Clothe yourselves – (with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.)
This directive, this metaphor of clothing in Colossians, makes a whole lot more sense to me since I learned that Colossae was a garment district, where they made clothes. Clothing is a powerful metaphor but the power in clothing is not only metaphorical. Think of the “black tie” instructions for those fancy fundraisers, or casual Fridays or even the new Zoom dress codes we have adapted to – “dress business from the waist up.”
Clothes speak. They indicate in powerful ways who we are and what we represent. The iconic white robes and hoods of the KKK indicate a dangerous belief in white superiority and the potential for terrorist behavior. I remember how a particular group of white supremacists, in Charlottesville five years ago, thought it better to dress in white polos and khakis for the weekend. They wanted a new image – but the slogans they chanted and the torches they carried, let us know that they were committed to the same hateful beliefs and behaviors of white supremacy.
Clothes can be a signal of what we stand for and who we stand with. We highly ethical – buy local – shop at thrift stores – maybe even make our own clothes – people, we know the power of clothes. In fact, the proper way to dress has been, and continues to be, central in the life of certain strands of Anabaptists. Clothing was part of how this congregation started.
It was the fall of 1951, the start of the new church year at Cottage City Mennonite Church. The announcement of the new slate of church officials was delayed that Sunday morning, while Pastor Shenk and another church elder met with Nelson Brunk in a small room in the back of the church to try and convince him to reconsider his decision to abandon the plain coat. Meanwhile the congregation sang hymn after hymn after hymn. After a delay of nearly an hour, the name of the new Sunday School Superintendent was announced and it was not Nelson Brunk. (p. 9) from Taking Root in Strange Soil
Somehow, the plain coat for men, in its dark, solid colors, and predictable uniformity, which was a distinctive sign of faithfulness for many, had become a hindrance to the faith of Nelson Brunk. He and other young adults had experienced church outside the Mennonite context while they were in alternative service. They found that church was just as real and just as meaningful without some of the distinctives that sometimes separated Mennonites from other Christians. They wanted to create a different kind of church for Mennonites in Washington DC. While the men were ready to ditch the plain coat, that other distinctive sign of faithfulness, the head covering for women, remained in place for at least another decade – or two, amongst this group.
Thus began what we now know as Hyattsville Mennonite Church. As the young adults looked around for a Mennonite conference with which to affiliate, part of their search included checking out the “conference disciplines” as they were called. This was where the clothing requirements and other restrictions were defined. The group landed on the Southwestern Pennsylvania District with Bishop Isaac Metzler, who was the father of Edith Weaver, one of their group. The Southwestern Pennsylvania District, a precursor to Allegheny Conference, was congregationally-based and did not have clothing requirements or a strict conference “discipline.”
Mennonites know a lot about how behavior, belonging and belief can be wrapped up in clothes. For the writer of Colossians, “clothe yourselves” is a strong directive with a lot of meaning about behavior, belonging and belief. But in Colossians, this is metaphorical. We Anabaptists, who take Jesus words seriously – and often literally, sometimes we are not as good with metaphor.
Yes, the members of the church at Colossae are asked to distinguish themselves from their neighbors by taking off their old clothes – their old clothes of promiscuity, greed, idolatry, anger, lying. Piece by piece, they remove each layer of what used to clothe them until they stand, naked and known, in front of their Creator. Now they are ready to be baptized into something new. As the chosen people of God, baptized into the faith, they clothe themselves with a new wardrobe: eye-catching kindness, the deep color of humility, the soft sheen of patience. And it is all buttoned up and belted together, with forgiveness and the boldness of love.
The clothes in Colossians are different from what we read about in Ephesians 6. There the instruction is to put on the whole armor of God, to stand against evil, to prepare for spiritual battle. Given the horrendous slaughter of many of its residents some 200 years previous, it is no wonder that this metaphor of armor is used in the letter to the church at Ephesus. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the sandals of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of the hope of salvation, with the sword of the Spirit at one’s side. In Ephesians this is what one wears when engaging the powers and principalities, presumably outside the church – though I admit there have been times in the past when I carefully and prayerfully dressed in this spiritual armor to go to church meetings.
In Colossians, “clothe yourselves” is an instruction for relating within the church and these clothes are for everyone. This instruction is not just for one individual as they relate personally to God, it is not just for the leadership, it is for everyone. Clothe yourselves, plural. As part of the body of Christ, we all dress in compassion, gentleness, humility, patience and love. This is a way to be in community, a way to create community, and it is a lovely way to dress when we leave the congregation and go into the larger community.
I wonder how these clothes from Colossians might be part of how we engage with the community around Hyattsville, and in our own neighborhoods. I wonder how these Colossians clothes might signal to others that we belong to the body of Christ.
Last weekend all the congregations of Allegheny Conference were presented with sizable checks from the funds received after the sale of the International Guest House. In our case, sizable means $xxx,xxx As the congregation that “sponsored” the Guest House and populated the board for over 50 years, we received half of the funds. (The other half was split evenly between the other 15 congregations.)
The conference Leadership Council spent many meetings trying to decide what to do with the money after the sale of the Guest House. After tithing and replenishing the conferences depleted back accounts, the Leadership Council decided to share the rest of the money with all the congregations of conference. The Leadership could have decided to create a “plain coat and covering” that each congregation must wear, to make sure that we are all in compliance with the right way to spend that money.
