Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"You're Wearing That?": On Church Dresscodes

This week, the Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor has a piece about priests enforcing dress codes at mass, including this gem:

One group at Holy Redeemer that has been especially careless about dress is Latino women, Father Pilcher said, especially when they come for weddings and quinceaneras.
“That’s a group I have to work on,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: If an entire cultural group seems to have different standards of dress from the ones you were raised with, and your response to that observation is to say in a media interview that you “have to work on” people of that culture, perhaps the work set before you is internal. Perhaps that work begins with reading the Wikipedia article on cultural imperialism, continues with some exploration of your own privilege, and concludes with a bit of soul-searching. Repentance might be in order.

That said, I think we are dealing with at least two different questions. One question is, “what should people wear to church?” Another question is, “what should clergy and lay-leaders do when worshippers wear something that is Not That?”

What people should wear to church is an issue which transcends time, place, and denomination. It happens to be cropping up in the Catholic press today, but it is not a Catholic Issue. Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, someone is judging someone else’s outfit, be they Catholic, Evangelical, or UU.

Scriptural witness makes it clear that standards of modesty vary across time and culture. One culture's miniskirt is another culture's exposed ankles, which is another culture's unveiled head. These standards are culturally specific, not eternal or God-ordained, and are customarily policed by men with too much time on their hands, and lovely church ladies who wonder what happened to the good old days.

“But Feminist Pastor,” you may say, clutching your Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls, “Would you have me go to church naked, as I’m sure you do?”

“No,” I would reply, “Because I was raised in New England, and adhere to the culturally specific (see above) church dress norms thereof, Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls and all. Besides which, as a clergywoman I have the privilege of dressing in a black, sack-like robe which covers me from clavicle to mid-calf. I would encourage you to go to church wearing whatever helps you feel worshipful.”

(I also would encourage you, when you’re going to a religious setting other than your own, to try to dress in a way that’s respectful of the norms of the community you are visiting, but that’s more Miss Manners than Feminist Pastor. (Confession moment: I have arrived at more than one religious service and discovered I was dressed inappropriately for worship in that community.) )

But – and this is an entirely different question from what constitutes appropriate attire for church – what is a Christian response to “inappropriate dress”?

Judgment and shaming. Duh.

If we are going to answer our call to welcome strangers and rejects and outsiders, if we really believe that the Kingdom of God means everyone has a place at the table, we can’t expect everyone to wear, or even to own, Extremely Tasteful Church Pearls. Isn’t it great when teenagers bring their teenage rebellion, in all its sartorial glory, to church? Isn’t it great when rich folks and poor folks are welcomed at the same table? Isn’t it great when the church lives out its call to be a “house of prayer for all nations” – different cultures and all? Could we come to see challenges to our ideas about clothing as part of the blessing of diversity?

When someone arrives at church in an outfit that raises eyebrows, the church is called to welcome them with open arms, remembering that Jesus turns no one away.

When a pastor’s cultural dress norms are different from those of his or her congregation, it is the pastor’s job to come to understand the culture of the congregation under his or her care – not to condemn it.

When a congregation is in conflict over differing dress norms, whether it is because of age, class, or culture, the task before that church’s leadership is, I believe, to reframe that conflict in language that celebrates the all-too-rare gift of living together as a diverse congregation. The task is to celebrate those differences, recognizing God’s expansive love for all people, regardless of race or class, age or gender, tattoo-status or shirt-tightness. If God’s grace is big enough to welcome women in fur coats and men in Rolex watches, it is certainly big enough to welcome street people, rebellious youth, guys in ripped-up jeans, and scantily clad ladies.

As for modesty? Maybe we should get some of those ladies into clerical robes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Sermon: Swimming Lessons

A Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Before seminary, before college, before I first felt called to ministry, I learned a lot about what it means to offer pastoral care. I learned it in my first job, when I was in high school. I was a swimming teacher.

I know, you don’t think of swimming teachers as spiritual leaders. But I challenge you to watch the first day of preschool swimming classes someday, as the anxious parents start corralling anxious children toward the pool. Watch the panic and the fear and the tension, and tell me those children and those parents don’t need some spiritual comfort. Being a swimming teacher taught me something that Jesus definitely knew: getting in over your head – literally over your head – brings out your spiritual hunger, your brokenness, your need. And it also opens you up – opens you to relationship, opens you to trust, opens you to grace.

