My final sermon as minister of Kensington Presbyterian Church, from this past Sunday.
Clothing has always been a significant part of human identity. Historically human clothing has been particularly significant in terms of our shared or our collective identities. In particular cultures there was always a similarity of dress; our clothing marked us out as belonging to a particular culture or community. So there has been a style of clothing typical among the Scottish, or typical among the Dutch, or typical among Cameroonians – and then even within those larger groups, there have been narrower styles that marked out smaller groups or peoples. If you were an anthropologist travelling around the world two hundred years ago, you would have inevitably identified particular cultures or peoples according to the clothing they wore. Particular peoples just were peoples that wore this type of clothing. Your clothes made you part of a group.
Today that collective dimension remains a part of human culture in some respects. But today there is also something much more individualistic about our clothing. Our culture in the west today gives especially high priority to our creation of an individual identity. In our culture, everything around us is seen as raw material from which we can create or build or project our personal identity. We have been taught to resist the idea that our identity is in any way given to us or dictated from outside of ourselves – modern culture teaches us above all that our individual identity must be created, must be fabricated, must be cobbled together by us out of the raw material of life. You create yourself. You establish your own identity.
So I choose this set of experiences to define me.
I alter my body in this way to mark myself as this distinct person.
I choose this style of home and of home decoration to define my being.
I choose this collection of music to define my identity.
I choose this set of images to establish who I am online.
No wonder we moderns are so exhausted. It is an exhausting enterprise just to survive, and then on top of that we have to create a self and craft an identity.
The self – our identity – who we are – has become something we have to create and something we have to establish and something we have to project into the world. Our identity is no longer something that we primarily receive with gratitude and grace – not something that is given to us and received by us. Again, this is an exhausting enterprise. And it’s probably also an ultimately self-defeating enterprise – because creating a solid, deep, and enduring identity isn’t something we are finally capable of doing. We end up being shaped by cultural trends and historical developments, much more than we can ever imagine – even if only by reaction against them.
Now this project of creating ourselves – this project of establishing our particular identity – can be seen especially through clothing. Our clothing is so much a part of our identity – they are a second skin by which we present ourselves to the world – by which we present this image, or that image, or some other image of ourselves.
When we put on one set of clothes we declare ourselves stylish and cool.
When we put on another set of clothes we exude professionalism and competence.
When we put on other clothes we project comfortable and relaxed.
With our clothes we can create an image of ourselves as hip or as retro or as carefree or as serious or as above the masses or as sexy or as creative or as unconventional. When you go to choose clothing, today you almost have to make a decisions – ok, what image am I going to project.
In her recent book entitled Wearing God, Lauren Winner points out that the word “fashion” carries all of these ideas with itself. She writes:
“Fashion” is a noun, calling to mind Paris runways, models in Jean Paul Gaultier creations, Elle and Marie-Claire magazines. But “fashion” is also a verb. It means “to mold or to shape.” We fashion dough into the shape of a loaf of bread; we fashion clay into a pot or a bowl. Indeed, the word “fashion” had that meaning – the action of making or shaping something – before it became a noun designating clothing; and the word “fashion” came to designate our apparel precisely because clothing shapes us. This is why some of us enjoy clothes so much, why we love changing our clothes and trying out a different look – every time we change into a different kind of clothing, we can play at being a different kind of self.
When it comes to our choice of clothing, comfort might matter to us, but very often comfort is secondary to the image we want to project. When it comes to our choice of clothing, price might matter to us, but sometimes even the price is secondary to the identity we want to project. What very often matters most, to us, is that we buy clothes that express whatever new identity we are crafting for ourselves, or whatever identity we have crafted over the years.
In the book I just quoted from, Lauren Winner is writing about variety of ways that God is described or imagined in the bible. Of course there are certain strong themes that run throughout the bible when God is described – God as king, God as Lord, God as teacher, God as shepherd. But there is also great beauty and diversity in the images of God offered.
God as bread; God as wine.
God as savour to be smelled.
God as a laboring woman.
God as a mother hen.
God as a searching Father.
And one of the images of God that Lauren Winner points to – one of the ways that God is imagined – and one of the ways that our relationship with God is imagined – is through the metaphor of putting on clothing. One of the first and most important examples of this is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where Paul writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourself with Christ.” To be baptized into Christ, is to receive a new set of clothes, a whole new wardrobe – a dramatic new form of life to put on – a new form of life that is bound up with the crucified and risen Jesus.
We can imagine putting on Christ as the pulling on of a shirt.
We can imagine putting on Christ as stepping into a dress.
We can imagine putting on Christ as wrapping ourselves in a shawl.
