Praying Naked
by The Reverend John Beddingfield

A sermon preached, July 15 & 16, 2006 at the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City. The lectionary readings for Year B, Proper 10 are Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85, Ephesians 1:1-14, and Mark 6:7-13.

Look better naked,” is the slogan for the David Barton gym here in NY. The slogan plays on what is for most of us, an area of tremendous insecurity. Whether our discomfort with nakedness (especially our own) comes down to us from Adam and Eve in the Garden, or whether it comes as a result of contemporary cultural ideals and pressures—Mr. Barton’s slogan is effective. “Look better naked,” gets our attention.

That phrase catches us because it’s difficult to be naked. It’s difficult to be uncovered, to be exposed, and to have protective layers taken away.

In the first lesson from the Book of Amos, the people of Israel have forgotten what it is to be naked before God. They’ve even forgotten what it is to belong to God. They have built up too much around them and it has created distance between each other, between themselves and the poor, between themselves and God. Because of this, Amos says, the Lord will take off their fine clothing and they will be wearing sackcloth. Their feasts will be turned into mourning, their songs into lamentations.

It’s not just the people in Amos’s time who put a lot of energy into covering themselves up. We do our own covering up, building up layer over layer over layer. We accumulate, we pile things up high and we find cover underneath. Our stories cover us up: the narrative of who we are or where we come from can add a few additional layers. The clothes we wear, the manners we affect, the way we speak, the way we act—all of these things can sometimes build up a thick residue in our life. That residue makes it hard for other people to get in. It makes it hard for God to get in.

In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve disciples. He gives them specific instructions to travel lightly, not to bring too much, not to be weighed down too much, not to be overly attached to things. “Take nothing for the journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in the belt; only wear sandals and not even two tunics.” He cautions them about being too attached to people, even to family. Jesus even cautions them not to take themselves or their message too seriously. Some will listen, some will not. Go lightly, he says, go with a heart first of all set on God.

When God calls, often he peels away the layers that weigh us down. In the calling of the prophets, in the calling of the disciples, in the calling of the faithful in every age, it often seems like God strips away in order to make us free. I wonder if God may be at work in that way in our lives. In other words, I wonder if some of our feelings of vulnerability, exposure and nakedness, might perhaps be an invitation to a new kind of faith?

As a nation, we are vulnerable in new ways. Though our country has the most powerful military in the world, we seem unsure of ourselves. We still have more guns, but what people think of us around the world has changed radically over the last few years. Teddy Roosevelt suggested that his foreign policy might be summarized as “speaking softly and carrying a big stick,” but that doesn’t seem to be working quite so well anymore. It’s a more complicated world. Whether we’re talking about a military operation, a business venture, or a mission opportunity, we find that as Americans, success comes by working with, by working along side of, by stripping away some of the layers of protection and privilege.

As a church, we are feeling a new kind of vulnerability. Episcopalians are beginning to experience what it feels like to be a little more naked before the world. Our intellectual and material wealth is eroding and our church no longer has the automatic respect it once had. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 32 of the 56 signers were Anglicans. Of the 42 Presidents of the United States, the largest majority, 11, have been Episcopalians. That sort of force is fading away. Christian missionaries in developing countries claim that our liberal theology hurts their case in winning souls. But we find another problem—society overhears the church rehash age-old arguments, and finds us increasingly irrelevant, outdated and unhelpful.

And finally, as individuals we are exposed in new ways. We are uncovered and unprotected wherever we go. Not only does the threat of terrorism make us feel vulnerable and stripped of our defenses, but even at work, it’s not like it used to be. We’re not protected by seniority, or connections, race, class, or even competence. Students have to work harder just to get into college, and then there’s a fierce competition for internships and summer jobs, all in the hopes of landing a job after graduation that probably underpays and offers little long-term security. The fragility of relationships, the instability of the family, the threat of disease and illness—all of these things leave us bare and unprotected. They leave us powerless. They leave us feeling naked.

But that’s just where God comes in. Over and over and over again, God comes especially to the powerless, to the naked, to the vulnerable. In many places God passes by the powerful who are too busy or preoccupied with themselves, and God visits those who need him, those who want him, those who cry out for him. Our Lady’s song, Magnificat, champions the lowly, the hungry, the weak and the forgotten. Jesus deals with all the people he encounters, but in his sermons and stories and parables, Jesus frees people from the things that bog down and belabor. He frees for service. He frees for love.

When I was in seminary, some friends of mine designed a new t-shirt. They took the surfing phrase, “surf naked,” and changed it just a little. The new seminary t-shirt had the seminary logo, looking very stately and conservative, and then there under it in small, neat letters, it said very simply, “Pray naked.”

The t-shirt did its job of getting everyone’s attention, but it also conveyed a deeper reminder: that it is when we are naked, when we are vulnerable, when we are powerless, when we are out of strength and out of options and out of ideas--- that’s when God has room to work. That’s when God moves in and takes over and shakes things up. That’s when God comes closest. That’s when God can begin to shape us, to lead us, and to make us into miracles.

When we feel vulnerable, when we feel powerless, when we feel naked, may the Spirit remind us to trust, to listen, to wait; because nakedness before God is the very point of calling, of beginning, of new life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


© 2006 John Beddingfield

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