Jesus definitely knew about what happens spiritually when we get in over our heads, and we can see it in today’s Gospel lesson. The lesson picks up after Jesus has fed the five thousand, and we find Jesus anxious for a moment of solitude and prayer, hungry to be alone with God – for some time now, Matthew has been mentioning that Jesus was trying to get away to pray as the crowd followed him, but finally, in today’s lesson, Jesus has fed them with loaves and fish and good news, and sent them away, and he sends the disciples away as well – the Greek actually says he forced or compelled them to go away, he drove them away. And finally alone, he goes up to a mountain to pray while the disciples go ahead of him in a boat.

In the world of the Bible, water was seen as a place of swirling primordial chaos, as far from God as it is possible to be. Think of the Jonah in the belly of the whale, and of all the miracle stories of God pushing back the water. The water is a place of fear and danger, even for fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James, and John. There they are, alone on a boat at sea in the middle of a storm, until the fourth watch of the night – the period from about three to six in the morning – until Jesus comes walking toward them over the waves. And in the midst of their terror, they don’t recognize him. They think he’s a ghost. And who can blame them? To the minds of people in the biblical world, they are in one of the spookiest possible places – a boat on a storm at sea in the eerie pre-dawn hours. It’s like a horror movie setting – they might as well be in an abandoned insane asylum.

The disciples begin to tremble with terror, and they cry out in fear. In this short little story, the word for fear is repeated three times – fear whispers and echoes throughout the story, and Jesus stands against fear over and over again. So the disciples cry out in fear, and Jesus calls to them across the waters: “Take courage! It is I! Fear not!”

Each of those sentences is resonant in the Greek. “Take courage” is a command Jesus uses frequently in healing stories: “take courage, your sins are forgiven.” “Take courage, your faith has made you well.” Those are warm words, words of blessing and comfort.

“It is I” in Greek is ego eimi. Ego eimi. Eimi, all by itself, means “I am.” Eimi is a complete sentence – it includes the “I” and the “am” all in one word. Ego means “I” – he repeats the I, emphasizing it by doubling it: “It is I!” Ego eimi is what Jesus says in the Gospel of John’s famous “I am” statements: “I am the bread of life”; “I am the good shepherd”; and so on.

But ego eimi is also the Greek translation of God’s declaration to Moses at the burning bush. When Moses encounters God and says, “who shall I say sent me,” God answers, “ehyeh asher ehyeh.” “I am that I am.” “Ego eimi.” Ego eimi evokes awe; it is a phrase that tries to capture the indescribable power and presence of God. IT. IS. I.

And then Jesus goes on: “Mei phobeisthe.” “Be not afraid.” If those words sound familiar, they should. Those are the words of the angel to Mary. They are the words of the angel to Joseph. They are the words of the angel to the shepherds. They are the words of the angel to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. They are the words of the resurrected Christ when the disciples see them. And here, they are the words of Jesus to the disciples as he walks toward them on the water.

Take heart. It is I. Be not afraid. Those words are not so different from the words swimming teachers use with children out in the middle of the water.

There’s a paradox about teaching swimming to a terrified child. You would think that the approach to take would be to let that child go gradually, let them become accustomed to the water, let them cling to the wall, let them sit on the side and stick their toes in, until they adjust and they’re ready. Well, that might be helpful for the first three minutes of class. But if you wait for a nervous kid to be ready to jump in, you might wait for years. If you have a really nervous kid in your swimming class, your only chance of helping them learn to swim is to get them out in the middle of the pool by themselves with nothing to cling to but you. So you pry them away from the wall, and you ignore their anxious mother who is sure he’ll be ready in a minute or two. And you go straight to the middle and you just stay there. And you say, over and over again, “I’m right here. I won’t let you go. You’re safe here with me. I’m not going to let anything bad happen to you. Don’t worry. Everything is fine. I’m right here.”

That nervous child has been thinking that he can stay safe through his own caution, that if he just clings to the wall tightly enough, just stays on the top step, just doesn’t venture out into the water, he can stay safe that way. My role as a swimming teacher is to lead the child to trust not in his own firm grip on the wall, but in me and my commitment to keeping him safe. And if that child will trust in me to not let him go, he will begin to relax his body, to stop resisting the water and start learning to move in the water. One day, to his utter shock, he will discover that the water is fully capable of supporting his weight. He will discover that water, like the grace of God, is able to hold him up if he will let it.

