Readings: Genesis 1:24-31; Luke 17:20-21; Gospel of Thomas 2:1-3
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Summer sermons based on topics requested by the congregation
Kate Atkinson’s book, A God in Ruins, is a story that takes place in England before and during World War 2. Near the end of the book, one of the characters goes to a retreat center. While there, she hears this short speech:
There is a Hindu legend that tells us that there was once a time when all men were gods, but they abused their divinity. Brahma, the god of creation, concluded that people had lost their right to their divinity and decided to take it away from them. Wanting to hide it somewhere where they wouldn’t be able to find it, he called a council of all the gods to advise him. Some suggested that he bury it deep in the earth, others that they sink it in the ocean, others still suggested it be placed on top of the highest mountain, but Brahma said that mankind was ingenious and would dig down far into the earth, trawl the deepest oceans and climb every mountain in an effort to find it again.
The gods were on the point of giving up when Brahma said ‘I know where we will hide man’s divinity, we will hide it inside him. He will search the whole world but never look inside and find what is already within.’
When we look to the teachings of various religious traditions we find that there are similar stories in Judaism and Christianity and other folklore. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, right up front at the very beginning of our scriptures in the book of Genesis, where we look for the foundations of our belief system, we are told that humanity is created in the image of the gods. This sounds very much like divinity within the human species. We also have the story of the garden of Eden and the people leaving their God-like status behind. In the teachings of Jesus, we find reference to the realm of God that is within us. We also have the teachings associated with Jesus that not only is he the light of the world but that we are the light of the world as well. Again, this sounds very much like the idea of divinity within each and every one of us.
Many of the individual stories associated with Jesus show his care and compassion for those who are not of much status or value in society. Again, it is as if Jesus is treating everyone as though they were sacred, special, divine. So, we see that the teachings of our tradition lend themselves to an understanding of God in everyone.
We can also think about this idea not only in terms of teachings but in terms of consequences. What are the consequences of this concept of God being in everyone? If we think that God is in all life, and specifically in every person, this has implications for how we think about others and treat others and what we expect from others. If we think God, the most important, valued, center of our reality, is in every other person, then we are likely to highly value others: To treat them with reverence and respect. To care for others and be concerned about their highest good. This brings to mind the story of Jesus telling his listeners that whatever they have done for the least of these they have done for him. If they have helped someone poor, or hungry, or in prison, they have helped Jesus. If we see God in everyone, then whatever we have done for others, we have done for God. This story echoes with the idea of the divine in every person.
To accept that the divine is in every person leads to the kind of living, choices, and values that we see embodied in Jesus. He responded to those who were outcast, forgotten, and ignored. He cared for the sick, the suffering, the sinner. Unlike other religious people of his day, Jesus had time for those who were considered enemies, the detested ones, the corrupt people, and the cheats. In the stories we have about the ministry of Jesus, we see that no one was beneath his love and care. It sure seems like Jesus sees the divine image of God in everyone.
There was a beautiful expression of this kind of commitment recently in the Girl Scouts. Last spring someone donated $100,000 to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington. The executive director was thrilled to receive such a large gift. This money was about one fourth of fundraising goal for the year. The gift could give 500 girls the opportunity to go to camp. It was a wonderful expression of generosity. Then Bruce Jenner, the Olympic athlete, shared the journey of being transgendered and becoming Caitlyn Jenner. After that story was told, the donor to the Girl Scouts asked that the $100,000 gift not be used for transgender girls. The donor wrote: “Please guarantee that our gift will not be used to support transgender girls. If you can’t, please return the money.” The Girl Scouts could do so much good with that money. I am sure that they did not want to return it. But return it they did. Every penny of the $100,000. And there was a very simple explanation: “Girl Scouts is for every girl.” This is the kind of decision that comes from valuing each and every person equally and seeing that every person is sacred. [“Girl Scouts’ moral courage,” Leonard Pitts, Tampa Bay Times, 7/5/15]
While the Girl Scouts might not say it this way, this decision is based on the assumption that every girl is beloved and deserving. We could say, every person a vessel for the divine. No exceptions.
The basis of Christianity is that we are called to give ourselves for the good of the world. We are here to serve. We find our lives, our highest good, when we help others. This understanding is based on the foundation that all people bear the divine image of God, whether they think so or not. Our faith teaches us to look for God in the person who annoys us, in the person we are mad at, in the person we don’t like, in ourselves, in our families, in our friends, in people who are different than we are, and in people that we don’t understand. Our tradition teaches us to love everyone and treat everyone with respect. This is what it looks like when we see God in every person.
