Sunday, April 10, 2016
Sermon by Katie Mulliganpreached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Trenton
Scripture Reading: John 21:1-19
I’ve been stuck all week on this one line from the passage. When John, the Beloved Disciple, realizes that the strange man walking on the beach is Jesus, he calls out, “It is the Lord!” and, “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.”
I’m so puzzled by this! Why did he put his clothes on and THEN jump in the water? Why did he put clothes on at all? Was Jesus never naked? Did Peter have an unfortunate habit of running around naked, and one day the Lord said, “For Christ’s sake, Peter! Put some clothes on!” I’m so amused by this little sideline that I almost can’t read the rest of the passage.
|Hairless cats are supposedly very sweet.|
First, I live next door to a church. It is a square house, and the windows on two sides face the church. The third side looks straight into my neighbor’s windows across the street. The fourth side opens to the busiest street in Lawrenceville. The impossibility of this arrangement means that after 4 years of living in that house, I have flashed an extraordinary number of people, just walking from the shower to my bedroom. The pastor warned me, when I moved into that house, that privacy would be challenging while living there. How right she has been!
Years ago I took a summer daycamp in California on a field trip out of town. We had a school bus full of 72 children, and when we arrived at our destination we discovered that the city had locked the bathrooms at the public park. On the way home we needed to make an extra stop, so we pulled over at a public beach. What the signs failed to mention is that if, at the bottom of the cliff, one turns to the right, one will find an unofficial nude beach. As we climbed down the stairs, the 4th graders went running off ahead towards
the people in the distance. As they approached, you could see the group slow down, stop, stare, and then turn around to run back, screaming, “KATIE!!! THERE’S NAAAAAKED PEOPLE!!!!” That day, as parents picked up from camp, I had to explain to every parent that I had taken their child to the nude beach. It was a lesson in planning. And a lesson in grace. Most of the parents thought it was funny. I was young and terrified for my job. My boss, however, was not interested in replacing me in the middle of summer. We survived the naked people.
Once, when I was pregnant with my first child, I went to the doctor for a routine visit. I suppose it was routine for the doctor. For me, pregnancy was astonishing and strange and confusing. The nurse asked if I was experiencing any unusual pain, and of course, being 5 months pregnant, I surely was. So she gave me a gown and said the doctor would want to examine me. I undressed and put on that dreadful gown. When the doctor came in, she was startled to see me naked and said, “Why are you undressed???” As if I had taken the initiative to appear naked before her. I can still remember the rush of blood to my face as my entire being burned with embarrassment.
Oh nakedness!! Oh dreadful nudity!
My children both came to work with me until they went to school. I nursed them both wherever I happened to be. I remember one staff meeting with my boss and a colleague, both men. I was wearing a top with a zipper. Baby was hungry, I covered appropriately with a blanket, unzipped, fed the baby. And when he was done, I attempted to put myself back together, but the zipper got stuck. Finally, after a ridiculous amount of struggling like a pig stuck in a sack, I handed the baby to one of the startled men, stood up, and fixed the zipper. But not before everyone got an eyeful of nursing mother breast.
We all paused a moment. My boss handed me back the baby. We moved on. What does one say after one has flashed one’s boss anyway?
May I go on?
I remember a very long time ago, when I was 8. I had gone to girl scout camp for a few weeks in the mountains. We headed to the pool, all 50 of us or so. The dressing rooms were crowded, and there was a long line. It was just all girls, and I was young. I didn’t think about it, I just started changing right there out in the woods by the pool, in front of all 50 girls.
I mean, I would have been changing in front of many of those girls in the dressing room anyway, but THIS WAS NOT THE THING TO DO, it seemed. And as all 50 pairs of girl eyes turned toward my partially naked body, it seemed that time slowed, and every finger pointed, every mouth laughed, and I was caught with no shirt and no place to go and nothing to do but finish changing. I have never forgotten that moment.
Perhaps this is what Peter’s nudity and rush to get dressed is about. Perhaps in this moment, after the death of his beloved teacher, perhaps he is caught in a naked moment of quiet, of shame, of inadequacy. As he sees one more time this man he thought was gone, Peter cannot face him without clothes, and without thinking it through gets dressed, jumps in the water, wades to shore.
Instead of naked in the boat, Peter faces Jesus a soggy mess of a man, anxious to please, uneasy with himself, useless as his friends bring in the boat behind him, presumably still naked, or at least comfortable in their skin.
Oh, Peter, how I know you.
What do you wear to a fish fry? I recently had this dilemma. A friend invited me to go dancing at a club. I have not been dancing at a club in a very long time—two decades or more, perhaps. And there are those of you wondering, “Well what have you been doing with your time, then?” And oh, I am a book person, and a parent, and and and—well I have a lot of excuses as to why I have avoided the intimacy and vulnerability of dancing in a club. But now, here I was going to go, and WHAT DOES ONE WEAR TO GO DANCING IN A CLUB? It turns out that one wears what one has. It’s not a big deal. But the question occupied my mind for the greater part of a week. What does one wear to a fish fry with Jesus? Most likely I’d end up in the same clothes I danced in, but Oh, Peter, how I know you.
What does it mean to be naked before another? Unclothed, unarmed, unguarded? What does it mean to be naked before God? When is the last time you were naked before anyone, even yourself? How have we become so disconnected to our bodies, to our communities, that even to view a bit of nudity brings shame upon us all?
I am not advocating that we shed all clothing and wander about New Jersey naked. It’s too cold for that here anyway. But I wonder, what are we hiding with our clothes? What other ways do we hide? How distracted are we by the question of nudity and vulnerability and clothing and surface things that we cannot even hear the rest of this scripture passage?
