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									“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



Look around, friends. So many T-shirts with logos and
designs and slogans. Yes, you’ve got a name. Wearing your
message, expressing your identity, just a piece of who you
are, how you think, what you feel, your word to the world
in this very moment, a reflection in some instances of your
high expectations. And I know at least some of you, maybe
many of you have had that T-shirt you sport today, for
years. You wear it. You wash it. You dig it out of a drawer
now and again and there it is: that bookstore, that justice
message, that logo from your alma mater…Maybe a new
shirt or comfortably your old reliable..….Serious or funny,
there it is once again…your T and your headline.


I wonder if you happened to see the news story about a
stealth message on a T- shirt? At at a nationalist music
festival in Germany, a small band of people distributed 250
T- shirts to people attending a rightwing-oriented rock
concert. The T’s had messages on them that celebrated the
sound and the extremist cause. The slogan on the shirts
read "hardcore rebels" and had their emblematic skull and
nationalist flags. But once the T-shirts were washed, the
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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



words turned. The original words had disappeared and in
their place was an entirely different communication. The
shirts now read: "If your T-shirt can do it, you can do it too
– we'll help you get away from right-wing extremism”.


I don’t think any of our shirts will be doing that,
changing like that, not in this moment—though maybe
you’ll want to race home after coffee hour and wash
them and see what happens…. but it is T- Shirt Sunday
here at First Parish. You’ve been invited to wear a T-
shirt today, one that has a message you want to
proclaim to the world or simply offer up for a shared
smile. If you are watching at home I hope you’ll grab a
T- shirt or just think of one you have or seen and its
message, one that you would share with us if you were
here in person.
Wearing your heart on your shirt sleeve or, with T-
shirts, on your chest or back, is a relatively new thing, if
you think about it. For centuries messaging was
something that was done by way of debate in the public


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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



square, quite literally, or announcement by the town
crier and the posting of parchment decrees. I wonder if
Luther, in 1517—instead of posting his “95 Theses on
the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” on a church
door—if he’d had access to a good cotton-poly blend
and one of those printing presses, if the Reformation
might not have unfolded more rapidly?
T shirts, like everything, have a history to them. They
were first made and distributed through the United
States Navy in the Spanish American War and became
standard military issue and then, in the Depression,
farmworker attire. Ts became popular casual wear by
way of a 1951 movie. A Streetcar Named Desire brought
us Marlon Brando in a white cotton T and a new fashion
statement was born, first and for some years as part of
the uniform of a rebel or “greaser”.
So T shirts became a message in and of themselves. But
messages on T-shirts? Human billboards appeared in the
19th century, sandwich signs that men would wear, for a
small wage, as they walked on the street or danced by

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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



the curb’s edge drawing attention to the offerings of the
nearby haberdasher or tobacconist. In the Civil Rights
movement, during the 1950’s, protesters wore
sandwich signs urging passersby “don’t buy where you
can’t be a salesman”. There really wasn’t T shirt
messaging until the 1960s and from there they took off.
These days personal messaging by way of tatoos is a big
thing, especially though not exclusively with young
people. You can even rent out your forehead or eye-lids
or other publicly visible body parts for temporary
tattoos advertizing all kinds of things. It’s true. A few
years back a legal secretary in Southern California was
nearly arrested. Her brother called the police on her
thinking she needed an evaluation because she’d shaved
her head. Turns out she’d done it so she could earn
money courtesy of an airline company that would pay
her to advertize the wonders of a visit to New Zealand
and to do so with a temporary tattoo across the back of
her skull. Certainly more dramatic than wearing a T



