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A Ram in the Thicket

The Binding of Isaac, Carrivagio

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Wilfred Owen 1893 – 1918

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Wilfred Owen was an English poet who served in the British Army during the First World War. In the course of his service, he suffered a concussion from falling into a shell hole and was hit by a trench mortar that knocked him unconscious for several days. He was ultimately killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week before the armistice ending the war was signed. Throughout the war, Owen wrote poetry that gave voice to the horrors of combat. His poetry stood out because it presented the naked truth of battle, without the varnish of patriotism or heroics.

Since I first was exposed to Owen’s Poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as an college student I have been unable to hear the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac without these words echoing in my soul. Owen succeeds in rendering the Biblical narrative more horrifying by presenting us with the untold possibility. Abraham does not listen to God, does not accept the alternative sacrifice, and instead kills his son.

In recent weeks our political leaders have been occupied in a debate about immigration. There are swirling questions about who to deport, how much to spend on a wall, and what should happen to Dreamers. There are pundits galore offering insights on the politics of it all. While this unfolds, actual human families face the terror of being torn apart. There are actual children wondering what future they will have with their parents. And many who have lived here their whole lives long face the unimaginable possibility of losing the only home they have ever known.

I cannot escape the thought that while these real human lives are under threat, there may be a ram caught in the thicket. That is, there may be something else we could sacrifice, instead of these: God’s children and our neighbors.

Could we perhaps sacrifice instead the idea that America is a nation defined by whiteness?

Could we sacrifice the myth that security and safety can be achieved by sheer force?

Could we sacrifice the idea that this corner of God’s creation belongs to us?

Could we sacrifice fear?

Could we sacrifice pride?

Or do we cherish all this so much that we prefer to sacrifice people instead?

Un-knowing

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. Exodus 1: 8-11

It is easy to forget that the Israelites were not slaves when they first arrived to Egypt.

The book of Genesis ends with the story of Joseph. Joseph who was sold to the Egyptians by his own brothers when he was a child, yet who quickly rose to some prominence in Pharaoh’s court.

He was a trusted advisor. Renowned for this ability to interpret dreams.
He correctly forecasted that a great famine would befall Egypt and because of his warning people, people stored up grain, and survived. He was well rewarded for this.

And so the first Israelite in Egypt became wealthy, with many flocks, and and overflowing bags of gold. He has sent for his entire family, and when they arrive they are given tracts of land, and honored. The book of Genesis ends on a hopeful note.

Joseph lives to a ripe old age. He holds even his great grandchildren before he dies peacefully, and is buried in a tomb in Egypt, where his family is prospering, and enjoying a good life with a grateful people.

And yet if the book of Genesis ends on a hopeful note. The book of Exodus which follows it picks up with an ominous beginning.

“There arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

Several generations have passed.

Joseph, forgotten.

And things get bad, quickly.

The new king says to his subjects, “Look, the Israelites are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”

And so the Israelites are enslaved. Not so much from a need of labor, but because the king was afraid, afraid that these foreigners would soon outnumber native Egyptians. Afraid that such a situation might shape the power that he had grown so accustomed to.

The king is afraid. 
And so he responds by ordering that a whole group of people be enslaved. Worked, nearly to death. Lest they have free time, or free energy, to grow in number, or to plot anything against him.

The Israelites are oppressed. Enslaved. Worked to the brink.

All the while Pharaoh is stirring up the Egyptians to believe that these people are “not like us.”

And this hatred, and animosity, and bigotry, gets so ramped up. So quickly.

Pretty soon you could forget that the Israelites were anything other than the slaves of the Egyptians.

It would be easy to forget where it began.

“There arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

It all began because the king forgot something, something that everyone once knew.

He forgot that these Israelites were the descendants of a man who had once saved his people.

He forgot that there was a man named Joseph who was once counted among the Pharaoh’s family.

He forgot all the complexity and nuance of history.

But at a very basic level. At the most basic level.

He forgot that the Israelites were people. People like him.

That they were human.

“There arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”

It begins, it all begins, not because of what he things or knows.

But because of what he forgets.

We humans, all of us, are all hardwired from birth for connection, for community, and for love.

