Sunday, August 29, 2010

Knowing Your Place

Luke 14:1, 7-14

What would Emily Post say? If the President invites you to a party at the White House, where should you sit? If you arrive early, should you go and save that empty seat up front at his right hand? It sure would be great to sit as close as possible to the center of attention, but maybe it would be better to take a seat farther back in the crowd. Of course, proximity to greatness does suggest greatness!

Back in the Soviet era, when Leonid Brezhnev was still running things, Time Magazine would try to figure out who was next in line to succeed him. Since the Soviets weren't too keen on letting out the secret, the analysts at Time would watch where Politburo members stood on Kremlin wall overlooking Red Square during important events, like a May Day review of the troops. The assumption was that the closer you stood to Brezhnev, the closer you were to the top of the list. If you’d moved down a few spaces, well obviously you were on the way out of favor. You know that if Kremlinologists were paying such close attention to these details, there must have been a lot of jockeying for position on that wall.

Books, videos and audio tapes that carry titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offer advice about climbing the corporate ladder and becoming all you can be. You’ll find something similar in the book of Proverbs, which also offers advice on successful living. The general theme is this: if you do this, you’ll succeed; if you do that you’ll fail. Generally speaking this is all good advice – consider for instance this word from Proverbs 25, in which the ancient Jewish advice columnist says: "Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble" (vs. 6-7). In other words, don't presume too much. If you want to be successful, then know your place, and show proper deference to your superiors.

The problem with Proverbs 25 is that it talks about deference, but not humility. Sometimes, advice like this can lead to manipulation. Consider that old Marabel Morgan book The Total Woman, which was a big seller back in the 1970s. Morgan told women to worship their husbands, greet them at the door in sexy outfits, and pretend to like sports. The flip side of this book was, if you give him what he wants, you’ll get what you want. If he thinks you’re submissive and attentive to his every need, then you can be in control. Believe me. Many women learned the lesson well, especially in the church. They may not have been up front or sit at the table at the board meeting, but their husbands didn't do anything without their permission.


Knowing how to behave in society has its place, and as you can see from Proverbs, Emily Post and Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the social advice genre. When it came to meals in the first century, they could often be important social events. That meant that you needed to know how to behave at them – something my mother tried to teach me at a young age.

Down through history, when important people have thrown big banquets and parties, they’ve invited the rich and famous to join them for their celebration. Anyone who is anyone will be on the guest list. If you’re not on the list, well I guess you simply aren’t all that important. On the day of the dinner, the host brings out the best china, the finest wines, and kills the fatted calf. After all, why bother with a dinner party, if you can’t impress your neighbors. But back to the guest list – an invitation isn’t enough. The seating chart is also a prime concern. Like the Kremlin wall, the seats closest to the host are always reserved for the most important guests. Which means, like a group of children playing a game of musical chairs, the guests will jockey for the best seats.

According to Luke, one day a wealthy pharisee invited Jesus to his house for lunch. When Jesus arrived, he noticed the other guests were jockeying for the best seats. Everyone was trying to find a seat at the head table, and therefore avoid sitting at the proverbial kid’s table. Jesus’ comment about this jockeying is reminiscent of Proverbs 25. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host." After all, you don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being reseated at the back of the room, or worse, at the kid’s table. No, instead find a seat at the back, and then maybe the host, seeing your humility, will bring you up front.

Of course, Jesus isn’t in the business of offering advice on social graces. He isn’t interested in helping people climb the social or corporate ladder. Despite the many attempts to turn Jesus into a self-improvement teacher – remember ad man Bruce Barton’s 1920's classic: The Man Nobody Knows, which tried to portray Jesus as the greatest salesman in history – Jesus has something else in mind. Instead of offering a seminar on 10 Easy Steps to Social Success, Jesus tells a parable about finding one’s place at the table. It’s a word that calls for humility, because God isn’t all that concerned about our social status or whether the team wins the big game, despite what some athletes would have us believe.


In the kingdom of God, which is always the focus of Jesus’ parables, the rules in life get reversed and turned upside down. What you think should be true in life, may not be as true as you’ve been led to believe. The rules of etiquette get turned on their head, because, as Jesus says: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a difficult concept to get our heads around. That’s because we know that if we’re going to succeed in life we have to promote ourselves. To give you a personal example – I’m a writer and I want people to read my blog and my books, which is why I set up a Facebook fan page for my blog. After all, if I don’t promote my blog or my new book on the Lord’s Prayer, which is due out in October by the way, then who’s going to promote them?

