Sermon: CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN


I was looking through the photos on my phone the other day and came across a cute picture of my great nephew Anderson, a few years ago when he was about four years old. Diane and I had gone for a weekend visit to my niece Emily and her family; and we’d spent that Saturday mostly playing with Anderson. I’d taken my guitar and had learned some of his favorite kid songs and played them over and over to his delight. Then that evening, we were hanging out watching TV while Emily fixed dinner. At one point, Anderson walked through the kitchen, shuffling along in my tennis shoes and wearing my ball cap which was half hiding his face. And I remember feeling so touched by that. I went over and snatched him up and gave him big bear hug, leaving oversized shoes behind on the floor and hat still dangling over his face.

Now anyone who’s ever had children – or who’s ever been a child – knows what that’s all about: kids tend to idolize their parents and/or significant other adults; they look up to them as role models. And what a dad or a mom says or does gives young children their first cues about their own self-identity. I remember putting on my Dad’s hat and shoes, sport coat and tie, walking around pretending to be him.

We all did something like that when we were kids. We’d say to ourselves: “Someday, I want grow up to be just like my Dad/Mom.”

In many ways, I suppose, I have. “Oh…you’re just like your father,” my wife will sometimes say.

And I’ll say, “Why thank you!”

Although I’m not sure she necessarily means that as a compliment. But for me it is indeed a great compliment. Because in my own heart and mind I’m still trying to `fill my father’s shoes; still striving to live up to his example.

From about the time we are very young, the clothes we wear become somewhat of a primary element of our self-definition. Whether we prefer a suit and tie or jean shorts and T shirt, our clothing is an expression of how we see ourselves and how we want to present ourselves to the rest of the world. The clothing we wear reflects our values, identifies what peer group we align ourselves with; it becomes the first and most apparent (symbolic) reflection of our global `statement of self’.

Do you remember platform shoes and bell bottom pants? Unfortunately, I do. (Sort of makes me blush to just think about it.)

About the time I started dating, I started caring about the way I looked. I wanted to dress well in high school, but couldn’t really afford the clothes. So I got a job at Kern’s Men’s Wear in the upstairs `young and mod’ department (where I could then get a discount), and which Kern’s had recently established to try to bolster what had always been their real bread and butter business, suits and sport coats and ties and stuff.

And I remember Kern’s used to run a commercial on TV, which opened with a guy standing in front of the camera in boxer shorts and T-shirt. Then, with the help of amazing freeze-frame technology, the guy suddenly donned a button down dress shirt and genuine silk tie, then gabardine trousers and wingtip shoes, and finally a sharp double-breasted blazer. To cap it all off Kern’s motto appeared across the bottom of the screen: “The Clothes Make the Man.”

A number of years thereafter Kern’s Men’s Wear finally went out of business; to the chagrin of many of its waning but faithful clientele.

 “It seems like people just don’t care how they dress anymore,” I remember my Dad saying on that somber occasion.

Or maybe people just think differently about how they dress today.

I remember seeing a political cartoon some years ago with former President Obama standing in front of a podium, with several of his cabinet members flanking him. And no one is wearing a tie; except for one fellow, one of his cabinet members, who does have on a tie and is looking around at everyone else rather sheepishly. And one of his colleagues whispers to him, “Didn’t you get the memo about the change in uniform?”

Today’s administration has gone back to wearing ties.

Obviously, the trends in clothing also tend to reflect changes in the attitudes and priorities of the wider culture—what it values and thinks is important.

Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was student pastor for my last year in seminary, was really a wonderful community of faith. Most of the congregation was made up of either professors from the Presbyterian Seminary down the block or General Assembly staff people. All of whom were very supportive of their student pastor, but who also made the experience of preaching my first few public sermons rather nerve-wracking.

I might add here that some of the teenage children of these good – and fairly liberal – Presbyterian type folks were quite an interesting mix.