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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



with a slogan on it but a sacrifice the woman was willing
to make.
In thinking about this service today I put a note up on a
social networking board asking what people thought
about T-shirt messaging. I mean I get it, it is old school
compared to texting, social media, or tweeting. But
given the choice I’ll take the snail mail birthday card
and the physical book vs. an email or Kindle text—
though they’re good too you understand and admittedly
“greener”. As much as I appreciate the new stuff, and I
don’t like bumper stickers still, I do like the physicality
of a T shirt, that kinesthetic aspect, that on-person in-
person visual of the words and images, so I wrote some
questions asking folks to focus on the T.
My cyberspace query went out, of course, in a flash, to
several hundred potential readers and nearly as quickly
ping ping ping several responses appeared. One
colleague is clearly and righteously discriminating
about what she’ll say via T shirt. She’ll only advertize a
product she’d want people to buy. “Local Organic

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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



Produce, yes. Soft drinks, no.”. . Another said she doesn’t
wear shirts with messages of any kind on principle—no
free advertizing—and, besides, designer that she is, it
takes away from what should be one’s focus: the face.
A United Church of Christ minister I know, a former
Miss California, a young adult and mom and quite a tech
savvy person, says she’s starting a new group in her
community, Christians on the Left, and she loves having
her message on a T shirt. She says it’s a great
conversation starter on the street, in cafes, in the
grocery store, on the playground as parents watch their
little ones. It’s helping her to organize and let others
know there IS such a thing as a Leftie Christian, as she
proudly claims herself to be, and a growing community
of us coming out about it as well. It’s not unlike the
Blank Noise Project born in India. Volunteers in that
organization message against sexual harassment and do
so in various forms including making T-shirts that say
things like “I Never Ask For It”.



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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



Paul, a former colleague from my AIDS Health Project
days, lives in Thailand now still working to stop AIDS.
He questions the value of T-shirts in the age of texting
since texting is free in Thailand and cell phones are
everywhere. Back when we worked at the AIDS Health
Project together, he did publicity and public relations
and made everyone wear T-shirts with AIDS prevention
messages.
I read Paul’s message a second time and a third and I’m
flooded with a universe of memories. So many messages
on so many shirts and more, so many years of work, and
we’re 30 plus years into this crazy world-wide disaster.
I want to say, “Paul, love is local, care is now, right here
and as small a thing as it may seem to be your efforts
were and are important. If work equals effort times
distance, Paul, you have worked and accomplished so
much and with love. You still do.”
A T-shirt message may seem like a silly thing in the big
picture, but in their way those Stop AIDS Ts serve in my
memory as one symbol of our successes large and small,

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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



and of our overwhelming losses and disappointments.
Still, we pick ourselves up, even as we stumble into our
grief, and try another day. “You do it, Paul” I want to
say. “Your efforts to make a more just and
compassionate world response to the AIDS pandemic--
they matter.”
Maybe all of it---T shirt messages, press releases,
articles and books, training and counseling---maybe all
of it put together was like trying to put out a forest fire
with a super-soaker. Sobering to consider when you
think globally about AIDS. But you never know, what if
something as simplistic as a T shirt message was the
thing that happened to turn a light on and save one
person from doing that next thing that would have led
him or her onto a permanent spot on the HIV-infected
rolls. One message. One hug. One kind word. One
something.
I want to make a T-shirt for Paul and send it to him so
he can wear it in Bangkok, in English and Thai, “grateful
for this, the only day we have, and a chance to do the

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“I  What My T-Shirt Says”, a sermon by Rev JD Benson, first delivered at First Parish Brewster, August 19,2012



good we dare to dream, together” even though I know
that’s probably too many words, covering both
languages, for a T. And even as I slide into and out of
places of shadow and light, even to and from where the
bittersweet grows infinite and wild, I come up for a
breath and move on. Because what we each and all have
is right now and only right now. There is now and what
we tell each other now and what we believe and long for
and lift up and laugh about and cry over. Now. And in all
the blessed silences. In this moment. And this. We are
all we have in this moment, isolated in time and space.
Our hopes. Our dreams. Our deepest longings. Our
deepest belly laughs and appreciative smiles and
chuckles too. All of it. Let it be good.




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