None of us were born hating anyone.

And yet, that part of us that is intent on love, although it is the most original feature of our souls, is also the most vulnerable in the face of a frightening and violent world.

That fact of our shared humanity with all others is a truth. An instinct. That is so. so. easy to forget.

It slips through our fingers, and our lives become ruled by fear, by scarcity, by suspicion.

The loving heart of our spirits is so tenuous and easy to lose, and yet it is the most original part of who we are.

All hatred. All bigotry. It is learned. We pick it up as we go along, in ways more often subtle than overt.

Usually, nobody sits anyone down and teaches them bigotry they way you might learn math. But we all live and move in a culture where we can breathe in prejudice from the air around us, small signals, policies, images, and the permissions of silence, pull us, draw us, little by little away from the truth.

But Nobody. No ruler, or terrorist. No white supremacist or neo-nazi. Nobody, can cultivate hatred unless they have first forgotten something basic.

Hatred cannot take root and grow in a human heart until they forget that the person they have come to hate. Is a person. Like them.

No system of oppression can be built. No community enslaved. No angry bile can be spewed, until the simple truth of our shared humanity. Our shared history. And our shared destiny is forgotten.

And yet, we live in a world, as the Israelites did before us, where the simple truth of our shared humanity is forgotten. 

With terrifying. And violent consequences.

We live in a world, as the Israelites did before us, where the truth of our shared humanity can be drowned in anxiety and fear.

Here’s the good news.

It didn’t work. Not in the long run.

As the story continues, “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.” And of course we know, that the Israelites were long slaves much longer. God led them out, through the waters of the sea. To freedom.

Even if the power people forgot their humanity. God never forgets. God never saw them as anything but God’s own people. Their cries rose to heaven and God set the path to their freedom before them.

And to walk through this world as people of faith, is to walk through it with confidence that the world is in God’s hands. A God who has never tolerated oppression indefinitely. A God whose heart is inclined to freedom and flourishing.

And we, who are created in God’s image. I believe that we are wired that way too. Inclined toward freedom.

It’s the way we were made, inclined toward love.

I believe that deep down, every single person on this planet has an innate memory of the shared destiny of humanity.

Everyone, was made with that divine impulse etched in their soul. To see the other as our kin. No matter who they are. No matter how many times we have been told otherwise.

We come from one another. We share a destiny together. We belong to one another. We are responsible for one another.

Every human heart is born knowing that.

The problem is that somewhere along the way, something, or someone, persuades us that is not true.

Somewhere along the line. We forget.

But we could. All of us could.

Any one could.

Everyone could.

Reach back. Reach deep.

And Remember.

 

 

 

 

Mistaken for the Gardener

There are a lot of ways that you could paint a picture the resurrection. Perhaps you have seen some of them. The sun rising over a perfectly round stone, rolled to reveal an open, empty, tomb. Light streaming through an open door, revealing a stone slab with burial cloths left strewn.

And the risen Christ. Glowing. Resplendent. A lily white robe, eyes up toward heaven. Flowing brown locks and a smartly trimmed beard. A confident stride, glorious, victorious.

But that’s not quite right is it?

Here’s what happened.

Mary was weeping beside the empty tomb. Weeping because she was certain that grave robbers had come and taken her Lord away. As if it had not been enough that the beat him down, and hung him high. Mocked him and sent his friends scattering. Now they wouldn’t even let him have a decent burial. They came at night and took his body away. She just wanted to know where they put him.

And just then, this stranger walked up and asked her a question with the most obvious answer in the world.

“Why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him.”

Then scripture gives us this wonderful detail. The stranger she was was talking to was Jesus. But she did not realize it. She didn’t recognize him.
She mistook him for the gardener.

How is that possible?

I can only think of one way. He must have looked the part.

His clothes were simple. His body looked weary and worn. And there was dirt underneath his fingernails.

I guess it shouldn’t come as to great a surprise. After all this is the same Jesus who told his friends:

“Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

They didn’t understand then either. They asked, “when did we see you hungry or sick? Or in prison?”

And he told them. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my children you did it to me.”

