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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Check Your Privilege (Philippians 3:4 – 14)

Recently an article on the internet entitled, “Does It Matter How the Preacher Dresses?” (McKeever) was shared with me and some of my fellow Salvation Army officers; we were asked to consider the author’s point that pastors should “turn up the dial a notch” and not be sloppy in their dress. For McKeever this seems to mean wearing a suit and tie – which is the accoutrement de rigueur for ministers, though he did allow that that doesn’t necessarily “he should wear the uniform of the previous generation—a coat and tie—but merely to dress one step in front of most of the men in the church.” (McKeever).[i] Ministers, according to McKeever, should dress up to “inspire confidence” in their congregations.

“It’s time for the preachers to look and act like the adults in the room.” McKeever says. “Quit following the kids and start showing them proper respect for the Lord’s house, the Lord’s service and the worship of the Lord.” Ministers have to look respectable and show “proper respect for the Lord’s house.”

But I’m not terribly impressed by his argument that dressing up (in a suit coat and tie, or The Salvation Army Uniform, even) inspires confidence so it must be a good thing. “It’s why the presidential candidates are wearing suits and white shirts and ties. … Inspiring confidence,” he says, but we know how much respect and confidence politicians inspire in us these days, right?  Besides: crooks, con artists, and used car salesmen dress up in a suit and tie for exactly the same reason. Hitler wore a suit and a tie, too. So what? Good people dress up and look nice. Terrible people dress up and look nice. The suit and the tie is not a mark of respectability; the suit and tie is not the badge of membership in the community of God. Looking good does not mean being good.

There’s nothing wrong with wearing nice clothes to church. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up. But I’m concerned about the attitude that says we should dress to impress, that the outward, exterior appearance is what really matters.

The Apostle Paul could have made much of his exteriors. He had all the right markers to show that he was a trustworthy and respectable, what is more, that he was a righteous man of the people of God’s favor. He had been circumcised on the eighth day, born of the people of Israel, in the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. If he’d had Poppins’ tape measure, I’m sure he’d measure “practically perfect in every way.” (Mary Poppins)

Yet Paul rejected all these measurements. He rejected all these badges of honor and marks of respectability. He wrote them off as a loss.

Now, like the suit and tie and The Salvation Army uniform, none of those qualifications were bad in themselves. They were all noble and valued standards in his culture and religion. To be circumcised marked one as a descendant of Abraham and part of the covenant community. To be of a pure lineage with a line that traced back to the tribe of the first king of Israel, this was good thing. It was not wrong for Paul to have been a Pharisee. (I know the Pharisees get a lot of negative attention, particularly in light of the description of their opposition to Jesus in the gospels of the New Testament, but the Pharisees were devoutly committed to following and obeying God. This is a noble pursuit.) Paul could say, without vainglorious exaggeration, that, by the standards of his people and culture, he was perfect, without fault.

But he came to realize that all of that was worthless. It was all, as an earlier prophet said, “unclean things” and “filthy menstrual rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Paul’s choice of words is equally as shocking. He says that he regards all those marks of privilege as “filth” (Philippians 3: 8) – the Greek word skubalon- that is dung, feces. All that he could have listed as noble and special and privileged about himself he described as shit.

He could have gloried in all his good works, all his righteousness. “Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed – while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end”  (Grossman 840). But Paul saw the righteousness of God and saw his own failure to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48) and wrote off all his own credit as loss.

None of it mattered. Not his privileged birth, not his proper upbringing, not his education, not his achievements. For Paul, the only thing that counted as worthy was knowing Jesus and sharing in his righteousness. And these were this was something he couldn’t do in and of himself. He couldn’t achieve this knowledge or righteousness by doing more and doing better. It was not an uprightness gained from following the Law, or by having all the proper exterior marks. What he was seeking was justification.

Theologian N.T. Wright has written that: “Justification…is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God, but of how you tell who belongs to that community” (emphasis his - Wright 119). “Faith is the badge of covenant membership, not something one ‘performs’ as a kind of initiation test” (125).

Being born of the right tribe did not make Paul justified before God. Being circumcised did not make Paul justified. Being a Pharisee, being zealous for the Law did not secure his membership into the community of the true people of God. Instead he set all those things aside. Like Christ who:

being in the form of God,
did not count equality with God
something to be grasped.
But he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
becoming as human beings are;
and being in every way like a human being,
he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death, death on a cross.

And for this God raised him high,
and gave him the name
which is above all other names;
so that all beings
in the heavens, on the earth, and in the underworld,
should bend the knee at the name of Jesus
and that every tongue should acknowledge
Jesus Christ as Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2: 6 – 11 New Jerusalem Bible)

Paul could have grasped at all his privilege markers, he could have exploited all his badges of honor – but, for Paul, all of these things paled before the person of Jesus Christ. And so he cast them off to know only Jesus and the power of his resurrection.  Paul wanted to know Jesus Christ so that he could live in the life of Jesus, and live again in his death and resurrection.

And this by a daily growing faith. Pressing on towards the prize, not grasping at those marks of privilege and honor to exploit them for personal gain. But checking his privilege and straining on to what was ahead: God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

Grossman, Vasily. Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985. Print.

Mary Poppins. dir. Robert Stevenson. Walt Disney Productions, 1964. Film. 

McKeever, Joe. "Does It Matter How the Preacher Dresses?" ChurchLeaders. Web. 

Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997. Print.

“My brethren, do all that is in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall, but, if you do fall, get up again at once, and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times, because of the withdrawal of God’s grace, rise up again at each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written: ‘If a righteous man falls seven times,’ that is, repeatedly throughout his life, ‘seven times shall he rise again’ [Proverbs 24:16].”

+ St. John of Karpathos, from the collection of letters to monks in India

[i] Apparently all ministers and pastors are male for McKeever. He uses the masculine pronoun exclusively, and mentions coats and ties frequently, but never blouses, skirts, dresses, or pantsuits… 

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