All are God's children

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

I commented a few weeks ago from this pulpit that as Episcopalians we get what we’re given with the Bible readings each week. We don’t choose the readings we’ve heard – they are allotted to us on a three-year cycle. Over these three years, we get to hear a very large chunk of the Bible and the fact that we get what we’re given is, I believe, good for us. It stops us from only choosing passages from the Bible that validate or justify us as a community. Sometimes, then, we get passages that resonate with us. And sometimes we get passages that we really have to grapple with. And sometimes it happens that we get passages that are just the very thing we need right at this time.

 A Greek Orthodox icon of the prophet Isaiah

A Greek Orthodox icon of the prophet Isaiah

When the prophet Isaiah was active, sometime around the 8th century BC, the nation of Israel was in turmoil. It had had, for several centuries, a unique feature in the known world – it had become monotheistic. That is to say that, in a world of paganism, which believed in many gods, and animism, which believed that certain materials or objects were divine, it had resolved to believe in a single omnipotent deity with whom it had forged a covenant – a legal contract between the people of Israel and God, which said that if they kept God’s laws, he would always protect them in every way.

The basic laws were delivered to the Israelites’ representative, a man called Moses, in the form of the Ten Commandments. The problem with the Ten Commandments was that they were too open to interpretation. “What if I do such and such, but it conflicts with such and such”, said the people. So the law kept on being refined and refined so that these kinds of specific situations were dealt with. And so the legal profession was born. If you look at the book of Leviticus in the Bible, you will find that it is full of specific examples of keeping the Ten Commandments.

When Isaiah was active, in around the 8th century BC, Israel was reeling from a huge and devastating experience in its history: the powerful Babylonian empire had invaded it, taken it over, and deported most of its ruling class back to Babylon, which is around where modern-day Iraq is. This, as you can imagine, was a seminal event in the history of Israel. Think of the Psalm, immortalized by Boney-M (if you are aged over 45): “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down, yeah-eh, we wept”.

 'An den Wassern Babylons' (By the Waters of Babylon) by Gebhard Fugel

'An den Wassern Babylons' (By the Waters of Babylon) by Gebhard Fugel

Isaiah’s message for the people of Israel was this: that they needed to think about God’s truth in a different way. Their special relationship with God did not rest on their ethnicity as Hebrews, or their nationality as Israelites or Judeans, but on their observance of God’s laws. It didn’t matter who you were, or where you were from, if you loved God, and kept his laws, you would be in a right relationship with God.

 Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

It might not seem like it, but what Isaiah is saying here was revolutionary. It was one of the turning points in world history and, let us remember, we are in a journey towards a greater understanding of ultimate truth. As Martin Luther King so beautifully quoted from a Civil War-era preacher, Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Isaiah had pointed out to us, already eight hundred years before Jesus, that God’s salvation was for everyone, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their nationality. All they had to do was observe all the laws of the covenant which God had made with the people through Moses, and they would be right with God.

But there was a problem. No-one was able to keep all of the laws with an entirely unblemished track record. Sooner or later even the most pious of religious types would slip up, and then they would have transgressed, and broken the covenant. You see, the problem was actually this: somewhere between God and humans, the contract between them had got distorted such that the humans thought that God would need absolute adherence to the law, with no transgressions, in order to be in God’s good books, so to speak. Clearly no human was - or is - blameless and perfect, so what did that mean for the covenant?

Well, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Already in Isaiah we see the language of forgiveness: the hints that God does not require perfection, but sincerity: in other words, that we earnestly strive to do the right thing, and when we fail to, because we are human, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again (another song reference, by the way – Frank Sinatra, this time).

We humans are much, much less loving of ourselves and others than God is. The extraordinary truth of that revealed itself in spectacular fashion in around the year 4 BC, when a young woman in a small, dusty, one-horse village in a no-where part of a backwoods part of a small Roman province called Palestine gave birth to the Son of God.

