Scripture Lessons: Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Who wants to move at, say, 98 years old? That’s a time when a person is well-established in their surroundings and relationships. Life is familiar and comfortable. Move? Why would you want to move? Well, maybe it would not be too bad if you were moving to a wonderful community like Lake Seminole Square – a place where one can easily make friends in a safe, welcoming environment where all your needs are met. Maybe that would be ok. But generally speaking, moving at that stage of life is not something most people would find appealing.
In the scripture from Genesis, we heard a story of God telling Abram that it is time to move. Abram is 75, we are told, which would be really old for those times given the life expectancy. But God is asking him to move to a whole new territory, a new life, and a new culture with Sarai, his wife, and his servants, flocks and herds. And Abram is told that he will have many descendants which is another surprise considering he has no children yet. God is introducing something new into the human drama. This new community is to be a blessing to all the families of Earth. And, Abram and Sarai are to lead this new endeavor even though they are well past the age of retirement.
So Abram and Sarai, head out on this new adventure. Why? To bless all families of the Earth. All families. Blessed. Thriving. Flourishing. At peace. All families of Earth. That’s the dream. And so they go.
Throughout history, and certainly throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, people have been called to migrate not only from one place to another physically, but also from old ideas and old ways to new expressions of faith that bring Divine blessing to all of Creation. Changing times and circumstances call for new kinds of thinking about God and faith. Christianity has been migrating for 2000 years. It has adapted to new circumstances and cultures: Jewish, Middle Eastern, African, European and Asian, so that it can be a blessing in all of these different cultures and contexts.
Christianity has also made a significant migration from being a small, fringe religion to being the dominant religion of a major Empire. This change enabled Christianity to influence the empire but the empire also influenced Christianity.
Christianity has had to migrate and adapt as social realities have changed and as scientific knowledge has expanded human understanding. Archeological discoveries, linguistic discoveries, new knowledge in the fields of biology and astronomy, as well as other disciplines, have all influenced Christianity, which is always adapting and changing as humanity develops.
Given this ongoing process of migration and adaptation, I would like to share with you some of my thinking about how Christianity might migrate and move forward so that it can be a blessing to all families of Earth and all of Creation.
One thought is that for the church to be part of blessing the whole world and all families of the Earth, the church needs to embrace religious diversity. The God of the universe, of the cosmos, of black holes and deep space, of eukarya, archaea, and bacteria, is a God of diversity and mystery. So it only makes sense that people would respond to the Love at the heart of Creation, in many ways leading to the formation of different religions just like we have different languages and cultures.
This morning we heard about Abram who, the story goes, has two sons. One branch of the family is part of the Jewish tradition. From the other branch of the family, Islam emerges. It just seems too controlling and restrictive to confine Divinity to one religious expression.
So I think one of the challenges for Christianity is to let go of idea that it is the only one true, valid, religion, a claim that originally emerged to serve different circumstances. Today, I think we need to show acceptance and understanding of other religions. We need to be respectful and work with others in mutuality. It is time to end the condescension that Christians sometimes show toward people of other faiths and no faith if we want to be a blessing to all of Creation.
Another direction I think the church needs to migrate is hinted at in the Nicodemus story. At the end we hear that famous line, “God so loved the world.” I think Christianity needs to move toward being focussed on love for the world, the whole world, and all of Creation. This includes the land, the rocks, the waters, the air, the planets, the stars, the atmosphere, the molds, the trees, the grasses, the birds, the fish, the animals, all of life and all of material reality because all of it is the self disclosure of God. All of it is beloved.
We are part of a web of life dependent on other species and on the land and water and air for survival. I think we need to be thinking about and expressing our faith in terms of the salvation of Creation not just humanity. We need to move away from our anthropocentrism which focuses the expression of Divine Love primarily, if not exclusively, on the human condition. We need to think about more than Jesus calling people to a transformed life and loving our human neighbor. I believe the church is being called to expand its horizons beyond love for humanity to love for all of Creation. This involves thinking about revering, honoring, serving, and respecting all of Creation and its creatures. I think the church needs to migrate toward putting the God of Creation back at the center of Christianity.
