I Shall Wear Purple (based on sermon by Deborah Laing in Courage for Hallelujahs)

February 14, 2016

You’ll note the colours of the banners and hangings in our church this morning – gone is the green of ordinary time, and we’ve moved into the purple of Lent. Why purple, you might wonder? Originally, purple was the colour for Lent because it represented royalty. Purple dye was extremely expensive in Jesus’ time, so only the very wealthy wore purple clothing – which at the time, was closer to red than our modern purple. The purple of Lent represented the royalty of Christ the King. Only later, when Lent became a time of preparation and repentance, did purple gain its association with penitence. And in many cultures, purple is the colour of mourning; even in churches that didn’t have much to do with the seasons of the church year, Good Friday would often find crosses draped with purple hangings, as a symbol of our sorrow for Christ’s death.

But today, let’s take a different take on the colour purple. Many of you will have come across lines of this poem before, though you might not know it’s written by Jenny Joseph and is called “Warning”.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
and learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausage at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

It’s a wonderful poem about social rebellion. I wonder sometimes what the author would think of all the women’s groups across North America that gather in their purple shirts and red hats in honour of this poem. I wonder if these women share that spirit of rebellion? I think Jesus did, though you might not know it, based on the Jesus many of us saw portrayed in our younger years.

It is an unfortunate truth that in each century since the earliest days of the church, the way that we see Jesus has been determined by our cultural context. In North American churches such as ours, especially the middle-class mainline denominations, we have shied away from the more
uncomfortable aspects of Jesus’ life and faith in order to concentrate on the nicer, friendlier, more socially acceptable aspects of his ministry. The movie Dogma gives us a wonderful parody of this tendency when it portrays the Catholic church unveiling a new media-friendly image of Jesus: Buddy Jesus, winking and grinning at the people.

In the early Greek church, Jesus was portrayed as a young Greek god; in the era of chivalry he was pictured as a knight ready to do battle with the forces of evil; in the monastic era, he was depicted as a devout monk, bent over in prayer. Today, the image we see of Jesus is primarily one of “the Jesus who cares.”

And how can that be bad? Isn’t that how the gospel portray him? As a man who cared, a man who took notice of those around him, a man of compassion, who wanted to help those around him? Don’t we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who searches for his sheep? Doesn’t he tell his disciples to minister to the sick, the homeless, the hungry? Of course, all of that is true. And our knowledge of the caring of Jesus can offer people self-esteem, hope, and a vision for how to relate to others. Jesus as care-giver is a beautiful image.

But that image breaks down when we look down the long road of Lent and see the cross looming in the distance. If Jesus was such a nice guy, why did they crucify him? What on earth would make the government band together with the religious folk of his time to see this preacher of love and goodness destroyed? Why kill a decent person whose truth was no more disturbing than a kindergarten lecture about how to be kind to others?

Maybe we should consider that what really offended his society enough to do away with him was that Jesus Didn’t Care – he didn’t care about all of those things we think of as adding up to “The Good Life” or “The Way Things Should Be.”

Maybe Jesus was wearing some purple – because he didn’t care about social standing; he wasn’t trying to get ahead, or be successful. He wasn’t politicking to get the job of high priest; and he certainly didn’t want to be the king. He didn’t want money – in fact, he told people to give theirs away.

Jesus never sold out – he never downplayed his beliefs in order to keep society’s approval. He sought the will of God, no matter whom it offended – including even his parents! As a boy, he stayed in the temple in Jerusalem, speaking with the elders, when he should have been on his way home to Nazareth with his parents. As an adult, he told people that he had no family, except those who followed him. He managed to offend a whole synagogue of people in his first home-town sermon. He ate with sinners, fought with Pharisees, and picked grain on the Sabbath day. No one group could claim Jesus’ approval, because he refused to seek social approval for himself from any group. Jesus stood alone, on the outside, not allowing the natural need for belonging, for social approval, the human tendency to go along to get along – not allowing any of that to compromise his calling. What a lonely position that must have been for him!

