The second sermon in the Reclaiming Jesus Series preached by the Rev. Linda Harrison
July 29, 2018
Genesis 1.26-27; 31
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them be stewards of the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.
Humankind was created as God’s reflection:
in the Divine image God created them;
female and male God made them.
God looked at all creation and proclaimed this was good – very good. Evening came, and morning followed, the sixth day.
WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.
In the ancient world, potentates were gods and the common folk were commodities.
People who were disenfranchised in any way – the poor, the orphan, the widow, and certainly conquered peoples – were forced into servitude by monarchs and the ruling classes – and even the ruling class existed for the pleasure and benefit of the monarch. One’s worth had nothing to do with one’s humanity; there was no concept of inherent human dignity. People with no monetary wealth were little more than beasts of burden and possessions to be pressed into service to do the tasks wealthy people did not want to do, to provide comfort to and for the wealthy, or create more wealth for the wealthy few. In this economic system, one’s worth rested upon one’s capacity to supply the needs and wants of the wealthy … often through hard, back-breaking physical labor. If you worked the slave or servant to death, no problem. There were always more bodies to be exploited, or another territory to conquer for its free labor.
And woe to those who had no monetary value in this system: the blind, the lame, the ill, the elderly.
Sovereign powers of the ancient world cast themselves as the ultimate authority over regions, territories, and peoples. To help control and to preserve order over the masses, they often cast themselves as divine. It was not uncommon for rulers to have images sculpted or cast of themselves and then have those images placed in the regions under their rule with the accompanying decree that the people worship the image of their ruler, thus worshiping the ruler. This was a sure reminder of who held dominion. To become godlike over the land and the people you ruled went a long way to controlling the masses … remember the story in the Book of Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refuse to bow down and worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and are subsequently thrown into the fiery furnace.
Creating gods in their image and establishing religious rites and festivals around their divinity were also a means of producing some semblance of cohesion among disparate conquered peoples. Rome was good at this. Religious and cultic ideologies and practices of conquered peoples were often assimilated. The Roman pantheon of lesser gods grew with each people and culture conquered. And don’t forget, the emperors of Rome were also gods, whose images were found in temples and on coins with inscriptions asserting their dominion over all, claiming to be and to hold the source of life.
Long before there was a Roman Empire, but still when emperors, kings, and rulers made themselves into gods, the Hebrew people told the story of the God who formed humanity in the image of God. The God who creates heaven and earth, created the human creature in the Divine image. The God who ruled the universe, who set the stars in their courses, who separated the waters, breathed life into the human creature who was formed to reflect the Divine.
This God made the heavens rain and the seed sprout. This God set the natural rhythms of seasons and the times of reproduction of the animals. This God held dominion over the entire universe, not just a conquered region.
This God is sovereign over all. And this God created humanity in the image of the Divine self.
Instead of earthly potentates placing their images in specific regions under their control, God placed God’s image in human beings and charged the human to fill all the earth. Our sovereign God is found throughout the world as living, breathing, animate creatures.
Instead of an earthly king declaring sole sovereignty over a region by placing a humanly constructed image of the king, God shares divine sovereignty throughout the world by charging the likeness and reflection of God to be trustees and custodians over all that God creates.
We are entrusted with the care of everything God creates … and, not to beleaguer the point, God creates humanity. If we are charged to care for God’s creation, then we are charged to care for one another. We are created to be in relationship, one with another and each one with God.
What God created, God declared to be very good. What God created, therefor, has inherent worth and dignity for the simple fact that God created it. God cares for all of creation. When it comes to humanity, however, God pays particular attention, calling us children, calling us into relationship with God. As ones created in God’s image, we are created to be in relationship, to care and serve one another in love and respect. The answer to Cain’s question, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ is a resounding YES.
Yes, we are our sisters’ keepers, our brothers’ keepers, our neighbors’ keepers.
The Exodus story also makes it perfectly clear that God cares for people. God is particularly concerned for the welfare of oppressed people. The story is an indictment against socio-political structures that harm people, that commodify bodies, that abuse and use human beings as a mere means to an end. At face value, the Exodus story may be about freedom from slavery and tyranny. But looking more deeply, it is also about fear of the other and how fear turns to hatred and hatred turns to violence … violence against bodies created by God.
