It Matters Whose You Are
Sunday, November 18, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
It was May 11, 1847, in New York, New York, when a child of slavery stood and spoke. He did so after having spent two years in Britain, overwhelming people in the United Kingdom with his oratory power. But now, he is home in the United States. The person who gave one of the greatest speeches ever was none other than the great Frederick Douglass. Douglass got up amongst those who were his compatriots and his peers, and he spoke these words, which I have taken from Yale University’s law school documents. Frederick Douglass, an African American who was to all intent and purposes a slave, wrote:
I have no love for America; as such I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The institutions of the country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man. I am not thought of or spoken of in any direction out of the anti-slavery ranks as a man. I am not thought of or spoken of except as a piece of property belonging to some Christian slave holder. All the religious and political institutions of this country pronounce me as slave and chattel. Now, in such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism. The only thing that links me to this land is my family and the painful consciousness that here there are three million of my fellow creatures groaning beneath the iron rod of the worst despotism that could be devised.
He went on to speak of the horrors of slavery. But then, after this most eloquent of speeches, and I commend it to you, he said these immortal words: “Where will I find the bright ray of liberty lighted in all the souls of God’s children, but by the omnipotent hand of God himself?”
You see, all the religious and political institutions had deemed him a non-person because of the colour of his skin, because of his heritage and slavery. He was a non-person, a non-citizen. He belonged nowhere. He had no country. Yet, at the end of it all, after the most incredible statement about having been let down by church and state, he nevertheless concluded that his only source of liberty, his only real hope, was coming from the omnipotent God on high. These words have reverberated in my head over the last couple of weeks like none other for they seem to echo today’s passage, because in 1 John there is a similar echo. Frederick Douglass would be so pleased! John wrote these words: “What great love the Father hath lavished on us! We have become the Children of God!”
It is hard to grasp the power of that sentence, because the word “lavish” does not capture the full force in the original language. “What great love the Father has just poured out on us that we should be called the Children of God.” Like Douglass, John was writing in a very difficult time, a time of immense turmoil for the early church. The Greco-Roman world itself was in turmoil, and the fledgling Christian community really didn’t know its place within it. It was strong in its faith, but it was being pushed by other religions, by paganism, by the power of the state, potentially suffering for its confessions. In the midst of all this – and, you can read this in the whole of Chapter 2 of that first letter – there are counterfeits coming along leading people astray. He is worried about his flock, and about the children of God, these new Christians, and says, “What greater love as this than the Father has lavished on us that we should be called the Children of God.” For the early Christians, it was not who they were, but whose they were. This is the distinction that Douglass made: It was not who he was, a slave, but whose he was – a child of God. The identity for the early Christians, as the identity for him, was someone who knew that there was a higher power and a greater source that formed their liberty and their hope.
So in the midst of all this, John writes this incredible epistle, and he does so by emphasizing a couple of very powerful messages. The first is the lavish love of God. He defines later on in verse 16 of Chapter 3 what that love is: “This is love that God gave his Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us.” In other words, he defines the lavish love of God. He knows that it is because of God coming in Christ that the people have confidence and hope. But more than that, they actually have an identity. They are primary, first of all, above all, children of God, because they have been called by Jesus Christ. He believes this, not because of some innate gift, but because he believed that God speaks, and God reveals, and out of that revelation, God loves, and lets people know they are his children.
There are of course, and have been throughout the ages, many who do not subscribe to such a creed. There have been those from ancient times who have denied that there is a personal God or a deity overseeing human life or creating human life. There have been the likes of the great mind Heraclitus, who though he played at times with believing in God, didn’t really. He just thought there was something about us that was special. There were people like the great Scottish intellectual David Hume, who for all his great words on liberty had no conception and no belief in God and the divine. There were people like Karl Marx, who repeated more times than perhaps he ought, that there is no God and religion itself is the opiate of the people! Even in the last century, Ayn Rand, a great mind and intellect believed there was no God.
