20 Pentecost Proper 22C
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 17:1-10 Sermon
October 6, 2013

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal & The Lutheran Hymnary):

394 "My Faith Looks Up To Thee"
517 "The Will Of God Is Always Best"
---- "Faith Is The Living Power Of Heaven"
535 "Rejoice My Heart, Be Glad & Sing"              


TEXT (vs. 1-4):  “Jesus said to his disciples: Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him.” 

            I’m almost certain that most, if not all of you have wondered about the various articles of attire you see pastors, especially Lutheran pastors wearing.  When a pastor conducts a worship service, he’s usually wearing some sort of a gown or robe and a stole.  There are also other things that I don’t wear, but I could.  And traditionally there is also some sort of neckwear, like a clerical collar involved.

            The meanings of these various things are purely symbolic.  I wouldn’t have to wear any of this if I didn’t want to, and it wouldn’t affect who I am or what I do at all.  Some pastors wear only a shirt with a necktie.  Others will dispense with the wearing of any vestments, and wear just a business suit.  And some pastors are very informal, and wear a polo shirt and khakis.  But when it comes to liturgical attire, there is symbolism and meaning attached to everything.

            For example, this white garment I’m wearing is simply called a pulpit robe or pulpit gown.  The three stripes you see on each sleeve are indicative of my level of education.  In academic circles, the color of the stripe for someone with a doctorate would be either blue or crimson.  But my stripes are white with gold trim to match the robe, which is a simple generic indicator of my doctorate.

            Just as a bit of trivia, John Calvin did not wear the proper liturgical attire because he was not an ordained clergyman.  Instead he wore a simple black academic or judicial gown without any stole, collar, or other liturgical attachments.  Many pastors of today still follow this example.

            In the past, you might have also seen me wear a white loose fitting garment called a surplice, and I can’t even begin to guess as to how far back its use goes.  It is closely related to a liturgical vestment called an alb, which is the oldest known church attire.  An alb, which a large number of Lutheran pastors wear, is a type of gown or robe which is a long flowing white garment, tied around the waist with a cincture, which is a type of sash belt.  The white robe I'm wearing now is also related to the alb.

            The surplice was developed out of necessity, as a substitute for the alb.  In Europe where the churches were unheated, the pastors would wear fur coats.  The surplice was loose enough to wear over top of those coats.

            The white color of the garment is symbolic of the white robes that all Christians will wear in heaven, as it says in Revelation chapter 7, verses 13-14:  “Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes— who are they, and where did they come from?’  I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’  And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’”

            This directly corresponds to the forgiveness we have through faith in Jesus Christ.  Every time you see a pastor wearing a white robe, you can be reminded of what Christ has done for you.  The white color is the color of the Gospel, and is reminiscent of how much God loves you.

            Then there is the liturgical stole.  It is a symbol of the office of a pastor.  Lay people aren’t supposed to wear them.  It symbolizes that the pastor has put on the yoke of Christ in his office of the public ministry.  This corresponds to what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 11, verse 29:  “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me….”

            I could go on with more things, but there is one article of the pastor’s attire, upon which I shall focus today.  And that is the distinctive neckwear that a lot of pastors wear, namely the clerical collar.

            The type of collar that I’m wearing today is commonly known as the Roman collar.  The band around the neck is black (you can get other colors too), and it has a white tab in the middle.  But there are others as well.  If you see a pastor wearing a collar which is a solid white band that goes all the way around the neck, that’s called an Anglican collar.

            If we go back many hundreds of years, pastors in that era, especially those of Scandinavian ancestry wore a pleated ruffled collar which circled the neck.  It was heavily starched, and stuck straight out about six to eight inches from the neck all the way around.   To iron it, a hot poker had to be inserted into each of the pleats for it to hold its shape.  I've heard it called a "Biretta," or sometimes a "Geneva Collar," and I think there's another Scandinavian name for it too.  For years, people have jokingly called it a clown collar.

            German and other European pastors often wore what is called “Beffchen” in German.  This was a white linen collar with two tabs that extended down about eight to ten inches, something similar to the ribbons coming down from a Kentucky colonel’s bow tie.  That’s what my German grandfather wore.

            Both the Roman and Anglican collars we see so much of today aren’t exactly what they started out to be.  Originally the clergy wore a garment called a cassock.  Both the Roman and Anglican cassocks were (and still are) long flowing black garments, fitted at the waist.  This was normal daily wear.  They were fastened by thirty buttons, symbolizing Christ’s years of life on this earth. 

            The Roman cassock buttoned up the front, and had a black collar that went around the neck and was open at the front.  A heavily starched cloth band circled the neck; and when you looked at it, you would see the white collar through the gap in the neck. 

            The Anglican cassock buttoned instead up the side, but had no collar itself; so you would see the entire white band around the neck.

            As the years went by and pastors started wearing black suits, the cassock frequently gave way to a Rabat vest, which was basically just the front part of the cassock that was worn instead of a shirt, and tied around the waist.  And in the late 1960’s, the clergy shirts we see today came into being.  Even with all this, you will still see various orders of priests still wearing cassocks as everyday clothing.

            The only question that remains now is “why?”  Why do members of the clergy have distinctive neck wear?  Why the ruffled collars, and beffchen, and Roman collars, and Anglican collars? 

