“Naked as a jaybird”
Message preached on
May 6, 2018
You’ve got to wear something, you know.
“Naked as a jaybird” … You’ve heard that phrase, haven’t you? In the way I’ve always used it, these four words refer to standing in your “all-together,” otherwise known as your “birthday suit,” that is - the clothes you were born wearing, also known as “nothing at all.” I thought of this phrase in relation to the words we just heard from the apostle Paul. I wondered, however, where did it come from? Am I using it correctly? So, as many folks do in this day and age, I asked “Google” to search the Internet for an answer. And I found … nothing definitive.
Some say that phrase started out as “Naked as a Robin,” that is the bird we associate with Spring, seeing its red breast strutting around in the now warmer weather. Somewhere along the line, the metaphor shifted to the Bluejay, otherwise known as the Jaybird. Why the change? Couldn’t find an answer. Far from being naked, however, the Bluejay is covered with brilliant blue and white and black feathers--a veritable riot of clothing. Now such birds, jays and robins alike, are born with hardly any down at all. So, I guess you could say that they are naked at that point, and quite helpless.
Which gets at another version of where this saying originates. Over a hundred years ago in this country - the 19th century – the term “jay” was a slang expression for a hick, a simpleton, a gullible person. In that case, naked as a jay would refer to a completely vulnerable person, not to a bird. This might be where we get the word, “jaywalk.” A country bumpkin might be taken in by all the sights and sounds of the big city that he pays no attention to traffic. Just walks right across the road in the middle of it. That is, he jaywalks. Might as well be naked. He stands out “like a sore thumb” (another phrase I’ll have ask “Google” about sometime).
I discovered yet a third possibility for the genesis of this phrase, “naked as a jaybird.” Think the U.S. penal system in the 1920’s and 30’s. “J-bird” was short for “jailbird.” The first step in entering the penitentiary as a prisoner (a J-bird) was to strip down for a shower before being outfitted with the latest jailhouse fashion. Walking from shower to cell would thus be done with nothing on at all, that is, “naked as a j-bird.”
Well now, regardless of where this phrase originated, we all need to wear something along the way, otherwise we’re “naked as a jaybird.” Of course, for toddlers – those early on in this journey called life – nakedness is sometimes a preferred way of being. Little ones can strip down to their altogether as quickly and easily as all-get-out and have absolutely no compunction about being naked. Most of us, however, find the thought of that to be quite embarrassing. Blame it on Adam and Eve, or whatever coming-of-age inhibition you wish. The truth is, we’re not very comfortable in our own skin. Being “naked as a jaybird” is the stuff of nightmares for most of us.
It’s funny how this feeling of “being naked as a jaybird,” understood as being vulnerable, intolerably visible, unsure of not only our appearance but also our identity; this feeling leads us to wander in some strange directions… His name was Jeff Exon. In elementary school, he and I were the best of friends. We spent a lot of time in each other’s home, back in the day when kids freely wandered a neighborhood without helicopter parents. We were inseparable.
And then Junior High School happened. All of a sudden, or so it seemed at the time, everything changed. Jeff put on a different group of friends, and ditched me in the process. I guess I wasn’t … what was the word we used then? … I wasn’t “cool” enough. I didn’t act the same way he now did. I guess he was just trying to fit in as best he could, just like I was in those uncomfortable in-between years. It was like we were wearing different outfits, though I’m sure our mothers still had us wearing similar clothes. It seemed like he always had a sneer on, at least in relation to me, and wore a knowing kind of laughter that rejected those considered “uncool.” He probably considered me a naïve jaybird, lost amid the hustle and bustle of Junior High.
Mind you, I tried clothing myself as best I could because, like every in-between-er that’s ever walked this earth, no matter what their age may be, we try to fit in, to find our niche. It’s actually a good thing to try out different clothes, and I’m not just talking about shirts and shoes. I tried on a “nerd” outfit, for instance, though it felt a little loose. I wasn’t a math wiz, you see, though I did like hanging out with what was then the “AV” crew in the library (in the era before school media centers). What different clothes, so to speak, have you dressed up in? … Me? … I also wore a scout outfit, a literal shirt and pants, which brought with it a calling to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” At least that was the plan, though I knew plenty who just mouthed the words at scout meetings but took them off whenever the uniform was removed. At times, that was me.
