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Making Change: Changing Clothes

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Galatians 3:25-29

Some days I feel like I can’t keep doing this.  I can’t keep seeing news of children in danger and still believe this country values children.  I can’t keep seeing news of families incarcerated or abandoned and still believe we are a Christian nation.  I can’t keep seeing news of innocent blood being shed while people worship and still believe we value religious freedom.  I can’t keep seeing news of our elected leaders blaming the victims and still believe in our democracy.

I want to live in a country where it isn’t easier to buy a gun than it is to vote.  I want to live in a country where I don’t have to consider buying my children bullet-proof backpacks.  I want to live in a country where I don’t have to figure out how to evacuate this sacred space in case of an active shooter, or consider asking our elderly to lay down their lives so parents can escape to save their children in Sunday school.  I want to live in a country where having an armed guard in church is never seen as a solution.  I want to live in a country where condemning hate speech is not a partisan issue.  I want to live in a country where sending bombs is never a response to a president’s rhetoric.  I want to live in a country where preachers don’t have to rewrite their sermons every other Saturday night because of yet another tragedy or act of violence.

I had a nice sermon planned—a nice sermon on Colossians 3, about clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, and on Galatians 3, about clothing ourselves with Christ.  I can’t preach what I wrote after what happened yesterday.  It would be the height of privilege to preach that sermon this week because only a white Protestant church could ignore what happened.  We don’t have numbers yet for 2018, but in 2017 the U.S. saw a 57% increase in anti-Semitic attacks over 2016 levels.[1]  And 2016 wasn’t great to begin with.

I received an email this week that read, in part, “I’m still waiting to hear a case from the pulpit about appropriate anger as a Christian virtue.  For me, that kind of anger about injustice and oppression is far different from rage, hate, or vengeance.  And given the state of the nation/world, what I find far more troubling is the absence of anger, especially among folks who are relatively secure.”  Well, I have no absence of anger today—not that I had an absence of anger last week.  There have been so many things to be angry about the past few weeks, months, years.  But I feel like I can’t live there, you know what I mean?  Living in anger is exhausting.  It wears down the spirit and too often it paralyzes rather than empowers.  And we really have to work hard to make sure that our anger doesn’t turn to hate.            That’s what I preached against last week—hate— so I surely can’t go condoning it this week.  But we can be angry without hate—in fact, we must be angry without hate, because we must be angry about what is happening in the world around us, even while refusing to hate the people responsible for it.

So how can we do it?  How can we keep the anger alive enough to empower us, but not so alive that it endangers us?  I don’t have all the answers.  I never claim to have all the answers, and this time I definitely don’t.  But I have one idea, and it comes—oddly enough—from part of the nice sermon I’d already written.  So bear with me while I connect the dots.

Galatians 3 reads:

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

 What does it mean to say that we have clothed ourselves with Christ?  Is being Christ-like something we can take on and off, like an article of clothing?  Can we say “I’m going to wear my Jesus shoes today—sandals, no doubt—so today I’ll walk in the ways of Jesus; but tomorrow I’m wearing my pink cowboy boots.”  “Today I’ll be clothed with Christ, but tomorrow I’ve got an important meeting.”  After all, being clothed with Christ might limit us.  Is being clothed with Christ the proper attire for a business meeting where I might have to stretch the truth if I’m to succeed?  Is being clothed with Christ a good choice for a Friday night date?  Is being clothed with Christ a suitable garment for gossiping on the phone?

After many years of successful parish ministry as an Episcopal priest, and being honored with the title of one of the best preachers in America, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor was burned out and exhausted from the demands of the ministry.    She took time to care for everyone else’s soul, but never attended to the state of her own.  She fed everyone else from Christ’s table, but never received nourishment for herself.  And so she left the pastoral ministry.  The hardest part, she says, was getting dressed in the morning.  For many years, she had spent no more than two minutes getting dressed.     Her closet contained a row of black clergy shirts and compatible skirts and suits.  An extra closet downstairs held the bright clothes that she only wore on vacation.  Nearly every day she had worn the black clergy shirt and white collar—   the sign of a priest, the symbol of the clergy,  the sign that says to anyone who looks, “I am different, set apart, holy!”  When she stopped wearing the clergy garb, she was treated differently.  No longer did people shift into reverent gear when they saw her.  No longer did people at the gas station change their language in her presence.  She suddenly became “the invisible wife” beside her husband, describing herself as just another “middle-aged woman who had not bothered to color her hair.”

Frankly, I’m glad that most clergy in the United Church of Christ do not wear collars.  I have a few clergy shirts, for occasions when I need to look particularly ministerial (like protest rallies).  But I’m glad I can go shopping and be just as invisible as the next customer.  It does make me wonder—would I behave differently if I did wear a collar every day?       I think I would.  But that’s not how we show our Christianity.  It’s not about wearing a collar—or a cross, for that matter,  especially when those symbols are ones that, in our society, would protect us rather than make us targets.  Christianity is yet another mark of privilege that we possess.

