Sunday Best

(A sermon for Proper 26        November 2, 2008    Joshua 3:7-17; Matthew 23:1-12)

I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, my mother always said you
could tell a lady by her shoes. I knew certain shoes belonged in
certain places: sneakers for playing in the yard, sandals for the
beach, black patent leather Mary Janes for church and those little
leather Stride Rites with the cut-out designs for school.

Well, I
thought I knew, until the other children told me differently. In 1967,
my family moved in the middle of a school year. My daddy had just been
elected to the U.S. Senate, and we left our hometown of Portsmouth,
Virginia, to move to northern Virginia suburbs. In Portsmouth, we knew
everyone, or so it seemed. My world, appropriately small for a girl of
5-and-a-half, consisted of the route from home to the Court Street
Baptist Church, which happened to pass my father’s law office and my
godmother’s apartment. On special occasions it expanded to my
grandmother’s Methodist Church, or to the Governor Dinwiddie Hotel,
where I had lunch with my grandmother and godmother in the coffee shop,
where the hard, cold ice cream came in a chilled metal dish.

Portsmouth, I knew where I stood. At church, I talked to everybody. And
because my school was at my church, getting used to going to school was
no problem.
Then it all changed. And even though it changed for
exciting reasons, it wasn’t easy to make the changes. After all, when
something electrifying happens, it can also shock you. After the move,
my mother made calls to find a new kindergarten for me, and she
received a positive response from the school at the Olde Presbyterian
Meeting House. We went to visit, and my mother decided this would be
the place.

On the first day of school, I arrived dressed
appropriately, in a plaid dress with a white collar, and a navy blue
cardigan (my mother’s stand-by for all young children) and my Stride
Rite shoes. I felt spiffy! I felt fine!

But at the first
opportunity, a group of children surrounded me and backed me into the
corner of the room, chanting “Baby Shoes! Baby Shoes!”

This perhaps doesn’t sound as mean as shouting “Socialist!” but I can assure you that five year old me felt terribly hurt.

I felt foolish. I thought I knew the difference between Play Clothes
and School Clothes and Sunday Best. Why hadn’t my mother told me I had
baby shoes? *I* thought they looked good! How did these children know
something different?
Suddenly I realized there must be more to life
than the things that I knew about already. Suddenly I realized that
some people were mean to other people for no particular reason. And it
didn’t matter that we were going to school in a church.

Going to
church meant something to me that you will understand better if you are
my age or older. It meant not only the parts I still love so much—the
singing and the stories from the Bible—but also the parts that seemed a
trial to a little girl—sitting quietly without asking questions, for
instance! Church meant rules, times to stand and times to sit. In the
Episcopal day school I started attending in first grade, chapel time
included a prayer book and a hymnal with a line of notes at the top of
the page and the words underneath! I had to learn the rules, even when
to genuflect when it was my turn to light the candles.

I never thought much about who made the rules; I just worried about following them.

Dr. Sengel preached, he sometimes shouted in a voice that rang the
rafters of that beautiful church. But we all sat quietly unless
instructed to respond or sing.

All those rules, most of them
designed to keep order on a Sunday morning, stayed with me. But really,
there were not so many compared to the rules of the Law found in the
early books of our Bible. The priests who carried the Ark of the
Covenant into the Jordan and stood waiting for the Israelites to cross
carried the Law with them not only on stone tablets, but in their
hearts and minds.

They knew very well what God expected of
them, and they stood doing their Sabbath best to remind the people of
the presence of the Living God carried on their shoulders. Their
confidence and commitment, their strength of body and spirit gave
courage to the people, crossing yet another river, this time under the
leadership of someone new.

They all knew Joshua, but they knew
him as the right hand man to Moses. They didn’t audition him or elect
him. God chose him, and God found a very impressive way to teach the
people that Joshua could be trusted. We believe the limestone banks of
the river crumbled in just such a way to create a dam that allowed the
whole people of the Israelites to cross, a dam that held back a river
at flood stage, a dam that assured the Israelites that no matter where
they might be they would still be the people of God.