All along the disciples had thought they were just dealing with ordinary people. The sick and the poor. Huddled, yearning masses. Lepers, sinners… Nothing more.

And Mary thought she was talking to the gardener.

Now, there are plenty of things about Christ that are glorious and resplendent. But even in this story of the resurrection, we are reminded, that his appearance is not one of them. No more often Christ appears in a form we would scarcely recognize as holy. A neighbor in need. A child from another land seeking safety and a home. A man begging. An addict who has exhausted our patience.

It could be more comfortable to imagine the resurrected Christ going to battle on our behalf against all the evils of the world, while we sit and cheer our our guy from the grandstand.

It could be more appealing to imagine the resurrected Christ, clothed in glory. Glowing bright. So different from anything we have ever seen. And high up. Far, far, away…

But thats not quite right, is it?

Mary thought he was the gardener.

So the challenge to us to imagine the resurrected Christ with his feet in the soil of our world, looking like one of us.It’s a challenge because it gives us occasion to wonder, did I see Christ hungry today? Did I see Christ as a stranger and fail to welcome him? Did I mistake him for someone as ordinary as the gardener?

When I was a college student I spent a summer living in Washington DC. One afternoon I was walking through DuPont circle when a homeless man asked me for some change. I ignored him and kept walking.

“Hey!” He yelled. And I turned around startled.

“I asked you a question.”

“Oh,” I stammered out, “Um. I don’t have any cash I am sorry.”

“It’s ok” he replied, taking pity on me. “But you know it’s rude to ignore people who are talking to you.”

I felt so ashamed. And I offered to buy him lunch, which he accepted. And we walked over to Chipotle together to get a couple burritos. We chatted a bit. He asked me about myself, I told him I was hoping to become a minister.

“That’s nice.” He said.

“I got baptized when I was a kid.”

“Stood up in front of the whole church.”

“They said they’d always take care of me…” his voice trailed off.

We didn’t say much to each other after that. What could I say?

There are so many extraordinary things that we learn about God through Christ. We learn that God loved the world so much, that God poured God’s own self out. God came to live among us, as us. We learn that the expansive power of God’s love is so unnerving that the powers of the world preferred to kill him, brutally, rather than reexamine their own lives and reshape their world.

And we learn that even still, the worst the world could do, torture, terror, and execution, was not enough to stop God’s love. Not even death could stop God from loving the world with God’s whole being. And so, having been hung high to die in humiliation, and buried in a borrowed grave.

God got up.

God rose.

God defeated even death, to give us courage in the face of injustice, in the face of war, and suffering. In the face of our failures, our additions, our disappointments, our bruises, wounds, and scars.

Nothing. God said. Nothing. Will stop my love.

Nothing. Not even death.

We also learn this:

Despite all the honor that the one who vanquished death could rightly claim. Despite all the glory we might expect.God comes back to life, the same way God came to the world the first time. In the guise of someone lowly. Someone as ordinary as you and I.

First, the infant of an unwed mother, born in a barn in Bethlehem.

Then, just outside Jerusalem, in the darkness before the dawn, the gardener.

So was that man I met on the DC sidewalk the risen Christ, come to pay me a visit? Perhaps not in the strictest sense. But I will tell you this. He played the part of Christ to me that day. A word of challenge, spoken with care. A brief encounter. And I was never the same.

My minister friends and I have this little thing we do. It started as a joke.

Whenever we are complaining about someone, perhaps, hypothetically, its a frustrating colleague. One person will air all the grievances. And list every complaint. “He never listens to anyone. He is arrogant. His ego is the size of the moon. And he just drives me nuts!” And whenever they stop. Without fail. Someone will say. “And…..”

The appropriate response, usually delivered reluctantly is: “ And he is a beloved child of God, made in God’s own image.”

Made in the image of God. An idea that frustrates every vindictive and spiteful discourse we are tempted to indulge. Made in the image of God. An idea that harkens back to very beginning. When God was making all that is.

That was when God formed the first people. And set them down. Where? In the middle of a garden. And God made those two, and every person since, in God’s own image. From those first gardeners, down to you and me. And the person sitting next to you. And that person you can’t stand. And every one of your enemies. And every single human being you have ever seen. Made to reflect the very image of God.

