March 6, 2022 ~ First Sunday of Lent ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
ROLL DOWN JUSTICE
It was the end of summer about 15 or so years ago. In the life of a local church pastor, that is the time of the year when we get geared-up for the beginning of school-year activities. As I had done every year or two, I asked for the names of the youth in that church who had not yet attended Confirmation Class, so that I could send them an invitation to participate in that year’s class. The Confirmation Classes that I lead typically begin around the end of September with an Orientation Session to which the youth and one or more parents are invited. Reservations are requested so that I will have sufficient packets of materials available for all who attend.
Now, when sending out these invitations, I know that 15 invitations will typically yield about five class members. And these class members are usually youth whose families are actively involved in the life of the church (attending worship regularly, participating in Sunday School and/or Youth Group, and being engaged in missions). I had been serving this church for three years at that point, and I was pretty familiar with the congregation. So, I was more than a little surprised when Bobby and his parents made reservations, because I had never met them. Bobby was thirteen, and he had two older siblings who were in college.
Oh, I had heard the story: Bobby’s parents had taught the preschool Sunday School class for quite a number of years when the older children were in Sunday School. But, something was said, feelings were hurt, and the family quietly slipped away from participation in the church shortly after Bobby was born. They had not been to a single worship service during the tenure of the previous two pastors.
But they were the first to arrive for the Confirmation Orientation Session. After some get-acquainted activities, I ask the youth to complete an information form….name, contact information, family information, and the question: “Have you been baptized, and if so when and where?” In the UMC baptism precedes church membership, so I need to ask about that. I always watch to see if the youth know that they have been baptized, or if they need to ask their parents. That is very indicative of whether or not baptism has been a topic of conversation in their home life. Bobby knew immediately that he had NOT been baptized, and wrote on his paper that he wanted to be baptized as soon as possible.
I arranged for a meeting with Bobby and his parents so that we could talk about the baptism: why it is a sacrament, Biblical teachings, and what all of that means for Bobby and for the family of faith. When a young person of Bobby’s age is baptized they can answer the covenantal questions themselves, rather than just having someone answer on their behalf, so I wanted to make sure Bobby understood what he would be asked, and what would be happening. I was pretty astonished and delighted that Bobby had a rather full theological understanding of baptism even before our conversation began! Although he and his family had not been participating in the life of the church, they had shared many rich conversations about matters of faith, and Bobby had soaked that all in.
In the midst of a baptism of a person of any age ~ newborn through old age ~ my practice is to look into that person’s soul through their eyes, say their name and remind them, “You are named and claimed as a Child of God. Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus.” Bobby had clearly received that message from his parents and family. He knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is a Child of God! He knows who he is, and whose he is! He knows that God will always love him!
Sadly, that is the exception, rather than the norm in our world today, even as it was in the days that Paul penned today’s scripture text. He writes, “I am convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”
I doubt that Paul had us specifically in mind when he wrote this statement about God’s love. Yet I think Paul understood how broken a heart can be, how damaged a spirit can be, and how low one’s self-esteem can become, simply because they are constantly told that they are not welcome, that they do not belong, that they are not accepted. After all, Paul also lived in a world where systems constantly dehumanized people. Paul lived in a world where those in power belittled others. Paul lived in a world which thrived on power, money, and greed. All that mattered was who you knew and how much money was in your pocket. The narrative that shaped Paul’s culture, as it shapes ours, is that we are not enough. We don’t have enough money, power, education, experience, skills, good looks, fancy clothing, notoriety, and the list goes on.
Pastor Heather McColl states, “In writing this statement about God’s love, Paul understood that the greatest gift our faith shares with us is that it breaks through the constant negative narrative and reminds us of who we are, reminds us of whose we are. We are Beloved Children of God, named and claimed. We are created in the image of God.” And nothing, nothing on earth, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
For us as a people of faith, this is what strengthens us. This is what gives us hope. This is what gives us the courage to be in relationship with one another. We are commanded to “love others as we love ourselves.” So, this is what gives us the capacity to love others…all others.
We live in a culture that labels everyone~ Good! Bad! Worthy! Unworthy! On my side! On the other side! It is a radical endeavor to name each person as “Child of God” ~ no matter what people say. This naming of who we are, of whose we are, reminds us that we are called to end this world’s damaging, destructive life-draining message which goes against everything we know to be true about our God. As those who have experienced the grace and love of God, we are called to share this love, this grace with others because we know the transformative power it has to bring about healing and wholeness for all of God’s creation. As Beloved Children of God, we are called to love one another because God first loved us.
This is the starting point for the very difficult, the very messy work of justice-making, because it reminds us that there will never ever be a single person whom we encounter who is not a Beloved Child of God, created in the image of God, and loved more than we could ever imagine.
Before this day is over, look into the soul of another person and remind them, “You Are a Child of God!” Amen.