Nudity and Worship

Matthew 25: 31 – 46

July 22, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Our text today is one of the most clear in the synoptic gospels. Jesus has an animosity here, towards goats, and affection for sheep. He prefers those who do see him to those who don’t see him, with great vigor. He makes it clear to those who don’t understand how to see that we see Jesus in the injured. We see Jesus in injury. Injury is a six-headed beast here, including hunger, thirst, nakedness, prison, being a stranger and sickness. If you see someone with one of these injuries, says Jesus, you see me. If you see someone with one of these injuries, and choose not to see them, you miss me as well.

You may get sick. Jesus is there. You may find yourself hungry. Jesus is there. You may find yourself thirsty. Jesus is a cup of water. You may find yourself all locked up or all twisted up, in a place from which there is no exit. Jesus is an open door. You may find yourself a stranger in a strange land, even while living in Brooklyn. Jesus is there. And finally you may find yourself exposed, naked, without the right shoes to wear to the wedding. Jesus is also there.

I love the Manhattan Mini-Storage ad that says, “New Yorkers will tolerate your beliefs but not those shoes.” You may not find yourself naked, but you may find yourself wearing the wrong thing. I had at least 10 calls about what to wear to Michael and Alana’s wedding. People want to look good. The devil does wear Prada. Never forget it.

For my purposes today, let me simply argue this basic theology and nugget. We find Jesus in injury and in the injured. We don’t find Jesus in the easy stuff, we find him in and through the hard stuff. The gospel is the permission and the commandment to enter difficulty with hope. We enter our injury with hope. We don’t imagine we will always be just the way we are now. We are not afraid of injury. Instead, we are afraid of not seeing love and transformation in injury and through injury. We are afraid of getting stuck.

Today I want to talk specifically about nakedness and worship. I also want to talk about seeing Jesus and how seeing Jesus is the purpose of worship. Galway Kinnel says that our first task is to astonish, and then, harder, to try to be astonished. That is what worship is: it is the astonishment that we won’t always be hungry or thirsty or locked up. First comes the pain, and through it, as Whitman argued, finally comes the poet. Pain is normal. Pain is life. Trouble is tyrannical – and everybody has a little of it and some have a lot of it. Jesus comes in the normal. Jesus is the refusal to stop the ache and instead the permission to enter the ache. Jesus is the daring speech that we can see through and beyond injury, our own and that of the world. Morning by morning, new mercies we see. Normal is not just a setting on the dryer, as many of us imagine. Instead, normal is misery, followed by mercy. That is the Jesus message, one version of which we receive here. There are so many pressures to quiet and tame and domesticize the text of Jesus, as if it was about the after world, or the next world, as if gunmen didn’t shoot up movie theaters at midnight or global warming was some kind of fiction, now that the weather is nice again for a few days. Here, we try to make sure we don’t domesticize the seeing of Jesus. Here we don’t try to tame it. Every now and then, in worship or on the street or with each other, we dare another language to say what we know about Jesus. On Easter last year, we did that, with a dancer, who performed naked, and who was part of our Easter Celebration. That dancer, Lawrence Graham Brown, is with us today. There will be a talk back following the service. My apologies in advance to those of you who weren’t with us. May the story about seeing Jesus in injury – and Jesus calling you a goat if you refuse to see – be your take away today.

So let me say a few things about Easter, which is by the way exactly what I have been talking about in the previous paragraphs. Jesus is also present in death and resurrection, not just injury.

When we invited Lawrence Graham Brown to be part of our Easter Celebration this year, on April 8, we did so for five interrelated reasons. We had seen him perform a long group dance piece called “Sacred Space,” which involved a Eucharist within itself, and the Judsonites who saw it were profoundly moved by it. The show, sponsored by the Gay Men of Color Alliance, took our breath away. Then, and second, as part of this particular year’s Easter momentum, we had studied the 350 questions that Jesus asked, according to the Synoptic gospels and discovered, to our surprise, that about 20 per cent of them were about clothing, nudity, nakedness, being stripped down. “Why do you worry so much about what you will wear?” The body is more than food and raiment,” And more. Third, in studying the three primary accounts of the resurrection, we noted that one involved Jesus being stripped of his clothing, right before he was murdered. Fourth, we had a liturgical goal: it was to surprise people with a resurrected Jesus they thought they knew. Thus, Lawrence asked the “big” question, after his dance: “Have I been among you this long and you did not know me?” Some say he asked it too loudly, and surely that concern is the reason for this Easter Repeat. Fifth, and finally, we knew Lawrence would cause a stir. We believe in the stir. (In the web version of this sermon, I will attach the history of nudity in worship at Judson and in the arts, just so you can re enjoy the controversies.)

