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In God’s Image

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Genesis 1:20-28

Our passage for today is fairly long and includes the creation of sea creatures, flying creatures, and earthbound creatures. In the interest of time, I am going to skip over all these creatures, wonderful though they are, and move straight to the creation of humankind.

In this story of creation, humankind is the pinnacle of creation, the culmination of all that has come before, and the reason is clear: because humans alone were created in the image of God.

For many centuries, scholars have debated and preachers have expounded on what this means. But rather than go into a long explanation of the theological opinions on this text,        I want us to look at what this story tells us about God, and therefore about ourselves.

The first thing we know about this God is that God has the power of reasoning. God has the mental capacity to reason, to consider choices, and the freedom to make them.  I know this sounds like an obvious statement, a “given,” and therefore not perhaps the best place to start in describing God.  But it is the perfect place to start in terms of describing how we are in God’s image.  We were created with the capacity to reason, and the freedom to make choices.  We are not puppets, lacking our own agency.  We have the capacity to think for ourselves and the freedom to make choices—even if those choices are bad for us, even if those choices wound others.  This, of course, has huge implications for us and for the world we live in. Someone chooses to  drive drunk, and another family pays the price.  Someone else chooses to rape or murder, and lives are changed irreparably.  With the ability to choose comes both the good and the bad.

With the ability to choose also comes personal responsibility. We make a bad choice and are stuck with the consequences.  I remember punishing my daughter when she was about seven, telling and showing her that there are consequences to bad behavior.  She said, “I can’t wait until I’m grown up and there are no consequences!”  I said, “Oh, honey! The consequences just get bigger!”

We are created in the image of God—with the ability to reason and the freedom to choose, and all that comes with that freedom.

The second thing we know about God from this story is that God uses this ability to create: to create light and dark, to create earth and sky and sea, to create aardvarks and duck-billed platypuses and cartilage and bone and marrow. God’s very nature is one of creative endeavor.

And so is ours. We create art and music and novels and dance.  We create children and families.  We create relationships and communities of faith.  We create lives of meaning . . . or despair.  Throughout our lives, we create.  And often we, like God, do it with words.

In my spare time, I am writing a novel. (There. I said it in public. So now I have to finish it!) With words on paper, I am creating characters—people—who most of the time do what I tell them, but who sometimes surprise me by saying things I didn’t know they were going to say!  I’ve always said that I don’t really like working with numbers because you add numbers and you get more numbers.  But with words, you add words and you get sentences and paragraphs and stories and whole new worlds you can enter.  Although I used to work as a book editor, this is the first time I have created fictional worlds that one day, I hope, others will be able to inhabit through reading.  And frankly, I’m a bit overwhelmed by that idea, that I can create this alternate reality simply through words.

But we do it all the time. With our words we can create children who are emotionally healthy or heart-broken.             With our words we can create marriages of respect or disdain.  With our words we can create violence in the public square or polite disagreement or real conversation.  We create worlds with our words.

Of course, our power to create is limited to some extent. We cannot, like God, speak systems into being. We cannot declare, “Let there be healthcare for everyone,” and it is so and I declare it good.  But we can call our Senators to express our hopes that they will protect the most vulnerable among us.  We cannot declare, “Let there be respect for people of all religions,” and suddenly there will be.  But we can actively support our Muslim friends and neighbors and stand up for them if we see them being harassed.  We cannot declare, “Black lives matter,”  and expect that suddenly everyone will value black lives.  But we can wear a t-shirt or display a sign that shows our commitment to equality for all, so that our voice joins with the voices of others.  We can stand up against personal and systemic racism.  And we can examine our own privilege and our resistance to even saying the words “black lives matter.”

You see, we cannot do these things alone—we lack the power to create whole worlds or systems of justice by one word. But WE were created in the image of God, which means that WE, humans together, have creative power.

We can create worlds of justice and shalom.

We can create worlds of mercy instead of judgment.

We can create worlds of forgiveness instead of vengeance.