How focused are we on proper attire and proper language and proper movements and decency and order that we cannot make room for the Spirit to move? How are we strangling ourselves with our dis-ease, with our unwillingness to be naked before each other and God?
I’ve been thinking about bodies in community these last few weeks. I’ve been thinking about bodies and violence in community these last few weeks. Just this last week alone there were 7? 8? shootings. A man died on Friday, Elliot Simon—they called him “June”. It was the day after his 52nd birthday. His wife’s daughter, Tierra Green, killed by gunfire a few years ago, his wife Tia died soon after, heartbroken. Now he’s gone too, and the community suffers. 7 or so others shot and injured in our city—just cuz you don’t die doesn’t mean no tragedy—it’s not a small thing to recover from a gunshot wound! Early Saturday morning a man in New Brunswick, Diahlo Grant, was killed by police. Bodies in our communities are vulnerable, especially black bodies. This is a tough place to be naked and vulnerable. Our children are growing up in that space—a place where it is not just shameful to be naked, but dangerous too. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few weeks. Not that we need to have naked church or naked youth group. No! I like to keep my job, thank you. But just this: if the community around us feels dangerous, how do we create safe space within our private spaces without shutting everyone else out. Is this even possible to do? How do we be vulnerable with one another—enough to share who we are—enough to eat together at the same table—enough to share what we have with generosity and reciprocity. How do we stay connected, when the instinct is to curl inward and shut out the world? I have felt that instinct lately. The desire to shut down my social media. To turn off my phone. To go into my house and lock the door. To curl into my bed with my cats. To not speak to others because it is all too much.
And if the Lord suddenly appeared, and I was naked? WHAT DO I HAVE TO WEAR? You can LOCK your door, and the Lord will still appear. You can shut down your social media, turn your phone on airplane mode, and the Holy Spirit will still have its way with you.
And yet, we cannot shut each other out either, can we? I have tried. But even in the silence, the stillness, we can FEEL one another. I remember reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit in seminary—this short bit about 3 people stuck together in the afterlife for all eternity. At first it’s nice to have company, but after a while they get annoyed with each other. More time passes and more annoying the companions until finally Garcin says:
You’re crazy, both of you. Don’t you see where this is leading us? For pity’s sake, keep your mouths shut. Now let’s all sit down again quite quietly; we’ll look at the floor and each must try to forget the others are there.
They try it for a bit, and then Inez can’t stand it any longer and bursts out:
To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there. Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I’m certain you hear mine.
If we cannot get away from God and we cannot escape other people, then nudity and vulnerability is inevitable. I suppose then that what we are left with is the ordinary, everyday work that is right in front of us—like the other disciples who didn’t bother to find clothes. They just went about their business, bringing in the boat. If we can get past the nudity in this passage—if for a moment I can let go of why Peter needed clothes, why he jumped in the water, why he is such a MESS, then what is left here is Christ’s call to the ordinary, everyday work of feeding others. The ordinary, everyday work of loving others. The ordinary, everyday work of being in community with others.
You know, I heard a few years back about a nude beach in New Jersey—a legal nude beach. When I read about it, I knew I had to go. I instantly flashed back to that 8 year old moment, where my body burned with shame, and I knew I had to go be where nobody points and laughs at naked people. I had to go for that 8 year old girl. I had to go for the 43 year old woman. And what I found there was so…ordinary, everyday. People playing volleyball, sitting in the sun, swimming, eating, talking, playing…naked. Just ordinary, everyday, naked. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or not wearing, we just gotta bring in the boat.
My mentor, a very old friend now, he met me when I was 13 years old. I’ve known him now 31 years—most of my life, really. We met at youth group, where he was the pastor. We weren’t a church family, and I had only come a couple of times with a friend. But he had offered to all of us that if we needed to talk he was in his office after school. So when I decided to tell my parents about a relative who had been abusing me, I went and stood in his doorway. I said I was going to tell my parents what was happening. I said it was going to be awful. I said everything was falling apart. And Terry offered me some cheezits and asked me to sit down. I poured out my story, and he stood by me for the rest. But, you know, he doesn’t much remember those things. He barely remembers the conversations that meant so much to me. What he remembers is that he simply does the ordinary, everyday work of being in community with others. It is just that when a child comes to you in distress, you feed them and stand by them, that’s what we’re supposed to do. And he trusts that in the end that work will be right and good and that it will feed people.
Vijay Prashad spoke at a conference I attended once. Afterwards a young woman came up to him and asked how she could be part of changing the world. She was eager, but unsure where to start. He said, “Find some work in front of you and do it. And enjoy the work—you are allowed to enjoy the work.” Do the work. Feed the sheep. Bring in the boat. Don’t worry about what you’re wearing or not wearing, just do the work.
Be at ease with yourself. Know you are called and loved by Christ. Do the ordinary everyday things. Do the small things for justice.
We do not have time for our dis-ease, our discomfort. Whatever your grief, sorrow, rage, frustration, shame, shyness—WE NEED YOU. We gotta get the boat to shore and worrying about nakedness isn’t helping. Be at ease. Do the work.
Do you love me more than these? (and here I don’t know if he means more than the fish, the other disciples, or his soggy wet clothes)
Then feed my lambs. (in the bar, the club, wherever)
Do you love me?
Tend my sheep (whichever sheep you are with)
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep (naked in the bedroom, on the beach, in the church, out of the church)
(For the sermon, I inserted a quote from Marcella Althaus-Reid’s The Queer God. It has relevance to me, but it was probably unnecessary to the sermon. The book was instrumental to my understanding of both queerness and theology, and I recommend it to those of you with a stomach for scandalous and challenging readings. The quote can be found here.)