Speaker: Jake Short
Even though we just heard it, I want to say this again, as personal prayer as I bring this morning’s message: “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” Amen.
Last week at our first in-person service since the pandemic began, we heard Mary Jo Schumacher talk about her Brief But Spectacular experience about Sacred Walks in the Woods. This morning you get to hear my Long But Fabulous about Fashionable Anxiety in Church, so let’s go!
Today is Halloween, and earlier this week I invited you to come dressed in either a Halloween costume or your “Sunday Best” because many of you know I regularly dress up (#BestDressedMennonite). As you probably guessed, this invitation stemmed from today’s scripture readings. Originally, the Ephesians passage was part of the lectionary back in August, but it feels a bit more appropriate on a day like today.
Clothes. There is a lot the Bible says concerning clothing. While I would certainly love to explore all of it with you (although less clear if those feelings would be reciprocated haha), maybe you’ll get lucky and I’ll write a book about it one day. Clothes, especially in the church, have had a myriad of meanings through the millennia. Here at Hyattsville, some of us have negative reactions to certain clothing and accessories because of how they were forced upon or weaponized against us. For others, fashion and style has brought liberation in allowing us to express our true selves. And still for others, what we wear doesn’t bear much meaning in our lives and simply remains a way to stay largely comfortable.
Similar feelings about clothes were reflected in the short series Worn Stories on Netflix that I watched recently. These themed eight episodes explore the “memoirs in miniature living inside cherished articles of clothing”. I loved hearing what a particular article of clothing or certain accessory means to people from all walks of life. I could do the same about many pieces in my closet, although for me the best stories come from helmets of salvation, a.k.a. my hats. For example, this fedora is the first hat I had custom-made for me; it came from Denmark and the color of this fur felt is cherry blossom, connecting me to my adopted home city of DC. Or the black circlet hat with veiling that once belonged to my Grandma Roth who died earlier this month. She wore it to her own father’s funeral over 50 years ago; having grown up Methodist and later joining the Old Mennonite Church after marriage, this hat was not as out of place for her as one may imagine, although it wasn’t worn often (neither was the traditional head covering, but that is a story for another day).
Even though I can call myself the Best Dressed Mennonite these days, for at least the first half of my life I didn’t really care about clothes, and for basically two-thirds of my life I would say I did not dress well. Growing up I was the skinny, awkward nerd wearing bigger glasses who had little bodily coordination and usually wore size large clothing because I thought that’s what people who were basically six feet tall wore. But enter September 2010, when I was in the airport traveling to my Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) orientation in Oregon. I picked up the GQ Style Manual 2010, and my life was transformed. There was so much advice on dressing which I wish I had had a decade sooner, including a whole section on hats! This was one of the first steps on my journey to becoming the Best Dressed Mennonite.
Today I have a lot more confidence in dressing myself. I’m not afraid of colors, patterns, or mixing the two. I was lucky enough to have been born with an artistic constitution, so deciding what looks good together comes more naturally to me than for many people; with less time to devote to drawing and writing these days, my wardrobe has become my palette. I also like to have something in as many colors as possible. Some may find this vain or reflective of Matthew 6:19: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” On some level perhaps it is excessive, but why do the lilies, or tulips or roses or marigolds or any other flower, get to dress themselves in wondrous colors and designs more resplendent than Solomon himself, and we are often warned such magnificence is vain? I want to be like these flowers! In many Black churches, “Sunday Best” and looking like the lilies of the field is taken very seriously, especially as historically church services were the one time Black people could demonstrate their individuality and dress up outside of work uniforms or slave clothes. Designer John Galliano sums it up nicely: “The joy of dressing is an art”.
But for all this talk about artistic expression, there is deeper meaning behind my cardigans, ties, and pocket squares. In Ephesians 6:10-20, we heard about putting on the whole armor of God. This is not language we often hear in a Mennonite-Anabaptist context as this passage feels very militaristic for a people who boldly proclaim, “blessed are the peacemakers”. Some of you may remember my sermon about the nonviolent sword from some years ago, so clearly I roll with a theme. As you might be able to tell though, and many commentaries agree, this passage is more metaphorical, evidenced by the language used. We are not called to lead a bloody physical war, but instead the “armor” is truth, justice, peace, and faith; we use these to vanquish the spiritual forces of evil wielded by those in power, forces of evil like xenophobia, racism, queerphobia, hoarded wealth, and more. But these forces of evil can also take the shape of personal demons (often aided by the aforementioned systemic forces), and it is here where the whole armor of God takes on a personal meaning with the ways I dress.