There have been countless throughout the centuries, from the earliest Pharaohs before the 11th dynasty who believed that only they were God. There are those who believe that there is no god, and that is certainly not news. Yet, in response to this – no, not in response to this – in response to God himself, there have been those who for thousands of years have believed that we are not a mere accident on this planet, that there is a meaning and a purpose to life and existence, that there is a first mover, a first thought, a creative mind at the heart of this universe, and that there is a maker of this universe. Not only that, but that this God is personal, this God speaks with a resounding voice and calls people to follow. From when Moses hears the voice in the burning bush to the Prophet Isaiah who had his tongue touched by the presence of God, to Jesus of Nazareth, who was the embodiment of God to those who have subsequently, filled by the power of the Spirit, declared to all and sundry that God is alive, there have been those who have believed and do believe that God is not only a living God, not only a vibrant God, not only a loving God, but a God in whom we have our identity. It is powerful!
This brings me to the current controversy in the United Church of Canada. As many of you know, there has been much debate in the news this last week about the presence of a minister who does not believe in God anymore and has written about it, and a congregation who supports that person. Notwithstanding the issues legally around this and what decisions were made, and the fact that we can glean no clarity or information about those decisions, the whole thing still strikes me as absurd! Not only absurd, but incredibly parochial! This seems to me to be one of those moments in history where the church of Jesus Christ has once again faced something that is an anomaly and is strange. I am simultaneously annoyed and saddened by it – heartbroken about it in fact – that this church and this denomination that I love so much feels torn, ridiculed, and abused.
I say it is parochial because I must confess that wherever I have travelled in this world, and I have been privileged and blessed to do so, whenever I have run into the Church of Jesus Christ, wherever it has been, all I have been is overwhelmed by the love and the power and the confession of those who ascribe to their belief in God. How diverse this has been! I was thinking only this weekend of when I was in Santiago, Chile, preaching at a non-denominational church, and for the days leading up to it, I spent time with Roman Catholic theologians and priests who had opposed Pinochet’s regime and had been arrested and threatened because of it. All along, hearing from them that they did what they did because they believed they needed to lay down their lives for the sake of the children of God and for the innocent, some of whom had even been thrown down mine shafts. I have been thinking about visiting a church in South Africa when I lived there that was established by migrant workers who had no real home, no real identity, and no work papers, but had come from the African hinterland to find work in the cities, and still formed Christian communities, because more than anything else they needed to be with those who like them were Children of God. I will never forget, it is etched on my mind this week, a torn antependia, hanging from a make-shift pulpit, and it said in Afrikaans “God is Liefde” (a reference to 1 John 4:8) – God is love. If people who had no home, no work, no place, can still ascribe to their conviction that God is love, who of us, so privileged, could deny them such a claim?
It was the same when I was in Slovakia, preaching in a small church at a wedding at an Eastern Rite Catholic church near the border of Poland, and I came from behind an iconostasis where the communion table had been, and the priest, a Catholic, put a stole around my shoulders and included me in the worship and embraced me as I brought the Word of God to the couple. It was the same when I was preaching in Concord, Massachusetts, at First Trinitarian Church, in a town where the first shot of the revolution was fired – the last place you would think that an Englishman would want to preach! Talk about absurd! Yet, the love and the compassion, the joy of that worship! They enjoyed one of my sermons, and they did it with a smile and an embrace. God bless the United States of America! That is the kind of openness that really makes it great. It was the same when I visited the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a group of Third World theologians – everywhere from Rwanda to Eretria to the very tip of South America - were there, and I preached just this last February. The embrace, the thanks, and the love I received was in so many languages, I couldn’t count them! We were of one place and one accord! Language makes no difference, denomination makes no difference, country of origin makes no difference, and the colour of your skin makes no difference!
