Friday, January 4, 2013

The Christian Wardrobe

A sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

“What should I wear to your church?” That’s a question people ask me all the time when they consider coming to worship with my congregation. I usually make a joke in response: “I’d recommend that you definitely wear clothing,” I reply, “Probably not a swimsuit.” If that doesn’t set them at ease, I tell them that some people wear casual clothes like blue jeans and t-shirts, some wear dresses or suits, and that one particular child often comes in a superhero mask and cape. People are often surprised to hear of a church where you can come as you are; many churches have stricter expectations, written or unwritten. In Israel, I visited churches with posted signs, warning that men or women wearing shorts would be denied entry, and churches where security guards handed out shawls to cover exposed shoulders. In New York, you’re not likely to be asked to leave for dressing too casually in a house of worship, but stares and glares and whispers can make you feel just as unwelcome. Many of us, surely, have endured the embarrassment of showing up somewhere – whether it’s a church service or a party, only to realize that we’re wearing the wrong thing.

So where do contemporary churches get their ideas of what is appropriate clothing for a Sunday worship service? Surely not from Jesus, who spent so much time with poor people who wouldn’t have the means to purchase fine clothing. Jesus, who did not condemn the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, violating social norms of apparel and proper behavior. Jesus, who told his followers to consider the lilies and not to worry about what they would wear.

There are a few biblical verses that seem to touch on what we should wear, words that encourage women not to wear gold or pearls or braided hairstyles (that is, not to wear clothing that shows off their wealth and social status). There are verses that encourage women to cover their hair in worship, in accordance with the cultural norms of the time. There are verses in the Mosaic legal codes forbidding fabrics made of mixed fibers – no cotton-poly blends! And there are verses that encourage modesty, although the kind of modesty the authors were referring to probably had to do more with humble behavior than with appropriate dress. The opposite of modest, to the writers of the epistles, would more likely be “self-aggrandizing” or “vain,” rather than “scantily clad.”

In fact, there’s not a single word in scripture that dictates what we should wear to church: no “Thou shalt not wear blue jeans to worship,” no “Thou shalt not wear white after Labor Day,” not a single word about Easter bonnets or jackets and ties or close-toed shoes. Those norms, observed by so many worshiping communities, are based in our contemporary culture, not in scripture. So what is in the Christian wardrobe? There is an answer for us today in our reading from Colossians, an epistle written either by Paul himself or by someone emulating Paul and writing in his name, which would have been a common practice in that time. Writing to the newly-formed Christian church in Colossae, he urges them – and all Christians – to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” and to “above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.” In the section before today’s reading, the author reminds Christians that they have, in baptism, “stripped off” their old selves, and urges them therefore to rid themselves of all of the vices and harmful and hurtful behaviors that are not fitting for those made new in Christ.

These words come from a very different time, a time when it would have been unimaginable to have overflowing dresser drawers and bedroom closets full of clothes in different colors and styles. Most people would have had very few articles of clothing, perhaps one or two outfits in total. Indeed, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist urged his listeners, if they had two coats, to give one away to the poor! To strip off anger wrath, malice, and slander, and to put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, would be a powerful image for those who expected to wear the same garment every day until it gave out. To “clothe oneself” in Christian virtues would mean making a long-term commitment to put these traits on every day, to bear with the places where they might tug or itch, to live in and with them until they became as comfortable and natural as a well-worn pair of blue jeans. When we think of Christian virtues like compassion as garments to put on, we acknowledge that the life of faith may not always come naturally. Compassion, patience, and love are not like brown eyes, a trait which we either have or we don’t. Instead, they are presented as practices that we can “put on,” whether that comes easily or with great difficulty.

I love that our lectionary calendar of readings designates this passage to be read during the Christmas season – the twelve days that follow Christmas, when we reflect on Christ’s incarnation, when we hear stories of his birth and childhood. Much of the world around us celebrates Christmas for the month before Christmas Day (or two months or three months); much of the culture around us has packed up the holly and the ivy, turned off the Christmas carols, and is now getting ready to throw out the eggnog and cookies as we make our New Year’s resolutions and wait to watch the ball drop. But in church, the tree is still up, the Advent wreath is still lit, and the baby Jesus sits in the manger in front of the pulpit; we are still taking some time to reflect on the miracle and the mystery, to sit for a bit longer with this beautiful and paradoxical story of God made flesh.

We hear this passage, urging us to “put on,” like clothing, the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, in the same season that we contemplate the stunning claim that God came to us in human flesh as a baby – the baby of an unwed mother, in a relatively poor family, in an occupied nation. We are urged to put on Christ-likeness because in Christ, God has put on humanity; God has put on vulnerability and mortality. God has put on human emotions and human experiences and human development. In Christmastide, we contemplate the mystery of God putting on humanity, and that through God’s incarnation, God has drawn near to us so that we might draw nearer to God. Christ has put on humanity so that we might, as Paul urges the church in other letters, "put on Christ."

The Good News invites us to be made new, to strip off everything that is not of God and to put on the garments of God’s reign. I wonder whether, perhaps, C.S. Lewis was thinking of passages like this one when he wrote The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – that story of four children entering the land of Narnia through the back of an enchanted wardrobe and meeting there a savior who was familiar in many ways, but had taken on another kind of flesh entirely, a savior who was, as they said, “not a tame lion.” As the Pevensie children make their way to and from Narnia, they go through a wardrobe, clothing themselves in fur coats as they enter the perpetual winter of Narnia. Perhaps C.S. Lewis thought of scriptures like this one when he chose the metaphor of the wardrobe as the passage to another world. It echoes scriptures like this one which invites us to clothe ourselves for the Reign of God rather than the empires of this world.

There’s another reason, too, that I love reflecting on this reading at Christmas-time. Because in our contemporary world, we tend to think of the Christmas story with a sense of warm nostalgia. We see it in a soft-focus, casting everything in a warm golden light. You can see it in the ways we illustrate the Christmas story – my own childhood memories include many Precious Moments nativities, for instance, but I’m sure you can come up with your own images of a clean, peaceful, idyllic manger scene. But the fact is, the Christmas story as it has come to us is the story of a God who comes into a world which is difficult and dreary, sometimes dark and frightening.

Much like the Christmas story itself, this passage from Colossians is one which sounds lovely and rosy, which sounds peaceful and idyllic, but which is actually much more breath-taking and fierce, wild and wonderful. This passage challenges us to do the hard, hard work of building community that reflects the Reign of God in a world where that is not always welcome. It sounds warm and fuzzy, but it is actually asking us to do a hard and counter-cultural thing. We are invited to take off the garments of this world: self-centeredness, competition, materialism, skepticism, apathy, hierarchy, and to put on the garments of the Reign of God: compassion, kindness, humility, patience, love. These are garments that will sometimes attract scorn and judgment; these are garments which are probably not in line with the latest fashion trends. These garments mean seeking peace in a world where violence is the norm. These garments mean seeking transformation in a world more comfortable with the status quo. These garments mean seeing all people as children of God, each uniquely beloved and precious in God’s eyes, in a world that values some people far more than others. The Good News of God’s love is far more than nice people and a nice baby in a nice stable, and the life of faith is far more than nice, polite people in a nice, polite church. The Good News is this: God’s perfect love for us has taken shape in the Word made flesh. Christ has clothed himself in humanity so that we might clothe ourselves in Christ. Or, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,
I am all at once what Christ is, ' since He was what I am and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ' patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Thanks be to God.

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