Archives for August 2020 | Sermon Archives


Exodus 2:23-3:15
© Stacey Steck

You’ve heard all the jokes about the difficulty men have asking for directions, and perhaps some of you have lived it. And Moses was true to form. You see, when God caught Moses’ attention with a bush that acted like the Olympic torch, Moses was lost; he had led his flock “beyond the wilderness,” to a place so far from home that he ended up somewhere so out of the way that experts can’t even figure our where it is! That’s right, even the best Biblical scholars and archeologists have only the vaguest of speculations as to where Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, really lies. Some say the Sinai Peninsula; others say Mount Carmel, others as far away as present day Saudi Arabia. Nobody knows for sure. But that’s OK, because what happened to Moses, and what has happened to us, or can happen to us, doesn’t depend so much on being at a particular geographical place at a specific time, so much as being at the right theographical place at a divine time. Let me say that again: What happened to Moses doesn’t depend so much on being at a particular geographical place at a specific time, so much as being at the right theographical place at a divine time. You see, it’s certainly not that Mount Horeb doesn’t exist; it’s just that geography fails to explain fully the mystery of God’s call.

Without a doubt, the Bible is a book of places, important places, key places, places made memorable by naming them after what happened there. Bethel, Jerusalem, and so many other places have names that mean something to the story. The land and the landscape were how God’s people oriented themselves, how they knew where home was, how they knew where God was. And it was not just an ancient phenomenon. That old Biblical emphasis on the land and its places still matters, is still the source of conflict. Look at the battle over Jerusalem, over the Temple Mount, and Rachel’s tomb, and the other great sites of the Old and New Testaments. But despite the care in naming and remembering important places, the geographical specifics of some of those places are lost in the mists of time, and so, ironically, the meaning and interpretation of certain places and events is left to the theographical memory.

But what do I mean by theographical memory? Well, let’s start with geography and deconstruct that word a little bit. Geography is a compound word that combines the Greek roots geo-, meaning earth, and –graphos, meaning “writing” or “description.” And so geography concerns itself with describing the earth and all of its features, its rivers and streams, its deserts and dry places, it mountaintops and its valleys. Sub-disciplines of geography are concerned with how humans or animals use the earth, how we are distributed, what impact we have on it. Geography is not the same as cartography, also know as map-making, although they are obviously related. We live on the land, and we are curious about the land, and so we want to describe it to the best of our ability, with maps and definitions, and for both helpful and not so helpful reasons.

I once thought about becoming a geographer. As a college student on the verge of flaming out of architecture school, I began to explore other career options, took some of those standardized career tests, and learned I was most apt to be a geographer, journalist, or police officer. Of the three, geography seemed the least risky, and so I gave it a few minutes more thought than the other options, and in the end concluded that since the only school worth attending for the study of geography was in the God-forsaken location of St. Cloud, Minnesota, that was the end of my geography career. I was, after all, living in sunny Atlanta at the time.
Little did I know, however, that my momentary dalliance with geography was an integral and ironic part of my theography. You see, if geography is the discipline of describing the earth, theography is coming to terms with God in your midst, wherever that may be. Theos, is, of course, the Greek word for God, from which we get the word theology, of the study of God. And so theography might be described best as describing the story of your relationship with God, or God’s relationship with you. As one Christian seeker has put it: “I love the idea of theography (writing about one’s personal experience with God), as opposed to theology (making claims about the nature or character of God). I love the humility of theography, which seems to say, ‘I don’t understand God, and I cannot create definitions or concepts that accurately portray who God is. All I can tell you is my own experience with God, which need not be in competition with yours.’ The theographer is less interested in catching and canonizing some truth about divinity than in receiving gifts of wonder and beauty, and sharing these gifts with others.”

Now, it must have been with profound humility that Moses must have had his first experience with theography. Perhaps Moses had some other experiences with God, but the beginning of Exodus certainly doesn’t reveal anything about them; nowhere does Moses reveal any knowledge of God or religion, except that we are told that his father-in-law was a priest of an unspecified kind. As we heard, Moses experiences a moment of wonder and beauty as an “angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” Now, a geographer might be interested in where such an amazing bush might be found, but a theographer takes note of the role the bush played in Moses’ life, and the life of his people, mainly to capture Moses’ attention, and direct him to his first encounter with the divine, to get him to stop long enough to hear the voice of God call out to him, “Moses, Moses,” and to receive the charge to be God’s agent in confronting Pharaoh and bringing up out of Egypt those whom God called “my people.”