Yes, in our world, self-promotion is the name of the game. Do you think that the Heisman Award voters don't pay attention to the hype surrounding certain players? Why else, would colleges paint big posters on the sides of buildings in New York City or make video presentations available for the voters that lay out all the wondrous things the player has done. Yes, if you’re going to succeed in life, you have to market yourself. Because, if you don’t "look out for number 1,” then nobody will!

Unfortunately, Jesus has a different take on things. Remember that parables speak of what God is doing in the world. In telling his parable, Jesus reminds us that God is the one who humbles and who exalts. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, it is God who reverses the expected order of human relationships. That means, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.


In making his observation about the way in which God reverses our social rules, Jesus also touches upon the issue of reciprocity. Proper etiquette requires you to return the favor if someone invites you to a party. For the most part, that’s good advice, and to say otherwise will get me in trouble at home. But, Jesus wants us to understand that things are different in God’s realm. That’s because God is doing the inviting and not us. And so, Jesus tells us to send out invitations to people who can’t reciprocate. Instead of inviting the rich and famous, invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. When you open the doors, be inclusive rather than exclusive, starting at the Lord’s Table, a Table that Jesus has set and at which he is the host. He has invited everyone, no matter their gender, their social status, their ethnicity, or even their theology to join him at his table. Yes, he has even invited you and me, even though we’re not in a position to reciprocate in any meaningful way.

What begins at the Lord’s Table should influence the rest of our lives – from the coffee hour to SOS, and beyond. I mention SOS for a reason. This is a ministry that we share with Congregational Church of Birmingham, along with many other churches and religious organizations in Oakland County. When we participate in SOS, we’re serving people who by and large can’t reciprocate. At the end of the week, we feel pretty good about ourselves and our ministry, which is okay, but we must beware of that human tendency to consider ourselves better than the people we serve. We must beware also of the tendency to think that we’re earning brownie points with God and with our neighbor. We serve not to impress others, but because it’s the way of the kingdom. We give to the Week of Compassion and Disciple Mission Fund, not because by doing so earns us a spot on the Top 100 Giving Churches in the denomination, but because we’ve been blessed with financial blessings, which we’re able to share. And the same is true of our increasing involvement with Motown Mission. We’re not going into Detroit believing that we’re going to save “those people” from their plight. We’re simply following our missional calling.

As we hear Jesus’ observation and the parable that follows upon it, we would be well served to remember that in the kingdom of God, as theologian Patrick Henry writes, Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian's Companion, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1999), 150). In the kingdom, hospitality comes with humility and a concern for the welfare of the other, instead of concern about our own social standing. That is not to say, that there are no blessings to be obtained in following our missional calling – our ultimate blessing comes in the resurrection, when we’re able to stand at the right hand of God with our elder brother, Jesus the Risen One!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disicples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 29, 2010
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shaken to the Foundations -- A Sermon on Hebrews 12

Hebrews 12:18-29

I’m a survivor. Yes, I’ve survived several earthquakes, although none of them have been massive. The largest quake we ever experienced was the Northridge Quake in 1994, but it was centered miles away from our apartment in Rancho Cucamonga. That quake started with a jolt and then a rumble. The moment it struck I didn’t know its intensity or its epicenter, but I knew it wasn’t a train going by the complex. So I jumped out of bed, grabbed Brett, and headed for the door jam. The quake didn't last long, just a mater of seconds, but it rattled my nerves, and it was a while before we got back to sleep. We later learned that it was a 6.7 earthquake that, wreaked havoc on the Los Angeles basin. It led to the deaths of 17 people, injured scores more, and took down important freeway overpasses and numerous buildings in the San Fernando Valley. When I got to work at the library in Pasadena, which was much closer to the epicenter, I discovered I had a mess to clean up – including a number of collapsed bookshelves.