I’d like to refocus on the question Jesus asked and Lawrence spoke out loud on Easter, in light of this text for today. “Have I been among you this long and you did not know me?” Has there been hunger and thirst and sickness and nakedness and imprisonment this long and you did not see it? Have you been fighting strangers off your land this long and not seen me there, in them? Do I have to take off my clothes so you will see me?” The Jesus you thought you knew would not ask such questions with anger, right? He would not be a man of color, asking a loud question, right? Right. I think you begin to see why I wanted to address you about Easter, Jesus, worship and nudity, again. We need to stir ourselves to see Jesus, to stir ourselves beyond our sheep side, the side that knows Jesus is with us, and worry a little more about our goat side, the side that knows we may be missing the big story and living with injury, unnecessarily. That ongoing injury may even be self-imposed. Our refusal to see Jesus may be the reason we have been banned. “Come, ye blessed of my Father, and inherit the kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” That’s how the King James puts it. Come, inherit, ye blessed of my parents, come inherit the time of God and grace, which is yours now, is how I would put it. March through injury, squeak through injury, pass through it, and come to Jesus and his love. If you can’t come to Jesus, at least come to love. Don’t get stuck in injury, the address where most of us live most of the time. Don’t get stuck in misery. Morning by morning, new mercies you may see.

Back to Easter. The overwhelming response to Lawrence’s performance on Easter Sunday was positive. I wanted to do this service “over” because – in addition to the many emails, letters’ cards, comments – that said how moved people were by Lawrence’s dance and lack of costume (although nudity is a costume, right?), there were four comments that were so astute that I thought they deserved comment. I am someone who values criticism. I think the only way we learn is to hear about our edges and to tell each other about our edges. The great majority may have seen a Jesus they never knew, which was our objective. Those who were blocked in their worship by nudity, or its fragility, or by Lawrence are equally important, no matter their minority status. I hope I am also demonstrating a way to follow Jesus here. One sheep is gone, Jesus chases it. Plus, I was terribly moved personally at how troubled those who were troubled were. It was an honor for people to talk to me about what happened to them, and I want to thank the for their direct, personal outloud complaints about being blocked in their own Easter worship. My favorite short theological piece is from Bev Harrison, who turned 80 this week. It is called the “Power of Love in the work of anger.” It reminds us that what we really need to fear is indifference, not anger. I also know the best way to prove the gospel is to enter difficulty, with hope and love.

I will now summarize the sometimes angry, often confused comments. The first comment was this: “I needed to be warned. I have been in the presence of uninvited nudity before and it scared me then and it scared me on Easter.” Sexual abuse, non-consenting intimacy of a physical nature are real problems. They are real problems with nude dancers, in worship and beyond. They constitute an invitation to injury, not to Jesus. A Second Concern well stated by more than one person: I didn’t like how loud he was and how angry he was when he did use words, “Have I been among you this long and you have not seen me?” Anger is an issue. People were scared. Third, the observation that a black man was dancing in a mostly white congregation, some felt, exoticized him. Again, an important issue. Finally, “it didn’t seem appropriate on Easter.” These four remarks were strongly held and well voiced minority concerns – and each seemed so important to me that I decided to return to them, notice them, preach about them – and to use them as a doorway to what worship is. Were we to involve nude dance again in worship, my learning is we need triple the contextualization and triple the announcements and early “warnings.”

Again, you probably came for the nudity, but I hope you will leave knowing something about worship. Worship is the experience of a part of the Jesus story, the Jesus we can never fully know or understand, just like we can never fully know or understand injury or death, liberation or resurrection. Worship is about God, about the beyond, about the great mystery in which we are held. It is the place people in Aurora have been driven to, even though all they really wanted was a batman movie. Worship is about astonishment, as Galway Kimmel puts it in his remarkable poem. Yes, we are to be astonished, but more we are to guard a place in ourselves that can be astonished. Astonished is a better word than its newly overused friend, Awesome. It is the place deeper, wider, more real than reality. As Rollo May puts it, “Neurotics and artists consciously live out emerging trends that others keep unconscious.” Dancers take us to a Jesus we can barely see.