And so it was with similar profound humility, although without quite the same fireworks, that I found myself seventeen years after dropping out of college, contemplating a call to ministry in, of all places, the God-forsaken location of St. Cloud, Minnesota. In the years in between, I had not given another moment’s thought to going anywhere as cold as Minnesota, and I approached the decision of going anywhere with a great deal of disappointment, since I had in mind to stay in the delightful city of Pittsburgh, where there were, geographically speaking, in Allegheny County alone, 156 Presbyterian churches to choose from. However, theographically speaking, the only place that mattered was St. Cloud, Minnesota, and so try as I might to stay in Pennsylvania, there were no open doors, and so we sold our house, packed our things, and headed off to live in not just a God-forsaken geography, but also God-blessed theography, where we spent wonderful five years.

I doubt it was a sense of spiritual geography that led Moses “beyond the wilderness” with his father-in-law’s sheep. More likely it was, as I mentioned, that Moses got lost in an unfamiliar landscape, and just kept going until he came out the other side, wherever that may have been. You see, Moses did not grow up as a shepherd; he was raised in the palace. His job tending Jethro’s sheep was one he had only because he was in his own exile, not because he was qualified. You remember that he fled Egypt after it became known that he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. He fled to Midian, a safe and obscure place, but also a place vastly different than his upbringing. And so he settled there, and began the life of a Midianite, tending sheep, because there were no pyramids to build in Midian. He was a stranger in a strange land, so much so that he even named his son Gershom, from the word for “alien,” for he said, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” Now, I think that Moses’ sense of alien-ness had less to do with where Midian was located geographically, and more to do with his dislocation from both his people and his God. His home, and his heart, were elsewhere, in a place no geographer could ever precisely locate or describe. But God was about to bring him home, even if the road there would be as theographically challenging as it was geographically.

And so, on Mount Horeb, wherever it may be, God called Moses to be the human representative from the divine court to Pharaoh’s court, to bring God’s message of liberation and freedom. Moses, of course, objects, citing his deficiencies, and there are those commentators who contend that Moses was utterly lacking in the skills needed for the job, but I think they are wrong. He was the ideal man for the job. It’s true that Moses wasn’t much of a speechmaker, but he was a man of action, and that’s exactly what God needed. I think in his objections, Moses was simply afraid; afraid to go back to a serious threat to his life, afraid to go back to a people he barely knew and who had criticized him already, afraid to leave his newly found comfort zone of rural life, loving wife, and newborn child, even if it was a “foreign land.” From his days being raised in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses knew politics; Moses knew economics; Moses knew loyalty and leadership. These were the areas of competence that over the long run would be vitally important, as he guided his people through their forty years in the wilderness, but also in the short term, as he made the decisions that needed to be made to part the Red Sea. I think that God was simply writing the next chapter of Moses’ unique theography, describing those intangible places of home and heart that have neither longitude nor latitude.

God’s call to Moses, and God’s call to each of us, don’t always correspond directly to a place on the map. It corresponds to God’s needs, and the needs of God’s people. The call doesn’t happen when we finally arrive at a certain destination, but when we are in the right place to hear God’s call. Moses didn’t set out to find the mountain of God. In a very real sense, the mountain of God found him, and the rest is history. And that’s the difference between geography and theography, a difference I invite you to reflect upon as you leave this place today. You see, just as God wrote the next chapter of Moses’ story on Mount Horeb, God is still writing your story, and my story, and our story together. But it is a story we are living, not just reading. We are participating in the liberation of the world, just as Moses did as he took staff in hand and told Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” We cannot be innocent bystanders to our own drama. You may be here this morning in Millbridge, but you are also in the kingdom of God. And no matter where you go in that kingdom, the same amazing promise God gave Moses on Mount Horeb, God gives to you, “I will be with you.” And that’s a promise that doesn’t depend on geography, thanks be to God. Amen.

