Sunday, May 22, 2016
“Clothes make the man.” So observed the pundit, Mark Twain. We dress for success to quote a cliché. But, what does that mean for people of faith gathered on a Sunday morning in May in the middle of “Peace Month”? How does what we wear relate to the things that make for peace?
It has not escaped my attention that I am virtually the only one here who wears a jacket and tie to church any more. This is not a judgment on anyone, just an observation. Fashion changes over time and the truth is that I am something of an anachronism. They still sell suits and ties and dress shirts at Macy’s so I imagine there are places where they are worn. Sometimes it must still be important to dress for success. There are places and situations where what you wear matters.
I know I am my mother’s child when it comes to dressing, especially for church. By the end of her life she had closets full of beautiful clothes, most of which were reserved for special occasions. And, when I was growing up there was no more special occasion than Sunday morning. We had our “Sunday best” and those clothes were saved for that day. Washed, ironed, and polished, we would head out the door spotless and spiffy. In her worldview, you saved your best for the Lord, including what you wore to the Lord’s House. I think she had a point. How we adorn ourselves does affect our attitude, how we feel, and how we carry ourselves.
Writer Gay Talese has opined, “Putting on a beautifully designed suit elevates my spirit, extols my sense of self, and helps define me as a man to whom details matter.” That 19th century dispenser of witty wisdom, Oscar Wilde, once quipped that “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.” But even the great American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, believed that “Being perfectly well-dressed gives one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” Actually, the entire Mark Twain quotation is: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” I suppose the naked folk who sometimes lounge at the intersection of Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco can capture your attention, but they have little long term affect on social structure.
Well, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “dress for success”? Is there a connection between fashion and faith? I started to think about this Tuesday in Bible study when Thelma Parodi pointed out that The Message paraphrase of Isaiah 11:5 reads, “Each morning God will pull on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land.” Thelma thought, and I agree, that this is a charming, captivating image. For that same verse, the New Revised Standard Version reads, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” The reference is not directly to God but to the “shoot” that grows from “Jesse’s stump,” the one whom later tradition identified as the Messiah, and whom we have associated with Jesus.
It is this One from God (or who is God in human form) who comes to redeem creation, to guide us up the Holy Mountain, to lead us to our home in God’s Beloved Community. What does he wear? How does he dress for success? He straps on righteousness and buckles up faithfulness. He comes ready to work on the things that make for peace. Isaiah proclaims, “The life-giving Spirit of God will hover over the Promised One, the Spirit that brings wisdom and understanding. The Spirit that gives direction and builds strength, the Spirit that instills knowledge and Fear-of-God.” Here is one dressed and ready for what must be done for peace to prevail.
Now this passage links nicely, at least in mind, to what Paul has to say to the church in Ephesus about being dressed and ready for the work they have to do. Except, of course, this passage from Paul is full of military imagery – hardly what you’d turn to to talk about the things that make for peace. Armor is not usually the peacemaker’s outfit of choice. I know we sometimes use the language of peace euphemistically to describe various weapons, soldiers, and military operations, but use of language doesn’t always make it so.
I’m sure the armor imagery spoke to that early Ephesian church in a place and time in which soldiers in military attire were a common sight. They would have had a clear picture of the Roman soldier in his wide leather belt, emblazoned breast plate, sturdy sandals or boots, protective helmet, carrying his sword or spear and shield. I imagine it was a more intimidating presence than the one we carry from contemporary costume dramas. These guys were not actors, they meant business.
Ironically, they were dressed to bring about peace – the great Roman Peace or Pax Romana. This was, indeed, a sort of peace – enforced peace that involved the suppression of freedom, threats or the practice of violence when needed, control and oppression of whole populations, the well-being of the few at the expense of the many. This was not the vision of God’s Holy Mountain or Beloved Community. This was not the goal of the Promised One, the Prince of Peace, to whom the Ephesian Christians pledged allegiance. While they endured the Roman Peace, Paul urged them to prepare for the peace that passes understanding. Turning the military imagery on its head, he speaks of “the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…shoes for…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one…the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
I suppose the Ephesians might have been shocked or amused at Paul’s use of this image of their oppressors to make his point about being faithful to Christ, and to God’s high calling. But then, again, maybe it was empowering, the way “Putting on a beautifully designed suit [might]elevate the spirit, extol [one’s]sense of self, and help define [one] as a [person]to whom details matter” or “Being perfectly well-dressed [could] give one a tranquility that no religion can bestow.” It is a kind of dressing for success – for the success of shalom and Beloved Community. Following the practice of the Promised One, put on your “sturdy work clothes and boots” and get busy.
Maybe there are times when it is still appropriate to put on your Sunday best and to go up to God’s house to sing and pray in praise and celebration. I hope so. People still dress up to go out occasionally and wear party outfits, don’t they? We still like to watch the glamor and glitz on the various red carpets and the fashion shows on reality television. “A well-tied tie” may not be “the first serious step in life,” but there may be satisfaction in that, or however you choose to adorn yourself to feel good and beautiful and express joy in living. That is indeed a form of success, worthy of investment. Put on your red dress or sweater and celebrate the Spirit of life as we did last Sunday. Get out your tux and your formal, your high heeled sneakers, your brightest lipstick, your pink feather boa, your gaudiest bow tie, your dress up sweatshirt, and kick up your heels now and then.
But don’t forget the things that make for peace. Don’t leave Jesus sitting on the side of the hill weeping over us because we didn’t know or see or embrace the things that make for peace. Otherwise we run the risk of sowing the seeds of our own destruction – the emptiness of our good times, the felling of our great “trees” of state, the toppling of our temples, the crumbling of our cities, and the devastation of creation.
When we dress for success, we must be certain to put on clothes appropriate to the work at hand. We don’t need the image of armor to see that, if we want the things that make for peace, our sturdy work clothes and boots are righteousness or right-living, faithfulness to the living presence of God, the truth that sets us free, the salvation or sense of wholeness which the gospel promises, and the Spirit who provides wisdom and understanding, direction and strength, knowledge and fear or awe of God.
Dressed like that what other work could we do but feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners – the very things that make for peace? I guarantee you Jesus won’t be sitting on the hillside weeping. He’ll be right there working with us in his own sturdy work clothes and boots, dressed for success, the success of establishing God’s Holy Mountain, God’s Beloved Community, right here and right now. What outfits do you have hanging in your closets, ready to wear?