Quakes are funny, because the damage is often related to the ground upon which buildings are situated. Take for instance, the quake that hit my hometown of Klamath Falls in 1993, just days after we had left town after a vacation visit. Now, you need to understand that quakes are a rarity in Klamath Falls, so people aren’t as prepared for such an event as they might be in Los Angeles. This quake registered around 6.0 on the Richter scale, which is a pretty-good sized quake, and it destroyed several older brick buildings in the downtown area, including the venerable courthouse. Surprisingly, the oldest building in town, the unreinforced-brick Baldwin Hotel escaped without any damage at all. You see, unlike the other downtown buildings, which sat on reclaimed lake bed, the Baldwin was built on solid bedrock. That foundation wasn't going to move anywhere!

1. Wrestling with the Life’s Unexpected Events

Earthquakes are unpredictable, often coming when least expected. The extent of damage and death is often related to where and when a quake hits. If a quake hits out in the desert, it’s not going to cause much damage or death. But, if it hits at rush hour in a major city – as was true of the 1989 Bay Area quake -- then great harm can occur. Of course, if you live in an earthquake prone area, you’re more likely to take precautions – just in case. That’s why Chile had fewer problems after their quake than did the Haitians. Perhaps the spiritual life is much the same. You have to be ready for the big one,

The Foundations of the earth do shake.
Earth breaks to pieces,
Earth is split in pieces,
Earth reels like a drunken man,
Earth rocks like a hammock;
Under the weight of its transgression earth falls down
To rise no more! (Is. 24:18b-20 -- From Tillich's The Shaking of the Foundations, translation unknown)
The fragility of the earth reminds us of the fragility of our own lives. It’s easy to grow cold and callous about life, taking it for granted and become arrogant in our belief that we have the power to control our destinies. We do have choices in life, but as the prophets of old remind us, not everything is in our control. It often takes a devastating quake , tornado, war, flood or loss of a loved one to wake us up to the realities of life, to wake us up from our slumber, so that we might begin wrestling with the uncertainties of life. Too often we ignore the words of the prophets until the reality of their words hit home – that is, unless we’re prepared spiritually for the tests that come our way.

In the aftermath of World War II, theologian Paul Tillich preached a famous sermon entitled The Shaking of the Foundations. In it, he called on his audience to consider the devastating power humanity had recently unleashed on itself. He reminded the congregation that humanity now possessed the tools of its own destruction. But, even though science had given humanity the tools to shake heaven and earth, Tillich asked the question – is this our right? [Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (New York: Charles Scribners, 1948), 2-3].

2. A Call to Prophetic Ministry

Nature’s power can be frightening, but so can the prospect of proclaiming the word of God. Prophets understand that their audience might not like what they have to say. They also face the possibility that they’ll be ignored. That’s why Jeremiah was less than eager to heed God’s call to be a prophet. Jeremiah told God that he was just a boy and therefore too young to take up such a calling. No one would listen to him, so why bother, and besides, even if people listened, prophets were rarely received well by the people. Now Jeremiah did accept the call, but he also got the treatment when his fellow citizens stuffed him in a cistern and had him carted off to Egypt. The thing God is, God can be persistent, and so God reminded Jeremiah that he had been created for this purpose. His vocation in life, from the moment of conception, was to deliver a word of judgment, and therefore, he needn’t be afraid. Yes, God told him: "Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jer. 1:4-10). Do you hear the contrast between the call to tear down and the call to build up? Both are placed in Jeremiah's hands. According to Hebrews 12, God called another prophet named Moses, and when Moses heard the voice of God he trembled with fear – largely because the voice of God shook the earth. As for us, the word of God comes in a different way – as Hebrews puts it:

"But you have drawn near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in a festival gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than Abel’s blood" (Heb. 12:22-24 CEB)

We have received an invitation to enter the holy city, the dwelling place of God, to share in the heavenly worship with the gathered saints of God, having Jesus as our mediator and guide.

3. A Sifting of the Eternal

The Book of Hebrews reminds us that we should treasure that which is eternal – much as Jesus spoke of placing our treasure in heaven (Luke 12:22-34). As I think on what is important in life, what is lasting, what is eternal, my mind goes back to the Baldwin Hotel. I’m reminded that this old brick building survived, when the newer, better built, and more imposing courthouse didn’t. The difference between the structure that survived and the one that didn’t, wasn’t the quality of its construction, but the foundation upon which it was built. One was built on solid rock while the other was built on silt and mud.