So maybe, just maybe, in those first moments after he had vanquished death and changed the world forever. Christ chose to wear the image of an ordinary gardener to teach us, to remind us, that we need to learn to see God’s face in the faces of others.

Not just the glorified. Or the well polished and the well-vetted. Not just the familiar. Not just the accomplished. Not just in the people who look like us, or sound like us, or pray like us. We are to see God’s face in Every. Single. Other. Person. On the planet.

Just imagine. Mary. She had known him for years. Spent every day by his side as he taught and healed.  And even so. She mistook him for the gardener.

Just imagine, just imagine, what you or I may have missed.

Fear Not…

“Paul lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” – Acts 28: 30-31

We concluded the opening worship this year at Super Saturday by collecting an offering. Rather than an ordinary offering where we lay down resources for our shared mission, in this offering we invited people to lay down all that hinders them from following Christ’s call to live, minister, preach, teach, and lead boldly.

Once the baskets were passed throughout the auditorium and brought forward, we had collected 563 cards. Cards from ministers and lay people alike, from churches big and small and in between, vital and struggling, from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

That afternoon, in preparation for closing worship I read everyone of them.

The worship team wanted to craft closing worship to respond to the particular things that hindered our people from boldness. We desired to speak straight to the heart of whatever was holding us back.

The confessions on these cards were intimate, and holy. They were vulnerable. They were raw.

And they were consistent.

So much so that the first words we spoke at closing worship were these: “you are not alone.”

61 people had offered to God their self-doubt and uncertainty

64 offered resistance to change or nostalgia about the past

72 offered a desire to avoid conflict

94 offered their sense of scarce resources: time, money, and energy.

101 offered the concern that boldness would cost them relationships with      family and  friends.

Others offered their lack of faith, their ego, life’s distractions, and laziness. We offered our visions that were too narrow, and our isolation and loneliness.

But there is one hinderance that stood out dramatically.

Fear.

The word ‘fear’ appeared on 213 cards. 12 cards contained nothing but this one word.

Once again, we are not alone. As long as we are counting totals, here is one more.

The phrase “Do not be afraid” or “Fear not” appears 103 times in the Bible.

These words are spoken by God to Abraham, Hagar, and Isaac. God says them to Moses and Isaiah proclaims them to “those who have an anxious heart.”

Do not be afraid.

The call comes to Daniel and to all of Israel. An angel says it to Mary. Jesus says it to his disciples.

Do not be afraid.

It’s not that what God is leading us toward is not scary. It is. It is that God yearns for our courage to make God’s love undeniable in the world, to make justice roll down, to make love swell like an ever-flowing stream.

So if you are afraid. You are not alone.

In fact you stand alongside faithful people in all times and all places, who stood right on the cusp of following God with all boldness. And as they looked back at all they would leave behind, and ahead at all that awaited them, the Spirit whispered in their ears, “do not be afraid.”

She’s whispering that to us too.

About that 84 Lumber Ad…

Up until I was in college, I had gone happily along treating the stories of scripture like puzzles. Enigmas with only one possible solution. Figure it out, and you understand the moral. And then you are done.

Imagine my surprise when my professor told us that “all texts have a surplus of meaning.”

He taught us that the act of an individual reading a text is an act that creates meaning through dialogue between the reader’s context and perspective and the author’s ideas. Words on a page, or images on a screen, are at the end of the day just that. Words and images. Meaning only emerges when the text is encountered, by people, by communities, who seek to interpret the text in conversation with their lives.

I have been thinking back to this idea a lot since I first saw 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad depicting the journey of a mother and a daughter seeking to enter the United States and encountering an enormous wall.

My initial reaction to this ad was overwhelmingly positive. I saw it as a striking portrayal of the humanity of two women in an environment where most often immigrants are painted with a broad-brush mean to evoke fear and repulsion. I saw it as a strong rebuke of the idea of a wall, given the juxtaposition between the hope in a young girl’s eyes with the imposing concrete barrier.

It did not occur to me for a split second when I first watched this ad that it was meant to portray the wall in a positive light. I have watched it again and again and I still can’t see it.

