Sunday, September 15, 2013

Clothes, culture, and counting the costs

Text: Luke 14 25-33 (the cost of discipleship)

Today's hot topic and the subject of the sermon is . . .  clothes.

Clothes have sometimes caused me grief. When I was very young, things were fine. But by grade three, I no longer felt at ease in my own skin. Perhaps because of stresses in my family, I had become nervous and unsure of myself. I gained weight and sometimes I dreaded getting ready for school.

In the decades that followed, I often disliked shopping for clothes. I couldn't tell what looked good on me. I didn't know how I wanted my hair to be cut or whether to follow changing fashions. In short, I felt unsure of my identity and how to present myself to the world.

Clothes can tell a lot about us. They let others know whether we are masculine or feminine, outgoing or introverted, casual or uptight, fashionable or conservative. Clothes show whether we are manual labourers or office staff; rich or poor; from the city or the country, and so on.

Clothes also give us a way to express our cultural heritage, including our religion. When I was a student intern in Alberta, I asked the minister at Knox United in Didsbury for her advice on what to wear in the pulpit. She said that before she became a minister, she had thought she wouldn't wear an alb. But in the event, she came to appreciate it. When she presided at worship in street clothes, she received no end of comments about the frequency with which she wore the same dress or blouse, her accessories, and so on. Wearing an alb lessened this scrutiny.

Since I was not yet ordained that year, I decided to wear a suit in worship services. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I had never been too keen on wearing a suit and tie even in the years when I was a civil servant. For me, pretty much every day was "casual Friday," and I only owned one suit. In Didsbury, I wore that suit 42 Sundays in a row without one comment . . . part of the advantage, I guess, of being a man instead of a woman in a culture that still puts so much focus on gender.

Here in Borderlands, I appreciate how casual we are. Because of this, I usually only wear a suit and tie at weddings and funerals -- even though I now own two suits! (I must be moving up in the world.)

Expressing religion and culture through clothes is a big issue in Canada right now.  A charter of values introduced in Quebec this week would prohibit workers hired by the state from wearing clothes or accessories that betray one's religion -- skull caps for Jewish men, head scarves or face coverings for Muslim women, large crosses for Christians, turbans for Sikh men, and so on.

This proposed charter has generated a lot of discussion. The PQ government has surged upwards in the polls, minority religious leaders have expressed anger at the discrimination they see in the charter, and people who oppose non-white immigration to Canada have expressed support for the charter.

The furore around the law reminds me a bit of my youthful struggles to establish an identity and figure out what clothes might best express myself. In the case the Quebec Charter, the debate is about national identity.

This issue remains prominent in Quebec because of the conquest of New France by Britain 250 years ago. In the first 200 years after the conquest, the chief force that helped French-speakers resist assimilation was the Roman Catholic Church. Just over 50 years ago, Quebec schools and hospitals were filled with black-robed nuns.

Since then, the winds of secularization have turned things around. From being the most religious region of Canada, Quebec has become the least religious. Catholic churches are closing. The image of a nun in full habit is a reminder of the conservative times that Quebeckers have left behind.

Starting in 1960, Quebec nationalists moved away from right-wing and pro-Catholic policies towards progressive ones. What the Quebec Charter illustrates, I believe, is a  return by some Quebec nationalists to reactionary politics as a cynical ploy to gain influence, but this time in an anti-religious mode.

My personal struggles with clothing were helped by several things. One was simply getting older and achieving a more stable personal identity. Another was the end of the generation gap of the 60s and 70s, which often found expression in clothing. Part of it was an expansion of the range of clothing that people accept. 

We all intuitively know what clothing is acceptable. None of us show up for work in pyjamas, underwear, or a Star Trek uniform. But I am glad that the rules around clothes are more relaxed than they were several generations ago.

At my last job in Toronto, I worked in the organization that ran Toronto's 211 phone service, which helps people access social services. Because of the diversity of Toronto's population, we hired people who spoke many languages: Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Polish, Russian, and so on. Our workforce tried to match Toronto's glorious diversity. And in such a diverse workplace, I felt comfortable to just be myself.

A key way to overcome our fear of difference is to know people who seem different. Today in Quebec, intercultural Montreal is largely against the Charter while rural Quebec, where very few recent immigrants live, is largely in support of it.

I do relate to some of the impulses behind Quebec's Charter. Despite being a minister, I value the secularization that is transforming North American culture. I foresee a future in which we are united across denominations and faith traditions. The Holy Spirit, I believe, is pointing us to a faith that will be deeper but perhaps less church-oriented than what we have known in the past.

Because of my own faith journey, I sometimes feel uncomfortable when I encounter people whose dress betrays a traditionalism that I have tried to leave behind -- Hassidic Jewish men with black top hats and long sideburns, Muslim women who wear burqas that only reveal the eyes, Amish people who might have looked at home in Germany of the 1700s, and so on. At the same time, I try to realize that my discomfort is my reaction and therefore my problem.

Further, I am confident that the forces sweeping away old traditions in the church are at work in all communities in Canada. I suspect that succeeding generations of today's immigrants will help build a culture that is as far removed from their pasts as today's Canada is removed from the strict Presbyterianism of my ancestors from Scotland.

Regardless of the accuracy of this vision, I am opposed to the state telling civil servants what they can wear to work. As long as our clothes do not prevent us from doing a job, we should be allowed to dress as we feel comfortable. This way is the inclusive and tolerant one, I believe.

Our Gospel reading today might shed light on this matter. This passage presents another version of Jesus' call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, but it is the only one in which Jesus says we are not only to deny our own lives, but to also hate our mothers and fathers, spouses and children, and to give up all our possessions.

Taken literally, this passage might upset us. The commentaries I read about it argued that it underlines the harsh requirements of being a disciple of Jesus.

I do not agree. When I hear this text, I experience grace and not a burden. Yes, Jesus reminds us that our faith journey involves death. We need to die in order to rise. We need to give up everything -- all possessions, all family ties, even life itself.

But Jesus is merely pointing to the human condition. All of us are going to die. All of us are going to lose everything. By calling us to join him on the road to the cross, Jesus calls us to accept the inevitable. He shows us again the gracious truth that we can die to old ways and rise to new life at any moment in the journey and not only at its end. In any moment, we can rise above family ties, national affiliations, and possessions to find new life in Christ.

This passage could speak to both sides of the debate around the Quebec Charter. To religious people, it could remind us that requirements about clothing are law and not grace. Even if I don't wear a suit or a clerical collar, I can still be a minister in the church. Even if I don't wear a cross, I can still love God and neighbour.

To Quebec and English Canadian nationalists, it could remind us that national dreams are illusory. Nations come and go, while humanity and love remain. All our earthly ambitions are fleeting and of no importance in the light of our journey within and toward God.

I hope that Quebec drops the plan for a Charter, and I am encouraged that many Quebec nationalists have denounced it along with federal leaders in both Quebec and Canada.

I hope that all of us will continue to welcome immigrants from different religious backgrounds. Not only is immigration the bedrock of our prosperity;  immigrants are fellow human beings who bear God's image and who help us create the intercultural Canada of today and tomorrow.

As I have grown older, I have given up some of my old struggles around identity and how to express myself. In accepting the grace of Jesus' call to the cross, I have become less anxious about who I am and how I should dress. I belong to God and God belongs to me. Nothing else really matters.

We live in an ever-more interconnected world and an ever-more intercultural Canada. May we all relax into the grace offered to us on the road to the cross. On this road, there is neither "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female" -- there is only one struggling humanity united by the human condition.

Regardless of what we believe or how we dress, God offers us new life.

Thanks be to God.


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