June 23, 2019
Invitation to Worship
As we get ourselves focused on God today, a particular verse of scripture comes to mind. It comes from 1 John 3:
“See what love God has for us, that we should be called children of God? Because that’s what we are.”
Just a reminder, as you come to worship: You are a child of God.
I just think remembering that is not a bad place to begin. So let’s practice that.
What are you?
A child of God.
Let’s try again - who are you?
A child of God.
And that person sitting next to you?
A child of God.
And that person whose sleeping in or riding her bike or sitting at the coffee shop or out on the golf course – you know, the one who didn’t come to church today? Who’s that person?
A child of God.
The person you love best in the world, and the one who drives you up the wall?
A child of God.
Great! Now, let’s worship God.
Word with Children
The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss
Old Testament Reading - Genesis 17:1-9, 15-22
The Covenant with Abraham
Introduction to the New Testament Reading
In our first reading this morning, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, how God chose this family to be the ancestors of a great nation – a family as vast as the grains of sand on a beach, as many as the stars in the sky. These people would be God’s people. For hundreds of years, the descendants of Sarah and Abraham were just that – they looked to God for guidance, for blessing, and – most of all – for their unique identity. Sometimes called “the Hebrew people,” sometimes called “Israelites,” later known as “Jews,” they were children of Abraham, heirs to the promise.
That’s important to know as we hear our New Testament reading. It comes from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. Before we read it, I want to give you a little more background.
When Paul went on his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean, he always started by teaching at the synagogues – he was a prominent Jewish leader, after all, before he became a Christian. But inevitably, Paul had a much bigger response from people who weren’t Jewish than those who were. His new churches were made up almost entirely of “Gentiles,” or what were sometimes called “Greeks.” Before they became followers of Jesus, these people might have known nothing of the God of Abraham or the Law of Moses.
This wasn’t what anyone had expected when the early church started. Jesus was a Jewish rabbi, after all; all of the early disciples were Jews; and the God they worshiped was the God of Abraham. Even on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came flying into Jerusalem and filled the disciples with power, it was Jews from around the Roman Empire who were gathered in the city that day. That’s how the church got started. From within the tribe of Abraham.
So when Paul started taking this message outside that circle, it created some tensions. How Jewish did someone need to be, in order to be Christian? How much of the Law of Moses did these new converts need to follow? Didn’t they need to become Jews first?
Let’s just say not everyone had the same opinion about that. And Paul didn’t back down from his. So - let’s listen to our reading from scripture. Let’s listen for the Word of God.
Before this way of faith became a possibility, we were guarded by the Law, held in protective custody, if you will, until the faith that was coming was revealed. So that the Law became our guardian, our custodian; it protected us until Christ came, so that we might be made righteous – or justified - by faith.
But now that this way of faith has come, we no longer need a custodian.
So you are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female - for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
And now that you belong to Christ, you are truly Abraham’s descendants, his heirs according to the promise.
* * * * *
Dividing people up into categories is the most natural thing on God’s green earth. In Paul’s day it was Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. For Sneetches, it’s with stars-and-without-stars. But it’s always something. We seem to be born with binary minds – to see what’s alike, and what’s different. I remember those old “Highlights for Children” magazines where there were two almost-identical pictures side-by-side, and you’re supposed to find the differences. Our brains seem to be wired to do just that.
I recently learned how true that really is – that we’re wired this way. Take facial recognition – how we can tell one person apart from another. Apparently there are individual brain cells that are tasked with noticing very particular aspects of people’s faces – like the distance between someone’s eyes, or the arch of the brow, or their skin texture, or the width of the nostrils, or the angle of a cheekbone – and the data is collected by our brains to come up with a whole image. Our brains own data analytics. Which is actually pretty cool, in my opinion. [i]
We’re wired to see what’s alike, and what’s different. And most of the time, it serves us well. It helps to recognize your mommy in a sea of faces. I remember once when my son Ben was little, and my identical twin Chris was visiting, and Ben thought Chris was me – it’s unnerving, to say the least, when you can’t recognize your own mother.
Or do you know the game “Twenty Questions”? It was one of the ways we used to pass the time on long car rides before the days of hand-held entertainment devices sometimes known as ‘phones.’ One person would think of a person, place, or thing, and the rest of the group had to guess it, using only yes-or-no questions.
Is it a person? Yes.
Is the person real? Yes.
Is the person still alive? No.
Was the person famous? Yes…
And eventually somebody would guess the answer. It’s all based on categories, right?
Categories help us make sense of the world. They’re a way of remembering things, and processing information. No harm done, right? Labels help us sort things out.