We can imagine putting on Christ as swimming in a great warm sweater.
I must say that I have a very hard time imagining this putting on of Christ in terms of putting on a shirt and tie and jacket.
What more can we say about this putting on Christ – this wearing of Christ? Perhaps the first and fundamental thing to say is that this putting on of Christ isn’t an act by which we create or establish an identity for ourselves. This putting on of Christ isn’t based on our wisdom; this putting on of Christ isn’t based on our creativity; this putting on of Christ isn’t based on our will to establish our own identity. This putting on of Christ – this wearing of Christ – is not our creation of a self out of the raw material of life. This putting on of Christ is gift – sheer gift – it is an identity given by God, with Christ, through our baptism into Christ. This is not about making ourselves, projecting our individual identity – it is about receiving ourselves – receiving our identity.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourself with Christ.
In our reading for today from Colossians, we read something similar to what Paul says in Galatians – but in this case it is not a matter of our putting on Christ himself – not of our putting on the Son of God – but of our putting on the way of Christ. We read in chapter three: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
This week I came across a poem by Michael Coffee, a Lutheran Pastor from Texas – a poem where he picks up on this passage from Colossians in his own create way. Let me read his poem.
Clothe yourself with patience like your
indigo linen pants flow down your legs
letting every wrinkle stay beautifully messy,
cuffs caressing the floor just behind.
Clothe yourself with compassion like your
saffron sari hugs your midriff
and moves with your belly each inhale-exhale
one with your breath your laugh your cry.
Clothe yourself with kindness like your
white guayabera lightly hangs and breathes
reflects sunrays away so your skin
feels cool with the breeze and free.
Clothe yourself with love like your
lovely skin drapes your bones protects muscle
sheds itself liberally when its time is spent
ever dying and renewing the body beneath.
So we are called to put on Christ. And we are called to put on his compassion; to put on his kindness; to put on his humility; to put on his patience. These realities define us and must define us because we have our life with Christ. We are baptized into him – we have our life in him – and so we put Christ on, and in daily life we put on those ways of life that are true to him. We put on Christ and his way, not as our own act of self-creation, not as an accomplishment of ourselves, not as a projection of our own will and self-definition – but as gift, given and received, with grace.
The word gratitude is not in the list of things we put on in Colossians chapter 3. But in this same passage we read: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
Perhaps there is license, here then, to speak of our putting on gratitude as part of the identity we have received in Christ. In a way, with this shirt I am wearing today, I am attempting to put on gratitude. This shirt was a gift to me – and it is a gift in more than one way. In the first palace, this shirt was a gift to me from Becky almost twenty years ago, when she sent it to me from West Africa where she was working as a nurse and as a nurse tutor. I receive it then as a gift from her, and I receive it still today as a gift from Becky.
But this shirt is a gift in another sense. When I first saw it I loved the deep blue or indigo that makes the shirt what it is. And the truth is that Sahara in the north to Cameroon in the south, indigo fabrics have been traded for centuries in West Africa – indigo fabrics have been vital to West African life and trade for generations. So I receive the colour of it, the dye in this shirt, as a gift from the traditions and cultures of West Africa.
This shirt is a gift in a third sense – because it was created to be worn in the heat. I have only experienced the real heat of West Africa once – when Becky and I were upcountry in Senegal at the hottest time of the year – when humidity was climbing (right before the rainy season) and daytime temperatures were in the mid to high thirties. That is heat – when you lie still as you can in the night and the sweat still drips from your body. This shirt in the lightest of cotton is created for such temperatures, and so created for our summers also. The coolness of this shirt on a hot day, is a gift.
There is another sense in which I want to put on gratitude today – another sense in which we might all be invited to live in gratitude today. Our passage for today ends with these words: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.
Today, for me and for Becky and our kids, is a day of gratitude. Today marks the end of a wonderful 7-year period with you here at Kensington, in service to Christ and his way. And so today there is
Gratitude for friendship in service.
Gratitude for the faithful work of God’s people.
Gratitude for new and fresh expressions shared in worship.
Gratitude for prayers offered for us and for each other.
Gratitude for mutual encouragement.
Gratitude for reading and study and learning together.
Gratitude for meals shared.
Gratitude for the scriptures opened faithfully and earnestly.
Gratitude, of course, is so much more than words spoken – it is a way of life lived in the light of God’s overwhelming generosity toward us in Christ. Even as we have put on Christ Jesus, through baptism, may we put on gratitude – wear gratitude as a garment – dwell daily in gratitude as in clothing that is beautiful and compelling and respectful and colourful.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.