“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Thus, saith Mark Twain (or at least the online quote pages say so). What we wear does say something about us. If you wear a suit and tie to work that suggests one thing, while overalls something else. Shorts and a T-shirt are something else still. Some members of the clergy wear a collar, which suggests that they are working for God. Some of us go incognito and don’t wear anything special. As women have entered the workforce and political life, they have wrestled with what to wear. Remember how Hillary Clinton’s pant suits became the talk of the country during the 2008 primary season. I think she called herself “Have Pant-Suit will travel.” Wearing a dress might suggest that she was running for First Lady rather than President, so she chose the Pant-Suit. Yes, clothes can speak volumes about who we are, where we come from, our economic status, and what we do with our lives.
Growing up I came to know something of the difference that clothing can make. I was reminded of this reality listening to a recent sermon by Alex McCauslin. Alex was sharing a story about wearing Sears clothes while her friends wore more upscale clothing. I’m not sure if J. C. Penney is the equivalent of Sears, or a step below, but when my friends were wearing Levis and Converse All Stars, I was wearing J. C. Penney from head to toe.
But Paul tells us not to worry about whether we’re wearing Saks 5th Avenue or Sears. Instead of worrying about clothing labels, he tells us to clothe ourselves with Christ. That is, when we are baptized we take on a new identity – that of Christ who lives in us and through us by the Spirit. Not only that, but when we put on this new uniform, everything that separates us from one another disappears.
When we exchange our old clothing for Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Instead, we’re all one in Christ. Of course, Paul is thinking in eschatological terms. He’s thinking about the coming reign of God, which means that those distinctions still exist in our society. The question is – how do these distinctions reflect Christ’s presence in our lives? If we’re one in Christ and the distinctions we create in society no longer reign, then how do we live now, before the reign of God comes in its fulness?
In reflecting on this passage of Scripture I thought about all of the walls and barriers that exist in our world. This past week President Obama visited the site of the Berlin Wall, which fell nearly a quarter of a century ago. This week the Senate worked on an immigration bill that could legalize millions of people living in the country without proper documents, but at the same time building a bigger wall between our country and Mexico. And next week, the Supreme Court will decide a number of important cases, including one that deals directly with gay marriage. There are walls that separate us from one another, but what does being in Christ have to do with them?
This past week I’ve had the opportunity to think about walls that divide – some physical, some legal, and some traditional. Over the past week I’ve taken several trips across Eight Mile Road. Everyone in this area probably knows what that means. Crossing the border from the suburbs into Detroit, or from Detroit into the Suburbs has long had a certain meaning. North of that road line lies affluence, and below it lies crime and poverty. One side of the line is predominantly white and below it is predominantly African American. Yesterday there was a march down Woodward Avenue to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Detroit march and speech, in which he previewed his famed “I Have a Dream” speech. Back then Detroit had around 1.6 million people, 29% of whom were African American. Today, with the population down to 700,000, the percentage stands at 84%, the largest by far of any major U.S. city. As we know, a significant portion of that population loss in Detroit moved north across Eight Mile into the suburbs.
Fifty years after that speech heralding a new day for Detroit and America, there is still much suspicion of the other on both sides of the line. So, how do we build bridges?
Motown Mission and Gospel in Action Detroit, in partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, are important efforts that seek to tear down walls and build bridges between communities. Most of the volunteers for these mission efforts are white, and most of the people they serve will be black. The question is – in the course of the week, will we come to see each other as equals or does one group go into the city with paternalistic understandings. Do we go as partners or as “saviors?”
As we put on Christ, we are called to reflect God’s love for the world and God’s passion for justice. Where injustice is found, we hear the call to join with God in ending that injustice. Where walls exist, we hear the call to tear them down. And where there are divides -- we are called to build bridges.
On Wednesday Padma Kuppa and I led a conversation about building interfaith bridges. I shared a word from 2 Corinthians 5 about being ministers of reconciliation. That is our calling, according to Paul. In Christ we are ambassadors of reconciliation, bringing the message that in Christ those old divisions no longer exist.
In Galatians 3 Paul lays out three three pairs of relationships in which inequality and division exist. In our day these three pairs don’t sound all that radical, but in his day, when people lived an incredibly stratified society, these were revolutionary words. In that time and place women had no rights. In many ways they were the property of their fathers or their husbands. Of course, even Paul doesn’t seem to know exactly what to make of all this, because he tells the women in Corinth to keep quiet until they get home and ask their husbands to explain the message of the day. I don’t think that piece of advice would go over very well here, though there are still churches that teach women to submit to their fathers and their husbands. In fact, one famous TV evangelist just told his audience that husbands have permission from God to spank disobedient wives.
Then there’s the matter of slavery, which should need no explanation, though slavery really hasn’t disappeared as of yet.
And as far as the difference between Jew and Greek, we still struggle with ethnic identity. Both Jew and Greek looked at the other with disdain. To the Greeks, Jews were Barbarians, and to the Jews, Greeks were infidels. But according to Paul none of this matters in Christ. These ethnic distinctions no longer determine one’s value. As that old children’s song puts it:
Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world;
Red & yellow, black, brown & white,
They are precious in His sight;
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
I’ve gained a deeper insight to what all this means since getting involved with Motown Mission and Gospel in Action Detroit. Each year as this effort unfolds, I’m challenged to join in building relationships with people so that we can overcome stereotypes and suspicions. I appreciate the great lengths that Carl Zerwick goes to in making sure that the work crews don’t treat the people of the neighborhood in a paternalistic way. I’ve been amazed to see how this work is transforming lives. I’m grateful to this congregation for supporting this growing ministry that builds a bridge between the city we once inhabited and the suburbs where this congregation currently resides.
As we put on Christ, and begin to work in partnership with God in serving one another, we claim our inheritance as descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Yes, in Christ, we become joint heirs with Abraham’s children, in the covenant promise, which states that through the children of Abraham and Sarah, the nations, the peoples, of the world, will be blessed (Genesis 12). May this blessing be upon us all! Amen
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 23, 2013
5th Sunday after Pentecost