Another new direction I think about for the church is perhaps the most difficult to talk about. The church has been called to be part of blessing all families of Earth. Its mission is to love the whole world, all of it. This is an all inclusive, expansive, and universal vision. Social scientists, anthropologists, linguists, and theologians are helping us to see the difficulties of fulfilling that calling when the God of our faith is predominantly imaged as male. Yes, we say that God is not really any gender. God is spirit. Male terminology is just a default setting because of the limitations of language. But we have come to learn that language has the power to form and shape culture and understanding. God as male morphs into male as God.
In practice, a male God doesn’t end up blessing all of Creation. A male God ends up being used to endorse male domination of human social arrangements. I don’t think this was an intentional strategy of oppression on the part of the church or of men. It is just something that evolved. The power attributed to men in a system with a male God ended up being used to dominate and subjugate women. Just recently, we saw the silencing of Elizabeth Warren reading the words of Coretta Scott King. Women. Silenced. By men. We read of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, Jameis Winston, telling the students at an area elementary school, “All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down. But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. . . But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men are supposed to be strong.” [Tampa Bay Times 2/23/17, 6A] There you have it again. Men strong and running things, women, silent.
When the Constitution said all men are created equal, that’s what it meant – all men. Not women. Black men got the right to vote in America in 1870. Women of any color did not get the right to vote until 50 years later in 1920. This week we heard about thousands of women around the world participating in International Women’s Day on March 8. Why? Because women still don’t have equal rights. And the whole system which keeps men bound and limited as well as women, is enmeshed with male language for God.
When God is a he, you get a social system where men are considered superior and women inferior, and that is considered the natural order of things.
Scholars tell of the benefits to society when women and men are equal. There are benefits for the health of the species, for the economy, for peace, for the flourishing of human civilization, but patriarchy persists undergirded by the use of male language for God. I would like to see the world after 100 years of no male language or imagery for God in any religion. I think we would be much closer to the kind of world that Jesus had in mind for all people.
So I believe that the church needs to take seriously migrating away from male language for God toward new imagery that does not make God into some kind of male super hero. Then Christianity will increase its potential for being a blessing to all of Creation.
We, as individuals live, learn, and grow throughout our life cycle. We mature and adapt and change as our life journey progresses. We learn from our experiences and are in a continual process of adaptation. So it is with Christianity. As time goes on, and circumstances change, and we learn new things, our religious ideas must change and adapt so that our faith can continue to be a blessing to all of Creation. We in the church are responsible for saying yes, and being part of the migration of our faith into new territory which will be a blessing to all.
Some of you know that Lloyd Conover, of our church family died yesterday. Lloyd invented tetracycline, the antibiotic which was so effective in medical treatment. Until that point, antibiotics were grown and harvested from mold. They were made from naturally occurring substances. Lloyd, a chemist, believed that they could be created synthetically – which would make them much easier to produce and more readily available. He studied this and thought it was possible. It is notable that the others in his lab did not agree. They did not think this was possible and they did not support his research and efforts. He was pretty much on his own. And he eventually succeeded. And other drugs have been created building on his work, again increasing the effectiveness of medical treatment and healing. But Lloyd was an outlier. He did not have the support and encouragement of his colleagues.
This reminds us that sometimes when we venture into new territory, we must blaze the way. We may not have the encouragement and support of those around us.
When we think about the two stories we heard this morning, we remember Abram and Sarai, who said yes to migration and ventured into new territory. They were willing to be part of forming a new community intended to be a blessing to all families of Earth. And we think of Nicodemus who was also invited to migrate in his religious beliefs and understandings and he held back. He was not ready to move forward.
Today, we see the problems of the world. We see the violence, the war, the shootings. We see the tensions in international relations. We see conflict between religions and cultures. We see economic problems facing communities and countries. We see educational challenges and environmental devastation. And we want to be part of the healing. Part of the migration to a world where all may flourish in peace. So let us look for those new paths. Make needed adaptations. Embrace changes. So that we may be a blessing to all of Creation. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.