Scripture Text: Romans 8:31-30
Paul is addressing the concerns of Christians suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire. They are confused, and rightly so. Their big question being: “If I’m already saved, why does my life suck?” And it’s a very good question. Suffering can have a powerful effect on our faith. Suffering can make us feel disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. But Paul gives a rallying cry to those who suffer because of their faith in Christ. In the earlier verses, Paul tells the Romans that even when our suffering makes us so weak that we can’t even pray – the Spirit prays for us “with sighs too deep for words.” That all those who love God – even when we feel disconnected, abandoned, or unworthy of God – are also called by God to serve God’s purposes. Because – and this is where our scripture today really bring Paul’s argument home – there is absolutely NOTHING in the world that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And so, Paul poses a series of rhetorical questions that, for any Christian, should be meaningless –
“With God on our side like this, how can we lose?” – You won’t because you belong to God.
“And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger?”– No worries even if they do, because you are a child of God.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? – NO! Because you are a child of God, infinitely loved by Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is present with you even in the darkest moments of your pain and suffering.
Two weeks ago, the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to do what so many other mainline denominations – including the PCUSA – has done. To make the decision about the worthiness of LGBTQIA+ persons with the church. What’s important to note is that, unlike the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination. And even though 2/3 of the American delegates supported the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ Children of God in the church – including ordination and marriage – the large number of international delegates from more conservative countries in the global south where homosexuality is punishable by death – caused the most conservative proposal to pass by a 6 point margin. Now the denomination is in a period of flux, because despite passing, the conservative proposal has issues that must go before the denomination’s judiciary boards before it can be put into action. But in response to this action of regression instead of progression, United Methodist Deacons, Pastors, Bishops, lay leaders, and congregations all across the U.S. have stated that they will NOT obey the new proposal, even if it does pass the judiciary board. Congregations have hung giant rainbow flags stating things like: “All are really welcome” or “We’re not those kind of Methodists.” And these congregations and leaders are responding this way because they see their actions as a push for social justice within the Church. That to pass such a resolution is to say that there are some people who are disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. And the LGBTQIA+ community is suffering and lamenting the actions of the greater church. The Church which raised them, baptized them, confirmed them, and taught them that God loved them, is now the Church that will not marry them to the person they love. The Church where they heard the Spirit’s call to ministry is now the Church that will not ordain them because of the person they love. The feelings of many in the LGBTQIA+ community is that the Church does not see them as a child of God. And they are pushing back, declaring themselves and all people – even those who opposed their inclusion – to be children of God, loved by God, never to be separated from God – even by actions of the Church.
For people struggling to understand the issues surrounding the exclusion and oppression of people because of their race, gender, social class, religion, etc., the argument is often – “But I’m color-blind. I don’t see color. It’s not about that." And you know what? They are right. The problem is not that we are blind to race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, etc. The problem is that we are blind to God. The problem is, we prefer to see someone for what makes them separate from us rather than what we share in common. The problem is, we prefer to see someone as the “Other” our culture made them into rather than the Child of God that God created to be. The problem is, we prefer labels over names.
Labels are easy. Labels are simple. Labels are shallow. Labels are safe. Labels don’t require you to engage with another child of God but allows you the safety and comfort of gossip, rumors, and exaggeration. Labels don’t require you to think about the individuality of another child of God but allows you the ease of thoughtless, simple stereotypes and assumptions. Labels don’t require the risk of a relationship with another child of God but allows you to rest in the safety of shallow social niceties.
But to name someone is different. Names are difficult. Names are complex. Names are deep. Names are risky. Naming requires you to engage with another child of God, to share a conversation with them, even when the conversation is awkward and uncomfortable – because that usually means that there is something about you that needs to change. Naming requires you to think about all the complex factors that compose the God-given identity of each individual child of God – a complex combination of their age, gender-identity, religion, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, sexuality, family of origin, etc. – so that you can see them as more than a nameless label. Naming requires you to be vulnerable to another child of God, getting to know their soul and not the labels forced upon them by our culture of fear and anxiety. The only label that should ever apply to another person is “Child of God.” And for each person you label as a “Child of God” you then have to be able to Name Each One. Because unlike a person’s race, gender-identity, sexuality, etc. – seeing someone as a “Child of God” and being able to call them by name is a choice. If we don’t know someone’s name, it’s because we choose NOT to know them. And we make that choice over and over again, each and every time we encounter another “Child of God.” Choosing to know someone well enough to name them is one of the most important choices we must make as individual Christians and as the Church if we are to continue building the Kin-dom of God in the here and now by bringing about justice for ALL of God’s children. Because if you don’t know someone well enough to name them, then how do you know they’ve received the justice they deserve?