            The significance of the neck wear is explained in our text for today.  Jesus says, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves.”  Distinctive clergy neck wear, regardless of the type, is the symbol of the millstone.

            So what is a millstone?  This was a huge stone wheel weighing several tons which was used to pulverize the kernels of grain in order to make flour.  We might think about one of those rather picturesque old flour mills with the big water wheel which turned the millstone.  But in other areas of the world that didn’t have the luxury of a running stream, the millstone was pulled by a team of oxen going around in a circle.  Most certainly the millstone was about the heaviest thing imaginable.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is giving words of instruction to his disciples.  These were his called servants, those whom he was sending forth to spread the Gospel.  This was the beginning of the Christian Church.  Jesus wanted them to be the key leaders in making disciples of all nations.

            In this lesson, Jesus doesn’t begin with any “warm fuzzies.”  He doesn’t beat around the bush.  Rather, he begins with a cold and hard lesson using an object with which they were all familiar—the millstone.  If they weren’t going to preach the Gospel faithfully; if they were going to preach the ways of the world instead of God’s way, then they were of absolutely no use to him and the Christian Church.  It put a person's faith in jeopardy, and they would be in danger of losing it altogether.  Unfaithful pastors might as well tie a millstone around their neck and be gone forever, drowned in the depths of the sea.  If they weren’t going to do things his way, they would be doing more harm than good.

            Being faithful to God’s Word can be transgressed in one of two ways:  either people take things further than what God has said, or people ignore those parts of God’s Word that they don’t like.

            When things are taken too far, we call that “legalism.”  The Old Testament Church leaders were great at doing that, especially the Pharisees.  For example, God said, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  That’s one sentence with a relatively clear meaning.  However the Pharisees felt that God hadn’t taken things far enough, so they created this huge list of “do’s” and “don’ts” of how to keep the Sabbath holy.  That was legalism, and was therefore not being faithful to God’s Word. 

            Even though laws like this sound good to our sinful selves, we can’t speak where God has not spoken.  This error is particularly dangerous since it sounds so pious; and since trusted church leaders endorse it, people will often yield to their expertise.

            But then the other direction can be just as bad.  When people symbolically rip pages out of their Bibles to suit the norms of worldly society, or to somehow justify their sin, then we call this “liberalism.”  Just because God has said something we don’t like, or that we cannot fully understand does not give us the right to alter or ignore what God has clearly stated.

            We are warned about false teachers who go about willfully perverting God’s Word.  Paul conveys this warning to Timothy in his second letter, chapter 4, verses 2-4:  “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction; for the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

            There’s a lot of emphasis on the law in our Gospel reading for today.  The illustration of the millstone is a very graphic reminder for not only the pastor, but for all of God’s people to be faithful to the Word.  If someone is intentionally a false teacher and misrepresents God’s Word and misleads the people, they are no friend to Christ and the Christian Church.  For all the good they’re doing, they might as well be drowned in the depths of the sea.

            But there is that word of the Gospel here too.  Our text for today says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him.”  It is here that Christ points out the love and forgiveness that God has for sinners.  The repentant sinner will always find forgiveness in endless abundance from God.  Through faith in Christ Jesus, the sinner’s sins are removed, just as if the sinner had never sinned in the first place.  Their sinful record is replaced by Christ’s righteousness.  Through faith in Christ alone, it’s like God has taken those sins and tied them to the millstone, instead of the sinner.  Those sins are forever gone.

            I don’t think it’s any accident that these words about forgiving others immediately follow the illustration of the millstone, because this is a difficult area for a lot of people.  We might not have trouble believing that our sins are forgiven, and we might not even have trouble believing that the sins of others have been forgiven.  But when it comes to us actually putting it into practice, and forgiving others as God has forgiven us, well then we have trouble.  And when people harbor feelings of hatred and anger and bitterness against someone, and by their example encourage others to do so, then we need to remember that millstone.

            Pastors traditionally have unique neckwear that remind them of the millstone.  It’s there, and it is hard to ignore.  I don’t think that a lot of pastors realize exactly what that collar means.  Somehow I think if they did, they would exercise a lot more caution in their words and actions.

            In my own life, I recognize my own faults and failings.  I haven’t been perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination.  I have made my share of mistakes.  Even though I wear a collar which is indicative of my office, my faithfulness has wavered.  I am a sinful human being.

            But as a repentant sinner, I know the promise of the Gospel is mine too.  My sins have been forgiven through Jesus Christ my Saviour.  This is my constant hope.  I know that I will be in heaven someday, and I want you and everybody else possible to be there with me.  To that end, I want to be sure that you know without a doubt that the Gospel of Jesus Christ which saves me also saves you.

            It doesn’t matter what kind of liturgical attire I wear or don't wear; or if I have neck wear unique to the clergy, or I wear a necktie, or an open shirt.  That’s only symbolic.  The message and the responsibilities don’t change.  What matters, is if I have been found faithful.

            We are servants of the Lord, whether we are called and ordained ministers, or Christian laymen.  We follow Christ and his Word, and we remain loyal to it.  Therefore when all is said and done, may the words which conclude our Gospel lesson for today be true for us:  “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”