Contrast that with most North American churches. Some years ago I read a book written by Canada’s foremost theologian, Douglas John Hall. It was a dialogue with a young person on the fringes of the church, who was wondering why anyone would want to be a Christian anyway. This young person is probably a lot like the young people you know: your children and grand-children, your neighbours’ kids – all those people you wish were in church but whom you never see here. They are intelligent, educated, and care about the world around them – but they have little or no interest in the church.

In this dialogue the young man points out to Douglas Hall that what he hears in church is basically middle class morality – all the same things he could hear at a motivational seminar or at the Lion’s Club – stuff he absorbed from his cradle. The young man points out that there is no excitement to church as he sees it, no challenge, nothing that demands anything other than what people would already do if left to their own devices. And unfortunately, all that is true – true in this young man’s experience, and also true far too often in the experience of Douglas Hall, who has been part of the United Church since its infancy.

You see, we all want to have a place where we belong, where we are accepted and approved of, where we are comfortable with the expectations, where we all speak the same language. But the problem with seeking that kind of stability is that it often becomes an end in itself – and anything that might challenge that stability is shut out. Stability can curtail freedom, for instance, when in order to belong, we can no longer choose to do the things we know to be right. How many times have you turned aside from a path you knew in your heart was right, because you knew it would rock the boat? We do it all the time! And we do it in the church as much as anywhere else.

But our need for social acceptance needs to be tempered with the ability to think for ourselves and discern God’s leading. And sometimes, that requires standing against the crowd. Sometimes we need to be brave enough NOT to meet other people’s expectations – even in church!

When we look at the story of the temptations with that thought in mind, we see Jesus standing against Satan, the tempter: the one who puts choices in front of people and waits to see if they will stumble or stand firm. Will Jesus choose the easy route of giving the people what they want? Or will he take the more difficult way?

Satan first suggested that Jesus should start turning rocks into bread. Now wouldn’t that be a crowd-pleaser! Think of all the hungry people Jesus could have fed! But Jesus stands strong, saying that God’s will is more important than gaining people’s loyalty through miraculous feedings.

The second time Satan suggests he should pull a really spectacular stunt – throwing himself from the temple mount so that the angels have to come and save him. The temptation is for Jesus to show all the people that he’s special, protected by God. He could achieve quite a following with that kind of stunt. But again, Jesus refuses, saying “You shall not put God to the test.”

The third time, Satan offers to make Jesus ruler of the world – to clothe him in the royal purple, if you like. But Jesus chooses a different purple – the colour of courage, the colour of non-conformity, the colour that says, “I don’t care about those things; I just care about serving my God.”

All three of the temptations could have done much good, if Jesus had chosen to go with them. He could have fed the hungry, inspired their trust and loyalty, used his power to rule the world with justice. Everyone could have looked to Jesus for the answer to their problems. But Jesus wanted none of it. In the end, all of that would have reduced the freedom of the people – to live their faith in ways that were true to them, to decide to serve the gospel based on its own merits, not because
it was the popular or accepted thing to do, or because they’d been swayed by a charismatic leader. Jesus gave them the freedom to choose to follow the Gospel by NOT CARING about what other folk thought was “the Good Life”.

To not care about what everybody else thought and believed; to associate with whomever of God’s people they chose, and not to worry about what others said; to let go of personal wealth and the signs of successful being; to let go of all those middle class values that mean nothing in the long run; to refuse to join the madness of always needing more and new and better things and to find riches in the deeper aspects of human living – in faith, in friendship, in justice. This is the life of NOT CARING.

It is the life of freedom to let a spotless reputation get a few wrinkles in it; to have the humility to not always have the answers, to not always have it together, to know that that’s alright.

This kind of freedom is radical and dangerous, because people don’t know what to expect of you. But it is so life-giving, because it allows people to choose the life of faith that they will live, to choose their relationship with God.

That’s what Jesus offered in his ministry: freedom for people to relate to God as they needed, freedom to relate to one another without barriers imposed between them, freedom for people to be themselves without being afraid of doing and saying the wrong thing, freedom to live and trust in God.

During this Lenten season, I think we should all try on a little purple. May this radical freedom enter our lives and revitalize our being. May we be free to live our life of faith as it is given to us by God. Amen.

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