Moses's Ark

Exodus 1:1-2:10
© Stacey Steck

The Book of Exodus does not tell us how long Moses was in his pitch-covered basket floating amongst the reeds of the Nile River, but my guess is that his trip lasted just about forty minutes. We learn from our reading that Moses was crying when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket, and forty minutes is long enough for a baby to get hungry, but that’s not why I think it was forty minutes. We learn from the text that Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t soil her own hands on the pitch-covered basket, and so calls for her maid to come and do her dirty work, and that could have taken a while, but that’s not the reason I think it was forty minutes. We learn from the text of the proximity of Moses’ sister, presumably his sister, Miriam, who not only stood at a distance to see what would happen, but was also mysteriously close enough at hand to make just the right recommendation for a nursemaid, and so we also might speculate about a benevolent conspiracy based on the observed customary length of the morning bath of Pharaoh’s daughter, a plot to place the lad, but that is not the reason I think it was forty minutes.

No, the reason I think Moses spent forty minutes in his little watercraft is that everything important that happens in the Bible takes forty units of time to occur. How long were Noah and his family in the ark? Forty days and forty nights. How long was Moses up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments? Forty days and forty nights! How long did the Hebrews wander in the desert before coming into the promised land? That’s right, forty years! I know I’ve mentioned this Biblical code before, but forty is one of those key numbers to understand the mind of the Bible. You see, whenever the word forty occurs, it means something momentous and transitional has occurred, that what comes after the forty is radically different than what came before, that God’s hand is at work in the story of God’s people in wonderful ways. And that, of course, is exactly what happened in our story this morning, and that’s why I think he was in there for forty minutes.

As we heard at the beginning of the reading tonight, things are vastly different from the situation in which we left Joseph and his brothers at the end of Genesis. You will remember how Joseph was second in command only to Pharaoh himself and how Pharaoh opened the vault for Joseph’s family, and how everything was going just great down in the land of Goshen. God’s people flourished. But times change and Emperors change. Instead of giving the Hebrews carte blanche, the new regime wants to take away life and liberty; first the tax collectors are brought in, and when they failed to stem the rising tide of people, they bring in the slave masters, and when they failed to slow down the population boom, Moses’ mother finds herself on the wrong end of a truly awful imperial edict designed to slow down the growth of at least half the population; all of the male children of the Hebrews shall be drowned in the Nile. And so her only recourse to preserve this “fine baby” is to use the same river to save his life that was decreed to end it. And so the plot is hatched to manipulate Pharaoh’s daughter, and she takes the bait, and the baby too. “She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’ ” We can only imagine what might have happened had Moses been an ugly or scrawny baby, but I suppose that vanity too has its place in God’s scheme of things, and the thought of having a very good looking son must have been too much for the princess to pass up.

Now, this is a very cute story, but we should not allow that feature to obscure what has just happened: the Savior of God’s people has survived the first challenge. The road to liberation has opened. The end of the empire is in sight. What comes after Moses’ forty minutes will be ever so different than what came before them. The stakes in the keeping of God’s promises have been raised. No longer simply a nomadic family trying to avoid famine, God’s people find themselves far more numerous and up against far greater odds. Jacob, fearful after tricking his brother out of a birthright, pales in comparison against making bricks night and day, and having one’s babies drowned in the river. There is seemingly no one to lead them, and no hope in sight. There is no savior, not even Moses, on the horizon. And then God, with a little help from midwives with the fear of God, does something remarkable in a simple basket on a mighty river.

We shall read the rest of the story in upcoming weeks, and in it we shall hear once again of the escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the gift of the manna, water from the rock, and of course, the Ten Commandments for which Moses is most famous. All of this drama takes place because of what happens in this morning’s story. It is the Old Testament’s version of another famous forty, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, not that Moses was tempted by the devil in his little basket, but that the story hangs in the balance while his sister watches on and Pharaoh’s daughter bathes, just as we read breathlessly to see if Jesus survives his test in the desert. The future of the Savior in each Testament is assured, but not first without a little suspense in the story. Of course, I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to observe some parallels between Moses and Jesus. Various voices in the New Testament, especially that of the book of Hebrews, make this comparison quite explicit. Indeed, the whole of the Jesus story is an echo of what happens here in Exodus, from miraculous beginnings to divine salvation. Clearly what is different is that Moses was not himself God, as we understand Jesus to be, but the stories and their emphases are too similar for us to believe that God composed a completely new story from scratch. Unlike all but the rarest of Hollywood endeavors, the remake was actually better than the original! All of this is to say that God’s methods hold up to the test of time, so why go messing with a good thing?

