Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Have you seen this Web site, peopleofwalmart.com?
It was one of the biggest Internet phenomena of 2009. It went viral sometime last fall, and for a while there, everybody was talking about it. It’s still easily one of the most-Googled search terms on the Internet. Here’s how it works: if you’re shopping at Walmart and see someone extraordinary standing in the checkout line, you snap a picture and send it in. If it’s extraordinary enough, they’ll post it online along with appropriately hilarious captions.
When a friend sent me to the site last fall, I spent a very enjoyable 45 minutes giggling my way through its pages. The parade of mullets, trashy novelty T-shirts, ill-matched or ill-fitting clothing, and acres of inappropriately bared flesh, all capped with wickedly funny commentary, proved too potent a lure to tear my eyes from. I didn’t want to look away, anyway.
I didn’t think about People of Walmart again for a long time. Fairly recently, I came across it again, and I noticed a lot that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. I noticed how heavily the site’s humor relied on fat jokes. I noticed a lot of pictures of transgender people. I noticed that while there were a few deliberately outrageous people there, posing and laughing for the camera, that most of the people had no idea they were being photographed and were just obviously poor. I noticed that the site referred to the people it featured as “Wal-Creatures”.
And I thought, “What the hell is wrong with me?” Why did I think this was funny last time around? This is a Web site about taking pictures of people without their knowledge and posting them online for ridicule. It’s designed to allow me to do all the things that I can’t do—wouldn’t do—if I were standing in line with them at the store, like stare, and comment, and snicker. Like avoid looking them in the eyes and seeing a person there, so that I don’t have to wonder what kind of life might lead to someone being hundreds of pounds overweight, or what it might be like to be a trans woman in rural Arkansas, or whether there might be a reason that someone might have to wear dirty pajamas to the store. I mean, yes, bad outfits can be funny. But this is grosser than that, you know? This is a Web site that refers to its human subjects as “creatures”. That is so unsubtle, and yet, I missed it, and thought this was harmless. And I laughed and was not ashamed.
How does that happen? I work to be able to recognize the humanity in the people around me every day. I pray—hard—that God will help me with it. It’s my job. What is that? What was so hard, so dense about me that I couldn’t see that the humor in that site is about dehumanizing people, about taking away from them what God has given them? Where does that shell come from? How does that happen?
Now, look. I don’t want to overreact here. I know that as sins go, laughing at peopleofwalmart.com is a pretty lightweight one. I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t kick a puppy. I didn’t run a giant Ponzi scheme and ruin hundreds of lives.
But don’t you know that that same callousness, that same hardening, that same shell that lets me click through a site like that without thinking about it is the same callousness, alike in kind if not in degree, that lets a murderer do what she does? Don’t you think it’s the same hardening that makes it possible to abuse an animal, or a child, or a spouse? Don’t you think it’s the same shell that lets anybody ruin anybody’s life in any of a zillion different ways?
To live and survive in this world is to filter it. No one can pay attention to every single sound that he hears. No one can respond to every single stimulus that comes her way. No one can pay full attention to every single person that crosses his path in a day. The TV in the next room, the kids shouting across the street, a ringing telephone; we learn to filter these things out as needed and only pay attention to the ones we need to pay attention to. It is necessary for survival.
But it is so easy, so easy for that filter to close, so easy for this hard world to harden it into a shell that does more than simply protect me from extraneous stimuli but filters out even the personhood of the people around me. Don’t you know? Isn’t that what let you look at a Web site that you shouldn’t have? Isn’t that what lets you walk by the guy on the street asking for money? Isn’t that what lets you barely pay attention to the latest news from Darfur when it comes on? Don’t you know about that shell? Haven’t you felt it not just around yourself, but around others, too?
When a grain of wheat is growing, it has a hard outer covering. This covering protects it from the world, from getting too wet or too dry or too sun-scorched and dying before it is ripe. But if that grain of wheat is to do what it is meant to do, which is—depending on your point of view—either to fall to the ground and grow new wheat or to be ground up into flour for human consumption, if it is to do either of those things, that covering, the chaff, has to open up and come off.
