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You Belong

Sunday, March 8, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 1:26-27; Leviticus 26:12-13; Galatians 3:27-28
Sermon Series: Sunday Morning, Monday Morning – Part 2: Covenant/Image of God & Identity

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Today is week 2 of our Lenten sermon series, “Sunday Morning, Monday Morning,” where we are taking a term or a concept from our faith tradition, words that we use on Sunday morning and which can sometimes feel a bit “churchy.” We’re reflecting on the deep meaning that those words have for our lives in the world during the week, beginning on “Monday morning.” These are not remote terms that are useful for passing an ordination exam, but not much else. Rather, these are terms and concepts that can provide us with grounding and direction and confidence for our lives.

We need this kind of grounding and direction and confidence all the time, but we especially need it during times of great anxiety. And we’re living through one of those times right now – between the fears around the coronavirus, the intense polarization that leads us to see each other as enemies and threats, and what can sometimes feel like the unraveling of society. These are the kinds of times when people turn to their faith, when faith can provide us with security and courage and honesty – not in a Pollyanna kind of way, but in a deep, slow, wise way.

Today we are reflecting on a series of texts that get at the underlying question of “who are we?” with the concepts of the ‘image of God’ and ‘covenant.’ These terms address questions of identity, questions about what it means to be human, questions about where we go to secure and find our identity. It is no secret that these questions of identity arise with acute intensity at certain transitional points in our lives, when we are having to make decisions about how we’re going to live – adolescence is one such time, young adulthood, middle age, retirement, end of life. We can find ourselves asking, “What am I doing here? What do I need to be doing? Do I belong? Who else belongs?”

These questions get off to a big start in our reading from Genesis 1. Right on the first page of the Bible, we hear this majestic pronouncement, which we may have been hearing all our lives so that we miss its astonishing power: “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

You could spend an entire semester chewing on this text. But for the moment, let’s set aside some of the questions that are raised by this text, questions like “who exactly is the ‘us’ to whom God is talking here?” Setting those important – and fascinating – questions to the side, what I want us to notice here is that every person that has ever lived is created in the image of God – all the supposedly good people, as well as all the supposedly bad people; all the people you like, and every single person that you despise; people of every nationality and color and faith and sexual orientation and political affiliation – every person that has ever lived is created in the image of God.

We all bear the image of God in our lives. From the beginning of all that is, from page 1, before we do anything to deserve it, we are marked in some mysterious but enduring way with the image of God. The Latin term for this – I’m not sure that there are a huge number of Latin terms that people need to walk around with, but this is one – the Latin term for ‘image of God’ is imago Dei. “Dei” like ‘deity.’ You bear the image of God. So does the person sitting next to you. So does the homeless person that you’ll drive past at the intersection on the way home. So does the star student in your class. So does the teenager in your neighborhood who’s having trouble finding her way through high school. So does the person incarcerated in the federal penitentiary. So does the exorbitantly wealthy CEO.

The image of God is imparted to us in creation, and no one can take it away from us. One useful exercise can be to greet other people – at least in your mind, if not out loud – by saying to them, “Well, hello, image of God.” It reminds you of the basic dignity that is inherent to us and that belongs to all people.

Genesis 1 speaks to us of the image of God that is planted in us from the get-go. You’ve got it. No one can take it away from you. Leviticus 26 is one of the texts that understands that, just because no one can take it away from you, doesn’t mean that someone’s not going to try. Leviticus is the third book of the Bible, immediately following the book of Exodus. Exodus tells the story of how the people of Israel ended up in debt slavery in Egypt for 400 years, where Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, used and abused the people as commodities in his production economy. Among other things, what that means is that Pharaoh did not recognize the image of God in them. When you consciously recognize the image of God in another person, it changes the way you relate to them, and it puts constraints on how you treat them. You will not enslave or abuse someone in whom you recognize the image of God.

But Pharaoh’s spiritual powers of recognition were blunted, to put it politely. In Pharaoh’s eyes, the Hebrew people were faceless nobodies. They were subhuman; they were animals to use for their productivity. And the Hebrew people were in slavery for 400 years. Which means that the identity of being ‘nobodies’ was not just being done to them; it had gotten inside of them. They had absorbed Pharaoh’s awful treatment of them. So when God liberated the Hebrew people from their slavery, God’s work was not done when they departed Egypt. God then had to rewire them from the inside out, to overcome the bad wiring of the empire.

God’s term for that was to enter into ‘covenant’ with them. “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” is the basic form of that covenant. You belong to me, God tells them. We belong to each other. This is like a marriage vow between God and the people. And then God makes it clear that there are others who will try to take away our God-given identity, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect, made you walk with your head held up high.”

In our Wednesday Bible study this past week, we were studying this text with some of our neighbors from Shiloh Baptist Church here in McLean, and one of the persons in the group observed that when you are in some kind of slavery, you will walk with your head bowed down. When someone else has taken your identity, you will not walk erect. But people who know that they are created in the image of God do not walk with their heads down. Image of God people walk with our heads held up. We belong to God.

These two terms – image of God and covenant – come to a head in our text from Galatians 3, where it is made clear – if it’s not already – that these texts are not just about us as individuals. These texts are not just to make us feel good about the fact that we belong. These texts are about the shape of the whole community, these texts are about how, when our identity is rooted and grounded in God, the usual boundary markers in our human society begin to fall away. The letter of Galatians, like many other texts in the New Testament, is wrestling with the relationship between Gentile and Jewish Christian believers in the faith community. Can Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus Christ co-exist in the same covenant community, or are their differences irreconcilable? Does Jesus Christ hold them together, or will their different identities keep them apart?

I hope that you can hear the way that these questions have contemporary resonance. Today, we’re not primarily wrestling with whether Gentile and Jewish believers in Jesus can live together, but it seems to me that in North America, we are very much wrestling with whether Republican and Democratic believers, white and black believers, gay and straight believers, old and young believers, rich and poor believers, you name a polarity, whether they can belong together.

What the apostle Paul says, in poetic words that make a beautiful tapestry, is that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” You all belong. Together. At times, it may seem like it’s easier to let our social identity markers keep us apart; but it is not better, because it is not true. At a strict level, this text is addressing the social boundaries of the church, the Christian community, but I would argue that the text can enlarge our thinking about not just the boundaries of the Christian community, but of the larger community as well. We all belong. Together. We have to do the hard work of figuring out what our common life together is going to look like.

‘Image of God’ and ‘covenant,’ then, are words that are addressed to us as individuals. They bring us words of deep and enduring assurance that, no matter what the rest of the world may tell us, God has marked us with God’s own image. You carry the image of the creator of the universe in you. You are not a nobody; you are not a loser; you are created in the image of God. God has bound God’s self to you in covenant. You are part of the covenant community. The next time you’re feeling down on yourself, remember this. Think of the difference that it could make to the millions of desperate, lonely people in our society, if they knew that they were permanently marked with the image of the creator God, that they were not rejects.

And these are words that are addressed to us as a community, for they tell us that, not only are we part of the covenant community, not only do we bear the image of God, but so do our neighbors. Because you bear the image of God and are part of the covenant community, you have an inherent dignity and certain inalienable rights. And so does your neighbor. The more we grasp the power of being marked with the image of God, the more we will insist on being treated with dignity and treating others with dignity, especially when some Pharaoh tries to do otherwise.

You are created in the image of God. You belong. To God be all the glory. Amen.