I have climbed up into the pulpit this morning to preach on a topic that is near and dear to many of us, and that subject is toilet paper and the church. This is an indelicate conversation, so I will try and keep it light. You may find yourself inclined to giggle, or perhaps even laugh out loud. I encourage you to do so. It will most likely be a long time before I preach about toilets again, so you should try and make the most of it.
I was having coffee with Lynda Deacon yesterday, and I found myself holding forth with a rant that went something like this,
“I am so sick of hearing about toilet paper! I don’t ever need to hear another conversation about the state of our bathrooms. As long as I’ve been here, people have been complaining to me about the embarrassing state of our bathrooms. Lots of people use our bathrooms. Lots of homeless and hungry people use our bathrooms. People take baths in our sinks. People steal our toilet paper. What am I supposed to do about that? Honestly, if money is so tight that people are choosing between buying food and buying toilet paper, I hope they’re buying the food. I can’t get mad at someone for doing what they have to do to make sure they can clean up after themselves! What can I say? I am no toilet expert. The Bible doesn’t have lots of practical advice to offer about toilets, so your idea is as good as mine.”
If you’re not already aware, the subject of toilet paper and the church comes up a lot at St. Luke’s. So, let’s go over the logistics. St. Luke’s has four restrooms. The two largest and most public of our bathrooms are on the ground floor of the parish hall, at the bottom of the stairs. These bathrooms are gendered – the men’s room containing two standing urinals and two private toilet seats, the women’s room containing three private toilet seats. There are also two unisex, single-occupant bathrooms on the second floor of the parish hall – one just outside the church office, and the other just off the formal lounge and the yoga studio. None of our bathrooms can be accessed without negotiating at least one flight of stairs, and none of them are set up to accommodate people with mobility impairments of any kind. Just saying.
In the introduction to her 2008 New York Times bestseller, The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, author Rose George shares a story about bathrooms that can, perhaps, help us break the seal on this taboo topic. She writes,
I need the bathroom. I assume there is one, though I’m at a spartan restaurant in the Ivory Coast, in a small town filled with refugees from next-door Liberia, where water comes in buckets and you can buy towels secondhand. The waiter, a young Liberian man, only nods when I ask. He takes me off into the darkness to a one-room building, switches on the light, and leaves. There’s a white tiled floor, while tiled walls and that’s it. No toilet, no hole, no clue. I go outside to find him again and ask if he’s sent me to the right place. He smiles with sarcasm. Refugees don’t have much fun but he’s having some now. “Do it on the floor. What do you expect? This isn’t America!” I feel foolish. I say I’m happy to use the bushes, it’s not that I’m fussy. But he’s already gone, laughing into the darkness.
I need the bathroom. I leave the reading room of the British Library in central London and find a “ladies” a few yards away. If I prefer, there’s another one on the far side of the same floor, and more on the other five floors. By 6pm, after thousands of people have entered and exited the library and the toilets, the stalls are still clean. The doors still lock. There is warm water in the clean sinks. I do what I have to do, then flush the toilet and forget it, immediately, because I can, and because all my life I have done no differently.
This is why the Liberian waiter laughed at me. He thought that I thought a toilet was my right, when he knew it was a privilege.
I’m talking about toilets this morning, and I’m not talking about toilets this morning; and that, in fact, is how a lot of toilet talk is done. Talking about toilets is rarely ever just talking about toilets. It’s talk about sanitation, cleanliness, health, poverty, gender, class, sexuality and disease. Our taboos surrounding toilets often serve to keep us from talking about all sorts of taboo subjects, and asking questions like:
- Why do our downstairs bathrooms smell so bad? (Answer: because there are many people using our bathrooms throughout the week who have little or no access to showers, so they shower in our sinks and change clothes in our toilet stalls)
- Why do we wait to wait to use the bathrooms in our homes if we can’t use one of the upstairs bathrooms? (Answer: because none of us wants to be in a smelly, dirty bathroom if we have a choice)
Those are the easy questions. The tougher ones come next, questions like:
- Which of the following do our bathrooms more closely resemble: private, residential bathrooms or public transit rest stops – and what does that suggest?
- If St. Luke’s bathrooms are not for you, who are they for? What’s the first answer that comes to mind? Be honest.
