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The Minister’s Uniform

August 5, 2013

“The Minister’s Uniform” Colossians 3:1-17 © 8.4.13 Ordinary 18C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

At Monteagle Inn, where Susan and I stayed on our vacation, Chef Patty offers a gourmet breakfast that attracts townsfolk on the weekend. On the Sunday we were there, an Episcopal priest was sitting across the room from us, enjoying the meal as he read a book on his Kindle. He was dressed in a black shirt with a round white collar, universally known as “the dog collar”; charcoal grey pleated trousers; and black cap toe dress shoes. Somber. Conservative. “Look at that,” I said to Susan. “I dress the very same way on Sundays.” “That’s right,” she replied. “It’s the uniform.”

So I have some distinctive clothing in my closet that I wear on Wednesdays and Sundays and whenever my work requires it. The shirt need not be black and there are at least three styles of collars, namely, dog, tonsure, and tab, but the garb is instantly recognizable and sets me apart.

I wonder, though. You are also ministers, ordained in baptism, called by our Lord to service. Do you have a uniform?

Indeed you do, and it’s the same one I am supposed to wear day in and day out, even if I don’t have on the clergy clothes. Don’t worry. You don’t need to go out and buy a new wardrobe. You wear this uniform whether you’re dressed to the nines in the latest fashions or slumming and beating the heat in shorts and a t-shirt, at the beach or a BBQ or ball game, dancing or doing yard work or driving to the store, in any kind of room on every day anywhere in the world. It has nothing to do with how you cut your hair or what you wear to worship on Sunday. This uniform is the right weight for winter, summer, fall, and spring.

Obviously, I’m not talking about actual clothing, and neither is the author of Colossians. He urges us to clothe ourselves with qualities and behaviors, not cloth and leather and metal. As one paraphrase put it: “…chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God has picked out for you: compassion, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.”

The imagery of clothing comes from the practice of the ancient church. I’m sure you already know this, but let me remind you. In the early days of the church, folk quite literally received a new white garment to put on as they came up from the baptismal pool. Before going in, the convert stripped off his or her old clothes, signifying the giving up of old ways. Then as they emerged after baptism, the new believer was given a robe by the priest or priestess, a symbol of the new life in Christ. The giving of the same garment also served to bind believers together. The generic, shapeless, colorless clothing reminded them that status did not matter. Neither did gender, ethnic origin or their former religion. There was no more division into “us” and “them,” as before when people were either civilized Greeks or wild barbarians, like the despised Scythians. They were all one in Christ now. The old was gone. The new had come.

Practices have changed, but the meaning remains the same. Our being clothed with Christ, our virtual uniform, marks us a part of a distinctive community. So our uniform shares a characteristic with those worn by the military, law enforcement, sports teams, businesses, and others. We know by colors, insignia or maybe caps or berets what branch of the service a man or woman belongs to. Sports teams in a similar way distinguish themselves by school colors. People representing businesses might wear a polo shirt or at least a name tag with a particular logo to identify themselves.

Each of us “bears on the brow the seal of Christ who died” as the wonderful hymn puts it (“Lift High the Cross”). But it’s invisible. The water of baptism, the oil of anointing, the ash of Lent leave no permanent stain, no discernible mark. We have our rituals and practices when we gather here, like Holy Communion or saying the Lord’s Prayer. But what really matters is in the world beyond these walls. How will people know we belong to Christ, that we are set apart from the culture of greed and intolerance and hatred and selfishness? Only by our actions. They are our uniform, our insignia, our logo. As the song from back in the day said: “Love is my badge” (“Badge” by George Harrison and Eric Clapton; Clapton added this line in a live performance on “One More Car, One More Rider”).

Second, our uniform takes discipline to maintain and to keep wearing. I recall Mama complaining about having to iron those sharp creases in Daddy’s National Guard uniforms. And of course, he had to make sure his boots were polished and his bars and then clusters shined. He had to make sure he was wearing the right uniform for the proper occasion, place any citations or braid correctly, and be aware of and follow other standards. But more than that, if he was going to advance, if he was going to receive commendation, even remain in the military, he had to train, improve his skills as a sharpshooter and an intelligence officer. Wearing the uniform meant work.

It’s the same for any athlete or anyone involved in business. My brother-in-law Jeff goes out into the field wearing the uniform of a Caterpillar service rep. That gives him a right to be where the big machines are being run. But to be respected and listened to by the operators and bosses, he has to show he knows what he’s talking about. You might put on the uniform, wear the logo, but to keep it on, to get respect, you must earn it by your performance.

A uniform also disciplines the wearer to behave in a certain way. At least that’s the ideal. Think of the purpose of a school uniform. It’s supposed to take the focus off the fashions kids want to wear and remind them they are in class to learn, not to show off their shoes or their favorite t-shirts or set trends. And there are sanctions for breaking the rules about colors or shirts tucked in or sagging pants or the circumference and length of earrings.

In much the same way, Christians clothed with Christ in baptism are called to spiritual disciplines. It’s hard to show compassion, live in peace, be patient, remain humble. Those aren’t our natural tendencies. Indeed, just the opposite. We’re naturally self-centered, aggressive, and unforgiving.

But if we consider ourselves always clothed in the uniform of the community of faith, we may be more likely to behave in a way that honors Christ and shows our commitments. I’m aware when I have on a clergy collar that folks will know I’m a pastor. So that helps me be on my best behavior. We are clothed with Christ by grace, but we are called continually to grow in him by learning, by prayer, by worship, by service, by other spiritual disciplines.

Make no mistake. People are watching, especially if they know what we profess to believe or what church we belong to. Our misconduct can turn someone quickly away from Christianity, though perhaps not from God or Jesus. This is just a couple of comments from a heart-wrenching blog I read recently: “I have no problem whatsoever with God or Jesus—only Christians. It’s been my experience that most Christians are belligerent, disdainful, and pushy.” “I don’t know whether or not most of the Christians I come across think they’re acting and being like Jesus was—but if they do, they need to go back to their Bibles, and take a closer look at Jesus”  (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2013/07/what-non-christians-want-christians-to-hear ).

Again remember: we are always in uniform. We don’t take off and put on our baptismal identity like we do a pair of shoes or a shirt. Let us not dishonor it by the way we act or what we say. Instead, let our neighbors see us clad every day in the distinctive clothing Christ has given us: love, gratitude, patience, peacefulness, and humility. And in the wearing of the uniform of grace, let us be renewed and strengthened for service, for discipline, for worship, all to the glory of our Lord.

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