No harm, right? No harm…
Until there is…
Just ask a person of color who’s experienced racial profiling – over and over again.
Or the woman who’s been expected to tolerate very unprofessional behavior in order to move up the ladder professionally.
Or a young person who’s been shunned by their church because they were gay.
Or someone who couldn’t get a job because he was seen as too old, too white, too male, too whatever.
Or ask a teenager who’s being trolled on social media, targeted for something they said, something they wore, something they posted, some way they look.
Just ask someone whose church or mosque or synagogue has been targeted with hate crimes.
Just talk to people whose ethnic group is targeted for cleansing.
Our categories aren’t a problem – until they are. When they become labels of value and worth and containers of power and powerlessness. And when that starts to happen, then it matters if you’re from the wrong side of the tracks, from the wrong religion, from the wrong ethnic group, or age category, or gender, or whatever.
That’s not something new. It’s always been true. Which is why Paul’s words in Galatians are so extraordinary. Just extraordinary.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female - for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
In the ancient churches in Galatia, those were things you couldn’t hide; everybody knew. It wasn’t like a star that you could put on or take off, either. You were stuck with what you were. And those were things that mattered very much to the world around them; it affected everything. There were very clear proscribed roles, and expectations, privileges and responsibilities. And power, or powerlessness.
And Paul came along and said, that’s true for the outside world. But here, among us, in our community, we’re not going to live that way. We’re not going to treat each other that way. You slave owners? Free your slaves. You men? Listen to the women’s voices; they’ve got something to say. You religious leaders? Stop pretending that you’ve got the only path to righteousness, that you get to make up the rules. There’s something bigger going on here.
Something so much bigger.
Because you belong to Christ now. And you live in his grace.
That’s your identity. That’s what matters. That’s the core of who you are. There aren’t first class or second-class Christians. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a star on your chest or are without one.
When God sees you, God looks at you with the same kind of love that God looks at God’s own Son. Child of God. Child of God. Child of God.
“You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus.” That’s what Paul is teaching them... Is teaching us.
One more story… and I hope it makes sense, how this fits together, because it does, in my mind. In my soul.
When I was growing up, I was one of ‘outsider’ kids. In Dr. Seuss’ world, I would have been a Sneetch without a star. Everyone knew who the cool kids were, and I was not one of them. It didn’t bother me a whole lot when I was very young, though as I got older I got more and more self-conscious of what made me different, or weird.
The turning point came when I was in fifth grade. I was walking down the hall – it must have been after school, because there was only one other kid in the hallway, and he was walking in front of me. There was a set of double doors between the hallways, and this boy went through in front of me. And he let the door slam in my face, as if I weren’t even there.
As if I didn’t exist.
As if I were invisible.
He was one of the cool kids. And it ticked me off.
So I decided I was going to join the cool kids, not because I wanted to be an insider – but because I thought I could teach them something about how you should treat people.
Isn’t that funny? A little arrogant on my part, obviously.
But at the time, I decided that I had to figure out how to be a cool kid. How to get a star on my belly.
So I started watching, and listening, and observing. I remember on day, standing in the restroom in the 5th grade hallway, and paying attention to what the other girls talked about. The phrases they used. The expressions on their faces. And I started to talk like them, to talk to them. It was almost like learning a second language.
But here’s the weird thing that happened. I never did try to teach them anything. Because I discovered that I liked them. And they liked me. And it turned out we had a lot to learn from each other, though no one would ever call it that.
Anybody who knows me knows I never became a cool kid. But what I learned is that it didn’t really matter. I learned something so much bigger and deeper and wider than what I thought I was going to learn.
I learned that the stars on our bellies didn’t matter at all. That we all had things that made us laugh and things that hurt our feelings and families that were complicated and things that made us proud and raging insecurity and curiosity and hunger. And over time I learned some of the secrets different people carried, that were hard. And hopes that they had, that were wonderful. I learned…
And I will always be grateful for learning that then, so early in life.
It’s not that everyone is the same. Far from it. We are very, very complicated. Even on the inside, we’re different, let alone the outside. There are different gifts, but the same Spirit, Paul says. He’s adamant about that. But around this Table, there aren’t rankings. Not even of spiritual gifts – don’t even go there! Here, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
Because that’s what Jesus taught us.
The stars don’t matter one whit in God’s kingdom.
And don’t let anybody – ever – tell you otherwise.
Because you are a child of God…
Part of the family of grace.
[i] Abby Norman, “A New Study Reveals How the Brain ‘Sees’ Faces,” Futurism, June 6, 2017, https://futurism.com/a-new-study-reveals-how-the-brain-sees-faces