When you are a Child of God not only do you know who you are, you know whose you are. That for me is what constitutes the Church. It is rooted and grounded not in ourselves; it is created by the very presence of God himself. In all of those communities of faith, and many, many more that I have been privileged to be in, I have seen nothing but that very presence of God himself. We are, as Dietrich Bonheoffer put it in his magnificent doctoral thesis Sanctorum communio, a communion of saints. So when I know that there are those who do not subscribe to that conviction, I am astonished. I believe in the big tent of the United Church, for its strengths and it weaknesses, for both its moments of greatness and its moments of iniquity. I have seen so much of it, but it is a big tent because it is a tent that believes in God. What I don’t understand is those who want to stay in that tent when actively trying to remove the tent pegs. As one of our younger members put it to me this morning, knowing my love of automobiles, “ Why would Ferrari hire their race mechanic, who only believes in public transit?” It is sad! I hold no animosity; no anger; no hatred: I just don’t understand it! I don’t think Frederick Douglass would understand it. I don’t think John would understand it. I don’t think those who have ascribed their belief in the Gospel for two thousand years would understand it. For me it is absurd!
There is something more that John says, something deep and rich. He makes an appeal to us to live a righteous life: “The right shall be righteous.” Paul put it even better I think: “The righteous shall live by faith.” It is faith that animates us. It is faith that moves us. For all the imperfections and problems in the Church, for all the things that we have done wrong over these many years, we are still those who exist as a family under the grace and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, and that is why, for example, when babies are baptized all believers for that matter are baptized. There is, as part of the question, “Are you willing to live in the way of Christ? Are you, as parents, prepared to bring up your child in the way of Christ?” It is the same when we become members and are confirmed in the Church. The confirmation vows are as crystal clear as you can possibly get: “Do you believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour?” Then, later on, “Will you believe in Him and support His Church?” People say “Yes, we do.” But then, there is always that caveat “With God being our Helper.” We don’t do this alone! We cannot live the life rich in Christ alone! There is no tension between the Gospel and God and inclusion; it is God who includes us. He asks of us only that we invite him into our lives.
As a great colleague reminded me this week, in our ordination vows we all have this written on our documents: “This person is admitted to the Order of Ministry by the laying on of hands with prayer under the authority, discipline and regulations of The United Church of Canada. He/She is hereby commended to all concerned as a person authorized to fulfill this ministry so long as her spirit and practice are such as become the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” That is our ordination document. Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, all have an appeal to us to live in the way of Christ, for it is He who sets the ground, He is the cornerstone, He is the foundation. He is the one we turn to as Children of God.
Sitting quietly at my desk on Friday with a broken heart as our Church was dragged through the mud, I turned to a book by a former Moderator, Lois Wilson, entitled, I Want to be In That Number from that phrase from When the Saints Go Marching In. I have read this book many times, and I love Lois for it, because it is a book about those who she had met in her life who helped shape her in her faith. On the back cover, the publisher summed it up better than anything:
In our highly individualistic culture, it invites the reader to consider all that is implied about community in that phrase ‘the Communion of Saints’. Lois offers a deeply personal story of saints she has known: some as colleagues in The World Council of Churches, others as family members or close friends. All stories are anchored in the Scriptural text chosen for their funeral. She explores not only why these particular texts fit the person as she knew them, but what they say about creating new possibilities for the world we are co-creating. Here is the book that offers hope in the midst of our death denying culture.
As I read it, I thought, “That’s for me!” This is why I am so committed to the Children of God, because I think there are people in our world, in this dystopia of a world, who are craving to know the One who made them, who are craving to be loved in the midst of the brokenness of life, who want the joy and the peace that comes from knowing that there is a love that is lavished upon them. To the lonely and the frightened, to those who find themselves struggling, to those wanting liberty and peace, to those wanting hope and forgiveness, and to those who want everything that is of God, they want to hear this: it is not who they are; it is whose they are. As for me, I only want one thing: to be a Child of God. Amen.