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Lent and The Color Purple

Purple-just-too-awesomeCelie would not wear purple. In Alice Walker's prize winning novel "The Color Purple," Celie did not view herself worthy of a color often associated with wealth, royalty and piety. Purple's legacy goes at least as far back as Moses, who sent for purple cloth to make the curtains of the Tabernacle. Tyrian purple was the Roman imperial color, worn by emperors, priests, governors and generals. Purple togas were the Gucci of the Mediterranean elite. The great expense was due to the intricate process of harvesting the glands of thousands of tiny murex snails and soaking them in the sun till the exact color emerged to dye the cloth. A modern chemist duplicating the ancient process used 10,000 snails to create enough dye for a handkerchief, at the cost of nearly $4000.  Purple was exclusive by nature, out of the reach of all but the elite to whom homage was due. Celie has had much company in not wearing purple.

Purple symbolized something else in Celie's life - pain. It was the color of bruises to Celie, the eggplant colored marks of being beaten and battered. The association with pain is also shown in the medals given to wounded soldiers, the Purple Heart. It is the color of sacrifice awarded to those who are wounded by the enemy in battle (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not apply, only physical wounds count.) Purple is the Lenten color of Christ, remembering his death on the cross (at the hands of Pilate who was perhaps wearing imperial purple?) Lenten purple is a complex mix of all the above themes - sacrifice, wounding and royalty - the color of the Purple Heart due to Jesus and the imperial power that wished to destroy him.

1362784292-helen-pankhurst-and-olympic-suffragettes-walk-through-london_1853757Purple can also be a color of transformation and change. It was the color adopted by the suffragette movement working to enfranchise women with the fundamental right to make decisions-the right for women's voices to be heard through the power of the vote. The meaning of the color purple was transformed for Celie in Walker's novel through her deep friendship with Shug. While walking through a field of purple wildflowers, Shug challenges Celie to embrace the fullness of life-and purple-noting the great beauty that surrounds them to be enjoyed in the moment. Later in the novel, after Celie and Shug have spent a long time apart, Celie receives Shug in her home-in a purple room. The novel captures the great depth of our purple lives, as we move through pain and find the courage to embrace beauty and happiness in life. 


PurplePurple is the color of the deep mystery of faith, a mix of blue sky and blood that occurs in the haze
of the setting sun. (That's right, a purple haze. Thanks Jimmy for giving voice to another beautiful
and painful life.) Through the psychedelic purple haze, the first colors of dawn, through bruising
and the wounds of life's battles, to Spring violets, we hope that eventually we will endure to a
moment of liberation, the moment when we are a fully enfranchised human being, or and
experience of grace from a loving God...and then we can boldly wear the color purple.
Lent is almost here. Purple is not only welcome, but highly encouraged.

Rev. Todd Weir

More than Technicals for the Gold - Matthew 5:13-27

Sage-kotsenburg-6NBC Sports must have been playing with us when they decided to alternate showing the ice skating team competition and slope style snowboarding.  It’s like channel surfing between Lawrence Welk and MTV.  I watched at least 10 hours of ice skating in the last week (not because I was forced to do so – Jeanne watched Celtics games with me, so I think it is only fair I join in her favorite sport.)   

One important thing I have picked up is the value of the technical aspects vs. the style.   The 15 years old Russian sensation Julia Lipnitskaia is a picture of intensity, as her mother messages her ear lobes to keep her calm, she looks like a prizefighter ready to go into the ring pummel someone.  Every little twist and turn is precise, and the slightest error can throw things off.  Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White have been skating together since they were 8, and were thinking about music for 2014 Olympics 3 years ago.  I love to listen to Johnny Weir as commentator.  When a couple made a small error in their program, we hear his sudden intake of breath, and he says “Oh, they bobbled that twizzle.”    So when commentators talked about "joyous" routines and skaters like U.S. comer Gracie Gold described all the “fun” she was having, I don’t quite believe them.  Skaters smiles are tighter than their outfits.  They are smiling while doing triple jumps timed with orchestra music.  They will smile after falling and dislocating a hip, and get up and finish their routine.  I think the ice dancers are tougher than the hockey players.  Skating is a beautiful but very intense sport for people that will put in years for their 2 minutes short program.

If you want fun, that is all happening on the slope-style ski course, which is made up of skiing downhill with lots of jumps and flips in the air.  After the medals are announced they all tackle each other and roll around in a dog pile.  On the gold medal run in slope style, the announcer says, “Next is Sage Kotsenburg, a long-shot for a medal, who is known for his unusual style, though he is weak on the technical side.  He’s in the gate-and he is chewing gum.”  Then he does something unprecedented called a cab double-cork 1260 'Holy Crail.' which seems humanly impossible.  What is truly amazing is that he had never tried this before the Olympics. He called his brother, Blaze, 10 minutes before the jump, and said he wanted to try something new he called a backside 1620 Japan.  To which Blaze said, ““Really? Send it, I guess. Might as well. You’re at the Olympics.”  So he does it and wins a gold medal.

