Scripture Lessons: Job 1:1, 2:7-10 and Mark 10:13-16 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This week there was the celebration of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. You know, the guy who is often pictured talking to the birds and other animals like Dr. Doolittle. St. Francis is remembered for writing an ode to the sun, the stars, and the moon. At the end of the service, we’ll sing a hymn based on his verses. To our ears, it almost sounds, well, Wiccan or Native American. It is an unusual celebration of the natural world for traditional Christianity which is usually so anthropocentric. But St. Francis is hardly seen as edgy or provocative. He seems more eccentric and quaint with his fascination with animals and nature.
But St. Francis is also known for pursuing poverty and he made quite a turn around in his life. He grew up in a context of wealth and privilege. He was known for living the high life. He relished military glory. But as a young adult, he underwent a process of spiritual transformation. We are told that in the town square, in front of his father, the bishop, and the townspeople, he carefully took off all of the clothes he had on, which his father had given him, and folded them into a neat pile, and then renounced his inheritance, exclaiming that God was his only father, and walking away, singing.
In this gentle act, a symbolic gesture, Francis was making a statement about his trust in God and his connection with the world. He saw himself as a child of God, part of God’s Creation, and he did not want to be defined by other biological, cultural, and economic labels. He wanted to self-identify as a child of God, a creature in God’s world. He looked at other people and animals in this way as well. All created, creatures, part of Divine reality: all of it holy and sacred. Theologians today say that Creation is the self-disclosure of God. Francis saw that. All of it. Of God. He was part of God’s family, the human family, living in relationship with all of the other creatures with the natural world as a household. One community of life. One world. One reality.
This is the orientation that we see in the life and ministry of Jesus. While society was busy trying to establish divisions and classifications and hierarchies, Jesus would have none of it. Jesus is completely undermining the standards and assumptions of his society and culture. We see this in the story that we heard this morning with the children. In Jesus’ day, children were non-persons. They were owned by their father. They were completely dependent upon their father for care, inheritance, and life. They had no status. They had no power. They had no rights. They were nobodies. The disciples are annoyed with the children for disturbing Jesus. Children should not be bothering a teacher and his students. They are not worthy of consideration. The disciples are not being rude and heartless. They are expressing accepted cultural norms.
Though this story has a first century context, we might think about groups that are considered non-persons today in our culture. Homeless street people? Refugees? Farmworkers? People of color? People who are made poor? The disciples are accepting the mindset of society about personhood. Jesus is rejecting the mindset of society about personhood.
When Jesus welcomes the children and blesses them, he is affirming their personhood. And he does not stop there. Jesus affirms the personhood of women, the mothers of children, children, Samaritans, Romans, foreigners, the sick, the mentally ill, literally everyone. There is no one who is of “non-person” status with Jesus. The male disciples want to shove the children away, but Jesus will shove no one away. He overturns the accepted notions of society. His vision is inclusive. All are part of the one family of God. And he invites everyone to know their status as dependents on grace, on Divine Love, on God. Everyone is radically dependent upon a God of universal love.
Not one of us is responsible for our being here. For our existence. For our being alive. In this place. At this time. As this species. We are not responsible for the fact that we are here or that there are human beings at all. We are not responsible for the fact that there are dogs or that there are trees or that there are clouds or that there are oceans or that there are mountains. We did not create this Earth. We need to remember this as we seek an appropriate understanding of ourselves as part of everything else that exists, that has emerged, that has appeared and formed. We are part of the created world. We are not responsible for our existence. While we have incredible potential for effecting Creation, and for altering Creation, we are ultimately still created. Like all other creatures. Like the land, the waters, the planets, and the stars. Our faith invites us to remember that we are part of something much bigger that we did not originate. We are one with the rest of all that is.
I experienced this sense of oneness recently when I visited the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. I am not African American. My relatives were in Europe until the early 1900’s so were not part of slavery on this continent. So I have always felt a sense of distance from that part of history. The Wright Museum changed that. The exhibitions begin with a description of the geological formation of the African continent. Then we learn about the emergence of hominids in the Rift Valley. We are told about the first homo sapiens sapiens evolving in the Rift Valley and of our common human ancestor known as “Eve.” Then we hear about the migrating of the human species around the planet. The way the museum tells the story, we are all part of the story because it is not just a story about those we name as being of African heritage or dark-skinned people today but it tells the origin story of all people including me. It was very compelling. I really felt that I was learning about my own history which is really our history as one human family.
