Take Off Your Coat and Stay Awhile

Sunday sermon for December 16, 2012
Text: Luke 3:7-18
Given at Pilgrim Covenant Church, South Plainfield, NJ
(the Sunday after Newtown)

I hope this morning you will forgive something of a preface, because before we read the text we first have to say that there are no words. It is an all-too-familiar numbness: five months after the shooting in Aurora, almost two years after the attempt on congressman Gabby Giffords, five years after the rampage at Virginia Tech, and we again find ourselves staring at photographs that might as well be photocopies, again hearing screams that might as well be echoes. The story is so familiar — a lone gunman, a staggering body count, a tragedy emerging from the fog of chaos and grief, a nation turning its short-lived attention span at least for one fleeting moment onto this small town. The story is so familiar, and we have so many familiar things to say, so many talking points prefabricated in the long shadow of Columbine, so many opinions already at hand with such grim convenience. And yet there are no words. Never mind what we might say to ourselves in the public sphere, clinging as I do to the hope that some new conversation about mental health and assault weapons might emerge, that this moment might really be the one. Never mind that. What might we say to six-year-olds who live in a country that compels them already to know what a “lockdown” is? What might we say to the brothers and sisters, to the friends, to classmates who fled the sound of gunshots? What might we say to the parents of twenty dead children? There are no words.

And yet we are a people of faith, a people of faith in these words of scripture, in these words made flesh. And surely when we cannot speak, these words speak for us and to us. And surely when the shattering of the world robs us of our own words, surely when we gather together on the darkest night of the year, surely it is in this muted silence that these words speak as for the first time: with the power of God’s command to the uncreated void, with the faithfulness of God’s promise to a people lost in the wilderness, with the hope of Angels hovering in the winter sky over Bethlehem. And just as we are children of that creation, and just as we are children of those wilderness people, just as surely we are are children of that promise, of the promise of these words, of God’s word. And when we have no words to speak, we have yet these words to hear, and when the world is overcome with the silence of a million chattering voices, God still speaks. Listen, now, for the Word of the Lord, taken this morning from the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses 7-18.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

Instinct suggests that our first reaction to this passage may depend to some extent on how many coats are in our closet. After all, John appears to lays out what modern punditry might easily label a redistributionist economic policy. Jews from the area are coming out to see him preach, and from John’s words we can surmise that they thought themselves entitled to a certain amount of social privilege because of their ancestral connection to the covenant made between God and their ancestors. John will have none of this, of course: not that the covenant is no longer in effect, but rather that it is no guarantee of privilege, so, look, if you have two coats, give one of them away. It’s cold outside.

So it’s tempting to read this verse as directing us in how to handle our excess. You only need one coat, you don’t need the second coat, and so you should give it away. And because we can so easily adjust this for inflation, we can just as easily insert our own definitions for what “excess” means.Therefore we’ve already got our new fiscal-cliff-avoidance tax policy right here: we don’t entirely know where the line for “excess” is but we’re entirely confident that the richest 1% have long since crossed it, and so they should be the ones to give. Take their coats and spread them around. No politician has ever wanted for popularity in this country by promising to raise taxes on other people. Sure, most of us probably have more than one coat. But we adjust for inflation, right? You need a few different coats, a spring jacket, an autumn blazer. Jesus would get that. So this isn’t about numbers. It’s about excess.

The problem with that approach is that adjusting for inflation doesn’t work the way that we want it to. In fact, having two coats was probably more of a necessity for John the Baptist’s crowd even that it is for us. Later in Luke, when Jesus sends his disciples out to preach good news in the surrounding villages, he commands them to take only the barest provisions: “nothing for your journey,” he says, “no staff or bread, no bag or money.” Jesus’s purpose is clear: the disciples are to be vulnerable, reliant on the villages they find and the people they meet. But then he adds that the disciples are not even to bring an extra coat. That’s the trick. The nights are cold, and the fabric is thin, and one coat would hardly suffice to keep them warm against the elements. One coat means that they would still need the hospitality of strangers. One coat still leaves them incredibly exposed. One coat isn’t hardly enough. Which means that, in our text for today, John the Baptist still isn’t talking about numbers. But he’s not talking about excess, either. He’s talking about vulnerability. He’s talking about giving up the things that keep us safe. He’s talking about opening up the doors that keep us secure. He’s talking about vulnerability.

Of course, in the wake of tragedy like the massacre at Sandy Hook, vulnerability is hardly what we want to hear. Quite to the contrary: the words of the week will be safety. Security. Protection. And in many ways this is as it should be: no national or civic priority should supercede the protection of children, and How We Keep Them Safe will be the subject of much important chatter yet to come. We will hear that our schools and public spaces are vulnerable. We will hear that our regulation and licensing of firearms is vulnerable. We will hear that our mental health services are vulnerable. Vulnerability is the enemy of this grief, even though the doors to the school were locked before this young man forced his way inside, even though first responders already had contingency plans in place for just this scenario and executed them perfectly, even though kindergarten students already knew what a lockdown was. Even despite the most rational arguments to the contrary, in the midst of this present darkness, vulnerability is the stuff of our most vivid nightmares.

