The following sermon was preached by Deb Whalen at Wine Before Breakfast on January 17.
It all began in the garden. A loving and shrewd God squinting at Adam and Eve.
“Who told you you were naked?”
It’s ironic that Adam and Eve’s first lie was an attempt at covering up their wrongdoing, and they chose to make it about their need to cover up their bodies. And we’ve been dealing with the fallout ever since. Because of Adam and Eve, every one of us, each and every day stands in front of our closet, asking:
“What am I going wear?”
By this point in our lives, as evidenced by all the fully clothed people in the room today, we’ve all learned to dress ourselves, no longer relying on someone else to choose our outfits on for us. Even those of us for whom getting dressed is merely a basic necessity, we’ve figured out at least what doesn’t work. What colours we hate and won’t wear. What fabrics we simply cannot bear because they are a punishment to our skin. And we know generally what size we like to wear, even if it is too big, like some of our most forthright friends and family will insist on telling us. Perhaps some of us have adopted a bit of a uniform, with a number of items in our closet that are in multiples. 3 plain black or white t-shirts, a few button up shirts, maybe one white and another a darker colour. A sweater or a cardigan. A pair or two of jeans. 1 pair of “nice” pants, or a skirt that goes with anything, and a bare minimum amount of shoes. Perhaps you have assembled a wardrobe of pieces that are interchangeable with one another so that when you get up in the morning, the decision making comes down to whatever is cleanest. And then at the end of the week, one load of laundry resets the whole situation and you can begin again on Monday.
But for others, getting dressed is FUN. There’s a creativity involved that allows us to match colours and patterns and fabrics. Even in the winter, a fashion-excited (and weather-savvy) person can check the temperature and think “Minus 15. Right. That means either the black or green cardigan. Am I feeling sleek and mysterious today, or do I need a pop of colour? You know what? It’s going to be grey all day, so green it is. Which means the white button up, and… I can wear my teal plaid pants with the brown boots. Great. I love these boots!” For some, calculating an outfit can be as exciting as redesigning a room in one’s house, or choosing a subject and colour palate for a new painting, and we can spend as much time as we are afforded on exploring all the possibilities. Not to mention the bonus of the endorphin rush that comes with shopping for more and more possibilities.
Each of us in the room will fall at various places along this spectrum of how we feel about dressing ourselves every day. And we might even harbour some judgements about people who approach it differently to us. And I hope you don’t expect me to tell you who is right. I don’t believe in a Biblical dress code, so far as what is appropriate to wear. Because I don’t think it matters. Frankly I am far more interested in WHY we dress the way we do. Because whether the wardrobe you have is styled after Johnny Cash or Moira Rose, it is a sad fact that many people wear their clothes as a means of covering up more than just their bare, cold skin.
Some of us are covering up bodies we hate -or at least bodies we think could be better. Men, women, and non-binary people alike, for so many different reasons, often desire different bodies than the ones we have, and while things like exercise, diet and plastic surgeries can (for better or worse) help us change those bodies, in the interim, clothing allows us to deal with the ways we feel our bodies are falling short.
Brenda mentioned in this week’s email that I spent a long time working in retail -and it’s true. For over 10 years I worked as a bra-fitter, working with people of all shapes and sizes, and I saw, in a very intimate way, how impacted we are by the expectations of how we think we should look. But I actually want to tell a personal story, from long before my bra-fitting years. All the way back to my adolescence.
I went to high school in the 90s, and I was a grunge-era, artsy kid. I was a girl who didn’t feel beautiful. I was bigger than the pretty girls. I didn’t fit into any of the trendy clothes at the mall. So I wore baggy jeans and tshirts. That was my uniform. Even at summer camp, because I didn’t want anyone to see my arms or legs. I LOVED being in the water, but I dreaded those few seconds it took me to remove my outer layers and get my bathing-suited self into the obscurity of the water. I was so ashamed of my body.
When I was 17, I got a solo in one of our school variety shows and the number required me to wear a look that was more formal than I was used to. The director told me to bring in 2 or 3 dress options and she and my dance teacher would decide which was best. I had nothing at home, I was sure, that would be appropriate, so my mom took me shopping and we found a few long dresses that would cover up my legs, and were very in style, and even though they made me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable and awkward, I took them to school and shuffled out onto the stage in one dress after the other, while the program director and the dance teacher hemmed and hawed over them, from the safety of the seats in the back.
