What Are You Wearing?

Colossians 3.12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to be one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Worshipping so close to Christmas Day is a challenge. Christmas Eve: I love it. The way families come out, the perfect color-coordinated outfits, and we get a ton of people who never come to church. But the crowd on the Sunday after Christmas, you all, you make it tough. You are the real deal. You are the ones who love the light of Christmas Eve but recognize that you need the companionship of other Christians to hold you accountable in between Christmas Eve and Easter. You expect to hear uplifting sermons on Christmas Eve, but you also want to hear about the challenges of living a faithful life. You don’t want the watered-down stuff. You want the authentic discipleship.

Francis Asbury, depicted in this stained glass window to my right, also felt the challenge of preaching on this side of Christmas. In his journal entry from Christmas day in 1788, while making his way through the wilds of Virginia, he wrote: “I preached in the open house at Fairfield on Isaiah 9.6. I felt warm in speaking; but there was an offensive smell of rum among the people.”

From up here in the pulpit I certainly can’t smell rum on your breath, but I can smell all the Christmas food filling up all your Tupperware in the fridge, the ripped wrapping paper stuffed in trash bags, and all of the new clothes and gifts you received. Friends, you stink of Christmas.

Worshipping so close to Christmas day is a challenge. While we are still flying high on all the gifts we opened and gave, while we are admiring all the new clothes we get to wear, God still call us together to hear the Word.

One of my good friends and preaching colleagues is a man by the name of Jason Micheli. He served as a mentor for my faith while I was growing up, and even presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding. Years ago he wanted to preach a sermon that involved a number of props up by the altar. The church had three services on Sunday morning so he would have to preach it three times in a row. The sermon had to do with the fact that all people are invited to feast at God’s communion table, so Jason had set up a variety of different looking dining room chairs around the altar. The point being that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you look like, you are invited.

However, during the sermon, Jason wanted to lift up specific chairs and move them around the altar to get the message to really sink in. At the 8:30am service, while wearing his long white robe and carrying a chair up the steps, he stepped on the front part of his robe and nearly fell straight on his face in front of the whole congregation.

For the 9:30 and 11 o’clock services he made the decision to ditch the robe for fear of actually falling and making a fool of himself during the sermon. So during the final two services he said the same words, lifted the same chairs, made the same points, but did so without a robe.

Like all pastors, Jason heard the kind of generic compliments and critiques that are often expressed in the narthex following worship. “Good sermon” or “You gave us a lot to think about” or “Nice weather today.” But none of the comments prepared him for what happened next.

Over the following days and weeks, Jason received a considerable number of anonymous complaints from church members about the fact that he did not wear a robe during worship. He wasn’t trying to make some point, or go contemporary, or purposely upset people. He just didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. But instead of going to him directly to express their opinion, anonymous notes were left under his door, members went to lay-leaders with their frustrations, and some even bypassed the local church and went straight to the bishop to complain. The situation became so intense so fast that Jason actually received a phone call from the bishop about the fact that he was not wearing a robe in church.

Want to know a secret? God’s doesn’t care what we wear to church.

God couldn’t care less about what we have adorned on ourselves when we gather in this place. So long as we are wearing something, God is content. Yet, we put so much emphasis on the clothing and appearance of one another.

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On Christmas Eve, mere days ago, a time when the church is filled to the brim, I received more comments about the Christmas colored pants I was wearing than anything else. Before and after the service that’s what I heard about.

And it’s not isolated to Christmas Eve. Week after week I overhear seemingly innocent comments from some of you, “Can you believe what she wore to church this week?” or “How can she let him out of the house looking like that?” And two years ago, when I was invited to preach at Central UMC during Lent I wore a pair of Carhart Coveralls in the pulpit. To this day I still run into people in Staunton who remember what I wore far more than what I said. And if I’m honest, I judge on outward appearance as well. Whenever I’m driving through our town, or even when I’m up here in the pulpit, I catch myself making judgments about how other people look.

How strange that we judge on outward appearance, while God cares about the content of our character.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about how to dress properly. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint about someone else, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This Christian work regarding our behavioral and spiritual clothing is tough. We are called to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be bound to one another. This kind of work and effort is not for the faint of heart. This passage is not advice on how to avoid conflict. This passage is not telling us to put on a happy face and smile. This passage is not Paul’s version of accentuate the positive.

This text is about what to do when the real emotional brawls break out in our lives.

When the earliest Christians were baptized, they were told to strip off their clothes before entering the baptismal waters, and then were given new clothes in their new life. The clothes themselves were nothing special, but the whole act was to signify an entirely new way of being and relating to others.

When they stepped foot out of the water they were making a covenant to be clothed with the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They embarked on the difficult practice of bearing with one another and the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. They started on a path on striving to live like Jesus in the world.

