They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But theLord 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.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ (Genesis 3:1-13)
They repeated this with a number of women, and at the end, they displayed the sketches of the women as they described themselves alongside the sketches of the women as others described them. In every case, there was a stark contrast, and the conclusion was clear: women believe they are themselves less beautiful than others perceive them to be.
This video was part of the Real Beauty campaign by Dove beauty products. The campaign has sparked a great deal of conversation about the effect of advertising on women’s body image and self-esteem. Dove has begun to use “average” women in its commercials rather than super-thin models in an attempt to widen the definition of beauty.
In many ways, Dove is doing a wonderful thing, but even as I was moved by the video of the women and the sketch artist, I couldn’t forget that they were still selling something. My suspicion took a turn for the worse when I learned that Dove’s parent company, Unilever, is also the parent company of Axe body spray.
Axe is infamous for its over-the-top commercials geared toward adolescent men. These commercials feature scantily clad, overtly sexualized women falling over each other to get to the well-muscled men who use Axe. The message is clear and simple: if you use Axe body spray, women will find you irresistible.
That would be enough, but Christian ethics professor Amy Laura Hall says that the real message of these commercials is more insidious. Here’s the real message: you smell bad. If you smell bad, no one will ever love you. Buy Axe body spray and deodorant, because if you don’t, women will find you disgusting, and you will die alone.
That might sound like an exaggeration, but on a visceral level, that’s what’s happening in most advertising these days. A company makes you insecure about something and then offers you the product that will solve the problem they’ve just informed you that you have.
I’m going to warn you right now: this is a sermon about nakedness, both literal and metaphorical. I want to distinguish between two kinds of nakedness: first, going naked; and second, being told you are naked.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with a bunch of naked vegetarians.” In Eden, Adam and Eve were naked, and they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). Their nakedness was a sign that they trusted each other and their surroundings, that they felt safe in creation and with their Creator.
That is going naked. Going naked has to do with trust and a sense of safety.
But then the serpent came along and twisted God’s words. Doubt and uncertainty were placed in the minds of a man and woman who up until then had only known providence and plenty. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and suddenly the trust and sense of safety evaporated. They covered themselves with fig leaves and hid from God. They were like children who break something valuable and hide from their parents, fearing punishment. They became afraid and ashamed.
That is being told you are naked. Being told you are naked has to do with fear and shame.
Axe body spray and Dove beauty products are the fig leaves that Unilever hands us after they have told us we are naked. And we wear them, because we are afraid that we smell bad or that we are not beautiful enough.
Being told that you are naked isn’t just about bodies; it’s about minds, hearts, relationships, and histories. In the song “Plywood Superman” that we just heard, Jim White talks about hearing his father’s voice of criticism long after he has died. How many of you have heard a voice tell you that you are useless or a failure and have believed it? Who told you that you were naked?
There’s a Quaker musician named Jon Watts who went to Guilford College in Greensboro. A few years ago, Jon put together a multimedia project called Clothe Yourself in Righteousness. It emerged from a collaboration with Maggie Harrison, who was writing a paper about the historical Quaker practice of going naked as a sign. This wasn’t a practice that Quakers invented. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah goes naked as a sign from God (Isaiah 20:2-4).
As Jon and Maggie explored this idea further, they both felt called to go naked. What that meant for them was pursuing a life of public, radical authenticity, and calling others to do the same.
They began to see that we tend to cover ourselves up with everything from education and status to possessions and behaviors that aren’t really who we are. All these things are fig leaves that help us function in a world that we believe would reject us if we revealed our true selves.
Jon recorded an album of music and spoken word for the project, and one of the songs is called “Let’s Get Naked.” Here’s how it starts:
Adam wasn’t full of knowledge,
Adam was ashamed.
Adam only knew about
that one mistake he made,
and the worst mistake ever
was to give these leaves to us.
I mean, our own doubts and fears
would be perfectly enough,
but no. We’ve got to hide them
and ignore what’s at the roots.
We’re told to love our fig leaves
more than we love the truth.
When we are told that we are naked, we grab whatever fig leaves the serpent is handing us and hold on for dear life. But Jon invites us to drop the fear and shame that comes from being told that we are naked. He invites us to live into the trust and safety that is offered to us in going naked, in living a life of public, radical authenticity:
So let’s get naked.
Let your shame fall away
like shedding blankets.
Let your fear and your identity
hang around your ankles,
then let’s run around,
show the world the stuff we’ve found,
the beauty we’ve kept hidden
pounds and pounds
of extra clothing.
I’m shedding my self-loathing
and replacing it with trust.
I’m only here to love.