In thinking about the concept of seeing God in everyone, let’s think about what it is like if we don’t see God in everyone. What if we do not believe that the divine is in each and every person? How might that affect our choices and behavior? If we do not think that God is in everyone then the lives of others will be valued to different degrees. This person is good. This person isn’t. This person deserves to be treated well. This person doesn’t. With this outlook, people become judges of each other. They decide who is and is not worthy of basic rights, dignity, and respect. Who does and does not get served. Who we do and don’t care about. This kind of thinking definitely leads to the haves and have nots. The privileged and the expendable. Some people are going to be favored at the expense of others. Life is not of equal value. People are not of equal value.
If we do not live from the assumption that God is in everyone, then we can justify being mean to others, killing others, treating others unfairly, and taking advantage of others. With this view, people and other forms of life can be treated like trash with justification.
This kind of thinking is not consistent with Christian teachings and values. This is not the way of Jesus. This is not in keeping with the stories that Jesus shared about loving our neighbors, whoever they may be, and our enemies. If we do not see God in everyone, then we are not compelled to treat everyone with respect and dignity and compassion.
Now, a discussion of these ideas would not be complete without thinking about some of the people that we consider really evil. Can God be in them? Can we possibly say that there was a spark of God in Adolf Hitler? Or in the mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer? Or in the unibomber Ted Bundy? Or in Charles Manson? Or in Dylan Storm? Or in the people that behead others in public spectacles? Or those behind the massacres in Armenia or Bosnia which have been commemorated recently? Could God be in those people? Now, I want you to know that I don’t like to be sexist. Maybe you noticed that my list of evil people was all men. I tried to think of despicable women that we could add to the list, and I couldn’t come up with much that was in league with these others. Women mass murderers are not on the tip of our tongues but if you do a Google search for “evil women,” you can find out about some of the evil women of history and their terrible deeds as well. So there are people, women and men, who have done terrible things that we think of as being beyond redemption. What do we make of them in light of the idea of God being in everyone? Is God in those who are evil, too? How can that be?
One way we can think about this is that God is in everyone, but everyone doesn’t know it or see it. Maybe no one encouraged the person to look at life that way. No one helped the evil person find God in him or her self. No one showed them the good they are capable of. No one encouraged them to look for the divinity within. No one taught them to see the good in others. Somehow they did not learn that life is sacred. They did not accept the proposition that God, the divine, is in them and in everyone else. And so they persisted in carrying out terrible evil. For them, the divine remained hidden. They didn’t figure out how to see God in themselves and the world.
We can also wonder, if God is in everyone, why aren’t more people good? In a recent article about being good, David Brooks of the New York Times tells us:
About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.
Brooks goes on to analyze how people become good: How they draw it out of themselves, thus implying hope for him, and for others, if they work at it. The assumption is that everyone is capable of that kind of goodness if they pursue it. In the picture that goes with the article, there is an outline of a head with a lighthouse in the facial area and the light from the lighthouse where the eye would be. The graphic shows what Brooks assumes which is that the good is within, if we choose to let it shine. We can think of that as the divine within. It is there if we look for it. We can draw it out of ourselves and others and give it expression if we have the will. [“The beacon of becoming good,” David Brooks, Tampa Bay Times, 4/26/15]
Where are people to learn this kind of moral outlook? While it should be stock and trade in church, it is not. Often the church seems more bent on judging and saving some at the expense of others. Is it to be learned in school? Hard to fill in a bubble on a test to show it has been learned. Since many people won’t make it into a church or a place of worship where such things should be emphasized, we are left to do like Jesus: To take it to the streets. He went out and about in cities and towns and the countryside – showing people how to find the love of God within themselves and others. He took the message to the people, not waiting for them to come and get it at the Temple or at a local synagogue. He went out and showed people that God was within them. He took the love of God out to where it was needed. And I think that we need to take the message of God’s love for all and in all to the people; out into the world. We can show people by the way we act what we believe. We can show them where to look for love, for goodness, for the divine – within themselves and others. We can show the world that all lives matter – girls, boys, smart, slow, rich, poor, brown, white, all are precious and sacred. This is how we can invite others to find and act on the good within themselves and others and not the evil.
The person who requested a sermon on the story from A God In Ruins asks, “Is the Brahma right?” Is God hidden in each and every person? Well, we can’t do a scan or diagnostic procedure to find God in each person, but I think that we can say that this idea is consistent with Christian teachings. But is this “right”? Is it morally good? Is it true? We are an outcome oriented society. So when we think about the outcome, do we get a better world for everyone if we believe there is divinity in everyone? Or do we get a better world if people are left to judge and take action according to their own outlook? I think we can say that a world in which people see God, divinity, the sacred, in one another is a world that is more just and compassionate and good. It is a world where people can live together in peace. So I think we can say Brahma is right. Jesus is right. And we are right when we honor the presence of the divine in ourselves and in each and every life. 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.