“Be Who You Are”
There was a discussion on Facebook earlier this week among some Presbyterian clergy and other church folk about what people wear to church. Most of them reported that people in their congregations regularly came to worship in a whole variety of dress, from very formal to very casual, depending on their age, culture, experience, and ability. And everyone is welcome, no matter what they are wearing.
This was experienced as a positive change from a few decades ago when putting on your “Sunday best” for church was absolutely expected, and it wasn’t unusual for some folks to frown on others who didn’t manage to dress appropriately. Interestingly, the conversation actually started with someone relating a story about a friend who visited a church where he received negative comments on his attire – not because he was too casual, but because he was too well-dressed.
And then the ministers lamented the fact that sometimes, in our churches, we still pay too much attention to what people are wearing. We develop cultural traditions and expect everyone to dress and look pretty much the same, and fail to make space for the differences and diversities that could enrich our communities.
Soon, the conversation turned towards what the clergy wear for worship too. Travelling around in my role as Moderator this year, I have noticed that there’s a lot of variety there too. Some Presbyterian ministers wear dark-coloured academic gowns, sometimes with a colourful stole added on top. Some wear white albs like I do. And others forego the robes altogether, wearing clergy collars, suits & ties, or more casual clothes. All things are possible, depending on the formality of the congregation and the preference of the minister herself.
It was way back when I was a theological student that I started wearing this white alb when I was leading worship. As a young woman, I found it helpful to take any attention off what I was actually wearing that day so that I could relax and focus on my role of preaching and leading in worship.
I began wearing the alb before I was ordained, because it doesn’t have an association with ordination. Rather, the plain white garment is a reminder of my baptism. It’s like the new white clothing that early Christians would put on after they had been baptized as they began their new lives in Christ.
Later, after I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacraments, I added a stole across my shoulders. Over the years, I collected stoles in different colours to indicate the Season of the Church Year – like this one that is green for the Season after the Epiphany, ordinary time.
The stole says something about my particular call as a minister. It represents the yoke of Christ – the burden or responsibility that I have accepted in becoming a teacher and leader in the Christian community.
When I put on the alb and stole for worship, it is not to say that I am more important or special than anyone else. In fact, the alb reminds us that I am just like everyone else who gathers – a baptized and beloved child of God. The stole reminds us that I am responding to a particular call to use my gifts to preach and teach and administer the Sacraments in this congregation.
Perhaps you’re wondering how any of this relates to this morning’s readings. That’s a good question, because I’ve made a bit of a leap from the Gospel text today as I thought about how our identity as Christians and our purpose in life are deeply connected.
In the first part of Matthew 5, just before the part we read this morning, Jesus preaches the famous “Beatitudes” as he begins his Sermon on the Mount. He proclaims the surprising news that many of his listeners are actually among those graciously blessed by God. And then Jesus makes this idea even more explicit. He addresses his listeners directly, using the second person: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Jesus tells them who they are. He tells them about their identity, and that identity is connected to their purpose in life. God has made you and blessed you for a particular role in creation’s redemption, he teaches them.
One of my favourite Bible commentaries these days is the Lectionary SALT Commentary – a progressive Christian blog that provides reliable and inspiring reflections on the weekly readings. Appropriately, this week’s blog includes some ideas about what it might mean for Christians to be like SALT. If Jesus says we are salt, what does that say about our purpose in life?
“First, even in very small quantities, salt and light can make a big difference to a much larger whole. A pinch of salt brings a dish’s flavours alive – indeed, salt is one of the only spices that can enhance and bring out other flavours in a dish. And even a little bit of light – say, a single candle – can light up a room. It can even light up a landscape: a candle is visible from more than a mile away (1.6 miles away, to be exact).
“Second, both salt and light have simple, elemental purposes. As a seasoning, salt is, well, salty. No one would use salt that’s ‘lost its taste’. Salt is for saltiness; its identity and its purpose are virtually one and the same. Likewise, light is for shining. No one lights a lamp and then hides it out of sight!
