Pants, Fig Trees, & Beneficial Distinctions

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 Jan 15

John1:43-51 Psalm139:1-6,13-18 1Samuel3:1-11 1Corinthians6:12-20
Since a bunch of you asked about them, here’s my much ballyhooed pair of pants, the ones made famous by Tim’s sermon last week.

2015-01-18 12.31.50

The story is I crashed my bike riding to one of our Monona outreach events. They’d been a gift, were still pretty new and hadn’t gotten used up, so I patched ‘em. Mostly I dress nicer for work, but I did wear these for the “God’s Work. Our Hands” project on Homecoming Sunday since we were going to get dirty serving at Winnequah School. Nate McConnell saw the red patch during worship and was worried I was bleeding.

Today I wore them not just to showcase but to make a point, or to raise distinctions of what counts as a distraction versus being central to faith, a question of what’s appropriate and right and beneficial.

It comes up in part because of our Gospel reading, with one of my favorite Bible verses, because it seems so random and quirky (which, you probably know, appeals to me). The line is when Jesus tells Nathanael “I saw you under the fig tree.” Yet Nathanael reacts with a ridiculously astounded confession of faith: You saw me under the fig tree? Wow! You’re God almighty! It’s goofy. Almost no commentators in the history of Christianity give it any special value or meaning.

Sure, figs pop up on occasion in the Bible. In a different strange story, Jesus cursed a fig tree because, out of season, it had no snack for him. Adam and Eve made the first clothes by sewing together fig leaves. Through the Old Testament the sweet fruit of fig trees, along with grape vines, signaled an established home. Maybe that’s what this fig tree is doing located here in the Gospel of John, signaling that Nathanael was at home. Instead of being a fisherman out in his boat as we’ll hear with calling disciples from Mark next week, maybe Nathanael is a landlubber hanging around the farm. Or maybe he was lazy and taking a snooze in the shade. It could even be that it was someone else’s tree and he was stealing figs.

Probably the fig tree doesn’t really symbolize anything about Nathanael or his relationship with Jesus, remaining an obscure, trivial detail.

But that would be just fine, because the overall point is that Jesus is concerned about you, in all the obscure, silly, trivial, asinine moments and details of your life. Nathanael could’ve been in a boat. He could’ve been in school or in a jail or at a store. It just so happens that he was under a fig tree for whatever reason, and that’s where Jesus found him.

Which brings me back to my pants. I usually dress up more, and believe there’s still value in “Sunday best” clothes fitting God’s extreme goodness to us. I try to look nice during the week to respect and acknowledge that the Lord is with you (just as we declare in our greetings), making all the moments of your life important. Still the reverse side of it is needing to remember that God is with you even when we don’t look our best. Even in hospital gowns or shabby sweat pants, still the presence of God abides with you. Are you getting the feel for these distinctions?

To go beneath your clothing, our Psalm proclaims that your body is created by God with care and delight. There’s no regrettable part of you that so ultimately disappoints God, no blemish or infirmity that would make God stop loving you. God declares that you look marvelous. We could probably extend that to your clothes. You don’t need to be embarrassed of your clothes, or put extra weight onto them as if something fancier will make God like you better.

Again, we could look at the official garments for worship. Our white albs that we wear to lead worship are actually not supposed to be fancier garb (or pajamas as Jim Wiskowski suggested this morning). They’re supposed to be equalizers. They symbolize all of us being washed clean in baptism, that we’re all pure in Christ. On the other hand, in 11:00 worship, Tim and I don’t wear these white garments. Since these seem more formal, or specialized, we dress instead to look more familiar. Between these two sides, it’s tough to say that one is right and one is wrong. Neither is a petty choice. Both are trying to make a connection between faith and our lives.

One more similar example: Today I put on my red Chuck Taylors. That’s not to match the patch on my pants. To coordinate I would’ve actually preferred wearing green to go with the liturgical color for the day. I chose these because at one point a dozen years ago, I’d written on the bottom “Ephesians 6:15.” That verse says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever enables to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Clearly these shoes aren’t the only thing fitting for proclaiming peace in Jesus. But they can fit the bill, even here and now.

To take a bit different approach, let’s return to our 1st reading, of God speaking to a young child. We learn God may call us even when we don’t understand it. God may have something to say not only when we’re sitting in church alert and listening for it, but also in our sleep.

Yet that raises further distinctions. The reading doesn’t mean that the only place you can hear God’s voice is when you go to bed. It doesn’t mean that every dream you have is God trying to call you to a new way of life. It doesn’t mean you can only perceive God’s voice when you’re young before your hearing goes. Again, as the Psalm nicely says, God knows your sleeping and your rising up, watches you as you roam and as you rest, from before your birth until long after your death, God surrounds and holds you.

Martin Luther King covered similar ground in writing, “the worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of intellect, her racial origin, or his social position. In the ultimate and final Christian analysis, human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he or she has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ pass away as determinants in a relationship and ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ are substituted.”*

It’s into the midst of this kind of difficult and vital question of society and ethics under God’s unconditional love that Paul tries to navigate in our 2nd reading. If God’s love will never let you go, if your clothes or your body type or your age or your personality don’t determine or prevent God’s blessing for you, then what? “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes. Nothing can cut you off from God, won’t make God punish you. From the smallest harmful choice like junk food to even something so extreme as fornicating with a prostitute can’t take you away from Christ. As he says in another place, clean or messy is nothing, law-breaking or law-abiding is nothing, but that we are a new creation in Christ is everything! (Gal6:15)

So does that mean anything goes? Are holey cords—that is, corduroys with holes in them—really the holiest choice? Is it alright just to hang out under fig trees? Could Samuel just as well have gone back to sleep, preferring a bit more shut eye instead of having to pay attention to the word of the Lord? If Christ has freed you from the bonds of sin, should you really feel free to sin against other people, or your loved ones? Should you abuse yourself and creation?

Well technically you could.

Your identity is held in Christ. You are claimed as a beloved child of God and member of this family. You are fundamentally a citizen of his kingdom, a creature of his new creation. You are a Jesus person. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That will be true no matter how you look or how you act. There’s no lightning bolt coming to expel you from this place.

But it’s also true that you’ll serve your neighbor and glorify God by not graffitying up or littering the temple with junk. The question for the day is not if you’re a better disciple than somebody else, if your behavior is more important or holier. It’s more a question of distinctions on what’s beneficial. What will most enable you and others to live into this new reality of God’s abundant grace. What inhibits and what encourages following that beautiful invitation from Jesus of coming to see?

Hymn: Baptized and Set Free (ELW #453)

* “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in Testament of Hope, p122. Edited for inclusivity.

postscript:  It was with full irony that I talked about my trivial clothes after starting worship with this word of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail:
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon blacks, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading us to higher levels of justice.”

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