The question raised by our text this morning concerns our response to the ways in which God shakes the foundations of our lives. What will survive, when God sifts our lives? What is built on solid rock? And what is built on shifting sands? Will we heed the prophets and embrace that which is eternal?

According to Paul Tillich, the prophets spoke with boldness because "their power sprang from the fact that they did not really speak of the foundations of the earth as such, but of Him Who laid the foundations and would shake them; and that they did not speak of the doom of the nations as such, but of Him Who brings doom for the sake of His eternal justice and salvation" (p. 9) As we face the difficulties of life, as our lives are shaken, in whom will we put our trust? Do we put our trust in our own abilities? In the government? In our families? Or, even in the church? Or do we put our trust in the God who laid the foundations of our lives?

There is only one thing that is unmovable and unchangeable, and we must build upon it. As Tillich puts it:
"When the earth grows old and wears out, when nations and cultures die, the Eternal changes the garments of His infinite being. He is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken. There is something immovable, unchangeable, unshakable, eternal, which becomes manifested in our passing and in the crumbling of our world" (p. 9)
 As we wrestle with this question, it’s important to recognize that the temporary often seems more attractive and enticing than the eternal. Fads come and go, but at the moment of their revealing, they seem so exciting. The eternal may not seem as glamorous or as hip, but when the temporary disappears, the eternal one remains standing. Quite often, the temporary collapses under its own weight, when the time of shaking begins. The question then is: how will we respond to the times when God sifts our lives? According to Tillich there are two choices: despair and faith ( p. 10). Which one will you choose? Putting our hopes in the temporary and the faddish, leads only to despair. But to put our hope in the eternal leads to a faith that will not disappoint. Faith comes, Tillich says, when we "see through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and salvation which has no end!" (p. 11).

When we stand on the rock, which is the God who created us, redeems us, and sustains us, we discover that when the shaking stops, like the Baldwin Hotel, nothing will have moved! If we choose to walk in faith, which means putting our trust in God’s grace, goodness, mercy, and love, then we will have built our lives on the bedrock of eternity. This is the message God wanted Jeremiah to proclaim to a people who had fallen for the trap of the temporary. They had put their faith in their own ability to overthrow the Babylonians, even though Jeremiah told them to put their trust in God, who is the mighty fortress and the bulwark that never fails. We come this morning, invited by our Lord, to place our lives at God's disposal through faith, so that when the sifting and the shaking occur, we will remain standing!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 22, 2010

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Ready or Not . . .

Luke 12:32-40

I was once asked to housesit for family friends, because they had two Dalmatians needing to be tended to. I think I was still in high school at the time, and all I had to do was walk and feed the dogs, and make sure everything was secure. It wasn’t a difficult job by any means, but since these were friends of the family, I needed to make sure everything was in order when they returned. I knew when they were supposed to return, and I was going to clean things up before they arrived. Now, as some of you know I don’t keep the tidiest of offices, so, you can imagine that I might have let things go just a bit. Of course, I intended to clean everything up before they were supposed to return, but I never thought about what might happen if they returned early and without notice.

Fortunately we have something the readers of Luke’s gospel didn’t have. We have telephones. And, the phone did ring as I was watching TV, with dishes in the sink and books and papers scattered here and there. To my surprise, Karen was on the phone, calling, I think, from Dorris, a little town just across California border to the south of Klamath Falls. She was calling to let me know that they were returning early and should be there in about 30 minutes. Remember this was before the cell phone, so they had to stop and use a pay phone – if you remember that device. You can imagine that I was glad that they stopped and warned me. Yes, by the time they arrived I had picked up the house, made sure the dogs were in the right place, and I think that no one, except me, knew the difference. Since all was in order, I received my reward – whatever the going rate for high-school-age house- sitters was in the mid-1970s. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had they returned without warning. I don’t think I would have been ready for them, and had that been the case I might have been a bit embarrassed, my mother wouldn’t be too happy either, and likely I wouldn’t have received my reward!

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke today raises the question of whether we’re ready for the coming of the kingdom of God. This is a question we often ask at Advent, but this week’s lectionary readings remind us that readiness for the coming of God’s kingdom isn’t just a once-a-year event!