And I was not alone in that reading of this commercial. Supporters of Donald Trump’s immigration policies swiftly called for boycotts of 84 Lumber. They certainly did not see it as a celebration of Trump’s vision for the borderlands.

On Monday morning though I read this important piece from Latino Rebels. I recommend you read it too.

It pointed out that the CEO of 84 Lumber, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is a supporter of Trump. She said of her company’s spot, “Even President Trump has said there should be a ‘big beautiful door in the wall so that people can come into this country legally.’ It’s not about the wall. It’s about the door in the wall. If people are willing to work hard and make this country better, that door should be open to them.”

It’s a reminder that all texts —even Super Bowl commercials— have a surplus of meaning and the author’s intention is not the end-all in defining what something means.

The intention of the company in commissioning this advertisement has now been made clear. But I think they failed.

Somewhere along the line, that commercial failed to make it’s intended point to me and everyone I was watching it with (again knowing that my perspective is limited by who I am and what my experiences are). And based on the twitter outrage from the right, it also failed to make its point to its intended allies.

Maybe all the explanations and statements after-the-fact are just cowardice in the face of boycott.

Maybe the sound engineer went rogue and added that desolate wind-sweeping sound when the wall first came into view.

Maybe the actresses playing the mother and daughter resisted the script in the way they played the roles.

Or maybe we just learned that for a huge portion of our country there is simply no way to make a wall look beautiful.

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that if watching that advertisement emboldened your resistance to hate and discrimination. If it reminded you that this debate is, at its foundation, about actual human beings and not stereotypes.

If the sight of that wall made your heart break. Then let that feeling fuel your resistance.

Drop Everything

 

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

This is one of those stories that I never understood.

Two brothers, out a ways in their boat hauling in the days catch, when suddenly this man they have never met before walks up out of the blue and says.

“Follow me. I will make you fish for people.”

And without a moments hesitation, or a single word, they drop what they are doing and follow him.

Other Gospels make the story even more extreme. Simon and Andrew don’t just abandon their nets, they leave their own father stranded out in the boat by himself.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have had a few questions.

“Follow you where?” or “What do you mean, fish for people?”

Or even just, “And you are…?”

But no. The story make the point abundantly clear. Immediately. They left their nets and followed him.

No questions. No hesitation.

A moment that is made all the more striking if you know that in exchange for that choice to follow Christ, both Simon and Andrew would breath their last breath, as Jesus did, on a cross.

They may not have known it then, but they cast their lot in that day with a revolutionary band whose leader, and most of his followers would be executed by the Roman Empire for sedition.

So why did they do it. Even if they didn’t know where it would lead, considering the risk of joining any movement, why did the drop everything immediately, and follow him?

To be sure, it was in part because Christ seemed to glow with a sort of intangible quality of power and trustworthiness. If the accounts in the gospel were to be believed, his very person was mysteriously magnetic.

But there is another reason why they stood up and followed Jesus.

The alternative was intolerable.

And in order to explain to you why, I first have to confess that in preparing for this sermon I actually read an academic journal article entitled ““The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.” Which in it’s abstract, says it will build on the promising research of Oakman and Hanson into the economics of first century Galilean fishing.

Some people have too much time on their hands…

But no, Hanson et. al. should take heart because their research has made it into at least one Sermon.

It turns out that fishing was a particularly difficult way to make a living while Galilee was under Roman occupation. And it all had to do a decree that all the waters of the Empire rightfully belonged to Caesar. Which meant that in order to even go out onto the water to fish, one had to have leased the rights to fish in those waters from the Emperor.

That lease was a sunk cost, but it’s not all. A large hierarchy of client kings and local governors, and other local officials who were, to varying degrees corrupt and enriching themselves off the labor of the poor, also extracted taxes and tolls that could quickly wipe out large portions of a days catch.

And as if to rub salt into the wound, those taxes in large part went to pay the salaries of soldiers who were occupying their land.

This meant your typical Galilean fisherman started each day in a deep whole and worked backbreaking labor in a system that was stacked against him to try to at least break even, with maybe, maybe enough left over to feed himself and a family.