Being that skinny awkward nerd in school, I quickly developed body image issues, which I still struggle with today. My voice didn’t really change until my second year of university, so that did not help things either. People made many assumptions about who I was based solely on my appearances. I wanted to be liked and popular, but at the same time I wanted to hide away. Even though I am more confident than I once was, these feelings still weigh heavily on me. Sometimes my self-esteem is helped when I dress up, and other times my lack of self-esteem is at least hidden behind a fancy façade.
Over a year ago I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, which explains some of the self-esteem and body image issues. It also means I overthink things most of the time, including how I look. Even when I’m dressed up, I am constantly on the search for a mirror or other reflective surface to make certain my hair is in place, there aren’t too many wrinkles in my clothing, or dirt hasn’t stained a clean surface. One of my past experiences also had a definitive impact on why I constantly do these things (although these actions existed before this experience as well). When I was mugged and attacked the night before Election Day in November 2016, my clothes did not protect me the way traditional armor would. I lost one of my good gloves I had bought in Germany, but luckily everything else was able to be cleaned, repaired, and/or replaced (like my broken glasses). When I stepped back out into the world for the first time a week after that attack, I made certain to wear a tie, cardigan, and good shoes, partially because I was going to work, but also because I was hoping it would help distract some from my very bruised and still swollen face that is no longer as symmetrical as it once was (eh, that was very wishful thinking for a naturally pessimistic person).
It is frightening to admit all of this to you and be vulnerable in this way because there is the possibility you may use this information against me. That may sound irrational, but again my generalized anxiety disorder thinks otherwise. But this offers you a glimpse of the demons some of us battle all day, every day: anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, bipolar, schizophrenia, and more – these are some of the “cosmic powers of this present darkness”. Yes, cosmic is appropriate to say because our mental health struggles can feel like the weight of the universe bearing down upon us. So for some of us, putting on the armor of God to battle our own internal forces of evil may be quite literal, like me dressing up in more formal clothing to find joy in creativity. For others it may be sweatpants and a beloved old T-shirt to find comfort in relaxation. For others it may be tennis shoes and shorts to find relief in a race not run in vain. For others it may be gloves and a uniform to find satisfaction in hard work completed. And yet for others it may be wearing the unexpected, like many at the High Heel Race this past Tuesday, to find the beauty of who they truly are even when people may say otherwise.
But wait, in Matthew we heard worrying cannot add an hour to our lives! Indeed, science has proven stress usually reduces our lifespan. But life and society has shown low wages, poor health, and little help means passages like “And why do you worry about clothing?” or “oh ye of little faith” often feel weaponized against us. As a person of faith, I know I should believe as it says in Matthew 6:31, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’”, but sometimes we resonate more with Jesus on the cross, crying out with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
So while each of us can dress in the armor of God, take up a shield of faith, and put on shoes of peace, we cannot just do so individually. James 2 reminds us we cannot have faith without works. It’s not enough I wear good clothes in the hope it will calm my anxiety (because many times it doesn’t); no, going to therapy and learning different techniques of how to cope in moments of crisis and ultimately change the narrative is some of what will really help make the difference. But the shame of seeking help for mental health issues still looms large in our society, and this is where we as the Church can demonstrate we are not of this world. The Church is a body, we are its members, and members must care for one another to make the body whole and function properly. Today I’m telling you how I put on my armor, by wearing clothes that make me feel better and seeking professional help; admitting this is one way I can help others who may feel too weak to put on the armor themselves, or some days cannot put it on at all. We must proactively help each other in our most desperate hours when we are naked, hungry, and suffering from mental crises, too often in silence.
This doesn’t mean we must have all the solutions to offer, but we must do what we can and seek the help of others inside and outside of the Church if we are to make certain every member of the body not only survives but thrives. We cannot favor one approach or one group to help, but instead use our various strengths and gifts to help everyone as needed and not make “distinctions among [ourselves], and become judges with evil thoughts”. Just because I’m wearing a tie and double monkstrap shoes does not mean I should be helped first, but it also doesn’t mean I don’t need help either.
Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham once said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life”. This might not be true for everyone, but I find it is for me. What does the whole armor of God look like for you to take on not only the spiritual forces of evil but also the burdens of every day? How can we demonstrate what our shield of faith looks like and help others put on the shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace? And when will the Church and the world be as radiant as all the flowers of the field in their wonderous diversity?
May you feel the wisdom and strength to break the chains, clothe yourself as an ambassador, and boldly make known the mysteries of the Gospel, now and forever. Amen.