Imagine what our community would be like if we knew people by their names instead of their labels? Imagine what our church would be like if we all actually knew each other’s names (because there are some of us who don’t and we’ve chosen not to do that)? Imagine what the world would be like if we stopped being God-blinded and started seeing others through the eyes of Christ? We would discover that everyone we meet is a Child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Spirit. Imagine if every Church saw all people that way? Imagine how many of us in this room – especially those of us who are white, straight, male, Christians – imagine how you would feel if someone saw you as your labels instead of knew you by your name? Imagine if they saw you as something other than a child of God? Imagine if those labels caused them to actually fear you?
Last semester, one of my World Religions students – a young, white, straight, male, good ‘ol boy from DeSoto – did an extra credit assignment by visiting the mosque in St. Louis. Here is what he wrote:
I had an experience, and it was a small one, but it made me think differently about how people perceive me and how other people are perceived. It was shortly after the Pittsburgh incident at the synagogue last year. And by shortly, I mean one or two weeks after that. I was visiting Daar-Ul-Islam, a local mosque in the St. Louis area. While I was there taking the tour, I noticed the security guard following the tour around. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I figured he did that all the time; it’s what security is supposed to do. But I was the only one on the tour, and it just seemed weird the entire time to me. At the end of the tour I was talking to the Guide, and she said something that caught me off guard. “We were worried when we got your phone call. With what just happened in Pittsburgh, we didn’t know if we were next.” At first, I was at a loss for words. It completely caught me off guard, and I never would have expected that coming from anyone. Even if you are thinking that, you don’t say that to anyone. In fact, if you did say that to someone, that is the exact thing that would have set them off. After I left, I cooled off some in my car. I thought on it for a while and understood why they might have thought that. After it was said and done, [I realized] they handled my visit very professionally, aside from the end. But to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with the respect that they did, and tried to answer all the questions that I asked, it really shows how dedicated they are to their religion and helping inform new people about it.
Listen to that last sentence again: “to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with respect… really shows how dedicated [Muslims] are to their religion and helping inform new people about it." I wonder how many people can say that about the Church? I wonder how many churches could do the same thing? – treat someone as a child of God even in the face of the fear that they might “shoot up the place”? In our current culture of fear and anxiety, it’s becoming more and more difficult to name people as a child of God instead of labeling as something they’re not. But as Christians, we are called to be better than our culture. We are called to see everyone as a child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Holy Spirit. And we can do that because, as scripture teaches us, we are already named as God’s beloved child in our baptism. We are already embraced by the love of Christ that will never be lost. And we are already called by the Holy Spirit to serve the world. There is nothing that will ever take any of that away. There is nothing you can do that will ever take that away. It’s just the reality of creation. And because of our identity as beloved and called children of God, we love our neighbors as ourselves no matter where they live, who they are, what they look like, how they believe, when they got here, or why they love someone. That’s not our responsibility. That’s not our authority. We are called simply to love. And in loving them, they discover that they are a beloved child of God.
It reminds me of an email an openly gay student sent me after the semester ended. In the email he wrote:
“Until I took your class, I never thought I could go to church again.
Now I know that I can when I am ready.
Thank you for helping me know that I am loved by God.”
Yes, my sibling in Christ. You are a beloved child of God.
And each and every one of you is a beloved child of God.
And to remind you of that, and to help us to name each other,
I want you to turn to someone near you,
find out their name if you don’t know it, and say this to them:
“[Kirk], you are a child of God.” Let’s us stand and do that now.