Now, if there are parallels forward from Moses to Jesus, there are also parallels extending backwards, particularly to the last time the story of God’s people hung in the balance floating on water, to Noah and his family in their ark, a slightly larger vessel than Moses’ basket, but surely a lifesaving boat. Now, let me suggest you pay attention because I’m going to play a little game of Bible word association to get from here to my main point, because it’s a good Biblical thing to do. After all, Moses received his name in a play on words, “mashah,” meaning “drawn out.” And so, here goes. In the original Hebrew, the word used to describe Moses’ basket is the same word used to describe Noah’s ark, and it is a word applied elsewhere only to Noah’s ark, a point made to drive home the similarities. Both boats ferried God’s people to safety. Both boats carried the presence and promise of God. Both boats were temporary vessels for eternal purposes. Now, if the same Hebrew word can be applied to two very different, but similar containers, I think it is fair game to apply the same English word to two very different, but similar containers, namely Noah’s ark, and the Ark of the Covenant, and that is just what English translators have done in trying to render the word for the acacia wood box that held the Ten Commandments. But here is where I would like to stretch that wordplay to include calling Moses’ basket an ark, indeed to go so far as to call it the first version of the Ark of the Covenant, even though it was just a basket with a baby. You see, both Moses’ basket and the Ark of the Covenant ferried God’s people to safety. Both Moses’ basket and the Ark of the Covenant carried the presence and promise of God. Both Moses’ basket and the Ark of the Covenant were temporary vessels for eternal purposes. Moses’ basket was a little ark, a down payment, so to speak, on the great Ark that would lead the Israelites through the wilderness to the promised land. But it was an ark of the same order.

We probably know more about the Ark of the Covenant from watching Indiana Jones rescue it in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than we do from reading about in Scripture, but so be it. It still remains the symbol of the presence of God’s law and grace to the Israelites. It was where they believed God’s very presence resided, and in a sense they were right, for the Ten Commandments, properly understood, were the very grace of God put in a form to bring about the human community God intended, and the grace of God is the presence of God, is it not? In my word association, I have been focusing on the arks, but of course, what is more important is what is inside them, their precious cargo. And in the Ark of the Covenant, we find the covenant, the promise of relationship that reminds us that the Lord is our God, and we are God’s people, come hell or high water. And in the ark that Pharaoh’s daughter pulled from the reeds of the Nile River we find the covenant, in human form, the foreshadowing of the relationship that reminds us that the Lord is our God, and we are God’s people, come hell or high water.

The Ark of the Covenant will not be the last time in Scripture, or the history of the Church, that we find grace in a vessel. Remember that the remake was better than the original, and that Jesus is the vessel of God’s grace and covenant. Like Moses’ ark, he ferried God’s people to safety. Like Moses’ ark, he carried within himself the presence and promise of God. Like Moses’ ark, his life on earth was a temporary vessel for eternal purposes. And in him, we find the covenant, the promise of relationship that reminds us that the Lord is our God, and we are God’s people, come hell or high water. But the story doesn’t end there. What I want you to see is that just as Moses’ basket was the first Ark of the Covenant, the holder of grace and promise, and that the acacia wood box was the second, and that Jesus was yet another, we are the latest such version of a very valuable container. Within us, as individuals, and as the church of Jesus Christ, is God’s covenant lived out and shared. All the same things that the first three arks contained, we contain now. We hold promise. We hold liberation. We hold community. We hold grace. All of those things have been entrusted to us to share with the world. It was not merely good architectural design that lead many a church to construct their roof structures to resemble the hull of a great ship. Indeed it was the symbol of the ark, and the church’s role of carrying the message of hope that lead the congregational section of those churches to be called the nave, that upon looking up to heaven, worshippers might be reminded of all of the great arks of the covenant that brought their ancestors to that place and time, and motivate them to do the same.

