In American Church, appearance has always been important.
Take our church, for example. When it was established, it was against the law to not appear in church on Sunday mornings. We have records of a particular man who had to pay fines to the city because he and his daughter had quit going for a number of Sundays. So appearing in church regularly and often…that was very important.
And that need to be seen regularly meant that there were real incentives to place yourself in the sanctuary so you could be easily seen. If you were being coerced into appearing in church under threat of penalties, then you really wanted to make sure you were seen! So prominent members and families purchased their own pews, as close to the front of the church as possible. For people unwilling to pay, there were benches or standing room toward the back. So the people who were most often noticed in church were the ones who sat up front, who were also the ones who could afford to pay for their seats up front, which meant that their appearance set the tone for not just when people should appear in church, but how they should appear.
Intentionally or not—and I actually believe it was not intentional—this set up a pattern that has repeated throughout American Churches right up to this present day: There is a popular notion that you have to appear at certain times and in certain ways to be a part of a church community. There is the feeling that you have to be there regularly…and when you’re there you have to look your best, you have to project success…it’s important to be seen as “having it all together.”
I hate to break it to you, but…God doesn’t seem to care about that stuff too much. And, come to think of it…Church People may not care about it all that much, either. We’ve just been trained over the course of generations to expect it.
The truth is, the Bible is filled with people and personalities who rarely “had their act” together. Did you know one of Jesus’ ancient relatives was a prostitute? At the very beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the author lists Rahab as Jesus’ ancient ancestor, and then you can read in the book of Joshua, Chapter 2, verses 1-24 to learn who she is…and, sure enough…lady of the night, who God invites into the family, just as she is.
This week we are telling the story of Joseph…you may know him by his Technicolor Dream Coat, as the aid to Egypt’s Pharaoh, who saved all of Israel from starving during a famine. But as we will hear this Sunday, Joseph was also sold into slavery…he was also a prisoner, thrown in jail for crimes he did not commit.
Biblical heroes include upright citizens like Saul, a leader of the Jewish temple who personally imprisoned and murdered men, women and children because of their beliefs. King David stole a man’s wife and had him killed on the battlefield. Moses murdered a guy in cold blood. Since we’re naming names, Jesus himself was seen as quite a heathen in his own time. We always say, “Jesus never sinned,” but that’s something that Christians told one another centuries after he died. In his life, Jesus was accused of being a drunkard, a snake-oil salesman, a servant of the Devil, and he was constantly hanging out with people who society considered to be “trashy,” and he treated them as his siblings.
All of them are Beloved Children of God. All of them are welcome to appear before God and among the Community of Saints…just as they are.
If God embraces all these people…surely, God embraces you as well…just as imperfect and wonderful as you are.
This Sunday at First Congregational Church of Kittery UCC is “Come As You Are” Sunday! You don’t need to wear anything special, and you don’t have to have anything prepared. Whether you are running in a road race, or you just don’t feel like washing your hair…come sit with us in the presence of the Divine, and know what it is to be loved just as you are.
This is also a great Sunday to “Bring a Friend!” Show someone you care about that they are loved and welcomed in a community of imperfect and wonderful people, who appear as themselves every week in this place, learning what it means to love and be loved…to be blessed and to be a blessing. See you there!