Today we continue our study of Matthew 25 by focusing on clothing the naked. But while making sure that everyone has enough to wear is an important call for all of us, today I actually want to focus on this at a metaphoric level. While I believe that Jesus meant these passages to be very literal, the gift in Jesus’ words and I think in all of scripture, is that there are always multiple levels of meaning and of value to us. Since clothing people is generally not as big an issue in the United States (as we know our thrift stores tend to be overrun with donations of clothing and if you are like me, you clean out your closets of unused clothing or clothing that kids and ourselves outgrow on a regular basis), I want to focus on the other levels of clothing the naked.
Looking on someone’s nakedness is generally considered wrong. This was even more true in biblical times. As we read in the passage from Genesis, even when it involved an adult man seeing his father naked, this was a wrong that could lead to a complete change in one’s rank within the community and even within one’s family, apparently for generations.
But we do this – this looking on the naked, in more than just physical ways. For example, when someone is “exposed” – when a piece of a person’s private life, is thrown onto the TV screen through news stories, we tend not only to want to see, but to STARE. We are curious. We rubberneck on freeways when there has been an accident, we watch the news avidly when someone’s tragedy is aired, we talk and chitchat with others about the scandals we’ve heard about. We look on the nakedness of those who are suffering and exposed in our communities on a regular basis, and usually we have very little shame in doing so.
The result of this? Well, we are given a small glimpse of the results of that in today’s first gospel lesson: We have a woman who is “naked” in her community. She has had five husbands and now is living with a man who is not her husband. We don’t know the why’s of this. We don’t know the reasons behind this. We don’t know what has led her to this place or what has happened to her husbands, or why she is with the person she is with now. But we know it is easy to condemn her even today. And we know that she was severely condemned then by her community. We know that in the middle of the desert she is choosing the hottest, most horrible and inappropriate time of day to come to the well. And we know that the only reason why she would have done this was to avoid other people in her community. The reason to avoid other people in her community is because she has been condemned, alienated, estranged by those others and left to come to the well at this, the only time she can. She is naked in her community – stripped of her dignity, her respect, her place among her people. Despite this, despite the shame she experiences probably daily, when she speaks with Jesus, she still chooses to be transparent, to be open and honest when Jesus asks her to bring her husband. And that, I think, is a great part of why he chooses to stay in conversation with her at that time and to offer her water and life. She stands naked in her community, and what he is really offering her is the clothing of a new life.
For us, offering the exposed, the naked, the vulnerable in our communities “clothing” is not always easy and the way in which we can do that is not always clear. I encourage you to think about what that might look like in this place and time.
There is an organization called BACA – Bikers against Child Abuse. This is a group of self-identified “scary”, rough bikers whose goal is to protect, support and care for children who have suffered abuse. A news story a few years back told about one specific girl who was sexually abused by her step-father. She was so terrified by this man and by her experiences that she could not sleep at night, was scared all the time and was falling apart. BACA began to escort her to school, they went to court with her and literally stood around her as she testified against her step dad. They stayed outside her house all night in a circle, on their bikes, so she could sleep at night. That is a profound example of clothing the naked – helping them to find and wear strength once again, to wear a sense of pride and acceptance for who they are. This is an example of protecting those who have been stripped, completely, of dignity, pride, and a sense of self, and helping them to find those again.
Another group of bikers, the Patriot Guard Riders forms an honor guard at military burials, helps protect mourners from harassment and fills out the ranks at burials of indigent and homeless veterans. In addition to attending funerals, the group also greets troops returning from overseas at homecoming celebrations and performs volunteer work for veteran's organizations such as Veterans Homes. They, too, stand with those who have been stripped by mourning and grief, who stand naked in their feelings, trying to honor them while others would expose them and take away their pride, their experiences and their opportunities for transitions such as memorials and returning into the community.
Recently a new movement has also started in the United States to help heal the raw naked feelings of those soldiers who are returning after serving from war. Our soldiers often return hurting, injured in feeling if not in body. A program called Warrior’s Journey Home uses the principles of Native Americans welcoming back their fighters. In Native American cultures, the fighters are sent to the perimeters to protect the tribe and when they come back, they are put in the center of the circle and promised the protection of the tribe from their naked, raw feelings in exchange. We are beginning to do a similar thing here in the U.S., intentionally inviting our returning soldiers into circles of love and care where they are reassured that it is now our time to heal them, care for them, and offer them protection from their memories, from their “nakedness”, from the experiences which now haunt them. The movement has an amazing success rate in beginning and encouraging the healing from PTSD. I was able to be part of such a group, as a support person, at my last congregation, and found it to be an amazing tool of healing and empowerment for those suffering from their own experiences in war. It is a way of clothing the vulnerable and naked who have had raw experiences which leave them in a feeling of fear and exposure.
