Naked as a Jaybird

Sermon preached  November 8, 2015

Texts: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44


Ray Stevens, “The Streak

Some of you may remember the odd fad in the 1970s – “streaking.”  It involved a person or persons running through some public event, naked as a jaybird, with nothing on but a smile.  Years later, the tv show, Seinfeld, brought us a reminder of the fad.  George Costanza, trying to get fired from his job with the New York Yankees, streaks at a Yankee game.  George is too self-conscious to actually streak so he wears a body suit.  He becomes “body-suit man.”

By the way, the phrase “naked as a jaybird” is a little mysterious.  Apparently the 19th century phrase was “naked as a robin,” but neither bird loses its feathers.  I did run across another explanation for the phrase.  In the 1920s and 30s in the United States, prisoners, “jail birds” or “j-birds” would often disembark a bus, strip down, and have to walk naked across the yard to the showers when they first entered the prison.  There is your Jeopardy moment for today.

Wherever the phrase comes from, the idea behind being naked as a jaybird is pretty uncomfortable for most of us.  Streaking was not a long-lived fad, and it has not returned.  Recently I a friend told me that she had booked a hotel for a vacation, but was a little concerned about it.  Further research indicated that the resort was “clothing optional.”  She quickly cancelled that reservation and made a new one.  In Genesis 2:25 “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”  I am thinking that was probably about the last time people were not uncomfortable about their unclad bodies.

But the focus of this morning is not on nudity, but on naked spirituality.  Brian McLaren, well-known author and former pastor, penned a book a few years ago which he entitled Naked Spirituality.  Early in the book he quotes another well-known Christian spiritual writer, Richard Rohr.  The goal of all spirituality is to lead the “naked person” to stand trustfully before the naked God. The important thing is that we’re naked; in other words that we come without title, merit, shame, or even demerit.  All we can offer to God is who we really are, which to all of us never seems like enough. (McLaren, Naked Spirituality, 3)

McLaren tells a story that is attributed to the life of Mother Teresa, though he admits he is not sure of whether this really happened to her or not.  Mother Teresa was asked by a reporter what she said to God when she prayed.  She replied, “Mostly I just listen.”  Asked what God said to her, Mother Teresa replied, “Mostly God just listens.”  McLaren goes on to comment, “Could it be that the loving, attentive, mutual listening of the soul and the Spirit constitute the greatest expression of spirituality?”  (223)  This is what McLaren means by naked spirituality.

That kind of naked spirituality has deep roots in the Bible.  Now no one is actually naked in today’s gospel reading, but it is about naked spirituality.  In the first part of the story, the scribes are layered.  They walk around in long robes.  They like the honor and prestige of their position.  They make a show of their piety.  They are clothed not only with long robes, but with pretension.  Yet they don’t seem honest with themselves.  Underneath it all, Jesus notices that they “devour widows’ houses.”  These are folks who have wrapped layer upon layer around themselves, and their souls are dying.  If they could be honest with God, they would see they are not spiritually robust, but spiritually emaciated.

Contrast that with the widow Jesus notices in the next scene.  He is watching as people, crowds, contribute to the Temple treasury.  Many wealthy come with their gifts, large sums.  This is impressive.  People would pay attention to this, and perhaps some of these folks are like the scribes, they like the attention.  Perhaps some are getting caught up in that.  Jesus also notices a nobody, someone with no status.  To be a widow in Jesus time was really difficult.  Women had virtually no economic standing, and few economic opportunities.  This widow was also poor.  She comes and drops two coins into the treasury, two coins of the lowest value.  Jesus notices her gift, and in the strange kind of math that often characterizes Jesus, he says that she has “put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.”  He goes on, “All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus is good at puzzling us.  This text is not really about giving it all away, emptying our pockets, wallets, bank accounts into the offering plate.  It has something to do with generosity, though, generosity in the widest sense which includes financial generosity.  It is about heart, soul, spirit, about naked spirituality.  This is about opening oneself, without layers and pretensions.  It is about allowing oneself to be vulnerable.  It is about trusting, trusting that as we open the whole of our lives to God, we will discover life at its best.  When we are open and vulnerable, our hearts grow, and it is giving from our generous hearts that matters most deeply.

We cannot leave this text without noting some irony.  Jesus has just called out the scribes for being pretentious, for being spiritually layered, not open and vulnerable.  One evidence of this is that they “devour widows’ houses.”  Next we have a widow who lives on the margins giving, and who does her gift help support?  The scribes.  Jesus seems both to be noticing the widow for her naked spirituality – her openness, vulnerability and trust, and cautioning that such openness and trust can be manipulated.  Perhaps a naked spirituality requires both soft hearts and keen minds – wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Naked spirituality can also be found in the story of Ruth.  In that story there is literal nakedness, but more importantly naked spirituality – openness, vulnerability, trust.  It is helpful to recall a little more of the story.  Ruth is not an Israelite.  She is a foreigner who has married an Israelite.  Naomi is her mother-in-law.  Both women are widowed, thus put in precarious positions.  However, Naomi has a well-to-do relative named Boaz.  The story we read today is about how Ruth and Boaz eventually become coupled.  The entire story is one of openness, vulnerability, and trust.  The end is blessing.  Boaz and Ruth have a son, Obed, who is the father of Jesse, who is the father of David – who will become king.  A poor, foreign, widow who is open, vulnerable and trusting, who stays with her widowed mother-in-law, is part of the lineage of Israel’s great king.

Naked spirituality, openness, honesty, vulnerability, trust.  A widow giving deeply of herself, another widow refusing to abandon her mother-in-law but instead staying with her.  People on the margins trusting that their lives matter to God.

The kind of spirituality to which we are invited in Jesus Christ is this naked spirituality in two dimensions.

The first dimension is openness, honesty, vulnerability and trust in God.  Brian McLaren offers words from another Christian spiritual teacher that are again helpful (Kenneth Leech): True religion helps us to grow, but pseudo-religion hinders growth, for it creates and maintains obstacles and barriers. Thus it is that much religion merely censors experience and does not liberate it, stifles human potential and does not allow it to blossom. Much religion is superficial and does not help the journey inwards, which is so necessary to spiritual health.  There has to be a movement toward the still center, the depths of our being, where, according to the mystics, we find the presence of God. (13)

To grow as a human person, to grow in our relationship with God requires openness and vulnerability, the willingness to look inside.  We need to deal with guilt or shame we may carry.  We need to be honest with ourselves and God about our thoughts and feelings, our questions and quandaries.  We need to be honest about our wounds and scars.  We open all of our life to God, becoming vulnerable to God’s love and Spirit, and trusting that love to help us heal and grow.

The second dimension is openness and vulnerability to others, trusting that God will strengthen us to do justice and engage in compassionate action.  Reflecting on the word “righteous” in her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes: The word “righteous” used to grate on my ear; for years I was able to hear it only in its negative mode, as self-righteous, as judgmental. Gradually, as I became more acquainted with the word in its biblical context, I found that it does not mean self-righteous at all, but righteous in the sight of God.  And this righteousness is consistently defined by the prophets, and in the psalms and gospels, as a willingness to care to the most vulnerable people in a culture, characterized in ancient Israel as orphans, widows, resident aliens, and the poor. (96)

Naked spirituality is both about moving deeply inward, and about reaching outward in compassion and care.  It is about knowing God’s love and about knowing ourselves in God’s love.  It is about showing God’s love through compassionate living in the world.

Streaking, thankfully, is a fad whose time has come and gone.  Naked spirituality, however, is always in season.  Amen.