Monday, September 28, 2015

What Do We Make of Vestments?


            This post is about liturgical vestments. Here’s the background. Last week I “covenanted” with my congregation, Lawrence Park Community Church, to be their pastor. I’ve actually been doing that work for three years now, but it took that long to formalize my transfer from the Christian Reformed Church to the United Church of Canada.

            At the covenanting service, the Presbytery representatives—a Presbytery is a group of local churches—wore liturgical vestments—albs and stoles, both red and white.

            I didn’t. I wore a suit.

            It isn’t that I don’t have vestments. More precisely—I have an academic gown. It is forest green, the colour of my school, Wayne State University. It has three chevrons—stripes—on the sleeve signifying the fact that I have an earned doctorate. The stole is gold and grey, the colours of the Speech Communication department I graduated from.

            In the Presbyterian tradition, in particular, preachers used to wear their academic gowns in the pulpit. The practice spread to preachers who were not academics per se. These academic “Genevan” gowns were usually black. They represented a rejection of the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) practice of wearing a variety of liturgical vestments.

            However, growing up I don’t recall ever seeing a minister wear liturgical gowns, Genevan or otherwise. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. That changed when, in seminary, I started attending Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids. I was soon asked to do the children’s sermon each week. One Advent, the worship committee decided I should wear a simple alb with four very attractive, hand made stoles, each embroidered with a symbol that was to be that week’s children’s sermon subject. The kids—as I recall—loved the stoles, and I had one of those stoles for many years after, even though I never used it again, in worship. I outgrew the alb—laterally, that is—and never wore it after seminary.  

            But there were those Presbyterian representatives at my covenanting service, in red and white albs and stoles. What do I make of liturgical vestments now?

            We know, from the Old Testament, that the ancient Israelites wore very elaborate liturgical vestments. The New Testament, on the other hand, doesn’t mention liturgical vestments at all.

            The New Testament does mention the clothing of a few key figures, a few times. In Matthew 11, for example, Jesus says that John the Baptist, his cousin the wild-eyed prophet, did not wear soft robes like those who lived in royal palaces. Instead, we know from elsewhere that John the Baptist wore clothing made of camel’s hair, which is coarse, and was mostly used in his day as tent cloth. John the Baptist’s clothing was only a little less weird, even then, than the fact that he survived on a diet of locusts and wild honey.

            Ironically, Jesus did wear reasonably soft robes even though he didn’t live in a palace either. His robe was probably made of linen, and we learn in the Gospel of John that it didn’t have any seams. Even if not Herod quality, Jesus' robe would have been expensive and valuable, perhaps on par with a Brooks Brothers business suit now. At his crucifixion the Roman guards were so impressed by it that they decided to gamble each other for the right to own it, rather than cut it up to share.

            In the early church the first apostles, deacons and bishops did not wear vestments. The church was often persecuted, after all, so no one—even those in leadership positions—went out of his or her way to advertise who they were.

            However, at about the time that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, early in the fourth century, things changed. Now it was quite an honour to be a priest or a bishop. And in short order church officials started wearing clothing—both in and out of church—that advertised their work and rank. But rather than wear vestments like those described in the Old Testament, these early Christian leaders especially modelled their vestments on the secular uniforms of the day. In particular, clergy adopted the fashions—special scarves or stoles, robes, hats and colors of the Roman civil service, army, and judiciary.

            However, as Roman secular fashion changed and evolved, clergy fashion lagged far behind. In fact, the basic alb, chasuble and stole worn by clergy today still harp back to the days of ancient Rome, while the rest of Italian fashion has changed quite a bit!

            Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I don’t intend, here, to argue that clergy should or should not wear vestments. For me it’s a personal decision.

            What interests me about the history of vestments is that clergy started wearing them—in imitation of the secular counterparts—in part to advertise their calling, their status, and soon, their wealth. The clergy adopted the clothing of the status quo to make the point that they had arrived. Choosing to wear vestments was, originally, a political act, an act that underlined that the church was now a power to contend with, and that its leaders were people of high status. They were members of one of the three medieval estates—the one that negotiated the relation between heaven and earth. Like the pope in Washington this week, clergy were not to be taken lightly.