God does not care about what we wear to church, but is instead concerned with the way we dress our souls.

We can wear all the right Christian clothes, we can wear clergy collars or robes, we can adorn ourselves with shirts that came from a mission trip, or we can wear the biggest crosses you’ve ever seen around our necks, but until we are clothed with the behavior and compassion of Jesus, all the clothes remain meaningless.

Col.-3.12

To be well dressed with Christ is to live in harmony with others. Not just letting other people get away with their behavior and smiling absent-mindedly in response. Not just letting frustrations percolate for years. Not just ignoring people who are different than us.

To be well dressed with Christ is to actually forgive others, actually live our lives with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To be well dressed with Christ is to be clothed with love.

The days after Christmas are always interesting. Worshipping so close to Christmas is obviously a challenge and exemplifies the depth of discipleship. But in our day-to-day lives, the days following Christmas can bring out the worst in us. The joy of presents can be replaced with thoughts of the other things we wanted. The excitement of the family getting together can be replaced with the old arguments and fights. The hope of a baby born in a manger to save the world can be replaced with the scream and tears of our children coming down from a sugar-rush.

Yet, here we are. In the shadow of Christmas trees we gather to remember the light that shines in the darkness. While people rejoice with their new material gifts and possessions we give thanks for the gift of Christ that endures forever. As the marketed desires of the world turn to the next big holiday, we remember that every day is a gift.

We are challenged by the words of Paul today. Paul calls us to act, speak, and behave like Christ. While the world spins and focuses elsewhere, we are pushed to live like the baby born in the manger.

When we wake up every morning, if we do so with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience we will be living according to the ways of the one born in Bethlehem, the one who walked and talked in Galilee, hung on a cross for you and me, and rose three days later magnificently. Amen.

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On Real Religion – Sermon on Micah 6.1-8

Micah 6.1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Pastor, preacher, reverend; titles that I’m still not used to. After only having served this church for seven months, it never ceases to amaze me how many people in the community already identify me through my vocation. I will be sitting at the Bistro downtown ready to order dinner with Lindsey when the waitress begins by asking, “What can I get for you reverend?” Or when I’m sitting behind my computer at Coffee On The Corner my coffee is accompanied with a “here you go preacher.”

Its my own fault really. I love to tell people what I do. Whenever I meet someone new in town, I’m always eager to share with them my excitement at having been appointed to St. John’s.

This past week, I was visiting one of my favorite shops downtown (that will remain nameless) when I was greeted with the familiar title: Pastor. The owner and I have a fairly decent relationship and our conversation flows smoothly whenever we’re together. As he was ringing me up, we exchanged the regular pleasantries, talking about the cold weather and other such things, until he asked me about the church. I told him about how remarkably forgiving many of the congregants are regarding my sermons, and how thankful I am for their willingness to join me in this adventure we call “church.” Thats when the conversation got serious.

“Well, I’m happy you’re enjoying it,” He said, “But church is just not the thing for me.”

Aside: I almost never ask anyone about church, and yet, people always bring up their attendance, or lack their of, in conversations.

By his tone and inflection, it was clear that he wanted to say more about the subject, so I inquired as to why church is not the thing for him.

“I used to go all the time,” he began. “I’ve popped around between different denominations, I was even an elder for a little while, but about ten years ago I lost faith in the church. We were doing all the right things, we had hundreds of people in worship every Sunday but we never did anything for the community. Everything the church did was so inwardly focused. Debates about the wallpaper, the type of bread for communion, and timing for Sunday services dominated all of our conversations. Whenever I tried to raise a need within the community that the church could meet it was brushed aside as being insignificant. Finally, at a council meeting, I could no longer contain myself. After years of watching this “perfect church” ignore the desperate needs of the people outside the building, I stood up in the front of the leadership and declared, “I think when Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep,’ he really meant to feed his sheep.” I have not been to a church since.”

 

In the sixth chapter of Micah, the prophet relays God’s controversy with his people. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

At that time in Israel’s history, the people had grown weary and bored with their God. They were just going through the motions when it came to worshipping the good God who had been at the center of their very lives for so long.

How could they have become bored with God? He had delivered the people from their oppressors, raised up mighty leaders, sent truthful prophets, and brought all the people to a full awareness of his righteousness. Yet, they had forsaken him. They lived immersed in the love of God, yet were blind to much, if not most, of it.

Micah then describes “real religion” as opposed to the ways to Israelites were behaving: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good. and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah presents the simple essentials of real religion in a verse that has taken its place among the most favored of scripture. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Real religion is predicated on the lived reality of discipleship that changes everything.

God made it known to the Israelites the proper and good response to their Lord. The people are required to practice justice, to seek equality between themselves and others; to love kindness, to maintain a loyal commitment to God and others; and to walk humbly with their God, to live transformed lives conformed to the image of God. Real religion is a journey of faith working by love leading to holiness of heart and life.

So, where are we with God? Have we grown tired and weary of the God we have come to worship? Are we attending church, practicing our faith, and loving others out of obligation or excitement? What do we think the Lord requires of us?

Is our relationship with God determined by our attendance at church, coming to worship at 11am every Sunday, singing a couple hymns, hearing scripture read aloud, and listening to a 15 minute sermon? Are we simply going through the motions of faith, or does our faith shape the way we act outside of this building?

During the time of Micah, God no longer wanted the sacrifice of animals, burnt offerings, and rivers of oil. Instead he wanted what he already showed to be good: justice, kindness, and humility.

And when we read that list of what God does not want, it makes the threefold expectation seem easy. The real demands of God however, are both moral and spiritual, and the proper worship of God is a life obedient to them. Without justice, kindness, and humility, any of our practices in church can wound our faith. Instead of creating worthy habits for life, we appear to be bargaining with God to take something less than he actually wants of us. If our faith can be compartmentalized into one hour a week, if our faith is limited to church worship alone, than we desperately need to hear Micah’s word.

Like the ancient Israelites, we live and die immersed in the love of God. Yet, how often are we blind to much, if not most, of it?

Micah begged the people to exhibit true faith, true worship, and true morality that will come to completion in true behavior. What we believe shapes how we behave. 

However, proper morality is not a substitute for religion. Its not just about “being a good person.” Outward conduct is essential for the life of faith, but it always depends on the inward character that is shaped by the gathering community of faith.

Justice, kindness, and humility might sound easy and comfortable to those who have never tried them, but the overwhelming truth is that these three practices are far more costly than thousands of rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil, or a more contemporary allusion might be that truly practicing justice, kindness, and humility will always be harder than giving numerous possessions away in order to somehow appease God.

If this church takes seriously our commitment to forming disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we need learn to translate mercy into our regular daily deeds through a close, nurturing, and personal journey of faith with God. The Lord demands our lives, our love, our trust, and our loyalty.

When driving around Staunton, it is nearly impossible to miss the cacophony of churches scratched across the landscape. In my life, I have never lived in a place with so many steeples. In fact, during one of my first weeks here someone told me that Staunton has more churches per capita than anywhere in the United States. I have no idea how to confirm whether or not this is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

In my short time here I have created relationships with some of the other clergy in town; I’ve gone out to lunch, initiated a lectionary based breakfast group, and shared numerous cups of coffee. Do you know what the first question is almost every time I meet a different pastor? “How many people do you have in worship?”

This week, while reading over Micah, I realized that getting asked about worship attendance is close to what the Israelites must have felt when someone asked, “how many rams did you sacrifice this week, how many river of oil did you present to God?”

Really? Of all the things that we could possibly talk about, the first question is always about church attendance. I wonder why we aren’t talking about ways that we can practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Why are we all so consumed with the numbers instead of planning ways to serve our community? And I’ll admit that I am certainly guilty of this practice. When I am asked about worship, I proudly respond about the growth of our church and the warm and inviting atmosphere that one encounters when walking through the door. But I have to be reminded too, I have to ask myself, ‘What does the Lord require?’ Does God want us to grow this church and fill it to the brim to the point where we no longer know who we are worshipping with? Or is God calling us to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly? Not that they are mutually exclusive, but until our focus is more on living our faith, rather than filling our building, our building will never be filled.

So, how can we practice justice as individuals and as a church? We can open our eyes to the needs of our community. We can seek out the last, least, and lost, to give them the one true gift worth sharing: love. We can stand up against the small and large injustices that occur everyday, whether its an unfair judgement in the work place, or racist comments, or belittling words between spouses. We can practice justice by living out our faith in the world.

How can we love kindness as individuals and as a church? We can initiate relationships with strangers knowing that God has done the same for us. We can show our love to our families and friends by making the extra phone call to just say “Hi.” We can truly greet one another when we gather in worship, not just the same people we talk with every week, but particularly those who are still strangers to us. We can show our loving kindness but living out our faith in the world.

How can we walk humbly with our God? We can recognize that God is not only concerned with our religious rituals, but calls for us to live out faith beyond these walls. We can admit that we have, and will continue to, fall short of God’s glory. We can find salvation and redemption through our faith in God, and God’s faith in us. We can come forward to the table and receive the bread and wine humbly, knowing that we have done nothing to deserve it. We can walk humbly with our God by living out our faith in the world.

What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Amen.