Each day a fresh toil, in the hot son. Dirty work, kind where the smell never quite washes off.

And then one day Jesus walked up and said, “follow me.”

It is an important reminder that from the very beginning, some of the most powerful expressions of faithful living have been made by those who have few other options left.

Those for whom the world as it is has become intolerable.

I think of the many, many, heroes of our faith long ago — and up to this present day— who cry out in the streets, and in halls of power, for peace, for justice, and for love.

A few years ago I visited El Salvador with some friends from Seminary. It was a bit of a study trip, but also something of a pilgrimage, to the chapel where, in  March of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by a rightwing death squad while he was standing in the pulpit preaching.

During our trip, we met in a simple storefront office of an organization called COMADRES, the Mother’s of the Disappeared. COMADRES is a group of about the most fierce and powerful women you will even meet. Women whose sons where kidnapped and likely killed by government forces during El Salvador’s civil war.

Even when the fighting was still fierce, and bombs were falling, these women were out in the streets every day marching with photos of their children and demanding justice.

They all wore black dresses and white handkerchiefs on their heads and held placards and banners bearing photos and names of the disappeared. They carried photos of their sons, and signs that read, “Dónde están” Where are they?

I remember one of us asked a question about where they found the courage. And one of the older women in the circle simply said. Qué más podemos hacer? What else can we do?

The world as it was had become intolerable. And so when those earliest organizers of COMADRES came to each other and said follow me, they dropped everything and went. What else could they do?

The alternative was intolerable.

So perhaps now we better understand why those early fisherman were so ready to walk away.

And I am sure we can understand why those women in El Salvador marched in the street every day.

But most of us live in a relative comfort and safety. Most of our lives are unlikely to become intolerable anytime too soon.

And yet we are follower’s of Jesus who taught us to feel intense solidarity with all people, especially the poor and marginalized. Jesus who said “whatever is done to the last and the least, is done to me.”

That challenge to us is to see that whenever our neighbors are threatened, whenever war is brewing, or hatred is boiling up. Even if we are comfortable, the fact of injustice anywhere must be intolerable.

It must be so intolerable that we will drop what we are doing. And follow Christ. Who calls us to a new way of peace, of justice, and of love. And who calls down a risky road. One that we cannot quite know where it is leading. And one that might cost us something dear.

Wherever there is injustice, wherever their is hatred, wherever there is violence, it must be so intolerable that we will drop everything, to will write in, and speak out, and march. To lift our one small light into the darkness, and join it with so many others to light up the night.

That is what it is to be a disciple. To follow the One who taught us solidarity with the most vulnerable, who taught people to live with a love deeper than they had known was possible, who healed the sick, and fed the hungry, who spoke the hard truth with firm love to the powerful, and  who bore the cost of it all.

That is the one who said to Andrew, and to Simon.
And who says to each of us.

“Follow me.”

 

“He Came Out in Blue Jeans”

In April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Birmingham to prepare for what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had dubbed Project Confrontation, or Project C for short. The hope was that by marching peacefully and facing the predictably brutal law-enforcement response of fire hoses and dogs, King and his allies could draw further attention to the evils of segregation and racism, and increase the pressure on the government to address the crisis.

It was a classic application of the tactic of non-violent disobedience that had been so successful in the Montgomery Bus boycotts. The question now was whether it could be effective in Birmingham, seen by many as the city where segregation and racism were the most firmly entrenched.

When Dr. King came to Birmingham in preparation for these protests, the local authorities announced that they would crack down hard on anyone who protested. They issued an injunction ordering that no-one march, and they raised the cost of bail for those who would be arrested from $200 to $1500.

In remembering that trip, Vincent Harding, a friend of King’s, said that the injunction had a chilling effect on the organizers. And many wanted to call off the actions all together. The leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Harding recalls, were all gathered in a motel room wresting with what to do. And to make matters a bit more complicated, it was only a couple of days before Easter.

Now the thing you have to remember is that most of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Dr. King, were members of the clergy. And most, including Dr. King, were serving in congregations at the time.

