A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 10, 2012 (Proper 5, Year B)
It’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those anxiety dreams where I show up to school naked (now please erase that visual image). But I used to have them occasionally – usually it was pretty recognizable as middle school. We’ve all probably had similar dreams; the kind that make you wake up in a cold sweat.
In a sense Adam and Eve lived this dream after eating from that infamous apple in the Garden of Eden. Granted they weren’t sitting in history class but we just heard the following from the third chapter of Genesis: “the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ God said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’”
This story is one of those foundational pieces of Judeo-Christian identity. We’ve been hearing it ever since we first attended Sunday School and it’s hard to listen to it with fresh ears. It’s charged with questions about the nature of sin and shame in exposing the human body and it carries a tremendous amount of baggage in making Eve the scapegoat for the fall of all mankind. While we’ve come to a more nuanced understanding of this ancient and sacred story, it’s still important to state unequivocally that humanity is sinful by its very nature – no good comes from foisting all of the blame and guilt upon Eve.
But I did want to get back to the theme of nakedness. It’s true that we don’t have a high comfort level with the subject. I mean we do get annoyed whenever the TV cameras refuse to show the streaker who hopped over the wall to run around Fenway Park. That’s the kind of nakedness we want to see. But I think the shame is less about the nakedness itself than in being vulnerable before others. Because to be naked is ultimately about being made vulnerable; it’s about being exposed in the fullest sense of the word. It puts us on display with nowhere to hide; it quite literally strips away all of our pretences, leaving us wide open. Which is what makes those anxiety dreams so nerve-wracking.
So what are some ways we deal with this vulnerability in our own lives? I think it begins first thing in the morning. We all put on a tremendous amount of metaphorical armor before facing the day. It’s not the chain mail, shield and sword variety but the purpose is the same: to protect us from the daily assaults of life and work. While most of us don’t have a squire to assist us in our preparations, we groom ourselves and put on make-up; we put on power suits or clothes that make the man or the woman. We obsess over how we look and what we’ll wear. It’s armor alright. Seeking to save us from verbal assaults or snickers behind our backs or our own insecurities; armor to help us project the proper image whatever the interior reality. It’s all about fear, of course. Fear of being found out for who we really are; fear of seeming incapable or incompetent; fear of coming across as weak or vulnerable.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with keeping up appearances. I could have made a point this morning by not showering and showing up with “bed head.” Or wearing ripped jeans and a favorite t-shirt. So this isn’t a call to become a slob. Rather, it’s a reminder that the essence of who we are, at the very core of our being, is nakedness. Authentic relationship with God allows for vulnerability; it has no need for pretense or armor. No matter what we’re actually wearing, to stand before God is to stand naked. And while that is a vulnerable position to be in, with God there is no other posture. God looks beyond appearances and gazes right into your soul.
One of my favorite children’s stories of all time is The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen. You know, the story about the vain ruler who cares only about his fancy clothes and is taken advantage of by two thieves pretending to weave him a garment out of the finest cloth available. The catch is that it’s only visible to those who are wise. The emperor won’t admit he can’t see anything – to do so would be to admit his own incompetence; neither will his councilors acknowledge they can’t see the cloth – to do so would mean they weren’t worthy to hold their important positions. Well, the emperor ends up in a parade to show off his new royal “robes,” only to be exposed when a child innocently announces that he’s not wearing anything. Finally everyone’s eyes are opened and the emperor is exposed as the big phony that he is.
Sometimes we too need to be exposed for our own absurdity. Not because we’re necessarily too big for our britches but to keep life in perspective. We are not our clothes or our bank accounts or our jobs or our cars or our responsibilities; we are children of God doing our best to love God and love one another. We make mistakes, we mess up, and Jesus loves us anyway; walking beside us in our nakedness and leading us to “wise decisions and right actions for the welfare and peace of the world.”
Every once in awhile I still do have an anxiety dream. Fortunately I’m no longer naked, though they do tend to revolve around clothes. As the opening procession is heading down the aisle I’m usually scrambling to find one of my shoes or the right vestment. I take solace in the fact that God doesn’t really care if I walk barefoot down the aisle or whether or not you wear pants to church. Though I think we can all agree that it’s better if we do.
But in the end we worship the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” In other words, God sees us in totality and there is freedom in that. We don’t have to put up a front – indeed that would be pointless anyway. So revel in your nakedness before God; enjoy not having to pretend you’re something or someone that you’re not; and work on bringing that same authenticity to every relationship under heaven.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012