1. Don’t Be Afraid

Jesus’s conversation with his disciples begins with an issue that seems to plague our day – fear. We seem to be living in a constant state of anxiety. Every poll suggests that a majority of the American people don’t believe that the nation is on the right track. Consumer confidence remains low, which means that people spend less, which means businesses don’t hire new workers. And even if they would hire, lending institutions are skittish about sharing any money with businesses. Everyone is afraid of getting “snake-bit,” which means we’re in a vicious economic cycle, and that’s not a good situation to be in if you’re a consumer-driven economy.

But it’s not just the economy that makes us anxious. We seem to be afraid of a lot of things – terrorism, immigrants, people who are different, and climate change, just to name a few. To give you a sense of some of the issues causing people anxiety, consider the controversy that has surrounded the proposed Islamic center and mosque that are slated to be built a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. Responses have been driven by fear of Islamic-inspired terrorism. And, in California, a Federal judge has overturned a proposition that bans gay marriage. This has caused anxiety largely because some people are afraid that it would undermine their own marriages. The oil well in the gulf has been plugged, but there are plenty of other things out there to scare us – warnings about medications, crime, drugs, tainted foods, as well as cars and trucks that are defective. Although the media seems to drive this negativity that infects our world, our own insatiable appetite for bad news encourages the media to focus on the negative rather than the positive.

To get a sense of where things seem to be, it might help if turn to a conversation that takes place between Charlie Brown and Lucy in The Charlie Brown Christmas. In a famous scene from the show, Charlie Brown visits Lucy’s “counseling clinic,” where she dispenses advice for a nickle. She begins by asking him what he’s afraid of – as she rolls off a list of phobias, she comes to the one that afflicts Charlie Brown, and maybe many other people living on this planet. The conversation goes like this:

Lucy says: “Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?”

Charlie Brown replies: “What's pantophobia?”

Lucy answers: “The fear of everything.”

When he hears this, Charlie Brown shouts: “THAT'S IT!” (Sending Lucy flying back into the snow).
So, do you have “pantophobia?” Are you afraid of everything? If so, Jesus responds to our fears: “Do not be afraid!”

2. Yours Is the Kingdom

The question remains, why shouldn’t we be afraid? After all, the times are tough. Jesus’ answer is quite simple: It “is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That is, God has provided us the kingdom for which we pray each Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus’ message is this: There is no need to fear, for God is our provider. In the verses that precede our text, Jesus points out that God doesn’t forget the sparrows, which sell for two pennies, or even the number of hairs on our heads. So, don’t be afraid, because you’re more valuable to God than many sparrows (Lk 12:4-8).

To make this point even clearer, Jesus says to his “little flock,” sell your possessions, give alms to the poor, and make purses that don’t wear out by seeking treasure that is in heaven, where no thief or moth can destroy. In offering this directive, we hear echoes of God’s call of Abraham and Sarah. This couple picks up and follows God’s leading into a land that wasn’t their own. They would dwell in Canaan the remainder of their lives as strangers in a strange land. All that they had at their disposal was God’s promise that a nation would emerge from them --- this despite the fact that they didn’t have children and were past the age of childbearing – and from their descendants would come blessings to all the nations. In recalling this story, Hebrews 11 offers Abraham as an example of the life of faith.

It’s easier to live our lives when we know that we have a sufficient nest egg, a solid retirement, a reliable job, and a home we can afford. Indeed, it takes less faith to live boldly, when you know you have something to fall back on. But Jesus says to us: God has provided you the kingdom, all you need to do is trust your lives to God. Yes, trust God by selling your possessions, giving alms to the poor, and entrusting your future to God’s care. By doing this you’ll be making purses that don’t wear out and be seeking treasure in heaven.

Are you ready to trust God that much? There have been those who have chosen this path. St. Francis of Assisi maybe the best example, but he’s not alone. What is interesting about him is that he came from great wealth, and yet he gave up everything, including his inheritance to become a beggar and a preacher. Of course his efforts were rewarded after his death when he was declared a saint of the church. The question is, am I ready to sell the house, empty my bank account, and head out as an itinerant preacher? Even if that might lead to my being declared a saint, I’m not sure I have the confidence to make that decision, Besides I might get some flack at home if I unilaterally made that kind of decision.