We can create worlds where all lives really do matter because we paid attention when certain lives were treated as if they did not.

Last week the United Church of Christ held its General Synod—a gathering of representatives of the church, which is held every two years. At this year’s gathering, Rev. Traci Blackmon was elected as our Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries. She is a nationally acclaimed leader in the areas of economic and racial justice.  As an African American pastor serving near Ferguson, Missouri, she became a clear and vibrant voice in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.

I follow her on Facebook, and she told a powerful story about her interactions with the hotel workers during the Synod gathering last week. It is, in some ways, an experience unique to members of the black community, but with lessons for us all. She wrote:

As I prepare to leave Baltimore today, I want to share some behind the scenes reflection. Yesterday Axis, the concierge at the hotel, stopped me in the lobby (when you are in a hotel for longer than a week, you learn names).  He told me he wanted to show me something and then he pulled out a piece of paper and began to read excerpts from my nomination speech at Synod.  I asked him where he got that, since I had not shared about myself in that way, and he said he googled the Synod and my face popped up.  He had the biggest smile on his face…and then told me he was proud of me.

Axis is my elder. I could see the glimmer in his eye. I recognized it.  I grew up with that glimmer.  It was the same glimmer the church mothers of my youth had whenever I spoke in church.  It was the glimmer my grandfather had in the pulpit the first time I sang a solo in the choir.  It was the glimmer of Mrs. Gainey, my high school speech teacher when I won the national oratorical contest.  It was the glimmer my dad had when I made good grades or cooked dinner before he came home from work.  It is the glimmer my mom still has whenever I preach.

I am blessed to know that glimmer. As I waited on the elevator this morning, one of the housekeepers wished me well.  She told me that Axis showed her my speech.  And then she, too, told me she was proud.  There was that glimmer again.  And just like that….I cannot stop crying with overwhelming gratitude for the village I have known in my life.  I thank GOD and all of you for every bit of encouragement, correction, and prayer that has been expended on my behalf.  I thank God for a village that never gives up on me. THIS is what it means to be surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  And for this I give God praise.  May we work to make it so for every child.

I said this experience was in some ways unique to the African American community because I find it unlikely that a white hotel employee would tell a white person with power that he or she was proud of the them.  Why would you be proud of someone you don’t even know   or have any relationship with?  But in the struggles common to African Americans in the U.S., they know things that white America has forgotten: that our lives our intertwined, connected;             that when one rises, we all rise.  We create worlds of possibility when we offer this kind of love and support to every child.  So I can’t help but ask: do the children in our church see the glimmer?  When the Joyful Noise Choir sang last month, and Sammy Proctor danced with joy, did he see the glimmer in our eyes?  When Xander Keiter leads us in the Lord’s Prayer with his voice and guitar,         does he see the glimmer?  When our children and youth succeed in years to come, will they thank God for the village of this church?  Will they remember the glimmer in our eyes?  Just imagine what kind of world we can create together if they do.

We are created in the image of God and so we create.

And last but not least, like God, we can bless. As I’ve mentioned before, the visiting professor at my seminary one year was Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I took a class from him, so for a whole semester I had the privilege of sitting in his class and hearing his stories.  But the best part was simply being in his presence.  There is something about the man that pulses with the presence of God.  One day someone sneezed in class, and he stopped and he said “God bless you!” in such a sincere and powerful way that we all wanted to rush out and catch a cold!  We all wanted to be blessed that way!

What would it look like if we blessed one another that way? Not simply when someone sneezes, but to stop what we’re doing     and recognize someone as an individual in need of blessing—what would that look like? How could we make a difference?  Is it possible that we could change the trajectory of someone’s life simply by blessing them?  Let’s find out.

This week I invite you to look for someone to bless—not just with a dollar in response to a cardboard sign, but to take a moment to see them and bless them. You probably won’t know if it changes anything for them.  But it just might change something for you.  And God will see and say, “It is good.”

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