If the Rev. John DeBonville could preach a sermon to lift the souls of churchgoers across America, his message would be simple:Well, I’ve never met him, but I can empathize with Reverend DeBonville. I’ve always felt that we should bring our very best to God when we worship. From the time I was a child, my parents and grandparents instilled in me a great deal of respect for God. God is holy and this time we have to worship God is different, set apart. I may wear jeans or shorts or sandals to Wal-Mart or the movies, but not here. This is God’s house, and it is special. And it is not just my experience that makes me feel this way; the Bible has a great deal to say on this subject.
Stop dressing so tacky for church.
DeBonville has heard about the “come as you are” approach to dressing down for Sunday service, but he says the Sabbath is getting too sloppy.
When he scans the pews of churches, DeBonville sees rows of people dressed in their Sunday worst. They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.
“It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” says DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts. “No one dresses up for church anymore.”
Not long after God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God began to teach them about all sorts of things. They had grown up in Egypt. They had probably heard of YWHW, but they had been in this country for over 400 years. They were more “Egyptian” than they were “Hebrew.” Most of them had never considered they idea of “One God.” So, God spent years teaching them about Holiness, God’s true character and how to worship. In Leviticus 16, we read about God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron about how to enter God’s presence. When you leave the ordinary world and enter God’s presence, how is that different from any other time? Listen to what God says:
The LORD said to Moses:Special bathing rituals, special clothes, important rituals, entering God’s presence is a special, set apart experience. It always has been! You see, it wasn’t just my mom and dad or grandparents that “forced” me to dress up on Sunday. I bet Moses and Zipporah made their kids dress up to approach God too. I just wish the church could return to the days when entering God’s presence in this room was a sacred moment. Not a place to bring our coffee, not a place to watch funny videos, not a place to wear jeans, t-shirts, or even shorts, I wish we would bring our very best to this room, because that is what God deserves.
Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and shall have the linen undergarments next to his body, fasten the linen sash, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy vestments. He shall bathe his body in water, and then put them on. He shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 16:2–5, NRSV)
But then again… there may be more than one way to look at this.
I fear that sometimes when we place so much emphasis on dressing up for church, we may inadvertently alienate more people than we realize, and I don't think I'm the first one to notice this. The Bible seems to bear witness to this potential problem.
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. (I Peter 3:3–4)
The LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7)And perhaps the most insightful words on this subject come from Jesus’ brother, James
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?God was serious about this issue. If Jesus’ ministry taught us anything, it was this: God is no respecter of persons. Jesus’ closest companions were outcasts and rejects, people who would not feel comfortable sitting on the front row in the synagogue and Jesus never once chastised them about their wardrobe choice. And we have no record of Jesus putting on His finest robes to enter the temple. To the contrary, Jesus often criticized the religious leaders of His day for making a spectacle of themselves. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about the Pharisees. He says, they love to be seen by other people when they worship. They put on their nicest robes, they speak long prayers, at the end of the day, and their worship is all about them. And I think sometimes the way we dress when we worship makes it all about us.
You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1–13)
Sure, some of us are comfortable wearing our suits and ties and dresses. But what about the person who doesn’t even own a suit? But you say, “Well, they are welcome to come here.” “We don’t mind if they wear what they have.” Really? Have you ever worn a pair of jeans to a fine dinner party? How would you feel? I can’t but believe that by making church a formal gathering, we are creating unnecessary roadblocks for people on their way to God. Does God really care what we wear when we worship? Isn’t worship really about the heart, anyway? That is one of the real differences Jesus made, isn’t it? Before Jesus, God literally resided in the Temple and the people had to take special precautions when they approached God’s presence. They had to engage in special bathing rituals. They had to put on special clothes because they literally were going into the presence of God! But Jesus changed all of that!
God is in us now. God is not restricted to a created building. God is all around us, and worship does not happen only in this room. Worship happens all the time. God isn’t concerned about our clean clothes; He’s concerned about our clean hearts. I wish the church would quit making such a big deal about what people wear to worship, because God simply doesn’t care!
But then again… there may be more than one way to look at this.
Have you ever heard either of these positions? Have you ever made some of these same statements? In introducing you to these two guest speakers this morning, I hoped to help you appreciate both perspectives a bit more. You might not be a suit kind of person, but I hope you can understand that person’s desire to bring their best before God. You might not be a jeans kind of person, but I hope you can appreciate their desire to make everyone feel welcome in God’s house. When it comes down to it, we must admit: We are not all alike. But isn’t that the beauty of the Christian body? Is that what Paul meant when we wrote in Galatians…
Now, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)The novelty of the Christian church in the very beginning was its ability to unite people who did not look alike, act alike, or even talk alike. Remember the Day of Pentecost? It is not an accident that the beginning of the church was signaled by people from different nations and languages coming together. Though they spoke different languages, they could all understand each other. God caused that miracle as a sign of things to come. Extraordinary things happen when God’s diverse people come back together. In those moments, we have a tendency to remember our common mission a bit better.
On that tragic morning of September 11, 2001, The Brooklyn Tabernacle lost four of its members. One victim was a police officer. The officer's funeral was held at the church building, and Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, had been asked to share a few thoughts. In his book You Were Made for More, Jim Cymbala, pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle, records what the mayor shared with the audience that morning:
You know people, I've learned something through all this. Let me see if I can express it to you. When everybody was fleeing that building, and the cops and the firefighters and the EMS people were heading up into it, do you think any of them said, "I wonder how many blacks are up there for us to save? I wonder what percentage are whites up here? How many Jews are there? Let's see—are these people making $400,000 a year, or $24,000, or—?"You know what I would love to see happen at Glenwood? I would love for this to be a place where diverse people could come and encounter God in this room together. Black and white, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Longhorn and Aggie??? Those who want to honor God in their suits and those who want to make folks feel comfortable by wearing jeans, shorts, or sandals. We are all different and the church has always been a community where diverse people come together. Christian corporate worship has always been a time and place where that diverse (but united) community comes together to encounter God.
No, when you're saving lives, they're all precious. And that's how we're supposed to live all the time. How would you want the cops to treat you if you were on the seventy-fifth floor that day? Would you want them to say, "Excuse me, but I've got to get the bosses out first"? Not exactly.
I confess I haven't always lived this way. But I'm convinced that God wants us to do it. He wants us to value every human life the way He does.