Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: In God's Image

Genesis 1:1-5, 27-2:3; Matthew 28:16-20
In God’s Image
James Sledge                                                   June 15, 2014, Trinity Sunday

There’s a lot of commissioning and sending going on in our worship today. There are youth who will soon leave on their mission trip, rising 6th graders sent upstairs to join the middle school youth, and graduates headed to college or the work world.
When we send people out, there is usually some mix of excitement and trepidation. Heading out to college is exciting, but making new friends, getting used to a roommate, adjusting to college academics, and so on can be challenging. Parents often share in their college students’ excitement and fear, but they may have somewhat different worries.
I knew a girl who attended a Baptist women’s college in Raleigh, NC, where quite a few students enrolled because of parents’ fears about the terrible things that might happen as their little girls went off to the morally uncertain world of college. The school had strict rules about leaving campus, men in the dorms, etc.
There were actually three such colleges in Raleigh, the Baptist one plus a Presbyterian and Episcopalian, all just a short distance from the large, public, NC State University. Guys at State had a lot of jokes about which of these women’s schools had the wildest girls. There was no clear winner, but conventional wisdom ranked all three ahead of the coeds at NC State. So much for safely sequestering one’s little girl at a religious, all women’s school.
It’s interesting to think about how some go to college, exploring, maturing and changing yet remaining essentially the same person, while others undergo transformations that leave them unrecognizable, not always for the better. Perhaps some people’s identities are more formed than others. The freedom of college lets them explore who they are, but their identity gives them certain boundaries. Others, perhaps like some of those sent to women’s colleges, having always lived within the tight confines of hovering and anxious parents, have less formed identities, and those identities provide as much in the way of boundaries.

As with our worship, today’s scripture readings also feature commissioning and sending. In the final verses of Matthew, Jesus commissions the disciples and the church to go into the world and make disciples. The word “disciple” has taken on a heavy religious overtones, but its basic meaning is someone who learns from a particular teacher. Someone has suggested “intern” as a good synonym. I kind of like that. Go and make interns for Jesus. What might the church look like if we thought of ourselves as interns, always being mentored by Jesus.
It may be less obvious, but God also commissions humanity at the end of the first creation story, giving us our marching orders, identity, and calling. We are part of God’s good creation which God has lovingly made and cares for. But we also occupy a special place in this creation. We alone bear God’s image, and we alone are given “dominion.”
A lot of mischief has been committed with this “dominion.” Some people say the world and its resources are simply ours to use as we see fit. But dominion is not domination. In the Bible it refers to the rule of kings, and for Israel, kings are supposed to be shepherds who love and tend the flock. Jesus is the ultimate picture of dominion, the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  And so God’s commission to humanity is one of stewardship, of watching over the creation God loves and calls good.
People get mixed up about dominion and about human identity and purpose because we misunderstand the nature of God and god-like power. We imagine that being all powerful means being able to do whatever you want, but God acts out of love for creation, with justice, tenderness, and steadfast mercy, caring especially for the weak and the poor, and in Jesus even suffering for us.
Yet we humans often don’t seem to be in the image of this God. We mess up creation, the environment, and more because we misunderstand what it means to be god-like. Sometimes it’s because we don’t really know God or Jesus very well, struggling to image God because our picture of God is so small and incomplete. Other times, our image of God isn’t God at all. As Anne Lamott puts it, “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Today is Trinity Sunday.  I’m not going to delve into that doctrine today, but I am going to suggest that it is a helpful way to speak of the mystery of God who is always larger than we can grasp, who is complete in God’s self, and yet goes out in expansive, self-giving love. The pages of the Bible give us glimpses and facets of this God, but even the sum total does not fully capture the Divine. And when we grab a few facets, picking cafeteria style from ones that appeal to us, we end up with an image of God that may not be much like God at all.
One place we have distorted God’s image relates to Sabbath. Notice in the creation story that Sabbath is not about blue laws or lists of things you can and can’t do. It is about rest. And God does not collapse from exhaustion. God simply rests. And when Sabbath is given to Israel as command, as one of the ways Israel is to image God for the world to see, it is still primarily about rest. And the rest is for all, even for animals and creation itself.
A colleague once told me a story about a clergy lunch she attended. When pastors get together we talk shop, and at this lunch they began discussing what day they took off. It was Monday versus Friday, but one pastor objected strenuously. “I never take a day off!” he said. “The devil never takes a day off.” To which my friend responded, “But God does.”
Some religious people can be terribly anxious, terrified over what could go wrong. Evil or immorality is everywhere. Or, from another, more liberal perspective, fundamentalism and extremism are everywhere. But what sort of God do we image with our anxieties?
We live in an anxious, impatient world, and the DC area at the head of the class on both. If we stop, someone might get ahead of us; someone else will get accepted to that elite school. There’s not enough to go around so we must scratch and claw for our share. We won’t count if we don’t excel and outperform others. But what sort of God do we image here? Not the one who promises daily bread and abundant life, who calls the poor and the meek blessed.
In our world, the more powerful you are the more energy you must expend to hold onto to power. Powerful armies and corporations live in constant anxiety of being eclipsed by some other. But what sort of God do we image here? Not the one whose greatest power is a cross?
Are you like me? Do you ever find it hard to sleep at night because you’re worried about something you’ve messed up, something you might have forgotten, or some other mishap just waiting to happen? I sometimes think the anxieties of our age are at least partly due to identity problems on our part. We don’t seem to know who we are: bearers of God’s image, interns for Jesus. And so we end up reflecting the anxieties and pathologies of our world, even as we know, deep in our bones, that something about his is not right.
And so, on this commissioning and sending Sunday, I have a charge for you. Not just for grads and people going on the mission trips, but also for those simply headed home following worship. Remember who you are, or perhaps better, realize and discover who you are as you come to know God and God’s great love for and delight in creation, and God’s special love for you, the God whose image you bear. That requires time with God, time in prayer, time with Scripture, time serving others. And it might not be a bad idea to start with a little Sabbath.

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