A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 23, 2015. The lectionary readings are Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, and John 6:56-69.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
I’ll never forget my first visit to a particular church I had always heard about, but never been inside. I know exactly what I was wearing—my favorite Glen Plaid suit that I had gotten for a steal at a church rummage sale a year before. Because I had heard so much about this church, I was a little self-conscious, being inside. It was full, its liturgy was more formal than what I was used to, and so I did everything I could to fit in and do what I saw other people do. I made it through the Sacrament of Communion, finding my way up to the altar rail and then, back through a kind of secret door and back to my seat, and so it was with some relief that I sang the final hymn. After the hymn, everyone sat down to listen to the organ postlude, so I did the same. When the final notes faded away and there was polite applause, the man sitting next to me leaned over to me. He said, “You have a small rip on the underside of your jacket sleeve. I thought you’d want to know.”
And we sometimes wonder why people worry about what to wear to church!
Whenever I invite someone to church, it seems like they always ask one question. They don’t ask whether it’s air-conditioned or not. They don’t ask how long the preacher talks. But almost every person asks, “What should I wear?”
I suppose if they grew up going to church, they might have grown up like I did, where we were always told to “wear your best for God,” or “you should dress up whenever you go to God’s house.” It was years later that I realized that God didn’t live in the church building, and God’s “house” was just as truly my dorm room, the shopping mall, the classroom or the restaurant kitchen where I worked.
“What should I wear?” is a question we all might ask, from time to time. Last Sunday, as I was on vacation, I wore khakis and a plaid summer shirt to church, but I confess that on the way, I worried for a minute, “What if I’m the only one there not wearing a sport coat?” Or, “What if everyone else is in shorts and tshirts?”
Though I understand the question about clothes, I really wish people didn’t think twice about what to wear to church. God doesn’t care (nor do I) about physical clothing. But God does care deeply about SPIRITUAL clothing. St. Paul and others use clothing as image for the important things we should “put on,” and God does care about those things. And so, in that sense, God does care what we wear.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul suggests a whole wardrobe, but he’s not really talking about physical, material things. Just the opposite, in fact. Paul is suggesting that when we’re afraid, when we’re insecure, when we’re not sure we’ve got the strength or the confidence to get through the morning (much less the day), that there’s an entire closetful of things at our disposal that well keep us safe. In fact, they will save us.
“Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul says. The physical things we fear, though they might be scary, are not really the things to fear at all, Paul says. Rather, it’s the spiritual things that can level us, that can bring us down the deepest, and that can even kill us. And then Paul goes on to talk about these various things we might do well to put on, or at least to try on.
A belt of truth around your waist. The waist is at our center. What if truth were really at the center of all that we are, and all that we do? There would be no fudging, no little white lies—instead, I guess we’d simply keep silent, rather than telling a lie.
A breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate would cover the heart. Paul imagines our hearts to be covered with righteousness. “Righteousness” comes from an Old English word, “right-wise”—to be both virtuous and wise, to be right wise. To live from the heart, remembering that the heart and the head are inseparable.
Paul says that for shoes, whatever makes us ready to proclaim a “gospel of peace” will do. He’s talking about our having a good foundation, a foundation that allows for peace, for us to talk about peace, to work for peace among other people, and to encourage peace in what we say, in where we go, and in what we do. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Faith, itself, Paul says, is like a shield. It protects us from all kinds of things. Even if our faith is weak, it’s a shield. Even if our faith is confused, even if it’s conflicted, when arrows from the evil one come toward us, God gives us a helping hand and our shield of faith is enough. Whatever faith we have is enough, and God works with that. God honors that. Any faith, any faith at all, becomes what Paul imagines so dramatically as the “shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
A “helmet of salvation” and a “sword of the Spirit” might sound like worn-out images, like they are accessories that we really don’t need. Except that the sword of the spirit is the Holy Scriptures, and the Holy Scripture is the way in which we come to understand salvation—salvation being, God’s plan from the beginning of time, to save humankind from itself.
So, here, St. Paul gives us an inventory of a kind of holy closet … The things we can use to protect us, to strengthen us, to keep us strong and faithful against any foe.
Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic and theologian, had a vision of God, and in reflecting upon it, she writes “God is our clothing,” she writes. “God is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.” (Showings, Chapter 5, Long Version)
Clothes do, perhaps, make the person. But not in the way we usually use that term. It’s not the physical clothes that count —but the spiritual ones. And the best thing is that we don’t have to hit the church rummage sales, worry about back-to-school sales, or obsess about the new fall fashions—God provides us with the means to be clothed in exactly what we need.
God gives us armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, peace-making shoes, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit— and all of them are custom-tailored to be exactly what you and I need. God does not give us a size that’s too big, or too small, but always knows what will be right. It is for us to step into that which God provides.
As Julian says, “God [himself] is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love.” May we put on the full armor of God, ready to be his force of love and renewal in the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.