videmus lucem.     So……..  Help.  Me. God.




About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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One Response to Rocks and Lustration

  1. A powerful piece. Thank you.

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