When asked about the run, Kotsenburg is still chewing his gum, and says.  "I've never even tried the trick I tried on the bottom jump. I pulled it out of the bag.  I landed, I was like, 'What just happened?' I blacked out in the air.”  You can’t imagine an ice skater chewing gum or ever pulling something spontaneous “out of the bag.”,0,24044.story#ixzz2tIbWrGzr

So I wonder what Jesus would prefer to watch at the Olympics.  Is he more of a figure skating, precision beauty years in the making aficionado, or a fan of the chill, laugh and chew gum in the face of sudden death crowd of slope style?  Religion has some of both styles.  There are legalists who love the technical of religion and spend hours and years understanding and appreciating the law, who take a disciplined approach to faith and strive for the perfection of no slips or bobbled twizzles in their moral life, so that a the end God may hang the gold medal around their neck.  And then there are the mystical ecstatics, who go for all the style points, who know the laws, but are absorbed in the rapture of life, at one with the mountain, tumbling through the air to the music in their own head rather than trying to time their jumps to the orchestra.

This helped me sort through some the seeming harshness of today’s reading, where I think Jesus sees the beauty and passion of both sides.  The technicals of religion matter to a point.  You have to learn the structure first, but true faith also has to achieve a style, and realize that much of life can’t be reduced to law and perfect technicals, but that our inner attitudes and style counts.  Let’s look at the text.

I like to call this section of Matthew “The Pirate Ship Sermon.”  Imagine if we take the command too seriously to pluck out our eye or cut off our hand if they cause us to sin. Our congregation would look like Blackbeard’s crew, with eye patches, peg legs and hooks for hands.  Those outside the church would see us as a cult of self-mutilation.  While this would be an absurd religion, at least the effects of our sins would be visible on the outside, rather than buried deep within.  A preacher could more easily see the struggles of the congregation (hey sorry about your hand!)   rather than having them buried underneath our Sunday clothes and Sabbath smiles designed to conceal what we really think and feel.


9_hlGFSB2tK1QfqUvC76mnE6m6vHlPlc_world_0213_JeremyAbbottfall_640x360Jesus often unmasked the dangers of outward piety that tries to cover inward spiritual deformity, much like the injured ice dancer’s smile.  Sometimes we hide our spiritual failings so well, that even we can no longer see the evidence.  Jesus notes that we can feel content if we avoid the obvious big sins of the Ten Commandments, like murder, adultery and divorce.  As long as we don’t kill anyone, sleep with someone outside of marriage or have our marriage fail altogether, we are still a good person and on the way to heaven.  (Since I am divorced and remarried I will never make the spiritual Olympics by these standards because I failed the technical program.  But one fall does not make the skater.  One of the best performances of the Olympics of Jeremy Abbott, who fell forward, smashed his hip on the ice.  After lying on the rink for a few second he got up and finished his program, and the crowd went wild.  No medals of course, but what a gutsy performance. 


You want to know the best way to keep all the 10 commandments?  Lock yourself in a closet. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to fail.  Don’t fall in love.  Protect yourself and avoid all mistakes and you can obey all 10 commandments.  You will never do the spiritual equivalent of a cab double cork 1260 just obeying the technicals.  Style points in religion come from loving well.  We love well when it flows from an inward spirit, from our truest core.  You can’t practice that, or simply read the rule book, you have to overcome fear and find your passion.


I think that is what Jesus is getting at here in this tough part of the Sermon on the Mount.  We have to deal with ourselves beyond the technical part of religion, and look at our spiritual core. Jesus said that if we are angry with our friend and do not deal with it, we are already harboring the attitudes that lead to murder.  If we look around with lust or greed, our foot is on the path.  But how do we know we are doing this? 


Self-righteousness is often the first sign we are ignoring our inner self.  When we find ourselves looking down on the murders, adulterers or even people who are poor, we are separating ourselves not only from them but from our own inner turmoil.  Anyone can find someone worse than themselves to look down upon, in order to feel better about themselves.  I have worked with former murderers and drug dealers in the homeless shelter.  The murderer looks down on the child molester, and the drug dealer says at least they did not sell to kids.  The alcoholic says at least I did not smoke crack. Looking down on the bigger sinner will not lift us up.  We must deal with ourselves. 


Our shadow is so deeply buried to keep us from facing our inner pain.  The best way I know to examine ourselves is to pay attention to what we judge the most in others.  Whatever annoys or angers us the most in others is often what we most dislike in ourselves, and yet we do not recognize it or want to deal with it. 


"Worth your Salt" Matthew 5:13-16


Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth.  Salt is one of the essential things for life that is often taken for granted and forgotten.  You probably did not think much about salt this week, but consider how often you unknowingly use and need it.  Salt is more than a condiment to make our food taste better.  Our body needs a certain amount for good health.  The chemical compound for salt, sodium chloride, is essential for many chemical reactions which take place in the body.  When deprived of it we become dehydrated, our blood pressure will drop and we would eventually slip into a coma and die without salt.  Of course this must be regulated because too much salt will raise blood pressure and is unhealthy.  We have found other uses for salt, from melting ice on our sidewalks, curing animal hides, it is used in water softening equipment and has many industrial uses for manufacturing chemicals.  The need for salt is so great that the world produces 187 million tons each year.  The United States produces more salt than steel. 