Being clothed with Christ is not about what we wear, and it’s not even about making our faith obvious to others.  It’s about being wrapped up in Christ, enveloped by Christ, warmed and protected by Christ.

I’m reminded of a song sung by Kathy Mattea called “I Wear Your Love.”

The things I’ve collected, bought or selected,

The clutter that fills up my rooms…

I can lock up and leave it, never retrieve it,

Leave nothing but my love for you.

Let the storm winds blow; I will not be cold.

 For I wear your love…

Thrown over my shoulders like a blanket of down.

I wear your love…

Like a bright suit of armor reflecting the sun.

On the chilliest night, though I travel light

It is always enough…

For I wear your love.

 Don’t you know, can’t you see,

Head to toe it is covering me.

Like a stone, the ocean’s tide,

Nothing can hurt me or turn me aside.

 For I wear your love…

Thrown over my shoulders like a blanket of down.

I wear your love

Like a badge of devotion of love and beyond.

On the chilliest night, though I travel light

It is always enough…

For I wear your love.

We wear the love of God. We wear the mercy of Christ.  And that changes everything.  Or it should.  Being clothed with Christ could change our business practices.  It could change our politics, or at least the way we talked about politics.  It could make us more tolerant of the vulnerable in our society, and less tolerant of laws that discriminate against them.  It could make us more tolerant of expensive compassion and less tolerant of cheap pity.

But Jesus was not all kindness and compassion.  Jesus also got angry in the temple because the poor were being exploited, so he turned over the tables of the money-changers and used a whip to drive them from the temple.  When confronted by religious leaders who put on shows of righteousness but inside were full of greed, hypocrisy, and lawlessness, Jesus called them white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones.  Being clothed with Christ does not mean we sit back and send thoughts and prayers.  It also means we use our righteous anger to confront injustice.

And here is where being clothed with Christ gets very real for us today.  Being clothed in Christ is what enables us to live out the next line of our scripture passage.  It says:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,

there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In its original context, this was referring to Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  The writer, Paul, was saying that there should be no division between Jews who followed Christ and Gentiles who followed Christ.  They were all one in Christ, and through Christ.  Today I want to widen that understanding.  We are not one with Jewish people because we all believe in Christ.  But our belief in Christ makes us one with others.  So there is no longer a division between Jew and Christian because of our faith in Christ.  We are the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ of South Portland, Maine, and today we are the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  We clothe ourselves with Christ, and today that means that in addition to the cross, we also wear the star of David.

When I was writing my easier version of this sermon, I avoided an obvious scripture.  In fact, I have avoided this scripture for decades, for it is about putting on the armor of God.  I don’t like militaristic language.  I don’t see Christianity as a battle against evil, and I think those who do see it that way have done great damage.  But today I read this scripture differently, and I think we desperately need it.  Hear these words from Ephesians 6:10-17 with today’s situation in mind.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of [God’s] power.

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers,

against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness….

Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand

on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist,

and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench

all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

That last verse is the hardest, about the sword of the Spirit being the word of God.  But this word of God is not a word of judgment.  It is not a word of condemnation.  It is not the word abomination.  It is a word of justice and mercy and equality and peace.  It is the word Shalom.

Last week I asked you to tie a strip of fabric onto this fence to represent some hate you need to rid yourself of, or a hate you want to confront.  Today I want you to think of one thing you are angry about today—not your petty anger, but your righteous anger.  Think about one justice issue that makes you angry, and tie that onto the gate after worship.

But also take some of this.  It wasn’t that long ago that Jews were required to wear yellow stars.  So I offer strips of this fabric to remind us of our solidarity.  Come and tear or cut off a small piece, and tie it somewhere you will see it, to serve as a reminder to you that we are all one because of our faith in Christ.  Please do not wear it as an armband.  I do not want to misappropriate their sign so unless Jewish leaders ask you to do so, please refrain from using it that way.  To be clear I will repeat my instructions:

take any strip of fabric and tie it to the fence to represent one injustice you are angry about today, and then take a yellow strip to take with you, to remind you of our solidarity with all who suffer.

Let us pray.  Holy One, you’re always telling those you meet not to be afraid. Meet us today.  Another shooting, this one targeting a synagogue, a house of worship. Open our hearts, so they do not close in cynicism or despair.  Give our prayers wings, fly love and strength and healing to our sisters and brothers in faith.  Meet us today.  And make our prayers only the first step in the courageous and compassionate action we will take now to end gun violence now and forever.  Carry us forth to face with humility the wounded and the dying, or to protest loudly in the streets, or to speak boldly before the powers and principalities.  Meet us today.  In every generation, there is reason to fear. And in every generation, you meet that fear with your persistent insistence that we meet it head on, acknowledge it, and do your life-giving work of mercy and justice anyway.  Meet us today.

Amen.[2]

 

Let us sing together the hymn that you received as you entered today: O God, This Day We Grieve.[3]

[1] https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/anti-semitic-incidents-surged-nearly-60-in-2017-according-to-new-adl-report

[2] https://revgalblogpals.org/…/saturday-prayer-dont-be-afraid/

[3] Lyrics by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, used with permission

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