But vulnerability isn’t just a word that we throw around in security briefings and status reports. Vulnerability is something much more personal, it’s something about who we are. Sociologist Brené Brown has become something of an internet celebrity for her work on what she calls the “power of vulnerability.” In her hugely viral Ted talk, she charts the research journey that began with her trying to understand the common traits among people who voiced contentment and satisfaction with the direction of their lives, what she labeled “whole-hearted” living. And rather than find a common thread of money, sex, or power, what she found was that the common denominator was vulnerability, the willingness to face the world even in our brokenness, the willingness to open ourselves to one another in full admission of our imperfections. She calls vulnerability the “path to each other,” that without the ability to admit our own humanity we starve ourselves of connection, and that particularly in times of distress, when our thirst for empathy is at its most pronounced, it is vulnerability that opens the doorway for healing. In her language, when we are in struggle, the two most powerful words we have are “me too.”

So two coats leaves you invulnerable against the elements. One coat isn’t quite enough: you have to search out a friendly door, you have to risk connection, you have to risk intimacy. When I was a teenager, long before the shooting at Columbine made any of this culturally impossible, I went through my own trench coat phase. I don’t suppose I ever really knew why, except that it was something different, something mysterious. I was in fact the world’s most boring rebel. But I know what that coat did; it held up a barrier; it kept me safe from a world I perceived to be hostile. It gave me distance, and so inoculated me against heartache, and so inoculated me against joy. And of course I wore it through the halls of my school, and of course I wore it through the rooms of my house, and every once in a while my mother would say something like “For God’s sake, take off your coat and stay awhile.” But that would have been impossible. I wasn’t wearing the coat because it was cold. It wasn’t protection against the rain or the wind. I was wearing it because I was afraid of being vulnerable. And last Friday this young man walked into an elementary school with firearms and a bulletproof vest. And the last thing this story needs is more armchair psychiatry, but nonetheless I ask you: he walked into a school full of children wearing a bulletproof vest. What was he afraid of?

Now, I differ with Brené Brown in one key regard. When she talks about the “power” of vulnerability, it very quickly begins to sound like she’s espousing a self-help regime. In fact in a later talk she recalls companies, having seen her viral TED video, begging her to come speak at corporate events — not about vulnerability, but about creativity or inspiration. And her response to the crowd is to say that vulnerability is actually the key to all of these things. Which may be true in a research setting. I am fully willing to believe that in a scientific study, vulnerability correlates with all of these powerful goods. But it’s one thing to make that observation and another to turn to a crowd and say “Therefore: go and be vulnerable!” It’s one thing to note the ways in which we cloak our vulnerabilities, the things that keep us safe from a terrifying world, the things we consume and control, the things that consume and control us. But it’s quite another to suggest that vulnerability can itself be a strategy with which we manage the world and our navigation through it. Quite to the contrary: by Luke’s logic, if one coat isn’t even enough to brave the elements, if we’ve wrapped ourselves up as best we can and yet still feel the chill in our bones, if it’s this cold inside, then we’re just vulnerable. It’s not a choice. It’s not a strategy. It’s definitely not a power. It’s just who we are. This week of all weeks, the headlines make it profoundly clear: who we are is vulnerable.

But by grace, in this vulnerability, we are not alone. In our present grief there are no words, and yet we are bound in this Advent season for that moment when God’s Word comes to us, in flesh. In this darkest night we can barely see, and yet we are bound for that Christmas morning when the light comes into the world and the darkness cannot overcome it. Though we have wrapped ourselves many times over, this is a most exposed hour, and we are most vulnerable. But by grace we are bound for the stable, because a child will be born, an infant, naked, fragile, vulnerable, just like us, and Mary will wrap him in swaddling clothes, and lay him in the manger, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means God With Us. This is the majesty of the incarnation: that God has come into the world not with the armor of invincibility but rather in shivering frailty, the human story at its most exposed. God chooses to be vulnerable for us. God chooses to be vulnerable with us. The armor of Christ is nakedness. So that in this present grief, when our defenses are down, when vulnerabilty is all that we know, God beckons us with the most powerful words we can hear: “me, too.” This is the miracle of Christmas: that God so loved the world that he came into it shivering, fragile, and vulnerable, so that on this day, to all of us so gathered, to all of us naked in our despair, to all of us fragile with terror, to all of us quivering in the cold with no words left to speak, that God might yet know the words: “me, too.”

The stable is more crowded than usual. There are too many children here, the ones that left us on Friday, still quaking in the aftershocks of those terrifying minutes, but many more also, children who have heard rumor of this momentous thing, children who grasp to understand, children who shiver in fear and yet huddle around the manger. There are parents here, too, of course, Joseph and Mary and countless others, clutching at their sons and daughters with fear and sorrow and gratitude and wonder and none of them know the words to say. The shepherds have come running in from the hills, terrified when they learned the news, and so many of us join them in panic and awe and disbelief; the crowds have surrounded them, every face plastered with the same exposed anguish, not a one who can break the silence. And there is room even for the wisest in the land, the ones who can bring the finest fruits of creation, and yet even they are bent at the knee, and yet even they are humbled to the core, and yet even they are rendered speechless by the sight before them: a child, the Messiah, born of Mary, born of grace, born to live and born to die, born that even in our most vulnerable grief he may yet know the words: “me, too.”

This stable is not a place without fear, but it is a place of joy. It is not a place without grief, but it is a place of hope. It is not a place of safety and security, but it is a place of communion. The child is here. For his sake, for your sake, for our sake, for God’s sake, take off your coat, and stay awhile. Amen.

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