Daily we live in a world that is rigged against our better selves. We have future fatigue. We know that we counted on that GPS, Global positioning system, and that it got us lost. Then we get mad that we counted on it. Worship is a different kind of global positioning system, one that uses sacred texts and music and art and dance and partitioned off sacred space to bring us to something we can count on, even if it is only the experience of that hour as a pedicab to the divine. Nudity can either be a vehicle or it can get in the way. By itself it is nothing. Through its expression it is something. Because we were trying to show you a Jesus you might not know at Easter, the one who kept asking us why we care about what we put on, about clothing or raiment, the one who doesn’t go away when we are naked before each other, or ourselves because of that, we used a certain kind of art and artist.

So let’s finish with worship, acknowledging the very real difficulties some had with this particular vehicle of Lawrence’s dance, and figure out more about astonishment.
Here at Judson over the years, we have experienced many astonishing things. During Occupy we experienced the stirrings of deep humanity across the globe and in our own neighborhood. A golden calf marched through the streets, assisting us to be astonished at old stories and new meanings. We often sing “Blood songs” at our annual retreats as a way to worship in an astonishing key. The Agape meal itself is meant to surprise people, at table, in an early Christian way. One Christmas, one of our members climbed on to our steep roof (totally verboten and do not tell the insurance company). From there he strung 1,865 red Chile pepper lights down the front of the building, so that they faced the Greenwich Village Washington Square Arch. As seen from the Arch, they constituted the Virgin Mary’s cleavage. Gently gathered, one string of lights slightly crossed the other, right in the place we name as cleavage but also might be called the cleft of a breast. I was not informed of this artistic adventure until greeted by a bill for $586.00, which had, handwritten on it “Christmas lights.” I didn’t see the exhibit until I was walking across the park, with a little snow flying. I looked up only to realize that there was a two story light exhibit on the front of the church. There was no doubt that it was a woman’s breasts. It didn’t occur me till later that the artist was suggesting Mary, the mother of Jesus. I asked him if I was right about that, and he just smiled and said Merry Christmas. It was the softest and loudest suggestion of the Virgin I have ever imagined. Finally comes the poet to teach us how to see.

The partner of the same artist – who died a sudden death at 56 of a massive stroke the following year – has continuing to string the red Chile pepper lights around the sanctuary each Christmas. Last Christmas he added a centralizing Advent wreath, using the four pillars in our meeting room as candles. The children lit pillars and not just candles, in his incredible evocation of light and fire. The wreath in the center of the sanctuary, which we set up in the round, just so we could be INSIDE the wreath, was lit as well.

People have many different ways of using worship to astonish, rather than to dull. I remember having communion with the first 11 women ordained irregularly in the Episcopal Church. We put the best linens, the most embroidered cloths on the table. And then when the 11 practiced their first mass, they spilled wine all over the table. Not exactly nudity in worship, but a kind of astonishment. Every Sunday at Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, the priest does something to bother people while doing the mass. He wants to make sure they are bothered and broken before they are comforted and solaced. Why? To show them a Jesus, capable of anger and disappointment. Once, during the Installation of the new Roman Catholic bishop of Western Massachusetts, I was an invited guest, representing the United Church of Christ. This same bishop 7 years after his installation was dismissed for something now way too familiar and normal to us. Anyway, we Protestant officials were in the front row but were told we couldn’t take the mass. Guards were posted. We climbed over and out when they weren’t looking, got in line, received the bread and wine. It was very important to me and meant a lot more than the usual take this bread, drink this cup business. I have added an acknowledgment of the original land users to our worship here. Why? Because when it was done in South Australia by people who are constantly aware of their broken relationship to land and aboriginal, so much so that they put up two flags on Victoria Square, I had a way of understanding a brokenness yielding a wholeness. When Bishop George Packer jumped the fence at Trinity this Advent, I realized something more important was happening than the candles being lit. When we moved a cross in and out of the temple at Temple Israel in Miami, on Good Friday and the first night of Passover, it mattered a lot to me. Why? We wanted to make sure that a certain movie about Jesus that was coming out that day did not represent all Christians. There was something that was more than real going on. That is what worship does, it moves us to the more than real. Worship deeply engages the usual. Does all worship need to be spectacular? No, in fact, one of the ways we see Jesus is to be very quiet, and very normal, almost pedestrian. Do we always have to stir? No, but sometimes we do. And we always need to hold open the possibility that this will be the day that Jesus love will break your heart so wide open that injury, and death, are each and both overcome. Amen.

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