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A Well Dressed Congregation

Colossians 3:12-17

I hate shopping. Maybe that lacks sufficient clarity. I would rather have a tooth canal than spend an afternoon shopping in a mall. I don’t even like to shop on-line, which purports to take all of the pain out of shopping. I have tried. It doesn’t.

I also hate those unwinnable family battles that result in me having to go shopping. Over the years, many of those battles have focused on what to wear to church. I will never forget trips to the shoe store, not to get a pair of the newest and coolest Converse sneakers, but for my mom to insist on buying a pair of foot vices otherwise known as Buster Brown shoes. I had to wear them every Sunday morning and polish them every Saturday night for some reason known only to God. My clothing battle continued with my grandmother when I was a teenager and she swore that she would not sit with me if I wore jeans to church.

With my disdain for shopping established, a fair question to ask me today is why “he who hates to shop and cares little about what he or others wear to church” is preaching a sermon called “A Well-Dressed Congregation”?

Look around. This Cove family has been busy dressing-up the place for our 250th anniversary. We have added a new safety rail and pew cushions to the balcony, planted flowers and shrubs, cut down dying limbs hanging over the sanctuary, fixed leaky wells, and painted everything that does not move. Thanks to John Borden Evans and the generosity of Michael and Shea Linden, we will soon have a new pictorial directory and thanks to Renee and John Grisham, and the guidance of Marilee, the offices in Cove Hall have had a major face-lift. Thanks to Susan Hitchcock and the amazing work of the 250th Anniversary team we have a new book about Cove that awaits us over lunch, and thanks to Jody Harris and her team, we will soon enjoy a delicious anniversary meal. Cove is all dressed up and ready for this anniversary celebration. This morning, Cove is a well-dressed congregation.

Scholars still debate whether the letter to the Colossian Christians is a genuine letter from Paul or written by a disciple of Paul and then attributed to him. Either way, there is no debate that in Colossians the congregation is urged to go shopping. He urges them to pay attention to what they wear, but he does not send them shopping to Nordstrom’s or Joseph A. Bank, to Amazon Prime or to The Home Depot.

Before they go shopping, though, Paul urges the Colossians to clean out their closets. If Christ is “all in all” then they need of clothing that no longer fits. It is time to toss out the clothing of “anger, malice, wrath, slander, and abusive language.” It is time to go shopping for a new wardrobe of “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

This is not the first or last time that Paul will talk to churches about “dressing up.” In his first letter to Corinth, Paul talks about the resurrection body as one that “puts on imperishability” and in second letter to Corinth, he speaks of eternal life as the body that has “put on” a “heavenly dwelling.” This “dressing up” image continued long after Paul into the early church as new believers came “dressed up” before entering the waters of baptism, shedding their old clothes to “put on” the new baptismal gown in Christ.

Paul wants the Colossians to be a well-dressed congregation, but he has little interest in outer wear that sometimes gets too much of our Sunday morning attention. Paul is interested in our “soul wear,” in what is inside of us, what the church wears into the sanctuary and then out into the streets and then inside our homes.

But, excuse me, where are my manners? I introduced many of our special guests at the beginning of worship today, but I forgot to introduce four special guests.

They are standing to the left and right of me. I hope you can see what they are wearing.

Allow me first to introduce you to Tappi. She wears the clothes of self-sacrifice and humility. What Tappi wears is basic Christian dress. A Muslim friend of mine recently told me this story. Over a period of months, he noticed that one of his colleagues, a partner in the law firm, parked toward the middle or back of a very large company parking lot. Finally, my friend asked the partner the obvious question, “You are a partner in the firm. You are entitled to park right next to the entrance. Why do you park so far back?” The partner responded, “Because someone might come after me who needs to park closer.” Surely, the partner’s name was Tappi.

This is Psallo. She is clad in the clothing of song. Stand next to her and you will find yourself humming or whistling or breaking out in songs in praise of God. It was nearly Christmas Eve several years ago. Friends and family of a dear friend were holding vigil in the waiting area of a local hospital. Psallo appeared in the form of choir members who came to sing my friend to heaven. Psallo is a frequent visitor to Cove. She was smiling with pure delight on Friday night as Alice Parker led us in song and we are thankful that she is back today.

This is Irenei. She goes by “Irene.” She looks a little frazzled. Her beautiful dress of peace and reconciliation is torn and stained with tears after bullets have shattered another service of worship in San Diego and terrorized another college campus in Charlotte. She cringes when political leaders tear at each other under the pretense of free speech. She weeps when such derisive language finds a home in the church. I am often amazed when I bump into Irene. Hers is the dress of someone who knows that you and I are never free when others are enslaved, we are never full when others are empty, we are never content when others are treated with contempt. She leaps for joy when the church refuses to settle to be anything less than a community of justice and reconciliation.

This is Eucharista. She is dressed in e.e. cummings’s poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Eucharista does not need to remind herself to be grateful, to be generous; it is her everyday “soul wear.” It is hard to hang around Cove and not bump into Eucharista. I saw her first before I knew any of you by name, when Josh shared a photo of you holding up colorful sign that declared: WE CHOOSE WELCOME. I bump into her nearly every Sunday when we pass the peace and yes, sometimes, talk about other stuff than Christ’s peace, but as we travel through the sanctuary, we communicate that we are grateful to be a part of this body of Christ.

I see Eucharista whenever I take time to look at these plaques and read the inscriptions on the gravestones outside and am reminded that you and I are only here for a moment, but she has been dwelling here for generations. I meet Eucharista at supper time for the church, when we eat bread and drink wine and pause, if only for a moment, to give thanks to the One who will not let us go.

When Cove celebrates its 500th anniversary, you and I will all be a distant memory, but if we have listened well to the counsel from Colossians, Tappi, Psallo, Irene, and Eucharista will still be regulars at Cove, showing the world what a well-dressed congregation really looks like!

And for that, we give thanks!


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