If Jesus came for anything it was for this: to make sure that each one of us knows this: that we are made in the image of God, that we are loved by God, that we are forgiven by God, repeatedly, as many times as we need, and that God wants us – each one of us – to live life in all the fullness that he has intended for each one us.

In today’s Gospel reading, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman from Syro-Phoenicia. She was from an area which is roughly contiguous with modern-day Lebanon and parts of Syria so, in other words, north of where Jesus was when he had this encounter, which was Galilee. It’s a complicated story, in some ways, but it ends with Jesus sending an unequivocal message to the woman, and to us: it doesn’t matter where you are from, or who you are, you are a child of God and entitled to his full inheritance.

And as I have said those things, and made those references to Civil War-era preachers, and to Dr. Martin Luther King, it will perhaps become apparent how today’s readings, prescribed for us come what may, become a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to speak to us in today in our own turmoil.

We are indeed a nation in turmoil. Perhaps we have been for some time, but social media has heightened the sense of it. The fact is that the deep lacerations across this country, which have been here for several hundred years, are being opened up again. There is a sense in which the Civil War never really ended, it just became an armistice or, more likely, a cold war, which has festered, and sometimes erupted, and has never been healed.

What we have witnessed in these last weeks and, perhaps, months, is an opening of these wounds again – these putrid, pus-filled wounds which poison our communities.  As has been so eloquently expressed in a video made by the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger,

“there are not two sides to bigotry, and there are not two sides to hatred. If you choose to march with a flag that symbolizes the slaughter of millions of people, there are not two sides to that. The only way to beat the loud, angry voices of hate is to meet them with louder, more reasonable voices.”

Charlottesville has been a flashpoint. Now Durham, North Carolina is, too. Our former home. Day in, and day out, I walked into Duke University Chapel past the statue of General Robert E. Lee, who adorns one of the several niches at the entrance of that enormous and magnificent neo-gothic marvel.

As a Brit, I remember thinking, the first time I passed it, “Well, I’m surprised to see that there”. But then I got used to it. And the likelihood is that General Robert E. Lee was a more moderate and reasonable figure than perhaps people give him credit for. But the problem is that for a large part of our national community he represents not those nuanced attributes, but the essence of a movement that was mobilized in order to defend the enslavement and subjugation of hundreds of thousands of people simply on the color of their skin. For those who had to endure that subjugation and the inequalities that still persist because of it, monuments to those who upheld that system – or tacitly allowed it to exist – are, we can surely appreciate, very painful reminders. Perhaps the only way we can heal those open wounds I spoke of is by excising those painful reminders.

One of the hardest things about the resurgence of the white supremacist movement over the last few weeks and months is knowing how to deal with it. I feel a sense of revulsion and repugnance to it, but what does that actually contribute, in real action?

Well, just having that kind of visceral reaction is something very important because it says this: that our reaction is the same as Isaiah’s reaction, the same as Paul’s reaction, the same as Jesus’ reaction: that every single human being on this earth is made in the very image and likeness of God and is entitled to live life in all the fullness which God intended for that person from before time. In short, the revulsion and the repugnance we have for any kind of racism is this: prejudicial attitudes to particular races are absolutely contrary to the message of the Gospel. Anything which diminishes the fullness of life of any human being is not of God, and not from God. Just knowing this, sharing this, and acknowledging that we all – frail and faulty human beings that we are – are all caught up in racism to a greater of lesser degree, and resolving to live better lives – well, all of that is a hugely important contribution.

Is there anything else we can do? Yes. I believe that we can always become better informed about the ways in which racism can very subtly infect well-intentioned communities and people as well. Over the coming weeks I plan to suggest ways in which we can become better informed and I hope that you will join with me on this journey as we try to do our part to heal this terrible wound on our society. As Paul points out, we are all complicit in some ways, but we are all part of the solution, too. We acknowledge that we are faulty and frail, but we resolve to do better. God knows our frailties and our faults and he will, through the Holy Spirit, inspire us to a society that looks more like that which God dreams of. It will take time, perhaps more time than the spans of our lives, but then, although the arc of the moral universe is long, it does bend towards justice.

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