There’s a country song that has a verse talking about an older man going to the doctor. After looking him over, the doctor says, “Man!” The man replies, “What is it, Doc? Some fatal disease?” And the doctor replies, “No, you just don’t look good naked anymore.”
I recently read a book by Glennon Doyle Melton called Carry On, Warrior. In it, Melton reflects on how for years she hid her past of bulimia and drug and alcohol addiction. She feared what others would think if they knew she had an arrest record or even if they were aware that her good-looking family wasn’t always perfect.
But at some point, she discovered that when she shared about her struggles, when she threw away the fig leaves of clothes and cars and a nice house and smiling kids, suddenly others felt free to do the same–and she found that she was not alone.
Sometimes we think that no one else has been through what we’ve been through–and in a sense, no one has. Everyone’s joy and pain is their own. But at the same time, everyone has joy and pain, and so on some level, all joy is shared joy, and all pain is shared pain.
I was recently in a conversation where two middle-aged men were sharing about the difficulties in their relationships with their mothers. As one told of the pain and frustration he had faced in dealing with his mother, the other exclaimed in genuine surprise, “I thought only my family was like that!” This grown man had spent his whole life believing that no one else could identify with his experience. When he found out otherwise, he gained a sense of connection and hope.
When someone tells us we are naked and we believe it, when we respond in fear and shame, we become isolated. But when we go naked, when we step out in trust, we find that we are not alone. We find that no one really looks good naked–and that is a comforting thing.
When we are radically authentic with one another–when we go naked–we take a risk. But we take an even greater risk when we cling to our fig leaves. When we are told that we are naked and believe it, we react in fear. Even non-Star Wars fans may recognize this warning from the wise Jedi master Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
While I was writing this sermon, news came that George Zimmerman had been found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. As I thought about nakedness, vulnerability, and clothing, I knew I could not ignore that story of a 17-year-old who death raised a firestorm of questions about race, the justice system, and self-defense laws. I could not ignore the story that has come to be symbolized by a hooded sweatshirt like the one Trayvon was wearing when he died.
I won’t comment on the details of the case, but the story witnesses to and reinforces the culture of fear and death in which we live. Just as we are afraid of our own bodies, we are afraid of the bodies of others. And we are especially afraid of bodies that don’t look or talk or act or dress like we do. We have laws that allow us to take another person’s life if we fear for our own. A gun can be a fig leaf, too.
This past Sunday, many pastors, particularly at black churches, invited their congregations to wear hoodies to church. Otis Moss, III, pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago, was one of them. Moss wore a Harvard sweatshirt and told about his 11-year-old son’s reaction to the verdict. Moss is black, and so is his son, and the boy had one question: “Daddy, am I next?”
When Zimmerman was declared innocent and Trayvon effectively declared guilty, Moss’ son and black boys everywhere got the message: they were told that they are naked, and they need to be afraid.
Whether we are afraid of smelling bad or of losing our life, we have all been told that we are naked, and we need to be afraid. But God challenges our fear with a simple question: “Who told you that you were naked?” (Genesis 3:11).
Who told you that you were naked? Who told you that you weren’t pretty enough or smart enough or successful enough? Who told you that you had didn’t look right, didn’t smell right, didn’t act right, didn’t talk right, didn’t dress right? Who told you that you were useless, that you were a failure, that you would never amount to anything? Who told you that you were the wrong race or gender or religion or class or nationality or sexual orientation? Who told you to be afraid of black boys in hoodies? Who told you to fear your own body and the bodies of others? Who told you that you were naked?
Whoever it was, it was not God.
I just returned from a trip to England with my dad, and one site we visited was the shrine of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a mystic who wrote about visions she received of a God motivated not by wrath but by love, a God we didn’t have to be afraid of but rather in whom we could take shelter. Julian wrote these words:
“The Trinity is God, and God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker and keeper. The Trinity is our everlasting lover, our joy and our bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ. … He is our clothing. In his love he wraps and holds us. He enfolds us for love, and he will never let us go.”
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return” (Job 1:21). We are naked and we are vulnerable, but we are called to reject fear and shame and to trust that in God, we are safe. In her visions, Julian saw that although we may not look good naked, although we are vulnerable and fragile creatures who hurt one another out of fear, to God we are most precious and beloved. God wraps each of his children in the clothing of his love, in the clothing of his own self, and we are safe.
God offers us a choice. We can hang on to our fig leaves, to our image, our status, our class, our race, our Axe body spray and our guns. Or we can go naked despite the risk, and call Adam and Eve out from hiding. We can reject fear and begin to heal the separation that began in Eden. But only if we love the truth more than we love our fig leaves.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell