Thursday, December 1, 2016

Something Needs to Change

A few days ago, I was watching a highlight on ESPN when the commentator offered this dismissive advice for whatever athlete had failed to lead his team to victory: "Go ahead and pick out your Sunday dress." It was his way of saying, "You don't belong on the field on Saturday night. Go ahead and take off your uniform and start getting ready for church." Maybe I'm underestimating our collective appreciation for the tradition of dressing up for church on Sunday morning, but that seemed like the kind of analogy that would have been lost of most of the television audience. I suspect that is especially true for the white viewers, who, again, I would guess are largely unfamiliar with the importance that African Americans place on dressing up for Sunday morning. Maybe I'm short-sighted, but I found the quip both cutting and anachronistic.

What do you wear to church? In my congregation, a few men still wear suits and ties. Most have foregone that formality and wear a coat and tie. A few come with open collars and jackets or no jacket at all. I have always enjoyed dressing up for church, but I must admit that, while I wear a dark suit on occasion, a sports jacket and slacks are my usual attire. In many growing non-denominational congregations, there is an emphasis on coming in casual, street clothes. The clergy wear fashionably tattered jeans and untucked flannel shirts, and the congregation is encouraged to follow suit.

It is too simplistic to say that our church dress necessarily says something about our theology--what do we think about God, what do we think about our relationship with God, what do we think is the purpose of Sunday-morning worship--but, whether intentionally or not, I think church dress speaks volumes. What are we hiding behind our perfectly tailored outfits? What are we hiding behind our perfectly assembled yet haphazardly projected hipster outfits?

Matthew tells us that John the Baptist wore camel's hair. Although this is the perfect season for wearing one, I don't think he meant a nice camelhair coat from Nordstrom's. His dress was bizarre. He ate locusts and wild honey. Again, that's strange. He was the wild-haired, free-spirited, strangely fashionable prophet of his day. The crowds came out to meet him. The multitudes flocked to hear him. And then came the men in suits. "When [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'"

Stop for a second and think how backwards that is. The ones whose repentance was questioned were not the ragtag, street-clothes-wearing masses who had come to be baptized but the well-dressed, well-manicured religious elites whose faithfulness would have been assumed by everyone else there. Something strange is going on at the River Jordan--something we wouldn't expect.

In our congregation, when a person walks in with greasy, unkempt hair and dirty, smelly clothing, we make space for him or her. We are quite happy to let that person visit for a Sunday and participate fully in our worship. We may keep an eye on that person. There may be an added tension in the congregation because of that person's presence, but we know how to keep going without letting the intrusion bring everything to a stop. But we--and I mean me, too--don't have the first idea of how to recognize that the homeless person, who clearly doesn't belong amidst the fancy-dressed Episcopalians in the pews, is actually the one whom John the Baptist and Jesus came to meet that morning. We haven't learned how to recognize that we are the well-dressed, religious insiders that the Pharisees and Sadducees were. We are the brood of vipers to whom John says, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance."

We are comfortable in our religious habits. We have a place in the church. We have a pew we call our own. We have nice Sunday clothes hanging in our closets. And we are the ones at whom John the Baptist looks and says, "What the heck are you doing here?" Why? Because the comfort--social, financial, and religious--that we enjoy makes it hard for us to recognize that we are the ones who need to change. What about the ragged man who walks in off the street? His willingness to come through the door to sit amidst the elites and receive their stares and polite-but-stiff greetings shows the kind of fruit worthy of repentance that John was preaching. For him, walking into the church is itself the change God asks for. That's not true for the rest of us. Repentance is a change of heart, a change of life, a reversal of course, a complete turnaround. If we're on the same path we've always been on, we haven't discovered repentance. Something needs to change, and that something is we.

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