READING: Ephesians 6:10-20; Matthew 23:23-27
How many people remember the name Joey Buttafuoco? He made national news when his affair with a 16 year-old girl, Amy Fisher, was exposed after she attempted to kill Buttafuoco's wife. It was an ugly story that not only had kept the late night talk show hosts well stocked in jokes, but also allowed people all around the country to cast their opinions and judgments.
Now, there is a reason I mentioned his name. But before I tell you what it is, I'd like to share a story that happened not long after Buttafuoco dropped out of the limelight.
I was looking out my apartment window at a stretch of Sunset Blvd that was notorious for meeting a very particular type of woman. It saddens me to say it was not uncommon to see underage girls ‘working’ this area of Hollywood. On this particular Friday afternoon, there was scantily dressed young woman standing on the corner. She looked new to the streets, a bit too unprofessional. To the careful eye it was clear she didn’t belong there. But to the desperate John she was a prime target. It didn’t take long for a car pull up, and wave the young girl over.
My heart fell to my stomach as I watched her make the deal with a much older man. Then, in a blink of an eye, two unmarked police cars come screeching up and blocked the man’s vehicle from both sides. The young girl jumps back. And, from out of what little clothes she is wearing, she whips out a .38 special…and a shiny metal police badge. It had been a police sting. Completely surrounded by cops, the John could do nothing but surrender. When the car door opens, who steps out of the vehicle with his hands on his head? That’s right, Mr. Joey Buttafuoco.
As I looked back on this story I realized he and I have something in common. (And probably not what you might be thinking.) We had both been completely wrong in our judgment of this young police officer. Because she wasn’t wearing a uniform, we both mistook her for something else. That was her intention. She was trying to fool us into believing she was something she wasn't. And we both took the bait.
We live in a world where our survival is aided by our ability to judge quickly between right and wrong. For centuries, Scottish clans have worn tartans. A child from the Highlands learns quickly to identify the clans by their plaids, in order to recognize a friend or foe. Our senses of smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch is designed to work in unison so the brain can effectively distinguish something that might potentially harm us. But sometimes there are misfires. Sometimes we misjudge people and situations. This is seems to happen more frequently when we judge people by what they wear.
Take for example the police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. While wearing full combat gear and driving military attack vehicles, the police force confronted a large crowd of what had been mostly peaceful demonstrators. There is a lot to this story too. Suffice it to say, people gathered to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown. Lurking underneath, however, there was also persistent racial bigotry and discrimination, crushing poverty, failing schools, and high unemployment to fuel the fire. In hindsight, most experts agree it was the police department’s militarized uniform and warlike response that transformed peaceful vigils and protests into a violent battle situation. Having been dressed like warriors instead of peacekeepers, I wonder if the police were trying to send an intentional message? Or did both groups simply misjudge one another?
In Matthew 7:1 Jesus warns us not to judge people. Yet he knows we have to make some kind of judgment in order to navigate our faith and righteousness. In Matthew 23, when Jesus attacks the Pharisees with these seven infamous woes, we read some rather harsh and scathing judgments. Is Jesus a hypocrite? No, but many people seem to think so.
Look carefully at what Jesus is doing. Notice he is not judging the individual person, as we are apt to do. Instead, he is pointing out the actions that had lead the group astray from doing what God called them to do? He is calling them hypocrites, because they are saying one thing but doing another. It is not so much a judgment Jesus is making as it is standing firm in God's righteousness against injustice.
The Pharisees believed they were doing the right thing. For them, it was business as usual. But Jesus saw through their disguise; accusing the religious group of looking righteous on the outside, while being full of hypocrisy and lawlessness on the inside. They too were misleading the people, not by what they were wearing...but by what they were doing.
This makes me wonder...if Jesus were to walk in here right now, would he see the real us? Would he be able to tell if the clothes we wear on Sunday were also worn on Monday? In other words...does our Sunday best stand up to the test throughout the week?