Now, For humans who want to use that wheat to be turned into flour and then into bread, the traditional way to make this happen is to thresh it, to beat the grains until the chaff loosens and falls off. Then both pieces, the wheat and the chaff, are tossed up into the air with a tool called a winnowing fork. The grains of wheat are heavier than the chaff, and so the wind blows the chaff away while the grains fall back to the threshing floor to be gathered together and used.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John the Baptizer says of Jesus, “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The traditional interpretation of that statement is that some people—the good people—are the wheat and some people—the bad people—are the chaff, and Jesus is coming to separate the two. But I don’t think that’s what John meant. I think he meant that we are all, everybody, we are all the wheat. And we have all, to a greater or lesser extent, grown that hard outer shell, that chaff, around us to protect ourselves from a harsh and painful world. I think he was saying that that shell gets in the way, protects us and our hearts too much from the humanity around us, sometimes keeps us from even seeing the humanity in the people around us or in the Web sites we look at. I think he was saying good news, and that it was this: that Jesus came to take that chaff away forever, to destroy it, and show us that even without that protection we’ve grown for ourselves, we rest safe in the love of the one who looks at us and says, “You are my child, my beloved, and I am well-pleased in you.”
Beating the husks off and letting them blow away is the traditional way to remove the chaff from the wheat, but there is another way to do it: you can soak it off. You can put the wheat in water and let the water soften the chaff until it floats away.
And this is, of course, the way the Christians do it. It’s the way that Jesus did it. He went down into the waters of the Jordan, and when he came back up, something that had covered him was gone forever. When he came back up, he was revealed for all that he was, revealed so fully that heaven itself opened up. And he would live the next three years unprotected, looking fully into the humanity of every person he met, touching them and loving them and calling them to account and healing them and telling them the same thing over and over and over in a hundred different ways.
He went to the Pharisees, and the children, and the Twelve, and the 5000, and Mary, and Martha, and said, “You are God’s own child, and God delights in you.” He went to the overweight lady in the stained, too-small T-shirt yelling at her child in the line at Wal-mart, and he went to the guy with the mullet, and he said, “You are God’s own child, and God delights in you.” He went to the woman stemming on Boylston Street, and he went to the guy drunk on rubbing alcohol on the Common, and the illegal immigrant working in the nursing home in Dorchester, and the soldier in Iraq, and the insurgent in Iraq, and the child in a refugee camp in Africa, and he said to all with ears to hear, “This is my own child, the beloved, and I am well-pleased with her.”
Now, living without a shell in this hard world is not easy. Striving to recognize the humanity in those whose humanity the world does not want to recognize can be risky. Living unprotected from the pain of those around you can be dangerous. Even when it’s not dangerous, it can hurt. Even Jesus only managed three years of it, and you know what the world did to him. But you also know what God did then.
Christians come to the waters of baptism to soften our shells. We go down into those waters to begin the process of removing the chaff from our wheat, to begin to open ourselves fully to the world around us and the people around us, even the ugly ones, even the poor ones, even the ones who wear neon green spandex onesies to the store. We get baptized, we become Christians, to keep those natural filters and those natural protective instincts from hardening so much that we cannot see that everyone around is exactly as beloved of God as Jesus himself is.
For most of us, it will not happen as quickly as it did for Jesus. For most of us, those waters of baptism will be soaking into our chaff for a very long time indeed before it finally falls away forever and we see the world as God sees it in every moment. But it will happen. It’s happening even now. I know it’s happening because you’re here. I know it’s happening because you knit prayer shawls. Because you give food for the food pantry. Because you sing to patients in dialysis and serve on the Outreach Committee and give money and time to Old South, because you pray for peace and you pray for your brothers and sisters. I know it’s happening. But I know it’s hard, and I know that most of us aren’t there yet.
I know most of us can use a reminder of who we are from time to time, a call back to openness and to God, away from blindness and from bad Web sites. Couldn’t you? Don’t you need to be reminded from time to time of who you are and whose you are? Couldn’t you use a little help opening up, a little reminder that you are beloved and so is the world? Don’t you want to be softened up?
On Baptism of Christ Sunday, churches down through the ages and all over the world take the opportunity to do just that, to remind themselves of the baptism they have received and the grace that softens the world and the chaff they are trying to shed, to remind them about the God that loves them beyond all comprehension. And we would like to invite you to do it too. There are bowls of water from the Jordan River, the same water that touched God’s own skin. As we rise and sing the hymn following the sermon, any who wish to are invited to come forward to the head of the aisles to be reminded of their baptisms. Any who have not been baptized but would like a reminder of God’s love for them should come forward and indicate that either by telling us so or by crossing your arms over your chest; we will be so glad to pray a blessing over you.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus went down into the water to have the chaff removed and to be revealed as the son of God. We go down into the water to have our chaff removed so that everyone else might be revealed to us as sons and daughters of God as well.
Come now to be softened. Come now to be revealed. Come now to be reminded. Come now for amazing grace. Amen.