And suddenly, in the face of their fear, they started coming up with as many reasons as they could why the protests would not be a good idea. And King’s own father pleaded with him to call of the protests and return home to be with his congregation for Easter morning.

Now, I can tell you that as a minister, it is pretty ingrained in me, that I need to be here on Easter. It’s one of the biggest days of the year.
And King’s father said the same thing. You have to be home at Ebenezer. That is where you belong.

And the story goes that King looked around at the crowd, and told them he needed to pray about it.
And he withdrew into the bedroom.

And when he came out, he was no longer wearing the trademark black suit and tie of a pastor who would be headed to a beautifully decorated sanctuary for Easter morning.

He came out wearing blue jeans. Which he only ever wore, when he knew he was going to jail.

A few thousand years earlier a man named Jesus walked out into the wilderness to meet a eccentric and controversial teacher named John, who ate bugs, and clothes himself in camels hair.

John spent his days calling on his people to repent, to change their ways. And he would plunge them beneath the murky waters of the Jordon as a sign that what was old in them had truly passed away, and they had taken on new life.

And so Jesus went out to see this man, to receive this sign of baptism. And as Jesus’ body was plunged beneath the murky waters of that river, the heavens tore open, and when Christ’s face was lifted from those waters a voice from heaven called him beloved.

This baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It was the moment that he went from being an unknown man from Galilee, to being the teacher, the healer, the miracle-worker, the savior.

And so we have carried forward this practice, this baptism.

Of course, I opt for the robe and stole rather than the camel hair tunic. And we have gone with this simple font, since the nearest river is a bit up the road.

But what we do here is the same thing that John did for Christ, and that generations of Christians have come to the edge of these waters to do.

We wash away all that is old, and we take on a new life with Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says it this way: “As you were baptized into Christ, you have clothed yourself with Christ.” You have clothed yourselves with Christ.
I love that image. Clothed with Christ. Clothed with Christ.

By the way, Dr. King did indeed go to jail that night.

Almost the moment he walked out onto the streets in his blue jeans he was picked up and hauled away. Thrown into a Birmingham Jail.

It was a janitor in the jail who smuggled him scraps of paper so that he could write. His now famous letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he penned these lines that echo across the decades since that time:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I tell families when I meet with them about a baptism that I do not believe baptism suddenly changes anything about their child. I believe that it is our opportunity to celebrate what is already true, that God has always loved them and will always love them, no matter what.

Baptism doesn’t change that basic truth of who we are, under it all, God’s beloved.

And yet. The baptismal vows that we affirm as adult members of this church do mean something. It is not so much about changing who we are deep down, but about how we choose to clothe ourselves. We clothe ourselves with Christ.

And it is choice that we make not just once, but a chose we make a thousand times every day. To walk around clothed with Christ, means that in the way that we treat one another, care for the sick and the poor, and advocate with the oppressed, we are choosing to bear God’s image into the world just by the way we are.

Being a follower of Christ is not like carrying around a membership card that we simply pull out when we want to claim the privileges.

Being a following of Christ means clothing ourselves in Christ, making a choice, for all the world to see, each and every day to live the way that Christ called us to live, even when it is hard, even when it costs us.

And sometimes that means putting on our Sunday best and coming into a beautiful sanctuary to sing God’s praises.

Sometimes it means tying on an apron, to cook a meal. Or putting on a pair of worn-out boots for a hard day of work.

And yes sometimes it means putting on a pair of blue jeans to confront the injustice of the world head on, no matter the consequences.

So here is my challenge to you. Tomorrow morning when you get up, and the day after, and the day after that…

After you have picked out a top, or a tie, and shoes to match.

Ask yourself this.

How could I clothe myself with Christ today? 
What do I need to put on. Or take on. In order to bear the truth of God’s love into the world today, just by the way that I am.

How can I live this day such that God’s power and love are undeniable?

I have no way to know the what King prayed alone in that motel room.
But I can imagine him on his knees asking God, “what do you need me to do here, so that the truth of your love and power are undeniable to all. What do you need me to do, so that your people can be free.”

“What do I need to put on. Or take on. In order to bear the truth of God’s love into the world today, just by the way that I am?”

And that time, God said:

“Martin, Blue Jeans.”