And so the
priests, the descendants of Jacob’s son, Levi, held the trust of God
and the trust of the people in the middle of the riverbed, until all
the people crossed over.

The priests of Jesus’ day—well, you can
probably tell from the tone of Jesus’ remarks that those priests had
different priorities. They wore their phylacteries broad and their
fringe long. Anyone who looked at them could see these items that
represented faithful practice of their Judaism. The phylacteries were
strapped to their foreheads; the fringe refers to tassels at the end of
their prayer shawls. Broad phylacteries and long fringe and public acts
of piety marked a difference between the priests and the people; the
way the priests showed off excluded those who could not afford the
fanciest gear or did not have the right family tree.

They wanted
everyone to see their Sabbath best, and that had nothing to do with
behavior or trust and everything to do with their accessories.

not hard to see why Jesus objected to them. Jesus cared less about
outward appearance and more about the heart. We hear it in story after
story, in his answer about what is the Greatest Commandment, in his
interactions with the outcasts, in his care for the poor.

gives us a different model for our Sunday best, and it isn’t about the
superiority of a silk necktie or black patent leather shoes over jeans
and sneakers. Our Sunday best cannot simply be the wardrobe we save for
church, but must be the choice we make to love the world and the people
in it.

Now, I’m not saying that’s easy to do. Sometimes we feel
the injustice of the world, feel as cornered by the actions of other
people as I did on that day long ago in a kindergarten far away.
Sometimes we feel tempted to show our importance in ways we feel others
can measure easily. Sometimes we may even find ourselves feeling a
surge of power and realize we’ve become the bullies ourselves. But can
we love God and love others as ourselves and still engage in behaviors
that put other people down?

It’s our nature to rank ourselves
against each other, to notice who is tallest or prettiest or
best-dressed or smoothest-talking. It may even be our nature, some of
us, to notice who has the fanciest shoes. I still like to wear black
patent leather shoes Mary Janes on a Sunday. They make me feel festive
for Jesus. This is not a lesson about accessories, even though Jesus
used accessories to teach it. He wanted us to understand that the highs
and lows of human reputation are upside down in God’s kingdom. He
wanted us to learn a different way of living, a different way of
showing love for God and each other, a way that included everyone, from
every walk of life, from every clan or party or tribe.

I don’t
know how we can live our Sunday Best alone. Most of us need the support
of the community. Some of us might be strong enough to carry a heavy
load by ourselves, but things seem to work out better when we carry the
weight together. The world passes by here, right outside our door. Can
we stand together and testify to the presence of the Living God?

what Jesus asks of us, in this story. He warns us to take off the robes
of renown and hierarchy and tells us instead to put on the cloak of the
servant. Jesus calls us to a different kind of priesthood, sharing the
responsibility for spreading the Good News. He calls us to represent on
his behalf every day of the week, every day of our lives, in our
fanciest shoes and in our sturdiest boots and even in our sandiest bare
feet. He calls us to live *his* Sunday Best. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Best”

  1. Oh, SB, you’ve done it again. Love. LOVE!
    And the story about the Mary Janes is just so perfect – it really calls up so many of my own similar childhood experiences (including one about not wearing the right shoes when I moved to a new town!). What a great opener.
    Preach it!

  2. For me, it was Saddle Shoes. Orthopedic Saddle Shoes and Buster Brown cotton socks. And, yes, I remember kids chanting, “Saddle Shoes, saddle shoes!”
    Shoe-shopping was never anything but a chore. I couldn’t wear the “pretty” shoes because my orthotic inserts required a wide, sturdy heel and a high back.
    I do recall a surge of delight when I attended an event for prospective seminarians and the woman preacher showed off her “nun shoes” and declared, “these are the boots that stamp out sexism.” I almost went to that school just because of that woman and her shoes.
    Now that I have a farm, I dress up for God in my Wellies. They may not stamp out sexism, but they do allow for a confident stroll on every sort of ground!

  3. Wow, really, really good!
    (And I had to smile at the line: “They make me feel festive for Jesus.”) 🙂

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