            I wonder if that turn, that fundamental change in orientation among clergy was all good. It hardly seems coincidental that once the church no longer was itself persecuted, it soon started persecuting Christians who did not agree with Emperor Constantine and his allies. As soon as the church was legalized by the Roman Empire, Christians decided that pacifism—their historic practice—wasn’t going to work anymore, and so Christians were no longer excommunicated when they joined Rome’s legions. In short, when Constantine legalized the church, the church turned from being a counter cultural, alternative for living the good life into an absolutely status quo institution, one that was used by the Emperor, when convenient, to quash dissent, extend Roman power, and win the hearts of the people for Roman political ends. And the adoption, by clergy, of liturgical vestments whose design mirrored the clothing of ranking Romans was perhaps the most visible sign of these changes.

            Today, at least in the West, unless you are a ranking Catholic prelate, vestments are usually worn only in church. The status that Christianity had as one of Constantine’s levers of power has long dissipated. The pope may draw large crowds in America, but you can be sure that even among the Catholics most practice birth control anyway and can’t understand why women are excluded from ordination. Judging by all the many times the pope has pleaded and prayed for peace and economic fairness and the environment, he isn’t that influential in the secular realm either.

            So it is hard to imagine that wearing vestments in church or on the street—as with a clerical collar, perhaps—is much of a status thing. No, whatever positive value vestments have in the present has to be connected to the way in which they communicate the gospel today.

            I think back to when I was in seminary. Those stoles I wore for just a few weeks during Advent made them a talking point. After church, some of the kids would track me down for a closer look. Parents wanted to see and finger the stoles too. They were really cool. They connected with that day's worship. The arts are one of the best ways to bring fresh attention to the core message of the gospel.

            On the other hand, liturgical vestments that seem to put clergy in a different class, that suggest clergy have some sort of mystic authority—liturgical vestments that are a mish mash of impenetrable symbols and special colours that are rarely, if ever used to communicate the gospel in a fresh and interesting way—such use of liturgical garments seems off-putting to me. It allies the employees of the church as institution with our current cultural suspicion of all institutions. That probably isn’t a good thing. The early church’s use of secular dress before the Constantinian revolution seems wiser to me, and more in keeping with the historic Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.

            They say the clothes make the man—or woman. I don’t think that’s true in the case of clergy. It is, rather, a caring heart and behavior, as well as the ability to share the Christian story with a modicum of grace and conviction that make the pastor.


Monday, September 21, 2015

Two Elections and One Christian


            As a dual U.S./Canadian citizen, I have two elections to keep track of at the same time. I’ve watched both the Canadian and the American debates on television, and I’m a pretty dedicated political news junkie too. 
            Oh, and I’m a pretty dedicated Christian.
            Now, I know that on the Republican side in the USA, at least, all the candidates claim to be pretty dedicated Christians—more or less. And they tailor their policies to the political agenda of the religious right. But that means they’re trying to take down Planned Parenthood, guilty of multiple barely concealed slurs against Muslims, are trying to marginalize migrants, want to roll the clock back on gay marriage, will sympathize with any Israeli government military move, want more American military moves, and want to teach creation science in the schools, rather than real science. I don’t have much sympathy for the Christian Right and don’t recognize much by way of real Biblical thinking in that camp.
            But, even though I’m a United Church pastor in Canada, I’m not the New Democratic Party at prayer, either. 
            The truth is there is as much diversity among Christians on the issues as there is among people who have never darkened the door of a church. Be that as it may, I am going to have to make up my mind when I go to the polls, soon. So as a Christian, what matters to me? Lots, but here are a few issues I’m thinking about now.
1.         My neighbour’s pocket book. The economy matters, but I’m totally frustrated by the presumption that the election is about whether I’m going to do better with this or that party in power. What matters more is how my neighbour—and especially my poor neighbour, or my homeless neighbour, or my refugee neighbour, or my mentally ill neighbour, is doing. If love is the key moral value in scripture, it is every neighbor that is supposed to be its recipient.
2.         Racism. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the US or in Canada. The number of minorities in jail is the canary in the mine in both places. Our society is racist. Very racist. Remember that when the elderly Greek women were being left out of the food distribution in the early church, the church’s response was to put the Greeks in charge of the money. What would that look like in Canada or the United States?
3.         The environment. Look, long before the Israelites published God’s ten commandments, God is said to have told Adam and Eve to make his beautiful garden grow. It wasn’t enough that Eden was paradise, it had to be improved! Let’s do it. It may already be too late.
4.         Military spending. Take Canada. From its first foreign military exercise, during the Boer War to its latest bombing exercises in the Middle East, too many of our wars, in hindsight, were strategic and moral failures tinged by racism and fuelled by nationalism. We can do better. I’m not saying spend less, or that we ought to be pacifist. Still, it’s time Canada, at least, looked to the North and its coasts, to renewing its historical role as a peacekeeper, and to leading when it comes to humanitarian crises. The truth of Jesus’ warning, “those who live by the sword will die by it,” is coming home to roost.
5.         Infrastructure. The short news cycle makes infrastructure spending over the long haul a no-win political gambit. But shortsighted too. Wise infrastructure spending could also be great for the environment, for our reserves, and for jobs. And I won’t even mention commute times.
6.         Education. The GI Bill after WWII is the right model for higher education. 
7.         Guns. We need to move to a society where the only people who have handguns or machine guns are criminals and law enforcement. American murder rates, in particular, are not only off the charts compared to world rates, they can be lowered significantly.
8.         Israel. It’s a great country. It absolutely needs secure borders. And it also needs to start searching for a solution to its problems with its neighbours that isn’t based on violence and occupation. And sure, that goes for Palestine too.
9.         Refugees. We felt no compunction about helping create the mess they’re running from. It’s time to open our borders wide. Lots of Biblical stuff about loving neighbours and caring for the refugees within our gates to back this up, and nothing on the other side of the scale.
10.          Prisons. They turn too many hard luck cases into hardened criminals. They are full of minorities. They don’t work. We must do better.