Most of our lives will last longer than forty years, thanks be to God, but let us hope that no matter how long they last, let us hope that what comes after our lives, in terms of the world, is much different, much better, and much more reflective of God’s dream for the world, than what came before them. We are each little arks of the covenant, each of us bearing within our lives of faith and witness the promise God gave the world. May God help us to be that presence and promise in whatever we say or do. Amen.

A First Century Smackdown

3 John
© Stacey Steck

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the fight of the century! The first century that is. In this corner, in the purple and white trunks, hailing from somewhere in the Roman Empire, with a record of 13 excommunications, and weighing it at a metaphorical 387 pounds, the champion, Diótrephes. And in this corner, in the red and gold trunks, in his first professional bout, with nothing but a letter to commend him, the challenger, weighing in at 157 pounds soaking wet, Demetrius. Ladies and gentlemen, this morning’s fight of fifteen verses is brought to you by the Presbyter, and will be for the championship, the winner taking the belt as “Christian of the Century.” The referee for this morning’s bout is none other than Gaius. Are you ready to rumble?

If you are wondering how you came to church and ended up at a professional wrestling match, it’s because the Third Letter of John leaves so much to the imagination that it is easy, some might say essential, to fill in the gaps. Not only is 3 John the shortest book in the New Testament, it just might be the vaguest. In fact, there is so little to go on here that scholars believe this was one of the very last books to be accepted as Scripture, as it receives no mention among early church writers until late in the third century. It could have been ignored because its mere fifteen verses got lost at the end of a scroll somewhere, but more likely since it is not exactly a mine of theological gemstones. If you can’t come up with any quotable verses from Third John, that’s because there aren’t any; the closest we come is the phrase in verse two, “it is well with your soul,” which made it into the nineteenth century hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” which we sometimes sing here at Thyatira, but nothing else in that hymn besides this one phrase would make us think of Third John. Truly, this book falls into that category of “Remind Me Why This Is In My Bible?”

On the other hand, however, it just may be that Third John is precisely the reason we are here this morning. That is because Third John deals with how to treat missionaries, and at some level, we are all the product of missionary endeavors, somewhere in our past. If there had been no missionaries way back then, there would be no church here and now, and so we owe a certain debt to John if indeed his words about offering hospitality to those who traveled to share the word of God had anything to do with the success of the early missionary movement, and we must believe they did. Diótrephes and Demetrius are lost in the mists of time, but there are still brothers and sisters sharing the Gospel who need a place to spend the nights of their journeys, and so we must wrestle with the words of Third John.

The author of this letter, John by tradition, since there is no name attached to it other than “The Elder,” is writing to his friend in the faith, Gaius, to seek a place for a certain Demetrius to spend the night. We can infer that Demetrius is a missionary of some sort by noting the flattery which John showers upon Gaius when he says, “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.” In other words, you have received guys like Demetrius in the past; please do so once again. He goes on to explain that the infamous Diótrephes has not only refused to host these travelers but has prevented others from doing so, and even thrown some of them out of the church for being willing to receive missionaries. It was likely that Demetrius himself carried this letter as both an introduction to Gaius, as well as a sort of insurance policy.

The letter, of course, had more than one purpose. Of course, it would have been nice for Demetrius to be able to stay with friends in the faith, rather than a hotel, but there was also the matter of the behavior of Diótrephes about which he wants to warn Gaius and the others in his community. From the description here, it seems that Diótrephes was not a very nice person, and John lists the reasons why, namely that he likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge John’s authority, and spreads false charges against John and his church, on top of the refusal to offer hospitality and the punitive actions against those who would. We are led to believe that this Diótrephes has intercepted the letter which John says he wrote to the church, a letter which perhaps commended its intended recipients to offer the all important hospitality for people like Demetrius. This letter, the one that has survived as Third John, will arrive with Demetrius himself to make sure that the message gets through this time.