These are three ways that people clothe those who are “naked” in their feelings, and in their experiences, who are raw to what the world has thrown them and exposed as a result.
But you will notice that none of these groups are church groups. None of the programs I’ve mentioned stem from religious communities. The commentary, “Feasting on the Word” has this to say about Matthew 25: “(Matthew 25 makes several very radical statements. One) is about the practice of religion. You cannot read the paper and not be concerned about the role religion plays in the world. Terrible atrocities are committed by people shouting, ‘God is great.’ Religious officials hide clergy abuse, deny sacraments to those with whom they disagree. Religious leaders condemn each other, excommunicate each other, invest inordinate amounts of energy and resources fighting one another over who gets in and who is kept out, over whose doctrinal formulas are true and whose are false—over a whole laundry list of issues about which Jesus had absolutely nothing to say. He did, however, say this: ‘When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ Students of the New Testament know that the only description of the last judgment is in Matthew 25. There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and that it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 - Reign of Christ).)
What that says to me is that in some places at least, church is a place where we have one of the hardest times accepting the naked or vulnerable. We hide behind our theologies and our creeds, arguing with each other, excluding each other, and being least authentic with each other. We are so uneasy with the vulnerable that we not only fail to protect those who are, but we also fail to be vulnerable ourselves.
James Angell in his book, Yes is a world wrote, “Church ought to be a set of moments when we become most expansively, openly and honestly ourselves. Yet it is in the church where we often find it hardest to be ourselves: where we are often the most guarded, the most paranoid, the most unsure of being accepted and understood.” It is in part for this reason, too, that clergy children have one of the highest rates of suicide and other emotional issues. As Religion News Service says, “Beneath the stereotypes of preacher’s kids as either goody two-shoes or devilish hellions lies a tense and sometimes taxing reality, the children of clergy say. Studies show that many PK’s, as the lingo goes, struggle with issues of identity, privacy and morality.” Rick Warren is the author of “purpose driven Life” and “purpose driven Church”, pastor of the Mega church Saddleback in Southern CA. His 27 year old son committed suicide a few years ago. Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, said he identifies with Matthew Warren as a fellow PK and as someone who has also suffered from depression. “It’s especially hard because his dad wrote the book `The Purpose Driven Life,’ which has this incredibly optimistic tone,” Bakker said. “My parents wrote the same kind of books, and it was like, `Things are good for everyone else. What’s wrong with me?’ I can’t imagine the pressure he must have felt.”
My own son’s counselor when I was in Ohio said to me numerous times that the best thing I might do for my son would be to leave serving the church as a career, where everything he did and every response I made in caring for him was evaluated by 80-100 eyes. While I don’t find that same kind of critical looking here, I am aware that he has chosen to stay quiet and unobserved in the back most of the time he is at church. He protects himself by being invisible inside these walls.
We all know each other’s business and mine has been completely transparent for the last 6 years or so. We are all, in a sense, naked in front of each other. How do we clothe each other, then, with care, with grace, with faith, and most especially with love? How do we walk that path?
First of all, we intentionally do not choose to stare at someone’s humiliation and shame. That means we stay away from gossiping about what other people go through, we avoid focusing on other’s tragedies from a place of curiosity. It also means standing WITH those who are exposed. Being human clothing for others as we protect them from other staring eyes. We walk all of this with intention. We intentionally invite and welcome in those who are struggling. We intentionally invite and welcome in those who are in pain. And we do do this. Through housing our recovery groups, through opportunities like the grief group that we offered for awhile, through other small group opportunities like the women’s Tuesday afternoon group, the quilting group, the men’s group, we do get to know each other, support each other and love each other. But again, we are also called to do it for the “least of these”, which begins with keeping our eyes open to see God’s face in each and every person we meet.
The Good News is that we can trust that, just as with the woman at the well, when we find ourselves “naked” and exposed, Jesus will come to us and clothe us as well. Jesus sought out those most “exposed”, most naked in their communities because of their shame (like the woman today as well as the woman caught in adultery and the tax collectors and prostitutes), or because of their condition (the blind man, the deaf man, those with leprosy, the bleeding woman). Whatever it is that leaves us exposed, Jesus seeks us out to clothe us with righteousness. That is what God does – God finds us when we are in our most vulnerable, rejected states and God clothes us with love, with faith, with hope when we are most hurting, most exposed. We can count on that Good News. Today and every day.