God created the Egyptians. And the Egyptians loathed the others also created by God. Exodus opens with the ominous words, “And there arose a pharaoh who did not know Joseph”. The new pharaoh was not in relationship with the Hebrew people like the former pharaohs. The new pharaoh did not know the structures put in place with this other race of people. Pharaoh feared the vast numbers of this other race, the Hebrews. Having broken relationship, pharaoh feared these Hebrew people would rise up and conquer Egypt. Fear of the other is a mighty motivator for ill …. pharaoh became the oppressor over the oppressed.
This is perhaps our first story of blatant racism in the Bible.
And God heard the cries of the Hebrew children and rose up Moses from among them.
And God heard the cries of the descendants of African slaves in the United States of America. God heard their cries in the land of the free. God heard their cries in the land that enshrined in its Constitution equality and justice for all people. God heard their cries and rose up from among them Bayard Rustin, Claudette Colvin, John Lewis, James Bevel, Diane Nash, Fred Shuttlesworth, Lola Hendricks, Andrew Young, Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, Martin Luther King, Jr. …
God heard their cries, rose them up, and they fought against the tyranny of fear and white supremacy, against the idolatry that white bodies are sovereign over black and brown bodies.
Racism is a particularly ugly sin. It pits one group of people against another – one group of people claiming some sort of inherent supremacy over another group of people, when ALL people are created by God in God’s very own image. Hubris; idolatry; pure evil.
The writers of the Reclaiming Jesus document acknowledge and praise the prophetic voice of the black church who called and continue to call for a more faithful witness to the gospel message of Good News for all people – a message rooted in the very first stories of our Judeo-Christian heritage: all people are a reflection of the Divine and are of sacred worth, bestowed with dignity and honor.
We are created in the image of God; we are charged to care for all creation, including people who do not look like us, speak like us, worship like us, dress like us, act like us.
The partisan politics of fear coming from this administration underscores and brings to light what has been percolating under the surface in this nation for two hundred years. The language and policies of people serving in our own government perpetuate a form of tyranny of oppression against brown and black people and it must be met with the love ethic of Jesus – we must join our beloved family in the black church and speak truth to power alongside them. The church must hear the cries and rise up.
Yes, the church – the institutional leaders as well as the people in the pews – must call out the sin of doctrines, policies, language, systems, and structures that foment fear and perpetuate racist ideologies.
Calling entire ethnic groups of people “monsters” or “animals” or “rapists” is wrong – pure and simple. The disparity in conviction rates and sentencing between brown and black defendants and white defendants is well documented, I am not going to enumerate them here – a web search is easy enough to do. Black and brown people are convicted more often and are given harsher sentences for the same crimes than their white counterparts. Such disparities are inherently racist.
And the Church has been complicit in racism in America since before the founding of this nation. We know the history of the southern white Christians using the Bible to justify and endorse slavery. Leading up to the Civil War, many denominations split over the issue of slavery: Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist. And it doesn’t get any prettier after the Civil War as many southern white Protestant ministers preached in support of Jim Crow laws and against the sexual depravity of black men. When Christian theology is abused and twisted to justify lynching black men in order to defend white women’s honor, it is little wonder that black Christians left the white church in droves and established new denominations.
When white Christians should have been defending and standing up for the God-given dignity bestowed on all who are made in the image of God, they were actually telling civil rights activists to cool it. Billy Graham called on to MLK to “put the brakes on” civil disobedience and follow the laws of the land. Follow the laws that kept them oppressed, in poverty, and segregated.
That legacy is still with us when Black Lives Matter protesters are called hooligans and thugs, and rebuked for participating in civil disobedience against an unjust judicial system and systemic police violence against the black community. It rears its ugly head when black football players silently take a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and violence and they are castigated and upbraided unmercifully…our own president saying that perhaps they don’t belong in this country.
White folk don’t like to be reminded of our privilege, the privilege that comes on the backs of and at the expense of black and brown bodies. Bodies made in the same image as our bodies; bodies that are beautifully and lovingly created, endowed by their creator with dignity, worth, and unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that comes with personhood.
As Christians, as human beings made in the image of God, we are called to protect, defend, and stand up for the dignity and worth of all other human beings, no matter the shade of their skin, hue of their eyes, or color of their hair. We must stand up against racist governmental policies and speak out against our sisters and brothers in the faith who do not speak in love for the all who are a reflection of God’s glory.
The entirety of the Christian gospel is grounded in the story of our God who creates humanity in the image and likeness of God. The gospel story is rooted in the continuation of that story of our God who cared deeply for all creatures, so much so that God came among us as one of us. God became the image of a human being.
That human being lived, taught, and loved abundantly and without condition. And Jesus was tortured and killed because of that love and rose again to show us the way of Love.
Blessed be God forever.