What message did he want to share in that first letter? Perhaps it was the one which he shares now when he takes the opportunity to make sure Gaius sees the difference between Diótrephes and Demetrius, and in so doing, he traces for us the outline of an exemplary disciple in the early church. John comes closest to saying something about God in his transition from warning about Diótrephes to commending Demetrius. “Beloved,” he says, “do not imitate what is evil, but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that Diótrephes represents evil, and that Demetrius (and Gaius if he will receive him) represents good. “Everyone has testified favorably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.” He doesn’t really say anything positive about Demetrius, but then again he doesn’t really have to! Not only does he come recommended by John, and commended by the very truth itself, in other words, God, but he is very clearly not the villain Diótrephes, about whom very many negative things have been said. Perhaps this has been a lesson for campaign managers through the centuries; all you have to do is say something negative about your opponent, and your own candidate looks great without saying anything at all about him or her!

It is true that there is not much theology, not much God-talk, in Third John, but there is a guide for how to behave as one who says they follow Christ. We often romanticize the early church and how they all seemed to get along, sharing their goods with all as they had need, praying and breaking bread together, but the good old days were not without their wrestling matches. There were people who disagreed with one another, people who vied for power, people who tried to rally the faithful to their own side, thinking it was best. History is always written by the victor, and so we have come to believe that John was right and Diótrephes was wrong, because we are reading John’s words, but we really don’t know how fair the fight was. John seems almost as petty as he claims Diótrephes was being. There is some fact in his charges, but also some slander, some strong hinting that his rival is not only inhospitable, but also evil, a pretty grave charge to level against a brother or a sister. And so, as we take wisdom from Third John, let it be about offering true hospitality, and imitating what is good, but let it also be in the light of our own imperfection, and our own tendencies to exaggerate both the sins of our rivals but also the measure of our own grace and generosity. May the testimony about our walk in the truth be like that of Demetrius, rather than Diótrephes, but let us also testify truthfully and fairly and with grace, about ourselves as well as others. Neither John nor Diótrephes really distinguished himself in this early church squabble. It is left for Gaius and Demetrius and all of us to do that in God’s eyes, and in the hearts and minds of those whom we would serve.

Let me leave you with this final thought about this wrestling match we call life and faith. John places the burden of our faithfulness on the testimony others give about us, but also on the testimony that seems self-evident, what he calls the testimony of the truth. The testimony of others about us is important, to be sure. It reflects at least some truth as to our character, and we hope and pray that those offering testimony about us are doing so in the light of the truth and not with the light of their own hopes or fears that they are projecting on us. The possibility that others may testify unkindly about us, that they may judge us in spite of their ignorance about our motives, and without an awareness of their own blindspots should not deter us from seeking to be praiseworthy. But neither should our desire to be praised, to be testified about positively, be what drives our walk in the truth, and our imitation of what is good. Rather, it is to be testified about by the truth itself that should drive us, to do our good deeds even if they go unseen, to not let our left hand know what the right hand is giving away. We may receive no praise during our lifetimes for our efforts on behalf of the truth. We may even be persecuted by well-meaning brothers and sisters about whom others have testified positively. We may be the Galileos of our own time, proclaiming the truth that no one around us is willing to accept, even those in our own corner.

You may remember that in the seventeenth century, the astronomer Galileo championed the heliocentric view of the solar system, the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around. Condemned as a heretic for proclaiming something we now all take for granted, Galileo died under house arrest. The Grand Duke of Tuscany at the time, wanted to bury him in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and other ancestors, and to erect a marble mausoleum in his honor. These plans were scrapped, however, after the Pope and an influential Cardinal protested, citing the fact that Galileo had been condemned by the Church for “vehement suspicion of heresy,” the testimony of his brothers in the faith. He was instead buried ignominiously in a small room at the far end of the Basilica. But here’s the testimony of the truth: in 1737 after a monument had been erected there in his honor, he was reburied in the main body of the basilica where he should have been in the first place. An interesting side note is that during this move, three fingers and a tooth were removed from his remains, and one of these fingers, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand, is currently on exhibition at the Museo Galileo in Florence.