But since Allegheny Conference continues to be congregationally-based, committed to place-based ministry, the Leadership Council took a very different approach. According to the press release, our own LeAnne Zook, (retiring) conference moderator, described the distribution as a “radical trust” in Allegheny’s congregations as they now begin to utilize the funds for God’s work of hospitality, welcome, peace and justice. The only mandate to congregations is that over the next several years they share their stories with sister congregations about their own process and any programs or collaborations that grew or expanded utilizing these funds. David Mishler, conference minister adds, We hope to extend the legacy and witness of the International Guest House’s ministry of radical hospitality with these seeds sown.
As we receive this gift from the sale of the Guest House, my sense is that we will need to take off our old clothes. In Colossians the old clothes are idolatry, greed, promiscuity, anger, lying. It might be helpful for us to redefine these vices of old. As a congregation that is trying to work against white supremacy and trying to see how it is present even in the ways we do church, we might need to take off the clothes of ‘having to get everything right,’ of being ‘the primo model for other communities.’ We may need to take off the clothes of ‘having all the answers,’ of ‘doing it all ourselves,’ of ‘getting the best value for our dollar.’ It is not as simple as removing white polos and khakis, taking off these clothes of ‘perfect process’ and ‘efficiency,’ these clothes of ‘pure intentions’ and ‘starting something brand new that will be world changing.’
It might seem strange to set aside these expeditious ways of accomplishing things but if we take seriously what we hear from people who teach anti-racism, these operational efficiencies can be part of the problem of systemic racism and how white people relate to People of Color.
This is not easy to hear. This will be hard for us. It will take time. Sacrifice may be involved. We like to do things right, yet we are invited to take off those old prideful, idolatrous, perfectionist clothes of white supremacy and put on the Christ-like clothes of humility and listening; the clothes of compassion and empathy, of cooperation and reaching out, of paying attention and taking our time and being quiet. And then we will need to put on patience and humility all over again.
As we receive this money and ponder what to do with it, besides working with our new mission statement, it will be good to pay attention to our own strengths and what our own needs are. And we will want to find out where the strengths and needs are in the larger community. Then we can ask: What are we equipped to do? Who else is already doing that? How can we work together with others? In missional language the question is: what is God already doing and how can we join in?
It is a terrifying, brilliant, invitation. So much latitude. How do we start? We might look at the International Guest House as an example. It took outlandish imagination and unusual humility, to invite people, from across the church, to run a house, to essentially run a business for a year, as volunteers, receiving hardly any pay. It took a strong kindness for the volunteers to welcome a procession of strangers into what was their home for the year. It took buckets full of humility to scrub those toilets, floors and baseboards every day. It took gentleness and patience when the guests and volunteers didn’t get along. When the volunteers didn’t get along with each other, an extra layer of creative patience and forgiveness was needed. It took more humility for the board to try new things, to allow the vision to change and expand, to receive gifts and ideas from other people, to see when it was time to contract and eventually close.
We might also take cues from the hospitality that we extend to each other as new people join this community for worship and holy work. And from the ways that court watchers are led by the women of Life After Release. Or the way that Myrina opens her house to asylum seekers that HMC sends her way. It takes humility and kindness to open ourselves, extend ourselves to new people and new ideas. It takes patience and gentleness and trust to share our own human brokenness and to be willing to listen to the broken humanness of others.
This is not easy, taking off the clothes of ‘good intentions’ and ‘getting it right,’ folding up the clothes of ‘how we have always done it’ and donating them to the thrift store (or maybe those shouldn’t be re-used.) Taking off what we know well, what we think has served us well, makes us vulnerable. Perhaps that is the whole point. We take off what we think is important (or maybe that white supremacy we didn’t even know we were wearing) and then there we stand, naked and our true selves, before the Creator, having relinquished control. It is scary, and cold, standing there without our familiar clothes. We will probably want to get dressed again quickly.
Before we throw on our comfy clothes again, it’s good to remember that there is power and possibility when we are vulnerable. We are enough, even when we are wearing nothing more than the skin in which we are born. It is a good time to remember that white supremacy is threaded through much of what we put on. So perhaps the first thing we put on is humility. And then a layer of compassion and kindness. The clothing of patience and the gentleness of respect will also be important as we listen deeply to each other, to the community, to the Spirit. We will likely make mistakes along the way. That’s okay, we just have to take off perfectionism and put on humility again.
Next Sunday morning we have a chance to talk with each other about how to make decisions about the use of this money. We will gather in the fellowship hall at 9:30 to listen to each other and talk together about how we might proceed. Our conversation will not be so much about what we should do but how we might go about deciding. Do we want to, are we willing to, at least try to take off the clothes of white supremacy as we think about this money?
These conversations and the decision-making may not be easy. And I hope we find joy and gratitude in this remarkable opportunity. I hope we clothe ourselves in kindness and compassion when we have different ideas and passions. I hope we keep trusting each other, and the Spirit, calling on all the metaphors and biblical wisdom, as we listen to each other and the Spirit.
As followers of Jesus, clothed in these spiritual garments, bearing with one another, we are invited to Let Christ’s peace reign in our hearts since, as members of one body, we have been called to that peace.
May it be so.