Purple

Carla J. Bailey, March 5, 2017

Scripture Selections from Matthew 6

In 1955, somewhat late in what had already been a successful career drawing the syndicated comic strip Barnaby, Crockett Johnson, otherwise known as David Johnson Leisk, introduced the world to Harold and the Purple Crayon. “Harold draws his universe and walks through it, using his purple crayon to create and escape from his adventures, always ending up safe (usually at home) by the book’s final page.”[1] Harold had a number of exciting adventures, created and led by his ever-wandering purple crayon. Harold’s Fairy Tale, Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold at the North Pole, Harold’s Circus and A Picture for Harold’s Room complete the saga. Until recently, I never wondered why Crockett Johnson chose purple to be Harold’s guide, but purple it was. The illustrations are cartoon-sketch black depicting little Harold, yet his magic purple crayon creates bright purple trees, monsters, ocean, sailboat, cityscapes, the moon and finally his own safe bed.

As you know, the liturgical color for the season of Lent is purple. According to the Westminster Dictionary of Worship, purple as the Lenten identifier has had a long and, well, colorful history. “The association of particular colors with seasonal worship developed for several reasons,” Westminster tells us—“some psychological and some historical. It seems natural, for instance, to associate red with blood, yellow with energy, gold with festivity, purple with dignity, green with growth, light blue with hope, dark blue and violet with despair and mourning and drab earth colors with burial. Not until the 12th century is there evidence of correlation between significant colors and the seasonal feasts and fasts of the church’s year.” The sequential rotation of colors appears to have taken hold by 1570, though for generations the use of color to mark a change of seasons in the church year was more influenced by the psychological moods colors were thought to provoke. “Thus, drab colors were more commonly used in penitential periods like Lent—violet, brown, gray; reds, deep purples and gold were used to express majesty; green and yellow during times of renewal and white to mark festivals.” Finally, in the late 1960s, with other changes brought about by Vatican II, some consistency to the liturgical colors emerged. And so, the liturgical year begins with Advent—a royal blue, then white for Christmas, green for Epiphany, purple for Lent, black or the absence of all color for Good Friday, white again for Easter, red for Pentecost and celebrations of the Church, such as ordinations and building dedications, and then green for ordinary time.

Perhaps you’re wondering why this matters as we begin the season of Lent, particularly here at Plymouth Church, a theologically progressive church that attempts to distance itself somewhat from the exotic and vaguely alien traditions of Christendom, or at least Catholicism—the smells and bells. Is it possible in our rational pragmatic approach to religion we’ve lost an appreciation for the unexplainable mystery that points to God? It’s possible—even though we deeply appreciate the arts as vehicles for a deeper understanding of the holy—we’ve drawn too adamant a line between gallery art and the more accessible symbol that accompanies the seasons of the year—a solid purple line, one might say.

I tell you what, hold that thought for a minute.

In 1982, Alice Walker published her book The Color Purple. When I first read it, very soon after its publication, it simply knocked me over. In fact, I quoted a section from the book in a sermon I preached here at Plymouth Church in 1984 to describe what I thought was perhaps the most astute definition of God I had ever read. In preparation for this meditation today I read the book again, and the very same section knocked me over, again. In the story it comes when Celie first realizes she is in love with Shug Avery, and Shug is introducing Celie to a world of color and life and wonder:

Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into the world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, Lord.

“It” I ask?

Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.

But what do it look like? I ask.

Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.

She say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separated at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I know just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.

Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You sayin’ God vain?

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it ticks God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

The season of Lent represents the 40 years Israel wandered in the wilderness and the 40 days Jesus isolated himself in the wilderness before beginning his dangerous, demanding, radical and short-lived public witness to God’s will. It’s not an easy thing to replicate, even for the most devout among us, so traditions have grown up over the centuries—wearing sackcloth and ashes on one’s forehead, regular fasting, giving up some pleasurable food or activity for the season, lighting purple candles, reading a daily devotion. These activities are intended, at least in theory, to remind us of the sacrifices Jesus made in his devotion to God. Inasmuch as they do that for those of you who observe at least some of those practices, that’s not a bad thing.

But here’s my point in highlighting purple, the color that characterizes this season of Lent—in spite of what liturgical scholars tell us, in spite of what mood purple is intended to provoke, I lift up Shug Avery’s statement of faith, that it ticks God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Notice, please, that this is a time when the vulnerable all around us need our outspoken advocacy. Notice that immigrants are afraid of our government and with good reason, despite every Scriptural mandate to treat them as if they are our own citizens. Notice, please, that stupid legislation that insists on unlimited and unfettered access to deadly weapons, if unchallenged, will result in more and more and more stupid, violent death. Notice the ascendancy of spin, the denigration of truth. Notice the color purple. And let it remind you that Jesus’ days in the wilderness weren’t intended to prepare him for the victory of the resurrection, but for the work and the danger and the trial and the grave repercussions of challenging the powers and principalities for the sake of God’s love. Notice the purple, and prepare for that work. Amen.

[1]Philip Nel, “Harold, Barnaby, and Dave: A Biography of Crockett Johnson,” The Crockett Johnson Homepage, http://www.k-state.edu/english/nelp/purple/biography.html (accessed March 7, 2017).