            The hardest part of being a Christian, of course, is that no party perfectly aligns with any Christian’s priorities. Going to the polls is always going to be an exercise in compromise. So I’ll compromise. But—at least if you’re not a right-wing Republican—that’s the art of politics.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Three Clergy Go to a Bar


(I've had several people ask me what we United Church people do with Easter, given our liberal theology. And I've had a few requests to publish this sermon. So here we are, a sermon on Luke 24:13-33, the road to Emmaus.)


After the crucifixion, Cleopas and a friend left Jerusalem and made a run for it, much like we might make a run to the cottage after the funeral of a friend. They were on the road to Emmaus because they wanted to get seven miles and a lifetime away from the horror of Golgotha.

On the way Cleopas and his friend met a stranger who talked a lot. The stranger explained why he thought Jesus had to die, especially if Jesus was the Messiah. Anyway, the stranger talked like that right up to dinnertime. And then, says Luke, while the stranger prayed for a blessing over the meal, they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”
What do we make of this story? What really happened on Easter?

            Well, it’s like this. Once upon a time three good friends—a Catholic priest, a United Church minister, and a Jewish rabbi—met at a pub. They liked to get together to talk theology.

            Anyway, the priest ordered a Molson Blue. The United Church minister ordered a virgin cocktail called La Boheme Noir. And the Jewish rabbi ordered a glass of red wine—a 2011 California North Coast Pinot Noir, actually.

            The topic for the day was, “Jesus’ resurrection.”

            The priest begins. “I like my resurrection plain and simple. Just like my Molson Blue here. The straight goods. Low in the grave he lay, but then Jesus’ wounds closed up, his heart started ticking again, he shoved one leg first, and then the other over the ledge he was lying on, he stepped down, and up from the grave he arose!”

            “No, no, no” said the United Church minister, a teetotaller. “It has to be much more complicated than that. Like my virgin cocktail. This La Bohème Noir is made of lavender-infused honey, elderflower cordial, and black pekoe tea. It has a spicy, pungent aroma. The resurrection is like that, complicated but lovely. Sweet. I think people saw visions. They saw Jesus walked through solid walls and disappeared with the breaking of the bread. Of course, no real ‘body,’ could do such things, just as no aroma can be cut with a fork and knife. Still, I think God was in it.”

            So finally the Jewish rabbi got her turn. She said, “Well, I certainly don’t believe Jesus rose from the grave. And if there were people who saw visions of Jesus after his death, I’d say that sounds more like post-traumatic-stress-induced hysteria than a god-thing. The resurrection stories are probably an invention of the early church—even many Christian scholars think so. No, just as this red wine will soon give me a headache, the judgement of history is that Jesus and his followers have been one long migraine for Jews, and Jesus’ death an excuse to scapegoat and persecute us.”