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic story about the king of Denmark, the self-absorbed Danish lord Polonius offers this advice to his son: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy; But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
In essence, what Polonius is telling his son, “Watch what you buy and wear, for clothes make the man.” Mark Twain adds, “Clothes make the man because naked people have little or no influence on life.” Wit aside, both of these men make a great observation about how we judge others by their outward appearance, and more often than not do so before we get to know anything else about them.
Jesus understands this. He commands us not to hold of our judgments on the individual person until we get to see what he or she is made of. God does not judge us by our clothes any more than God judges us by the shape of our body or the depth of our wealth. These things don’t mater.
We can whitewash the tombs so they look beautiful...but what good are they if they are unclean on the inside?
God knows that our Sunday best is meaningless...if they stay in the closet the rest of the week. It doesn’t matter if we wear an expensive suit or a fancy dress. God looks for the righteousness that dwells underneath the silk and tweed. It doesn’t matter if we are too fat, too wrinkly, too bald, or out of shape. We can be rich or poor, tall or short. God is only measuring our faith that builds up our spiritual muscle and our heavenly worth.
Is this the way you judge yourself? If not, then is it safe to assume it is also not the way you judge others? This is hard to do when the world around us bombards us with messages that tell us to be one way and not another?
I have said this before, Jesus' way of life is and always has been countercultural. As his followers, we too will often find ourselves being judged unfairly for not playing by societies rules. Yet even we need to be on guard and in tune with our faith because even the best Christians can mistake their own righteousness, and thus misjudge others in the process.
How then do we protect ourselves from letting this happen to us? As Paul concludes his letter to the churches in Ephesus, he warns the new Christians of being tricked and misled by the wiles of the devil. There are the dark forces in the world fighting to keep us from shining the light of Christ too brightly. With the use of military imagery, Paul instructs his readers to put on a particular kind of wardrobe. The armor of God!
Paul is not naive. He knows it takes both a tough skin and a soft heart to faithfully follow Jesus. But while his metaphors paint the uniform of a warrior, his message is not one of war. Instead, Paul is calling us to take a stand in our faith...and proclaim the gospel peace.
As peacemakers...our belt will not hold bullets and tear gas…it will hold the truth of God. Our breastplate will not be made of Kevlar, but out of God's righteousness and justice. Our footwear will not be steel toed and combat ready. Instead it will be a simple shoe to walk out of our comfort zone and towards Christ likeness.
As the world seems to move more towards an indifference to God...the armor we wear becomes even more important. We will need a tough skin to overcome the obstacles that cause us to stumble. We will need a tough skin to stand firm and face of the injustices that keep us from truly becoming united under God.
In the same fashion we will need a soft heart to see and understand the true light of Christ that surrounds us from the inside out. To walk in peace as Christ did, we will need a soft heart that constantly loves and forgives...even those who seek to trick us, and harm us.
I invite you to take Paul’s metaphors of war and weave them into your own metanarrative of peacemaking. Take hold of the double edge sword of God’s living words and march out into the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ through whom we are given our grace and salvation.
Clothes may or may not make the person. Who am I to judge? But what I have learned in my life is that Jesus shapes who we are. May our outward appearance be influenced by our inward love for him. For me, I wear a clerical collar to let people know they can come to me for spiritual care. But privately wear it as a reminder to myself that I am a servant of God. This small white piece of plastic is useless if my heart is not useful in promoting the way of Christ, first by my faithfulness and second by my words and deeds.
Our Sunday best isn’t a pretty dress and white gloves. Nor is it a tailored suit and tie. Instead it is our true commitment to follow Jesus Christ, especially as the world tries to knock us down or misguide us.
So as you begin a new week, put your Sunday best to the test. And always remember that if those around you are not seeing your armor of God then it is probably not visible to the one looking inside you.
 Stamper, Norm. "Militarizing Ferguson Cops With Riot Gear Is A Huge Mistake." Time, August 18, 2014.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”