There was this one little gang of gothic (goth) teens in our youth group, whom I hadn’t recalled previously seeing much in Sunday worship. But, wouldn’t you know, the Sunday I was to preach my second sermon (the first one had gone pretty well, so the pressure was really on), at the last minute about 5 or 6 of these colorful young people came strolling through the doors of the church; walking down the center aisle like they owned the place, and boldly sitting down in the front pew (which, of course, was empty).

They had a variety of hair styles and coloring (green, pink, blue, purple shaped in asymmetrical, Mohawk, and other fascinating coifs), multiple body piercings, were all dressed in blue jeans (torn in fashionable places of course) and black tee shirts with “Ozzy” or “Metallica” or “Red Hot Chili Peppers” or “Nirvana” ( or the like) emblazoned across the front. One of them had a Sony Walkman CD player, as it appeared, permanently attached to his head (possibly with staples).

I watched this little group settle in with a growing sense of dread, “Oh, no, Lord. This I don’t need.” In my anxiety, could just imagine them, during my sermon, sneering and snickering, throwing spit balls at each other, just `goofing’ around in general.

But what was really fascinating about all this was that, as they made their way through the church, there were no side-long glances, no audible gasps or murmurings; in fact no one even seemed to notice them, except me.

Even more amazing … once the service started, all adolescent jabbering stopped, headphones came out of the ears, and all eyes glued towards the front.

To cap it all off, when the sermon started two or three of them began taking notes! Taking notes I say!

After worship those kids were mingling in fellowship right along with everyone else; the boy with the lime-green Mohawk was conversing with one of the elder matriarchs of the church; the kid with the Sony Walkman was talking to one of the pastors, one ear pointed towards the pastor and the other plugged into the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

A couple of them even came up to me afterward to ask questions they had jotted down on their bulletin about the sermon I’d just given.

I soon came to discover that these kids were actually very involved with the church’s Youth Group and were actually really a great group of kids!

They’d get excited discussing their faith with whoever would listen, constantly did fund raisers for a variety of good causes, spent a good deal of their vacation time raising money to then go someplace on mission work trips every summer.

And you know what I learned through that experience? You really can’t always judge someone by the clothes they wear. By judging too harshly a book by its cover you might neglect investigating the treasure within.

I sometimes wonder what `apparel’ we, as Christians, think we have to `put on’ in order to `fit in’? What is the `uniform’ we think we must wear? Speak within the framework of a particular strain of religious vernacular? Pray using certain `key’ words or phrases? Vote along one party line or the other?

Does not the true nature of an individual emerge from a place more deeply rooted than the clothing on their backs? Is not the character of one’s heart reflected by something more profound than the idiom of their speech?

We’ve all known someone who claims to be a Christian and who, perhaps, indeed looks the part, has the lingo and mannerisms down pat, and by all outward appearances reflects our ideal of what “a Christian” looks, sounds and (at least superficially) acts like. But once we get to know them better, it doesn’t take long to figure out that there’s something which doesn’t quite fit—something’s askew between the high tone cover and the hard core reality. Eventually, inevitably, their actions, their words, the way they live belie attitudes and biases that simply do not reflect the beliefs they profess.

“I’m a true Christian,” they in effect say. “And if you’re not like me – if you don’t dress like me, speak like me, pray like me, worship like me – then you are not.”

In his book The Emerging Church, 21st century evangelist Dan Kimball (himself sporting a six-inch Mohawk) suggests that we `church folks’ look out there at the unchurched, “wanting them to look and be like us; instead of looking and being like who God made them to be under the leading of [God’s] Spirit.”[i]

Maybe, it isn’t our job as Christians, as the church – or even as preachers – to tell people who they should be, or what they should look like, or perhaps even what they should act like. But rather, maybe as the church – as ministers all – it’s our responsibility, our privilege and our sacred calling to tell people who Jesus Christ is and who he has been for each of us. And then simply let the Spirit to do its work of transforming lives – ours and others – one life at a time – into the likeness of Jesus Christ.


[i] Kimball, Dan, The Emerging Church, Zondervan Press, 2003, pp 235, 236.