Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What Not to Wear

A Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Last week, my colleague told us about one of his guilty pleasures, and this week, I’m going to tell you about one of mine… reality television. It started innocently enough, when an acquaintance of mine was chosen to compete as a geek on Beauty and the Geek, but now I watch it all, from Top Chef to America's Next Top Model. Normally I think of it as a waste of time with no relevance to anything at all, but this week, I was reading the gospel text and I found myself thinking of the show What Not to Wear

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a show where people nominate their fashion-blind friends and family for makeovers. They video their friend’s fashion faux pas, and then the hosts, Stacy and Clinton get to go through the subject’s wardrobe, making fun of their clothes and throwing away whatever they want before sending the subject out on a shopping spree to buy clothes that Stacy and Clinton deem more appropriate. In one episode I particularly remember, the woman they were featuring was in her mid-twenties, but she hadn’t changed her style since her early teenage years. She wore lots of little baby-doll t-shirts with slogans on them, and low-riding jeans … but the biggest problem was her “tail.” She had a furry purple tail with a little bell on the end of it, something you might wear if you were dressing as the Cheshire Cat for Halloween, and she safety-pinned it to the back belt loop of her jeans – and she wore it all the time. She thought that without it, she would fade into the background, but once Stacy and Clinton finally persuaded her to part with her tail and teen-aged clothing and start wearing clothing that was more flattering and age-appropriate and less, um, feline, she found that she was taken more seriously. She felt prepared to interview for a real job, a job she certainly wouldn’t have gotten with a tail pinned to her jeans. The thing that had gone wrong in her closet, and the closets of so many other subjects of What Not to Wear, is that her life had changed – she had grown up – but her clothes had stayed the same, and that just wasn’t working for her. 

Now, I don’t mean to glorify What Not to Wear. It’s deeply materialistic, and totally uncritical of our habit of judging people by their appearances; it sends the message that in order to be a valuable person, you need to dress as if you had a lot of money; it buys into and glorifies some of the aspects of our culture that we as Christians are called to reject. But in some ways, that girl and her tail reminds me of blind Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus, the text tells us, was a blind beggar in Jericho. Blindness was a lot more common in that time and place than it is in ours – it’s a dry and dusty part of the world, and in the harsh conditions, people’s eyes would become irritated, and then infected, and in a world without antibiotics, their sight would often be permanently lost. So historians suggest that there were many more blind people at Jesus’ time than there are in ours. And in a world without the adaptive technologies that are available to visually impaired people today, there were not many ways for blind people to make a living, so they would often become beggars. 

Bartimaeus was one of these blind beggars, and in our text for today, he is sitting by the road in Jericho when Jesus, his disciples, and a large crowd pass by. He hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth and cries out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” The surrounding crowd reprimands him for making a scene, but he shouts out until Jesus notices. Jesus tells the people to send Bartimaeus over, and as soon as he is called, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. Why in the world does he throw off his cloak? That seems like a very odd thing to do, but it turns out that the cloak had a special significance in this time: the beggars of Jesus’ time wore cloaks because they could spread them out on the ground to catch coins that people tossed their way – it was not just their outer garment and their sleeping surface, but also where they collected their money. And so in a very real way, Bartimaeus’ cloak was a marker of the kind of life that he lived, the life of a blind beggar. But when Jesus calls him, Bartimaeus throws off the cloak, stands up, and goes to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. “Let me see again,” Bartimaeus answers. “Go,” says Jesus, “Your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus’s sight is restored, but he doesn’t do what Jesus says.  He doesn’t go.  Instead, he begins to follow Jesus. 

