Respectability or Faithfulness?

Some years ago, as an experiment, instead of giving up chocolate or alcohol for the 40 days of the season of Lent, I decided to give up my anonymity, which is to say I spent most of that 40 days wearing a black clergy shirt and a white clerical collar everywhere I went. I am a United Methodist pastor, and my denomination does have a tradition of clergy wearing collars, but it isn’t super common. Certainly, there are fewer collars in United Methodist churches than you’ll find in Lutheran or Episcopal churches or, most famously, Roman Catholic churches. As a result, it was a unique experience for me to wear the collar to the grocery store or the gas station, the funeral home and the school lobby. I especially loved it when I was out with my two elementary-aged daughters, each holding my hand, as puzzled passers-by who associated the collar with Roman Catholic priests tried to square their understanding of a celibate priesthood with the existence of my cute children.

It wasn’t just these folks who gawked, however. During those forty days, I had a keen awareness that people treated me differently than they did on days when I wore street clothes. It’s not that they treated me better – just different. For every person who held the door open for me and called me “Father,” someone else would sneer and walk away, as if I’d insulted their mother or kicked their dog.

The look I got most often, though, was one of distinct indifference. I do not mean people looked at me and then looked away, as one does to strangers on the street. I mean – and I don’t believe I am projecting here – people looked at me with a look that said, “You have nothing to offer me,” and then they went about their business.

It was an instructive Lent for me, because as a professional Christian, I forget sometimes what the church looks like from the outside. I remember the first house my wife and I moved into. It was a rental, and the day we moved in, we noticed that in the guest bedroom, somebody had knocked a basketball-sized hole into the drywall, and then covered it with duct tape and painted over it. It was not a small hole. And then we lived in that house for three years, and you know the next time I noticed that duct-tape-covered hole? It was on the day I moved out. It’s amazing how quickly we get acclimated to our surroundings and assume that they are normal. It becomes difficult to properly assess how things are going on inside the church doors when one of the things going on inside the church doors is you.

For Christians, this dynamic can be a difficult one to navigate. The world is changing. The church is changing. As with the last two millennia worth of Christians, we’ve all got to figure out how to be faithful in this new age. And I have to be honest. I am starting to wonder if the indifference might actually present an opportunity. I wonder if there is something of this dynamic that could be used for good.

I should qualify what I mean. It isn’t fun to be in the mix in this time of change, and I deeply wish all people were as impressed with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I am. But then, I don’t actually think that the indifference is about the gospel, per se. I suspect the indifference is towards those who tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry and then put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. I suspect the indifference is towards those who do everything in order to be noticed by others— those who make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes, those who love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the markets, who wear a cloak of respectability. I suspect the indifference is about people who look like me.

I don’t think the indifference is actually about the Gospel, because when I read this passage in the gospel of Matthew, it makes me think that Jesus isn’t concerned with respectability at all. It makes me think that Jesus is concerned with faithfulness, not exquisite vestments, not obsequious behavior towards the clergy, not even the respectability of the church, but faithfulness to his mission of making disciples, reaching the lost, raising up the lowly, and transforming the world for love.

This is not a new problem. The founder of my religious tradition of Methodism, John Wesley, famously kept meticulous journals of his ministry exploits, and in 1739, he documented a trip to Bristol, England, during which he was to share the Gospel message with the people there. Instead of preaching in a church or some similarly respectable place, Wesley wrote this on April 2 of that year, “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.” I submitted to be more vile. What Wesley meant was that the Gospel message gets its power from the power of Christ, not the trappings of the church. And so it was that he started preaching in fields, and debtors’ prisons, and mining camps. He preached anywhere anybody would listen, particularly in communities full of people who would never think to step foot inside a church.

Now, I lament the decline in churchgoing in my home country of the United States just as much as anybody. I am sad about the rise of those who declare no religious tradition at all. But I do wonder if this moment presents the church of Jesus Christ with an opportunity to get back to first principles, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater — I mean, I preach in a robe and stole most Sundays, after all — but to remember that Jesus cares much less about what we wear on the outside and much more about what is written upon our hearts.

But not only do I think this moment presents an opportunity to refocus. I suspect that this moment in which the trappings of the church have disappeared like the emperor’s new clothes in the old fairy tale, I suspect this moment in which our extra wide prayer bands have been removed and our assumption of respectability discarded, I suspect this moment presents an opportunity for Christian people to more effectively reach out to those who have felt that the church makes no difference in their lives or in the world, an opportunity to have us be the kind of people Jesus would have us to be.

In his book, The Beauty of Dusk: On Vision Lost and Found, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni talks about the ways in which his perspective on life has changed following a stroke which cut off blood to his right eye, rendering him blind in that eye and with the real possibility that the same thing might happen to his left. That kind of news will rock a person, you know? And yet if you saw him on the street, you would not know what he was up against, just as we do not know what so many people are up against in their own personal lives. Bruni describes what he calls “The Sandwich Board Theory of Life.” He writes, “Imagine that each of us donned a sandwich board which itemized” all our internal problems — our pain, our demons, our challenges, all of it. I wonder what you would write on your sandwich board. Navigating an anxiety disorder, maybe. Struggling with aging parents, perhaps, or divorced from an unfaithful spouse, or damaged from some long-ago abuse. Maybe it would list an invisible disease that not everyone knows you are dealing with, or an addiction, or the challenges of an unfulfilling job, or a tricky relationship with a child. It would certainly list the sources of your grief. The point, Bruni says, is that if others could see on the outside what we are dealing with on the inside, they would inevitably give us more grace, forgive the small lapses, as we would inevitably do for others. It would be an exercise in compassion and vulnerability, and my God does the world need more compassion and vulnerability.

This is just me talking, but I don’t think I’m advocating for you to put on an actual sandwich board or to take a magic marker to your church clothes. But I do wonder if the cloak of respectability we have wrapped the church in is less a cloak and more a shroud. I wonder what it would look like if we removed the armor we put on in order to keep from having to actually deal with those silent pains and demons. I wonder what it would be like if the church of Jesus Christ worried less about looking respectable and worried more about being honest in our groping for the love of God.

We’ve got work to do if we are going to follow Jesus’s command in this chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, but there is a gift in the work. For if we as Christ’s holy church, each of us in our homes, our communities, our schools, our places of business, and yes, even in our church buildings, if we can stop worrying so much about looking like we have it all together and instead embrace the kind of vulnerability that connects every person in the world – religious or not – with every other person in the world and as a result, with the heart of God, if we can embrace that vulnerability that comes when we are genuine about our faults and our pain, if we can follow the advice of the great theologian Howard Thurman, who writes, “If I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you.” If we can do that, God will be glorified, for we will be more accurate versions of the people God created us to be — more honest, more open, more faithful. After all, I am reminded that the Gospel of Luke records that Christ was made known not in the mending of the bread, but in its breaking.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, forgive us for the times in which we have dressed our faith up in fancy clothes and false respectability. Instead, help us to model the kind of faith that demonstrates that we are people who have been created by the good God, people who are broken, yes, but people who are being healed so that we may share the gift of that healing with a world just as broken as we are, just as much in need of God’s grace, and just as close to God’s own heart. Amen.