How to Dress for the End of the World

Next week on Gathering Sunday we will celebrate being in this new space for one year. And this new space has presented us with new gifts and new challenges.  One of the gifts is living with a congregation that shares our commitment to the social Gospel – the idea that Christ’s new way of living actually changes the circumstances of those most in need.  One of the challenges is worshipping in such a huge room.  We have struggled to feel cohesive.  The acoustics can be a challenge.  And the space is far less formal that our previous building.  That means that we have also had to think about how we worship and how space defines the parameters of good worship.


In this space, I sometimes think that we could be less formal.  For example, I have wondered if the choir really needs to wear robes.  And over the summer, when I did not wear a robe because it was too hot, I wondered if my robe was really necessary.  And that thought, quite frankly, made me uncomfortable.


You see, I like my robe.  Black is so slimming.  And besides that, there are some good theological reasons for me to keep it on.  But I bet you that no one has ever told you what those are. So let me tell you why. In the Protestant world, at least, one of the ideas behind wearing a robe is that you are covering up your street clothes.  That’s supposed to take the attention off of me and what I chose to wear, my color combinations and choice of fabric and whether or not you think I match.  A robe purposefully covers up the messenger so that you all will pay attention to the Message.  Each week, when I put on my robe, I disappear into my role, at least a little. And while we’re on the subject of why do we what we do, there is also a theological reason for why we wear stoles.  They are not just colorful accessories.  They are meant to be representative of the yoke of Christ – of obedience to Jesus and service to the congregation. 


Some of my colleagues think of robes and stoles of also being symbolic of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” which is a phrase taken from our Romans reading today.  It’s fashion advice for what the well-dressed person wears at the end of the world.


And recently it has felt rather like the end of the world.  Harvey blasted Houston.  Irma is making chaos even as I speak.  Wildfires burn out of control in the northwest.  Recently floods affected millions in India, Bangladesh and Nepal.  Climate change seems to have rapidly accelerated.  North Korea launches missiles and teases the fates with World War III.  Our own democracy is under siege.  Nazis march in American streets and hold positions of power.  A swastika was drawn on this building a few weeks ago.  Immigrants live in fear in the so-called land of the free.


And all of it makes me afraid.  It also makes me angry, which is how fear sometimes exhibits in us.  Sometimes I even flirt with despair.  And with each new assault, each new headline or tweet, I am forced to have some kind of response.  The most natural response is indignation.  Facebook posts only exacerbate that for me.  Most of my friends are deeply angry at the state of the world.  And anger leads us into temptation and toward a tit-for-tat response. For example: I chuckled wickedly this week when I saw a Facebook post directing Hurricane Irma to Mar-a-Lago, only to realize how flip I was being with the lives of millions of people.


That’s what the hot flash of anger does. It doesn’t take the long view.  It’s very short-sited and it often has unintended consequences.  “An eye for an eye” we say.  But we forget that, as Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”


But James!  What are we supposed to do in these perilous and unprecedented times?  Are we just supposed to sit quietly while people are abused and democracy is attacked and the planet reels?  Of course not.  The Gospel calls us to active lives of justice-keeping and peace-making.  But how we go about that holy work makes all the difference in the world.  How we dress for the end of the world really matters.


This passage in Romans opens with the bold statement that love is the fulfilling of the whole Law of God.  But this love of which the Bible speaks is not a feeling.  And it is not sentimental.  Biblical love is an act of the will that bends toward justice. And it can be hard work.  As New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says: “love will grit its teeth and act as if the emotions are in place, trusting that they will follow in good time.”


So love is a decision far more than it is a feeling.  And to illustrate that, in his letter to Roman Christians, Paul uses the metaphor of clothing.  Twice in these seven verses he writes that love is something we decide to put on.  Verse 12 reads: “… Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  In verse 14, he repeats that sentiment by instructing the Roman Christians to “… put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”


It’s an interesting way to talk about an act of the will because getting dressed is something that we do as we start each day.  Every morning we look in our closets and think about what we have to do that day and then choose what we will put on. Getting dressed, and how we dress, is a daily decision.


And so is love, said Paul.  Each day we decide how we will respond to the bad news all around us.  Each day we decide how we will interact with our neighbors, not just the ones we like but those who push all our buttons.  Will we respond in kind?  Will we respond with vengeance?   Will we put on robes of light or rags of rage?


This kind of love is a matter of discipline.  That’s why we’re called disciples.  Every day we choose how fully we will live into our baptisms. It’s not easy in this political environment, but it is possible.  And some would say that it’s the only thing that matters.


“… Jerome, (the early church father) described how John the evangelist, (the) author of the gospel and book of Revelation, preached at Ephesus (well) into his nineties.  At that age, John was so feeble that he had to be carried into the church at Ephesus on a stretcher. Then, when he could no longer preach a normal sermon, he would lean up on one elbow. (And, according to Jerome) the only thing he said was, “Little children, love one another.” People would then carry him back out of the church.  This continued for weeks. And every week he repeated his one-sentence sermon: “Little children, love one another.”  Weary of the repetition, the congregation finally asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"  "Because," John replied, "it is the Lord's command, and if this only is done, it is enough."[1]


Love is always enough.  So decide to put on love. And don’t be fooled by the extreme challenges we face. What we wear is always a choice.  And choosing wisely still has the potential to heal this beautiful and broken world. 


[1] “Our Unpaid Debt” by Daniel Clendenin, posted on the Journey with Jesus website, September 3, 2017