We all have our earthly heroes and champions and we pray they will not disappoint us. We may even be those heroes and champions to others, and we pray we will not fail them. But whether or not we, or those we root for, are finally named “Christian of the Century,” the good news of the Gospel is that in the wrestling match that is life, God’s truth always wins, and that is sufficient for it to be well with our souls, and to love and serve in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Clothes Make the Man

Colossians 3:1-17 and Genesis 37:1-4
© Stacey Steck

“I don’t like it. I won’t feel right, walking up and down in that.” And so begins the story of Tango, one of three robbers who planned to rob a Paris home. Two of the gang would do the job. The third robber, the one named Tango, would stand watch in a policeman’s uniform out front so that anyone passing by would not suspect a problem since there would be an officer on patrol. Tango looked pretty good in his outfit and liked the fact that he had a shiny whistle, just like a real policeman. He was a little nervous at first but soon he warmed to the idea. And so he began to act like a policeman. He proudly gave a salute to a passing police lieutenant, helped an old woman across the street, and even decided to take a drunk who was disturbing the peace off to jail. And while he’s doing his new job, his two fellow robbers came running out of the house they were robbing to stop him. One says, “You blockhead. You’ll ruin the whole job. What are you doing?” And then he strikes him across the face. And something snaps inside Tango. He remembers the lieutenant answering his salute. He remembers the gratitude and admiration of the old lady he helped across the street. He feels like he was doing the right thing moving that drunk along down the street. Tango liked playing the role of policeman. And so as his companions looked on in horror, Tango stuffs the shiny whistle into his mouth and blows “a salvo of blasts long enough to bring all the police in Paris.” He yells, “Crooks, robbers! I arrest you. I arrest you in the name of the law.” In the end, Tango brought to life the old saying, “Clothes Make the Man” which also happens to be the name of this classic short story by the French writer Henri Duvernois.

That old saying, “Clothes make the man” is, of course, a proverb about the way we tend to judge one another, and ourselves, on the basis of the way we dress. The idea at least must certainly go back a very long way but it was first pronounced in English by Shakespeare who put the words in the mouth of Polonius in Hamlet as he is advising his son Laertes to dress well: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” It was left to Mark Twain to put that wisdom into the form we now know it. And of course the fashion industry has had its say in the matter and that’s why the size of ties and lapels fluctuates, and the height of hemlines rises and falls, because no one wants to appear even a season behind the artificially manipulated times.

Wild Shirt
My family, however, has never paid much attention to all of that, as my present attire should make clear. This shirt dates back to approximately 1966 when my mother thought the whole family should dress alike at places like amusement parks in case any of us got separated from one another; we’d be pretty easy to spot and put back together. Here we are at one such outing, my father wisely taking the photograph to make sure it couldn’t later be used against him as blackmail. This shirt was, of course, his, and the rest are mercifully lost in the mists of time. But this gem, I mean relic, survives for times such as this, times when we need to remember that clothes really do make the man or woman of Christ, as seems clear as we read the beginning of the third chapter of the book of Colossians.

There is so much in these 17 verses, especially on a day we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism of young Walter Swanson, not least of which are those great lists of vices, the behaviors and attitudes we are commanded to turn away from, and virtues, those we must be turning toward. And this change from vice to virtue is depicted as a change of clothing, an image the church adopted for those new to the faith who were baptized in garments quite different than their everyday, ordinary ones. So as I thought about what could dramatize this change from death to life, from the mourning of sackcloth to the joy of renewal, I remembered this classic I had in the closet. It may make your eyes hurt, but it brings me great joy. It is an interesting side note that in Colossians chapter three, there are six virtues listed—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and the crown of love—and wouldn’t you know it that there are six colors in this shirt. Never underestimate the wisdom or sense of humor of the Holy Spirit.

These lists of vices and virtues were common in the New Testament era, dating back at least as far as Aristotle and Plato. The four classic virtues of antiquity were temperance, prudence, courage, and justice, all very fine characteristics, which should be practiced, as Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics, “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.” Now, this list of virtues and its application would have been well known to both the author and the audience of Colossians, and so it says something rather important about the character of Christian faith that the classic list and the list we read this morning do not overlap. The difference is even more startling when you compare our list from today to the list of virtues that later on essentially defined what it meant to be a Roman, a list some nineteen virtues long, and find that there is no overlap there either. What it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a good citizen of the Empire then are two entirely different things. The virtues on the Roman list may still be worth practicing, but they are not what define a follower of Jesus Christ. And if those Roman virtues are to be applied “at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way,” you could say that these Christian virtues are to be applied “at the divinely appointed time, about heavenly things, toward all people, for God’s glory, and according to the example of Christ.” That phrase doesn’t appear in this third chapter of Colossians—I made it up to contrast the difference—but I took all the elements from these seventeen verses.

