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Red Hats

By Rev. Joan Kessler

Matthew 21:1 – 11

If I were to say the name Sue Ellen Cooper, it’s not likely I’m going to get much reaction. You may not be familiar with this woman, but I can bet that most of you already know about the movement that she started back in late 90s known as the Red Hat Society. In the fall of 1997, American artist, Sue Ellen Cooper, purchased an old red fedora for $7.50 from a thrift shop during a trip to Tucson, Arizona. When a good friend was nearing a 55th birthday, Cooper gifted her with a red hat and it soon became her gift of choice for her middle-aged and senior friends… Cooper was also inspired by a poem about what it means to age as a woman entitled Warning, written by Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple With a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me, And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter. I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired, And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells, And run my stick along the public railings, And make up for the sobriety of my youth. I shall go out in my slippers in the rain And pick the flowers in other people's gardens, And learn to spit. You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat, And eat three pounds of sausages at a go, Or only bread and pickle for a week, And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats and things in boxes. But now we must have clothes that keep us dry, And pay our rent and not swear in the street, And set a good example for the children. We will have friends to dinner and read the papers. But maybe I ought to practise a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised, When suddenly I am old and start to wear purple!

This is a poem really about one woman’s social rebellion. She’s aging, and she doesn’t really care what people think of her anymore. She’s going to do what she wants when she wants, and she thinks there’s no time like the present to get started. Cooper’s gift choice of the red hat was apparently repeated several times over and women were feeling empowered to step outside the box we could say and take on a renewed outlook on life where they wore purple outfits and red hats together and didn’t care what anybody thought. Chapters of the Red Hat Society have sprung up all over the continent. When the group started, you had to be 55 to join but according to Wikipedia, the age requirement has been waived.

This poem spoke to me this Palm Sunday, as we gather for this special service to mark the beginning of Holy Week and it comes between our two thrift store fashion shows. We didn’t see any red hats and purple outfits at our performance last evening but it certainly was a parade of beautiful and colorful pieces that, if only for a moment, transported us to a different role and a different way of seeing ourselves. What a gift this opportunity has been, to showcase our thrift store, our talent, and our treasures with our community… to laugh together and be in a room full of people. We are readjusting to this in a post-COVID world. I don’t know about you, but I do not take these things for granted any longer as I did before the pandemic. This event that we are right in the midst of, even this morning as we gather at card tables in small groupings, feels special and it shows our community at our best.

Today brings us to the end of our season of Lent and exploration of creativity. We have heard all kinds of stories these past weeks. We have considered the visual arts of painting and mural-making and involving a neighborhood in its beautification. We were reminded to use our voices, and it doesn’t have to be a loud voice but there are all kinds of ways of speaking one’s truth. We thought about the work of clay between our hands and how this can be a mindful way of managing our grief. We considered our confidence and how with a little encouragement from one another, we all have an artist waiting to be revealed and it can start as simply with a dot or a squiggle. This morning, I am thinking about cloaks on dusty roads and red hats and purple outfits, the way threads and fabric come together to express our inner creativity once again in ways that are life-giving when we use up bits of this and that to make something beautiful. The Thrift Store Fashion Show has been a true celebration of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, of giving new life to something that another had finished with or discarded.

Joseph in our story was most talented and creative with the needle and thread. He was not going to throw his coat away just because it had a hole in it. How does this thread tie into our Palm Sunday reading this morning? Think for a moment of the cloak. It would have been a most precious possession to those in the middle class, those on the margins in Jesus’ time. They knew what was happening on the other side of town that day; Governor Pontius Pilate was riding into Jerusalem surrounded with pomp and circumstance, struttin’ his stuff. The ruler was accompanied by legions of chariots, horses, and foot soldiers, dressed for battle and armed with spears and swords. Those who greeted Jesus at the gate to Jerusalem heralded him as their new king, the one who would deliver them from the bondage of Roman oppression and restore the house of Israel to a state not seen since the reign of King David. Jesus planned his counter-procession with a ragtag entourage and would have been seen as absurd in comparison to what this day demanded. Rome was in charge, not Jesus. Jesus’ arrival was anti-militant, anti-triumphal, arriving on an unthreatening donkey with her colt tagging along beside her. Did they get the joke? Did they appreciate the subversive gesture of their king, their hoped-for Messiah as they waved their palm branches and spread out their cloaks on the ground?

This day that we commemorate ushers in our Holy Week. It is the beginning of the end for Jesus. Or perhaps it’s the end that ushers in a new beginning. What does this Palm Sunday mean to us? What in my life needs a new imagining, to look beyond the surface stuff and see where new potential can be found? It’s like digging for hope and finding a thread that we pull on. Because when you find one thread and then another and another, we can weave them together to make something new and purposeful and beautiful. As our exploration of creativity draws to a close, may we know the thread of God that weaves through our lives, connecting us to one another in our disappointments, in plans gone awry, in the “dress rehearsals” that life brings and those beautiful opportunities to laugh at ourselves and try again. To wear purple and red together as a bold statement of “this is who I am and what I value and I am not afraid to show you”.

Jesus didn’t care what things looked like. And when things didn’t go according to the expectations of others, he just rolled with it… all the way into Jerusalem for one last Passover. And this is good news this Palm Sunday because it means Jesus was prepared to stand up for those on the margins, those who were scraping by and didn’t have any concern for putting on airs. Jesus rode into Jerusalem close to the ground on the back of a donkey; he cared for those who lined his path. May we recall this story as our coming days unfold. A blessed Holy Week to you all and Amen.

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