So, while I might not be ready to sell everything and follow the example of St. Francis and become an itinerant evangelist living off the land, I do believe that God is present in our midst offering us the kingdom as our inheritance. And that means, letting go of our fears and trusting our lives to God’s care so that we can live lives that make a difference in the world. To Isaiah that means “ceasing to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

3. So Be Ready and Alert

But when should we do this work of justice and mercy? Can’t it wait til another day? The expectation of Jesus is that we’re continually engaging in this work of the kingdom, which God has given to us. The question is, when Jesus, our master, returns, will he find us at work or not? Will we be dressed and have our lamps lit, when the master returns to join in the wedding feast? If the master returns at midnight, will we be ready to greet him? Our text has a sense of the apocalyptic to it. It reflects the sense that the days were short and this age would end rather soon. There was, therefore, a sense of urgency to the call of God on the church. Well, it’s been 2000 years and the end hasn’t yet come to pass. When that is our historical experience, it’s rather easy to put off until tomorrow what God would have us do today. But as the scriptures continually remind us, we don’t know the exact time or date that the end will come. Yes, as Jesus says in this passage, the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night. If you know when the thief is coming you’ll be ready, but it’s rare that thieves give warnings, so you just have to be alert!

My take away from this text is this: God is calling us to live out the message of the kingdom. We’re called to participate with God in extending God’s reign in the world. This means making a difference – doing good rather than evil – so that a world that experiences fear and anxiety, pain and suffering, might find healing and hope. As I pointed out in my newsletter article, the phrase: “A Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World” – a phrase that defines the mission of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and that is found printed on the front of your bulletin, is a reminder of this calling. To make this claim, doesn’t mean that we’ve experienced complete wholeness. It does mean that God has chosen people and communities like this one to bring wholeness to a fragmented world that is marked by fear. And the implication of this text is that there’s no time to waste!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
August 8, 2010
11th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Putting on New Clothes

Colossians 3:1-11

Mark Twain famously said that “Clothes make the man,” and we’re often told to dress for success. In fact there is much truth to this adage, which is why there is a nonprofit called “Dress for Success” that provides appropriate clothing for job seekers. Even in this much more casual era, we seem to understand that clothes stand for something, and by changing our clothes we can change our identity.

Although it’s probably not polite to talk about movies that feature a prostitute as the main character, I couldn’t come up with a better example of the way clothes can transform a person’s identity than the Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman. I even searched the internet to see if I could find a “better” example, but nothing spoke so clearly to this issue of the way clothes can change one’s identity than this movie, except perhaps the story of Cinderella.

In this film a rich man played by Richard Gere hires a prostitute named Vivian to be there for him, to be his “companion” for the weekend. When Vivian arrives at the man’s apartment, she looks the part of a prostitute, and everyone, including Edward, the rich man, treats her like a prostitute – someone hired to do the bidding of another. In the course of time, Edward realizes that Vivian’s clothes aren’t appropriate for someone who is connected with him, and so he gives her money to buy new clothes. It will take intervention by the concierge and a friend of the concierge to make the difference, but once she gets the new clothes, it transforms her life. People look at her differently, including Edward. No longer do they see a prostitute, but instead they see a beautiful and sophisticated woman. It takes time for her to come to grips with the change, but she begins to feel differently about herself, and as a result her life changes. She ceases to be a prostitute and becomes a person of self worth and value. Indeed, Edward begins to see her as a person and not a thing, and falls in love. Yes, clothes can make the person – or at least changing one’s clothes can symbolize a change in identity.

1. Before and After

As you read the Colossian letter, you will see an emphasis on “before and after.” The author is writing to Gentile Christians, people who once lived in sinful idolatry. He writes to them, telling them that once they had lived outside God’s grace, but now they are children of God. Once their lives had been marked with darkness, but now they live in the light. To make his point the author lists some of the vices that had defined their former lives, vices such as evil desires, greed, anger, malice, lies, and more. That was the old life, the life before Christ, but now that they are in Christ, they have put off this old life and have clothed themselves with a new self.

Most of us who gather here today grew up as Christians, or at least in a Christian context. Many of us have never known a time when we weren’t in the church. That doesn’t mean we’ve not had our struggles or our doubts. It doesn’t mean we’ve lived perfect lives. But it does mean that the “changes” that have occurred in our lives don’t seem as drastic, as those described in this letter. But, for the first readers of this letter, being a Christian meant taking on a new identity. The old self was dead and buried.