I can’t remember what I ended up wearing in that show, but I remember as clear as if it were yesterday, what happened next. My dance teacher, Ms. Frid, a gorgeous and toned woman with full, luscious dark hair rolling down her back, waved me to the back of the auditorium so she could speak to me privately. It was just the two of us, and she was careful and kind, but very direct: “I can see that these outfits you’ve been showing us are very different to what you wear from day to day, and that it’s making you a little uncomfortable, so I just wanted to encourage you a bit. You wear a lot of oversized, baggier clothes, and if that’s for the sake of comfort or intentional style, then more power to you. But if you are trying to hide a body that you think is ugly, please hear me when I tell you it is not. What I just saw up there on that stage is a body that is strong and feminine and beautiful and if you want to, you are allowed to show it off.”
Well. It was one of the most vulnerable and important moments in all my life. The idea of being beautiful was so bone alien to me. So I muttered, “Ok thank you.” And then ran to the bathroom where I locked myself into a stall and bawled my eyes out. Part of me was scared, part of me was confused, and most miraculously, part of me wondered if Ms. Frid could be right. Maybe I wasn’t hideous. Thank God I was already in counselling, and had someone to talk to about it. And I am thankful, every day, for that turning point where the voice of the Holy Spirit, through a perceptive dance teacher, was able to break through the walls I’d built up around myself. I was hiding more than just a body behind all those baggy clothes. I was also hiding a lot of anxiety and self-loathing. But still, all of a sudden, that voice reached into the heart of me and asked:
“Who told you you were ugly?”
I had fallen victem to all the voices that surround us every day, telling us we aren’t acceptable the way we are. We need to be smarter. Faster. Prettier. Stronger. Have more followers. Be married. Have children. Play the game. Wow the judges -no matter who you need to step over or throw under the bus. It’s been a long time since I was a teen-ager, and I’m sorry to say that none of these lying, incessant voices have gone away. But I have learned to distinguish God’s voice from the din, because God doesn’t talk like them. God doesn’t need me to do, say, achieve, wear or look like anything in order to be a beloved child in the Kingdom. But the transformation that can happen when we accept that we already belong… it is life-changing. And, in fact, it comes with a functional and gorgeous new wardrobe.
“The Great Spirit has chosen you to be his holy and deeply loved children, so put on the new regalia he has provided for you. Put on the deep feeling for the pain of others, kindness, humbleness of heart, gentleness of spirit, and be patient with one another. Learn to forgive. Be thankful.”
God doesn’t just hold out unconditional, affectionate loving kindness; God wraps us in it. We wear it like a warm coat. And as we come across those who are shivering, naked, and hiding in the bushes, we need to do our best to coax them to come out so we. In turn, can wrap that loving kindness around them. When we’re not worrying over ourselves and whether or not we measure up, we are free to move through the world with an ease that will make any outfit sing, and more importantly it frees us up to care for one another. To beckon and welcome more people to the Kingdom and to put on all this stunning regalia.
This is how the Kingdom gets built. With the very fabric of compassion and empathy. With humility and gentleness of spirit and gratitude. These are things that mark Christ-followers and set us apart from a world that wants us to compete with one another, to cover up our faults, to hide our true selves. God doesn’t want us to hide. He wants us to be transformed. We’re already made in God’s image, what we’re shedding is the façade that we create when we give into the pressures of earthly Kingdoms. We’re becoming more and more like God as we are renewed. More like the selves we were always meant to be. Creation is not something of the past. It is still happening, because God is still at work in us.
Even so, I’m afraid to say, clothing is still not optional. One of my favourite writers, journalist Caitlin Moran, wrote an article about women and clothing once and pointed out something that I don’t think you have to be a woman to relate to. She says that when we stand in front of our closets thinking “I have nothing to wear!” what we are actually saying is “I have nothing that looks like who I am supposed to be today!” While we do need to figure out what will be appropriate for the lives we lead from day to day -here on campus, in offices, in churches, travelling around town- I hope that urgency to demonstrate ourselves can be curbed, as Christ-followers, by knowing that the main thing we wear is our strengthening Christ-like character, that regalia God has given to us. It may seem like just a white t-shirt and jeans. Or a vintage dress. Or a jacket and tie. But how you move in those things, the confidence and kindness you show in those outfits, the forgiveness or encouragement you can give to people who don’t expect it, these are what will make people look at you twice and wonder what makes you different. It’s the royal attire we wear from the inside out, giving us our holy beauty. That is what will stop people in their tracks.