“In the same way, your identity and purpose – who you are and what you’re meant to do – are virtually one and the same. Like salt and light, God made you as a small thing that can make a big difference for a larger whole. God made you to spice things up – not to overpower the dish, but to enliven it, enhancing and highlighting its other flavours. And God made you to shine, as only you can: a flame that can light up an entire room, or guide a far-flung traveller home.”
“Jesus isn’t giving his listeners a new role to play here; rather, he’s naming who we already are. We don’t have to work to become salt and light. God made us this way, blessing us with gifts that can bless the world. But we do have to claim and embrace and live out these gifts. We do have to actually be salty and luminous. We do have to fulfill, to embody what our gifts make possible. We do have to be who we are.”
So, when I think about my alb and stole… The alb reminds me of my baptism. It reminds me of who and whose I am. And the stole is like my response to that blessing and belonging to God. By putting it on, I am taking the yoke of Christ upon me, and embracing and seeking to live out the gifts that God has given to me. It’s my way of being who I am.
You’re all wearing different things this morning. Some of you are more formal, and others are casual, and I really don’t care what you’re wearing. I care that you’re here. And I’m seeing you all – in my mind’s eye – wearing long white robes because of your identity as God’s blessed and beloved children.
You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And Jesus says, do not let your saltiness dissipate or your luminosity get hidden under a basket. You’ve got to embrace your identity as salt and light, take your own figurative yoke upon you, and learn from Jesus, and live out your purpose and your calling.
The song that the kids sang for us this morning was particularly pointed about it. It said that we’re supposed to be “just like salt” and if we don’t do it, “it’s our fault”!
It sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But perhaps no more harsh than the words of the prophet Isaiah when he called upon the religious people of his time to stop being hypocrites by acting religious but failing to do justice in the world, feeding the hungry, helping the poor… actually fulfilling the commandments that they learned and recited and claimed were important to them.
The SALT Commentary explains that “One of the most important ideas in the ancient world of the Gospels was “fulfillment.” The Gospel writers often write of scripture being “fulfilled” in and through contemporary events, and in this week’s passage, Jesus says he has come to “fulfill” the law.
“In both cases, the underlying notion is that when something is “fulfilled,” it’s truly embodied, incarnated, filled out, brought to life. When we “fulfill a responsibility,” for example, we perform it – we give it form – like an arm sliding into a perfectly tailored, beautifully embroidered sleeve. To “fulfill the law,” then, is to embody its essential features, to “fill out” and exemplify its meaning, spirit, and substance.”
And that’s what Jesus did, right? He was God coming among us, not just to explain the commandments or teach us about what is right and wrong. But he was God coming among us to embody, to incarnate, and to fulfill the great commandments to love God and love our neighbours.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world” because in his life and ministry he brought light and love into the world – revealing our human brokenness and need, and revealing the presence and power of the God of love with his very being.
And in the Gospel of Matthew today, Jesus says of us, “You are the light of the world” because we are just like him – blessed and beloved children of God who are made to bring goodness and love into the world as he did.
If you keep reading from where we stopped in Matthew 5 today, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount continues through the next couple of chapters. Jesus’ declaration of blessing at the beginning of the sermon then moves towards instructions for living.
Although “we don’t have to work to become salt and light (since we already are!), we do have to claim, embrace, and embody our saltiness and luminosity. We have to be who we are!
“And this idea – being who we are – forms the basis for all the instructions to come in the rest of the sermon. Jesus does not say, Follow these instructions and you’ll be blessed. Rather, he says, You are already blessed with gifts for blessing the world – so go and bless! Spice and shine! And here are some instructions for how best to do that…”
May we continue to learn from Jesus’ teaching, and from his life and witness. And may we BE who we ARE – blessed and beloved children of God who are fulfilling God’s loving purpose for us and for the world we are called to serve.