Our author knows that even when our lives change, it’s not always easy to keep focused on the things of God. It’s easy to get distracted and even return to the old life. Sometimes the old life even seems more inviting than the present life. Remember the people of Israel, who having wandered in the desert for a time, began to pine for the “flesh pots of Egypt.” Yes, in comparison to wandering in the desert, slavery seemed preferable. At least then they knew where the next meal was coming from and where they would lay their head at night.

The letter serves as a reminder, a wake up call, to people who might be straying from the things of God. It is a reminder to keep one’s focus on the things of heaven – after all, they are now possessors of a new identity in Christ.

2. Baptism, death, and new life.

Although this chapter doesn’t speak directly about baptism, references to death and resurrection, old self and new self, even new clothes, fit well with the biblical understanding of baptism. In Romans 6, Paul links the act of baptism to Christ’s own experience of dying and rising (Romans 6:1-6). This linking of baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus is one of the most powerful images that emerges out of our practice of baptism by immersion. You go into the waters of baptism and are buried with Christ, leaving behind the old life, dying to sin and its hold on one’s life, and then the baptismal candidate rises out of the waters of death and now experiences the newness of Christ’s resurrection life. The old is washed away, and the new is there to be embraced. The author of this letter goes into detail naming the behaviors that mark the old life, behaviors that are left behind in the waters of baptism.

As the letter continues, the image changes from death and resurrection, but baptism continues to stand behind the images. In the next image, we’re encouraged to strip off the old life and clothe ourselves with the new self. We don’t know when the practice began, but it became common in the early church for baptismal candidates to strip off their clothes before they entered the baptismal waters, where they would be baptized naked, so that they might be reborn as they came out of the baptismal waters, at which point they would receive new clothes, to mark their new identity. Because baptisms often took place on the Saturday prior to Easter, this practice may have given rise to the tradition of buying new clothes for Easter Sunday, as a reminder that in baptism one is made new.

3. Living the New Life

Having received the new clothes, symbolizing one’s status as a reborn self, the expectation is that one will take on a new way of life. First of all, the nature of our relationships has changed. We’re told that in Christ, there are no longer Jew or Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but all are one in Christ. It’s unfortunate that the author of this letter didn’t include that important pairing from Galatians – “male and female,” but I think we can get the point – there is now in Christ oneness of purpose and relationship. The old divisions that society sets up have been set aside as we experience union with God in Christ.

Getting back to the movie Pretty Woman, the transformation wasn’t an easy one, but by the end of the movie Vivian had become a new person. The old life was gone, and while the transformation may not have been instantaneous, those new clothes symbolized her change of identity. Of course, that meant living life differently. There were bumps in the road, but in the end, as is true of most movies, the couple, both changed as a result of their encounter, live happily ever after.

What is true of the movie is somewhat true of the Christian life. The transformation isn’t instantaneous. It is instead, a gradual process. Thomas a Kempis, a 15th century monk, wrote in his devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, about the need for patience in the face of temptation:

Patience is necessary in this life because so much of life is fraught with adversity. No matter how hard we try, our lives will never be without strife and grief. Thus, we should not strive for a peace that is without temptation, or for a life that never feels adversity. Peace is not found by escaping temptations, but by being tried by them. We will have discovered peace when we have been tried and come through the trial of temptation. (Devotional Classics, Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds., San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993, pp185-186).

Although the transformation will last a life time, we are instructed to see ourselves in a new light. We are a new self, with new clothes, and a new identity, and not only has the nature of our relationships been transformed, but so is the way we’re to live our lives in this world.

In the verses that follow our lectionary reading we find a description of the kinds of behaviors that are expected of those who have clothed themselves with the new self through baptism. Let me read a portion of this text:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col. 3:12-14)
Whereas the old life was marked by anger, greed, evil desires, the new life in Christ is to be marked by compassion, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and above all love, which we’re told “binds everything together in perfect harmony.” This is the life we’re called to live, the life that leads to peace with our neighbors and with God. Having taken up this new life, let us, as our author encourages, “teach and admonish one another, and take up hymns and songs of praise, so that “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:16-17).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Central Woodwoard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
August 1, 2010
10th Sunday after Pentecost