            And while this didn’t change the priest’s and or the minister’s mind about what actually happened at the resurrection, they both nodded their heads in somber, sober agreement.

            How do we take our resurrection? Straight up, like the priest? As a complicated but sweet mix of visions and God, like the minister? Or as the occasion for great pain, like the rabbi’s red wine?

            This is what I think. We will never resolve the argument about what “exactly” happened at Easter. How could we? Too much time has passed. Even Mark, whose resurrection story we read to start the service off with—even Mark wrote forty or fifty years after the events he tells of. He wasn’t an eyewitness to most of them, either. And by now it is nearly 2,000 years later. No physical evidence. No DNA. Not even a crack Miami CSI team could recreate the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection 2000 years later. But, what’s more, I really doubt that it matters to God whether or not any of us get the bare facts of the resurrection right.

            For, if it really did matter to God that we get the bare facts of the resurrection exactly right, surely God could have done a lot better than giving us the four contradictory accounts of the resurrection that we find in the Bible. If it really mattered to God that we get the facts of the resurrection exactly right, as if they were the answers to a cosmic math or science quiz that we need to pass to advance, God could have moved the stars around in the heavens and spelled it all out for us with his or her finger, so that there was no mistaking the truth. But God didn’t do any of these things. We have nothing but these complicated, mysterious, lovely twice- or thrice-told tales found in scripture.

            So what, then, what is the real point of Easter, if it can’t be making sure that we get the facts exactly right? Well, I can think of a few possibilities. But this morning I want to focus on just one of them. Repentance.

            You see, the story of the walk to Emmaus has this lovely turn in it. Cleopas and his friend were running away from Jerusalem, but their vision or encounter or whatever it was turned them on their heels. Luke says, “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”

            Cleopas and his friend changed direction. They were headed north, seven miles to Emmaus, but after supper they slammed on their brakes, reversed, and headed south, straight back to Jerusalem. Like a driver who turns his car the wrong way into a one-way street does a quick 180. That’s repentance.

            Repentance. Remember the priest I told you about earlier in the sermon? He knew all about repentance. When he graduated from seminary and got to his first parish, he came as a snotty, self-absorbed, pie-in-sky rookie, all books and no common sense. But a wise parishioner saw that there was more to the young priest than this protective shell, and so he took him to a pub to talk about real life, every week, over a Blue, for four years, until the priest finally figured out his job was not about parsing Greek verbs but about loving his sheep. The priest turned it around, he repented.

            Remember the United Church minister I told you about? Well she knew all about repentance too. Alcoholism destroyed her marriage, her friendships, and her self-esteem all before she was thirty. But after she hit rock bottom, she repented. With the help of her AA friends she eventually turned her life around. Along the way, she learned how to love virgin cocktails and discovered spirituality. Went to seminary. Became a pastor. Reversed her downward spiral and started over.

            Repentance. Remember the Jewish rabbi? I don’t know much more about her except this. After going home from the pub with a splitting headache, she repented of ever drinking red wine again.

            Easter is many things. But among them there is also this invitation to each of us to join Cleopas and turn our lives—or maybe just parts of our lives—around. This sort of repentance doesn’t have to be a remorseful, dark, depressing fight with guilt or depravity—though God knows, sometimes this sort of tragic struggle may also be necessary. Mostly, by repentance I mean repentance as Cleopas experienced it, repentance as hop-skip-jumping joy all the way to Jerusalem because whatever happened to Jesus, exactly, Jesus’ hope, his teachings, his example, his priorities all burned inside of Cleopas, transforming him from a refugee with his tail between his legs into someone who is going to seize life and live it the way it was meant to be lived.

            Repentance. The Greek word literally means “changing your mind.” Turning it around. Big things or small. Your relations at work. Your commitment to the planet. Your exercise routine. Your reasons for voting for the candidate you do. Your focus on “me, myself, and I.” Turning it around. Your recycling. Your volunteering. The way you treat the bar tender or door person at the club. Your charitable giving. Turning it around. The promise of Easter is that today is the day to repent, and go hop, skip, jumping into the rest of your life.