To call someone the salt of the earth, as Jesus did in Matthew’s Gospel, speaks of their importance, yet the clique has lost its savor.  Jesus was a master of the metaphor, and I think he chose this image of salt carefully.  By comparing a person to the salt of the earth, he meant much more than complimenting a person for their good works.  If we probe the uses and meaning of salt in ancient times, I think we will find a metaphor for what a disciple of Jesus should do in the world.


Salt was greatly prized in the ancient world.  Roman soldiers were actually paid with salt.  The latin word for this “salt money” was salarium, from which our English word salary comes.  It was a principle commodity of commerce and made up the bulk of the caravan trade across the Sahara.  One of the oldest roads in Italy was called the Via Salaria (Salt Road).  Salt was more than an essential commodity and even had a social and religious significance. 


Reading this back into Christ’s words, we could surmise two different meaning to being the salt of the earth.  Jesus could have been saying that God considers the listeners to be immensely valuable and necessary.  Remember that Jesus was preaching to the common people.  There wasn’t much of what we would call a middle class in those days, in fact more than 90 percent of the people were basically serfs and laborers with no education and little future.  They certainly didn’t see themselves as the salt of the earth, as something or as somebody who had a God-given task in the world.  This is truly and empowering metaphor.


Salt was important for more than commerce in Jesus day.  In Hebrew, Greek, Arabic and Persian texts there is an intimate connection of salt and the idea of a covenant or binding relationship.  Among the ancients, to “eat salt” with another person was to create a bond of friendship.  Therefore, the task of a disciple who is to be the salt of the earth is to bind people together, to strengthen the bonds of one person to another, to expand the human covenant and create a broader sense of human solidarity.  In Jesus’ day they did not know how salt helps create and sustain chemical reactions, but this knowledge fits the metaphor.  The church is to be like salt, which enables people to react together in a way that brings about something new and good.  As disciples we are to be the catalysts and the bonding agents that bind people together.  We salt our food, it takes the bitterness out.  Disciples of Jesus are to be like that.  We are to transform the bitter taste that the world leaves in our mouths.


Discord, divisiveness and derision are not to be in the spice rack of the church.  Too often the public face of Christianity in our nation is like salt that has lost its savor.  We are not called to scold the world into being good.  We are not told to look at the evil of the world and then proclaim that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.  There is a movement to stoke the fires of outrage about the evil and immorality of the world.  William Bennett champions this in a recent book called “The Death of Outrage.”  His analysis of our moral problems is fairly accurate, although he is very selective about what he is outraged about.  Sex, lies and violent television are easy targets for outrage, but I wish his outrage were more stirred by sweat shops on the Mexico border that put children to work 12 hours a day rather than giving them an education.  We all have our pet outrages and soap boxes, but expressing outrage is not a tool of social change.  It doesn’t bring us any nearer to the Kingdom of God.  It is blowing off steam.  The difference between outrage and the way of Jesus is the difference between salt and sand.  To the naked eye a grain of salt looks just like a grain of sand.  But if you put each into your dinner, you will soon notice the difference.  One increases the savor of the meal and one grinds uncomfortably on your teeth.  Sand may get your attention, but in the end it gets spit out. 


Being the salt of the earth is a way of compassion and reconciliation.  We are to get into the mix of the world, bind it together and remove the bitterness and discord.  This interpretation fits the context of the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus has just given the Beatitudes.  He has said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  He also blesses the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn (which I would translate “those who are willing to let their hearts be broken by the world), blessed are the meek (or those who are humble, not selfish and self-centered.)   Jesus says that these are the virtues for disciples.  These are the people who are going to inherit the earth, who will be filled, who will receive mercy, who will be called the children of God.  These are unlikely virtues that exhibit and different kind of power than most worldly power.  These are the attributes that will bind humanity together, that will cure the nation’s warring madness, bend our pride to God’s control, save of from weak resignation to the evils we deplore, lest we miss thy Kingdom’s goal. 


Jesus could have used a number of other metaphors to describe the role of the church in the world.  He could have said, you are like a mighty army that will achieve victory, or you are like the tide that shall overcome the earth, an earthquake that will shake the foundations of the status quo.  But instead, Jesus said that we are like salt.  We are like those little crystals you put in a shaker on your table.  It helps the food taste better and it quietly and unnoticeably keeps the body alive.  Without it, you die. 


You are the salt of the earth.  You don’t need massive amounts of salt to accomplish a great deal.  A few sprinkles go a long ways on your plate.  The waters of the ocean have an overpowering saltiness, yet contain only about three percent salt.  Your activities, great and small, help bring about the world God intends, a world where there is hope and dignity, faith and liberty, love and equality.  To carry out this activity, we do not have to be numerous, wealthy or powerful, just willing to get in the mix.