Society is always trying to undermine this sense of connection and oneness. We see it in Jesus’ day. We see it in the context of Francis of Assisi. And we see it today. “Us and them.” The “other.” Polarization. Division. We live in a time where everything is branded – liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, American or other. And there is economic division. The haves and have-nots. The 99% and the 1%. Those with capital . This without capital. Management. Labor. Domestic. Foreign. We live in a time beset with divisions and polarization. And the media around is capitalizing on this and making it more ingrained.
Division, tribalism, and fear make people easier to control and manipulate. Christianity is about freedom from this vicious cycle.
There is no room for divisive, polarized thinking in the way of Jesus. Jesus rejected the labeling of people which makes them of different value and differing worth in the eyes of society. He rejected the construct of “us and them.” He rejected the concept of “other.” The way of Jesus, of Christianity, is rebellion against all of these divisions and separations, whatever they may be. There is one human family. Each person a child of Divine Love. In God, reality is one. One enterprise. One unified interconnected whole. All sacred and holy. All a gift. That is the fundamental, foundational concept of our faith. We are not one nation under God, we are one Cosmos within God.
We have to realize that the things that we don’t like in this world, they are part of us. The people we don’t agree with in this world, they are part of us. What we see as abhorrent, anathema, and despicable in this world, it is part of us. We have the capacity for such evil within us. Also, what is good, what is loving, what is true, that is also part of us. We have the capacity for incredible resilient love. And when we see ourselves as part of this oneness, we can have compassion for all of it. For ourselves. For others. And for the Earth itself.
We saw things go on this past week that I am sure we find disappointing if not horrific and infuriating. The problem is that people are putting individual self-interest and loyalty to their “tribe” ahead of their commitment to the bigger reality, the greater whole. So senators were putting their own self-interest, their own re-election, and their own loyalty to their party ahead of the best interests of the whole country and the long-term future. This happens involving politicians all stripes. And while we may be upset with them for doing this, in our own ways, closer to home, we may be doing the same thing – putting our own interests or the interests of our group ahead of the interests of the whole. We may be doing this in the work place. We may be doing this according to race or class. We may be doing this in terms of our commitment to environmentalism. We may even be doing this in our family relationships – putting our self-interest and certain loyalties ahead of the common good. So we need to look at ourselves and think about transforming ourselves and our own outlook and behavior because in that process we can become agents of transformation in wider human society and in the world.
Christianity is an antidote for our human proclivity toward tribalism. Seeing ourselves as part of the whole and affirming this oneness is at the heart of our faith because it is necessary for the flourishing of the realm of God, the commonwealth of God, that Jesus imagines and embodies. When we function from the perspective that all of Creation and reality is one, we let go of our control and our sense of entitlement. We live in gratitude for all that is given that we did not make or cause. We see our unity with others and our connectedness. We all suffer. We all want food and shelter. We all want to live in safety. Humans and animals, alike. Internalizing this sense of connectedness and oneness frees our capacity for empathy and love. We find ourselves being transformed. And since we are part of the one, as we change, the world is changed. When we see others as distinct and separate, we cannot effect change. We can only change ourselves and when we embrace our oneness, and make choices and take actions from that reality, we transform the world.
Communion has always been symbolically about being one with Divine Love in its fullest manifestation. We can think about how the bread and the juice come from the Earth from plants that are grown by the sunlight and the water. We can think about the animals and the birds that spread the seeds so that plants flourish and grow, and the bees that pollenate the plants so that they spread and bear fruit. We enact and hallow our oneness with all of Creation as we eat the bread and cup.
And we embody our connection to each other as human beings and to Jesus the Christ in this offering of bread and cup. There is the idea that Jesus as the Christ, is showing us the capacity and the potential that is in each and every human being. It is not that he was one different, special, “other,” exceptional human being. It’s that he, as a human being, shows us the possibilities of our nature as a species. The love and trust and oneness that we see in Jesus is not just in him. The possibility is in each and every person. It is our oneness.
There was a song made popular in the ’60’s by the band Three Dog Night called “One is the Loneliest Number.” Again and again and again, the phrase is repeated, “one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.”
No, one is not a lonely number. One is about being part of a vast, awe-inspiring, incredible reality connected to and in relationship with all other creatures as well as all that exists on this Earth, in this solar system, in the Cosmos, and on beyond in the infinite expanse of galaxies that our minds do not have the capacity to comprehend. We are woven into the sacred pattern of life, of reality. With everything that is. We are not alone. We are always one. 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.