The thing is, without clothing we’re “naked as a jaybird.” Theologically speaking, that’s been our experience since it all started. Like, “In the beginning…” the opening chapters of the Bible. “In the beginning” being “naked as a jaybird” was good. But all it took was a bite of the fruit of a certain tree (we’re talking metaphorically here, in case you hadn’t guessed) to change everything. Blame it on the serpent for the suggestion. Blame it on Eve for being receptive. Blame it on Adam for being gullible. Or even blame it on God for making that one rule, which everyone knows you just have to break. It’s human nature to “do” whatever is commanded “don’t.” You just have to wear exactly what you’re told not to. And it starts long before Junior High, or as they call it now, “middle school.” It’s the story of our race – that is, the “human” race.
We’ve progressed a long way since putting on those fig leaves to keep from being “naked as a jaybird.” Adam and Eve were the original “Jays,” you know - country bumpkins who found themselves in a much bigger place once they bit off more than they could chew of this “good and evil” stuff. They jaywalked themselves out of the Garden of Eden, which was a bit like a cold shower and a “Jailbird” march into a different habitation. According to the story as we’ve received it in the Bible, we’ve been on that journey ever since.
Along the way, you’ve got to wear something, otherwise you are, what? … “naked as a jaybird.” Vulnerable. Exposed. Weak. Gullable. Naïve. … a child. We can put on some pretty strange looking clothes to keep from being a jaybird. Over the course of your years, what sort of outfits have you worn? You know, don’t you, that I’m not talking about actual clothes, though sometimes (well, maybe often) these things are expressed in fashion. It’s in our high school years that this seems most obvious. It’s almost like a uniform you wear to fit with what we’re trying to be. Some schools try to do away with it by having everyone literally wear the same outfit. But all it takes is just a slight variation, and you’ve put on a whole different mindset. True?
And so we come to this morning’s scripture, which is the theme for National Youth Conference this summer. In it, the apostle Paul invites us to put on a wardrobe picked out by God. You’ve got to wear something, you know. Consider this: Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Meekness (aka Quiet Strength). Patience. Bearing with each other. Forgiveness. Love. Peace Gratitude. What an outfit!
Now, a few caveats. First - these are not like a scout uniform you put on and off. Once you start down this path of wearing these things, you don’t turn back. Our plain-clothed Brethren forebearers emphasized this. It’s not a uniform, it’s a way of living from now on. It’s sort of like that scene in the scifi comedy, Men in Black, where agent “J” (that was his name, he was a Jaybird, if you will), was given his new suit to wear from now on as a “Man in Black.” “It’s the last outfit you’ll ever wear,” he was told by agent “Z.” … You are what you wear, our forebearers knew. So that kept it plain, that God might be more evident. It’s a life-long investment, however. You don’t put it on and off.
There’s second caution. Wearing all this cannot really be commanded. The minute we are told to not do something, is the very moment we begin wanting to do it. In the same way, when we are told to do some something, there is within us a desire to do exactly the opposite. When compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude are made into a law we must obey – we are heading down a slippery slope. We know in our minds what we should do, but the power of … what’s that big word, 3 letters, begins with “s” and ends with “n”? … the power of Sin gets in the way. What we really don’t want to do we do. What we really want to do, we don’t.
Start using the word “must” and we all mess it up. Compassion becomes a show, kindness morphs into just being nice, humility is just an impression, meekness is a wet noodle, patience shifts into a knowing smile, forbearance becomes a weak form of toleration, forgiveness is but words, love is only a feeling, peace is but the absence of violence not the presence of something more, and gratitude lacks any real giving or receiving.
“With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah,” however (as paraphrased in Eugene Peterson’s The Message) “that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).
We are clothed by Christ. It’s not simply wearing his outfit, however. It’s living in him, or rather, him living in us. It is only by the grace of God that any of this is even possible. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude are real. Wearing them, we become real and grace-full. The truth, however, is that this outfit is not like the world’s armor. It’s not meant to be used against others, but for them. Viewed from one perspective you might argue that all of this is naïve, that it’s being too simple in a complicated world, that wearing this outfit makes us vulnerable as followers of Jesus, that with it we’re “naked as a jaybird.”
Hmm … What do you think?