Why are we pastors said to be “of the cloth?”
In the 16th century, the phrase described anyone who wore a uniform while at work. Maybe it was a chef’s baking coat or a servant’s particular uniform of service. But all uniformed workers were said to be “of the cloth.”
In the 17th century, however, that changed. The term “of the cloth” became associated with clergy only. The connection is clear: clergy are known for wearing robes. People are accustomed to seeing pastors in a robe or a clerical collar. What we wear says something about who we are.
A few years ago, a little boy leaving church on Sunday yelled at me from across the parking lot.
“Bye, Pastor Lee! Have a good night!” he said.
His parents later explained.
“He thinks you sleep in the church, because every time he sees you you’re still in your robe,” they said.
Now, I’ve had some very long nights at church, but I’ve never slept there. That comment is still a reminder to me that what we wear matters. People know us by what we wear. The fabric that covers us is meant to reflect our identity, our calling and who we aspire to be.
In recent weeks we’ve heard a lot about fabric. As news stories inform us of another tragedy, another police shooting, another officer down, many commentators have stressed these events are threatening the “fabric” of our society. Racial tension is pulling us apart. Prejudice is pulling at our seams. Our communities are frayed. Threads are breaking. The fabric is being torn. There is so much around us that speaks of disintegrating trust, and a sense of pervasive fear and animosity that threatens to undo us.
Now more than ever, we are in need of mending. We are in need of common threads and simple acts of compassion and understanding that will sew the frayed places back together and mend that which has been torn. In other words, we are in need of people “of the cloth” to lead our communities. And it’s not just as clergy, but we need brothers and sisters from disparate backgrounds willing to be conduits through whom reconciliation and understanding can take place.
The fabric of our nation is made stronger by acts of kindness, compassion and love, especially in the midst of cultural differences. In my own Christian tradition, the Apostle Paul said it like this: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ... and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other ... ”
Today as in centuries past, what we wear matters. It says something about who we are. The fabric that covers us reflects our identity, our calling,and who we aspire to be. In our homes, churches and community, let that fabric be one of compassion. Let it be one of patience and understanding. Wear kindness. Wear humility. Wear love.
And by those things, may others know who you really are.
The Rev. Lee Koontz is the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.