A reflection on Matthew 23: 1-12
Some time ago, 20 years in fact, while I was in ministry at St. Andrew’s United Church in Williams Lake, Barry Sale, a member of the congregation brought me a gift. It was something I had never seen before – or since. Cylindrical in shape, six inches in diameter, 2 inches deep, and covered in a soft leather drawstring bag. `What is this?’ I asked. `Open it’, he replied. (Should I?)
Inside I found some antique starched linen clergy collars… and this note:
Sept ’97 Juanita
“The church year’s beginning and I’m worried about you.
You’re doing all this modern stuff, and I haven’t a clue
Why we have to sing new hymns and do touchy-feely things,
When the old ways are just fine to make our hearts sing.
And I’ve noticed that you dress well on Sundays all right,
But you don’t ever wear the clerical collar so white,
So I hunted around till I found this small gift
Now there’ll be no excuse to give your chin a lift.
A full supply of collars, a bit yellow with age,
But that’s called `Tradition’ and it’s now all the rage.
So wear them in health, in good time and bad
And you’ll make the old folks in the congregation so glad!
Have a great year. Barry.”
On Sunday morning I began the service by sharing this little poem with the congregation. Then I read my response:
“Wanting – as I always do, to honour every gift
I tried to wear the collar and give my chin a lift.
But size 15 is just too big to fit my scrawny neck.
I couldn’t part with such a prize so I thought `What the heck’
Tradition shall be honoured, but honoured with a flair –
I’ll wear the clergy collar but… I’ll wear it in my hair.”
Upon which I donned the collar like a tiara, tied with ribbons and bells.
Well, you might not know I actually own a clergy collar, but I don’t often wear it. I think I last wore it in 2013 at the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in Kamloops. I felt it was important to identify myself as a United Church minister as a visual sign of my willingness to hear the heart-rending stories of residential school abuses. I also wore a pink quartz crystal next to my heart, thought to have healing qualities, and a gift from Miriam.
The collar does identify one as clergy though, more easily that a cross or crucifix, as the latter is often used as a fashion accessory rather than a statement of faith. During the Presbytery meeting a couple weekends ago, we had some background and questions and conversation about Remit 6 – the proposal to have one form of ministry which would include Ordained, Diaconal and Designated Lay Ministers. By way of a very brief Presbytery report, let me say that we didn’t actually have a quorum, so were unable to actually vote, but I think it would be fair to say that there are still more questions than answers in terms of educational requirements, and compensation.
What I have noticed though is that a few ministers now are choosing to wear their clergy collars on a daily basis. Over lunch on Sunday, I was part of an interesting conversation with several such ministers. How did they come to that choice? One of the ministers said, `When I wear the collar, I am on duty.’ His husband remarked at how many people, perfect strangers will engage in conversation with him, because he is wearing the collar. It’s seems to give them permission to share their concerns, with the assurance that they will be listened to. It was a very thought-provoking conversation.
At B.C. Conference last May, Rev. Richard Bott talked about his decision to wear a cross at all times. He talked about being inspired by an elder in his childhood congregation in Marathon Ont. Who said to him “I don’t care what you say to me, but how you live- that is what tells me what you believe.” When someone accused Richard of wearing his cross to show that he was ‘superior’ to them, he said “That’s not why I wear it. My wearing the cross gives you permission to hold me accountable to tell me when I’m NOT living the faith I profess.”
In the Christian church the collar and the cross are symbols of ministry. In ancient Palestine, where Jesus addressed the people, every male over thirteen years of age was to wear a phylactery on his arm and forehead during daily prayers. This was a tiny leather box containing the Sh’ma, the words “Hear O Israel. The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.” But… it seems, according to the gospel reading that the Pharisees wore their phylacteries very prominently – it became more of a fashion statement, or an `authority-over-you’ statement rather than a symbol of servant-hood.
Regardless of what we wear, it’s what we say and do that matters, and what we don’t say and don’t do, and when we are silent when we should speak, or speak when we should stay silent.
Several weeks ago, post-Jim’s surgery we found ourselves back in the emergency waiting room at Shuswap Lake General Hospital. The T.V. was on, and unfortunately, that meant Donald Trump was on as well – bragging about the U.S.’ stellar response to Puerto Rico’s devastation after the hurricanes. I was sitting close to a young woman and it was clear that we were both appalled at his self-aggrandizement. We began to gleefully imagine his demise. Another woman was watching and listening from the side, and scolded us. “Oh stop it!” she said. I kind of hoped she didn’t know I was a minister at that point. I realize I’d stepped over the line from finding his behaviour and attitude abhorrent to gleefully imagining his demise – and in a public space as well. It was an uncomfortable moment…
And so I turn again to scripture for instruction and share this word from Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:12-14 This is suitable whether you are the paid, accountable minister, or simply identify as Christian.
“Chosen by God for this life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as God forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.”