Those who would have read this letter would have noticed the difference in the lists, but I also think they would have noticed the difference in the reasoning behind maintaining these virtues. If you were a Roman, you would have tried to practice the Roman virtues to maintain your place in society, or to maintain your honor, or to stay on the good side of the gods, or because if you didn’t, you risked being seen as seditious or untrustworthy. In the end, these are basically self-interested reasons. If you step out of line, there are consequences. But Colossians offers a different, non-coercive reason that is still as appealing today as it was back then, namely that we do these things out of gratitude for God’s grace. Christ died and with him we died, and our old ways died, and we have been raised to that new life that offers love, “which holds everything together,” and peace “to which you were called in the one body.” What’s this morning’s punch line? Gratitude. “And whatever you do, in word of deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Our virtuous life is lived not under threat, but under grace.

It’s hard to imagine that Joseph, way back in antiquity, could have lived a life of gratitude after what happened to him, but he did. Joseph was seventeen, a still-wet-behind-the-ears pup whose only claims to fame were that he was his mother’s son, and she was her husband’s favorite wife, and that he was a tattletale, for as the story goes, he brought a “bad report” to his father about two of the other wives. And because his father Jacob was not really very savvy about family dynamics, he gave Joseph this very special gift of “a long robe with sleeves” which in many other translations is rendered as a “coat of many colors.” But no matter, because even though the Hebrew words for that garment can be translated in quite a number of ways, it’s clear that the garment was something special, because it made his brothers jealous. And of course, they then go on to plot against him, sell him into slavery through which he ends up in Egypt, rises to power there and becomes the savior of his both his adopted nation and his family during a time of famine.

There’s a lot to the whole Joseph story, but for this morning, here is what I think is important: that unlike his father Jacob, Joseph was a virtuous man. Despite his illusions of grandeur as a young man, Joseph grew up to embody the virtues we find in Colossians. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, he fled. When Pharaoh sought his counsel, he did not prophecy for his own sake, but for God’s. When his brothers came for grain, he treated them with compassion despite what they had done to him. When he could bear their estrangement no more, he wept openly before them, embraced them, and forgave them. He recognized that it was God who had sent him to Egypt. He practiced compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love. It is hard to imagine Pharaoh acting in these same ways.

Now, I don’t want to read too much into the story, but let me suggest that Joseph’s virtue began with that coat of many colors, or at the very least the sense of favor he enjoyed from his father. While not divine grace exactly, that coat and that favor were a gift of grace into which he grew, to borrow some words about Jesus, “in wisdom, and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Like our man Tango, the criminal turned cop, he was a case of the “clothes make the man,” who grew up from being a spoiled brat to being a virtuous ruler over all Egypt. It would have been easy for Joseph to turn into a version of his father, a devious, self-interested person. But instead, he embodied the commandment we hear again this day from Colossians: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” in other words, the one who loves us even when we may not be worthy of being loved.

In the same way that I later grew into my father’s shirt, in the same way Joseph grew into his father’s favor, we grow into the virtues commended to us. We still practice some of the vices mentioned, but we are also still repenting, turning away from the vices, and turning toward the virtues, towards our new life in Christ who “is all and in all.” We don’t make that change in order to be loved, but because we are loved in the first place. We are obliged to be virtuous not by social convention but only by our sense of gratitude. And we are only able to be virtuous because of the one who was willing to die for those virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love, the ones that were of lesser or no value in the eyes of his murderers. We may look silly in our garments of many colors and we may be hated and despised by others for practicing these counter-cultural virtues, but as we do, we are called to “do, in word and deed, everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

I am going to leave the last word on this subject to the very wonderful Dolly Parton, the country and western singer who sang of another coat of many colors. If you remember the song, sing along. May we all appreciate God’s gift of grace as fully as Dolly did her mother’s gift, and may we help clothe Walter with the love and virtues of the Gospel as we fulfill our baptismal vows. Amen.