I think that that is why he leaves the cloak behind him; because this is not only a story of healing, it is also a story of discipleship, a story of transformation. When Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, he is giving up the very thing he needs most for the kind of life that he has been living, a possession which is crucial for his life as a beggar. I think that what we see in this moment is Bartimaeus committing to a new life, a life of discipleship. He is ready to follow Jesus on the way, and in the new life he is called to, he isn’t going to be sitting by the road collecting coins.  There will be no time to sit by the road with his cloak spread out in front of him. In a way, he demonstrates more vision than a lot of the other would-be disciples we’ve heard about in the Gospel lessons of the last few weeks – unlike that wealthy young man who was told that he would have to give his money away and went away dejected, Bartimaeus sees that embracing a new life following Jesus means that some things have to change. He sees that the things that have been so necessary to his daily existence are not going to be important in the life he’s being called to. And so throws his cloak off, and he walks away.  He is about to be healed, but before he even regains his vision, he prepares himself for a life of discipleship – a life on the road – a life of following Jesus. 

It’s this kind of wisdom that is so lacking among those people on What Not to Wear. Unlike Bartimaeus, they insist on carrying their “cloaks” around with them – they don’t realize that the clothes that really worked for them before, the clothes that met their old needs, no longer fit into their new lives. Something has changed – they have grown up, they have changed jobs, they are heavier or lighter than they used to be – and unlike Bartimaeus, they have not noticed that the clothes that used to serve them well are now burdens and obstacles. A furry tail might be a fun accessory for a teenager, once in a while – it might communicate that she is quirky and funny and fun. It might help her to feel, in the difficult and judgmental world of high school, that she has something special about her.  It might help her to know that the judgments of the popular kids don’t need to mean anything to her, that she is not trying to please them. Maybe that tail helped that girl to have a sense of self in a time in her life where that was really difficult. But by the time Stacy and Clinton got to her, she was not a teenager any longer, that tail was no longer a cute accessory, and she had convinced herself that without the tail, she was nobody. And as critical as I am of the show’s obsession with external appearance, the tail that that woman wore every day needed to be thrown off, thrown away, left behind, in order for her to embrace her adult life. Like Bartimaeus’s cloak, it may have served a purpose in her past, but things had changed, and now it was no longer necessary, and because she hadn’t left it behind, it was standing in the way. 

Sometimes we have a Bartimaeus moment in our lives: God calls us to something new, and we have the chance to leap up and go, leaving the garments of our old lives behind us. Something has changed, and the things that were essential before are no longer what we want or need. Maybe taking an exciting new job means that we just can’t stay in the old apartment that we loved. Maybe there’s a change in our family – we start a new relationship, or have a child, and the routines and habits that used to structure our lives become inconvenient or impossible. Maybe changing careers or going back to school means having more happiness, but less money, and that calls us to re-examine our lifestyle and live more simply. Do you have a cloak that you might be called to throw off in order to follow a new call in your own life? Does this church? 

The history of our church tells us that we have done it before. In the 1960s, we saw the expense of maintaining a deteriorating building, and we threw off the cloak of our old building, following a call to become a “church without walls.” In the 1980s, we saw that our organizational structure was a giant bureaucracy with a multitude of committees and boards. This structure had worked well when we were a bigger church but it had become a burden for our small congregation of busy New Yorkers. We threw off our old by-laws to create a more streamlined system that would let us focus more on our mission and less on meetings. What cloak might we be called to throw off next? What part of our life as we know it might start to become a burden or a hindrance as we continue to discern God’s call for us in this time? 

Our commitment as Jesus followers leads us, as individuals and a community, to places we never would have expected, and sometimes calls us to leave behind the things that once seemed essential to us. I wonder, once Bartimaeus regained his vision, whether he looked back at his cloak before leaving it behind – I know that I would have – I would have been tempted to go back for it, to insist that I might need it, like that woman who was sure that she needed to keep her furry tail. But the wisdom of Bartimaeus reminds me that sometimes the things that seemed most important are the very things we’re called away from.  Bartimaeus reminds me that sometimes following Jesus means that we can’t take the trappings of our past with us.  And sometimes for us as for Bartimaeus, the story of our healing and the story of our discipleship are one and the same.

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