Then, of course, there’s the final – perhaps the most obvious – question: why am I talking about this?
In the passage from Mark’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus has just come back from the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, and from the lakeshore, where he called his first disciples. Now he has arrived at the synagogue on the Sabbath where he teaches with authority. What he’s teaching we don’t know, we’re simply told that it’s markedly different from what the scribes have to say.
The scribes were interpreters of the law. They were the transmitters of tradition. They passed on what they had first received. For example, they knew how many days a woman should remove herself during the time of her period, or the proper sacrifice for someone to offer to be made clean after touching a dead body. They knew what was clean and what was unclean.
Or did they?
Mark tells us that “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Some translations render this an “evil” spirit. I don’t think we should get hung up on whether or not the spirit was “unclean” or “evil.” It’s probably more germane to notice that we think the two things are related. We imagine that unclean things, or people, are evil things, or people. This is why we don’t want to share too much with them. Like our bathrooms.
In his essay “Learning from the Loo,” American sociologist Harvey Molotch writes,
“Whatever the setting or scale of the problem, we have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern. Precisely because the toilet operates somewhat in hiding, those who plan, manage, and control its use often act on their own, without a public to which they most provide detailed and explicit accounts of what they are doing. The toilet thus operates irresponsibly. Compared to other artifacts, arrangements, and patterns of usage, it thus resists change – however unjust, damaging, or inefficient things may be.”
I have to admit, I’d never considered the prophetic edge of pee and poo and public loos, but there it is. “We have in the toilet an instrument and institution that both reflects how people and societies operate and also reinforces the existing pattern.”
To speak plainly, this means that the condition of our restrooms both means something and does something. What it means is related to difference and how we view it. The accommodations we expect for ourselves as opposed to the ones we make available to others. What it does is actually maintain and reinforce those differences. The person who uses our toilet because they don’t have access to any other one isn’t invited into a meditation on class, poverty and human dignity. They are experiencing classism, power and indignity. Whether or not we mean for that to happen is really beside the point.
What’s so clever and remarkable about Mark’s gospel is that it says that Jesus taught with authority, but it doesn’t tell you what he taught. That’s not what we expect. We expect that teaching is related to conveying information, mastering content. Instead, Jesus’ teaching unmasks a conflict between two spiritual forces in the world – the spirit that has possessed the man in the synagogue and the Holy Spirit present in Jesus. It is no match. What Jesus teaches, then and now, is that every barrier is broken down when exposed to the power of God’s love. I say love, because look how it happens. Jesus does not command the unclean person to be gone, he commands the unclean spirit. He restores the man to good health, to community. The label, whether it is “evil” or “dirty,” is, well, eliminated. Flushed away. All that remains is the person whom God loves.
In his letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge wants to know whose job it is to keep the dirty people from taking baths in our sink. Knowledge wants to know who’s going to make sure there’s toilet paper in the stalls. Knowledge wants to know why we’re still talking about our bathrooms. By contrast, love builds up. Love spends Saturday afternoons spray painting the stalls. Love replaces the cracked mirrors and the broken commodes. Love asks for the key to the closet and makes sure there’s a fresh roll of toilet paper for our guests on Tuesdays and Thursdays, on Saturdays and Sundays.
What distinguishes Jesus’ teaching from the scribes is that Jesus is teaching for transformation, not information. It’s not about having the answer, it’s about being the answer.
St. Luke’s, it’s true, there is something about our bathroom situation that stinks… but it’s not just the pink urinal pucks. It’s true that we have a waste removal problem, but what needs elimination is our attitudes, not the people who provoke us. Because, at the end of the day, no one’s poo smells good. Not yours. Not mine. Not our neighbors’. Not our guests’. We don’t accomplish anything by ranking our relative odor. We don’t prove anything by pointing fingers. What’s needed is not information, it’s transformation.
So, what’s next? I don’t know. We’ve got an annual meeting after church, at which you’re going to elect some new council members to provide vision and leadership for our congregation. I suspect they’re about as excited as I am to spend any more time talking about toilet paper. But mission and ministry, justice and hospitality, those are things I think we’re all aching to talk about, and more than talk about. That’s the work we’re called to be about doing, even if it starts with something as mundane as our bathrooms.
Can I get an amen. Please?