That might be what’s going on when Jesus sends the disciples out into a storm at sea and then comes to them over the waves with his words of comfort: he is asking them to trust in him, to know that anywhere they go, no matter how terrifying, they are not alone; they can rely on him to be with them, to come to them; they do not need to be afraid. And so he calls out to them, “Take heart! It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Peter takes that leap of faith. He replies, calling out to Jesus across the waters, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replies “Come!” and Peter steps down, over the side of the boat, and begins to walk along the surface of the water toward Jesus. But suddenly, his focus wavers. He notices the strong winds around him, and Simon Peter, the one whom Jesus called petros, the rock, begins to sink like the stone he is named after. “Lord,” Peter cries out, “save me!” And before Peter’s head even goes under, Jesus reaches out his hand, catches him, and brings him back to the boat.

When they arrive at the boat, Jesus speaks to Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” As a child, I was taught that Peter lacks faith because he takes his eyes off of Jesus; he lets the wind and waves distract him; he allows his focus to waver and he notices the storm crashing around him. Peter sinks because he lacks faith. Maybe so. But I wonder if that is the moment that Jesus is talking about when he calls Peter one of “little faith”? These bodies of flesh and bone are not made to skim along the water’s surface like whirligig beetles, after all. I wonder if Peter’s moment of doubt was not the moment before he began to sink, but the moment after it. I wonder if Jesus reprimands Peter not for beginning to sink, but for doubting that Jesus would catch him. What if Jesus is chiding Peter not for sinking like a stone, but for thinking that Jesus might let him drown?

Often, we hear the story of Peter walking on the water as a story urging us on to better faith. If we just try harder than Peter, have more faith than Peter, than we will do better than Peter. We will walk across the water, like a skipping stone, and we will make it to Jesus. But I don’t think that’s the point of this story. I think we are called not to flawless faith, but to faith in a God who will not let us go under. We are called not to walk on water, but to learn to trust the grace of God to hold us up, like a child learning to swim. We do not need to do better than Peter and make it to Jesus – Jesus will come to us.

Working as a hospital chaplain last summer, I often found myself in over my head. I felt like I was in over my head as I stood by the bed of a child recovering from spinal surgery, in more pain than a person should have to experience, and I tried to find the words to say to her mother, who could do nothing to relieve her daughter’s pain. I felt like I was in over my head when a woman who clearly needed love and support and pastoral care began to insult me and my family, bringing me almost to tears with hurtful words and refusing to talk about herself. I felt like I was in over my head when I talked with a family fighting about whether to take their beloved grandmother off of life support. The needs were huge, and the people’s stories were heartbreaking, and I felt like I had so little to offer.

One day, a fellow chaplain reminded me of this very story, the story of Peter walking to Jesus over the waves. “Maybe,” the chaplain said, “all we need to do is offer a hand. Just a hand is all it takes, sometimes, to keep people from going under.” That was true – and it was a reminder that offering a little could mean a lot. But hearing that was like a hand keeping me from going under. And I began to see, in my work, all the ways that grace was sustaining me, all the ways that God was holding me up, all the ways that hands reached out to me to keep me from drowning. When a wonderful, wise patient asked if she could say a blessing for me and my work before she went home, God was holding me up. When a colleague met me for coffee to share stories and support one another, God was holding me up. When I heard words of grace and comfort echoing through worship services and scripture readings, God was holding me up.

God’s call to us is not to walk on water. God’s call to us is to get out of the boat. God calls us out of all kinds of boats. Maybe getting out of the boat means offering some kind words to people you see on the street. Maybe getting out of the boat means speaking up when you hear hateful language or jokes based on stereotypes. Maybe getting out of the boat means working toward tithing. During the shooting in Norway that took place a couple of weeks ago, getting out of the boat actually meant getting into a boat for two women, as they paddled into gunfire to save children fleeing the massacre. Getting out of the boat is a leap of faith out of our own comfort zones, the places that seem safe and secure, to follow Jesus wherever he calls us. But getting out of the boat does not mean we need to walk on the water without failing or falling. We are not called to perfection, but we are called to follow Jesus.

And the good news is that, when we start to falter, when we feel that we have gotten in over our heads, when we don’t know whether we can go on, the grace of God will catch us and hold us up. Like water supporting a swimming child, like Jesus catching the hand of Peter, God reaches out to buoy us up. God buoys us up through scripture, as we turn to words of comfort and strength, stories that remind us of God’s grace and love. God buoys us up through glimpses of grace in our lives and the world around us, through dinners with friends and cool breezes on hot days. God buoys us up through community, through kind words from friends and smiles from strangers. God buoys us up through that still, small voice that speaks in our hearts in moments of prayer and contemplation, in moments of celebration and rejoicing. And knowing that we can trust in a God who does not expect perfection, a God who is always ready to reach out, to take us by the hand, to support us in our need, we are called, with Peter, to get out of the boat.

Thanks be to God.