A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
All Saints Sunday • November 1, 2020
All My Children was a long running soap opera; before you ask me about Susan Lucci or her character, let me say that I really know nothing about the TV show. Last week, we thought about how to relate to God and remembered what Jesus said: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul.” I was still hearing that in my head and thought, “But how does God see us?” That phrase—all my children—immediately leaped to mind. So I looked it up and found this summary of the show by Agnes Nixon, its originator
The Rich and the Poor, The Weak and the Strong,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_My_Children
In Sickness and in Health, In Joy and Sorrow,
In Tragedy and Triumph.
I thought that summed up how God sees us: we see all our various conditions, our poverty, our riches, our styles, our failures, successes, problems, hopes, fears; God sees all God’s children.
This is how scripture says it in the first letter of John:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.1 John 3:1
Roman society, the culture in which this letter was written had the relationship of children and father at its center. Roman fathers were not just emotionally powerful in families as they are today, they were empowered by the law to govern the family.. Adoption legally as well as emotionally brought someone into the family and was common. So John is invoking the most powerful structure he knows to describe how God sees us: as a father sees children.
It’s not a bounded, limited circle; others can be adopted in and the Apostle Paul makes that point. After a long discussion of the place of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants as children of promise, he says,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 1For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.Romans 8:14-16 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471232722
See how once again he describes us as children of God. ‘Abba’ is not simply a word for ‘father” it’s an intimate term. It’s the word Jesus uses in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and it’s the words he uses on the cross. It is less ‘father’ and more “daddy’, less general and more loving.
Now there are some things that flow from this. The first one is that no one ever goes away. Parents know how this works. When kids grow up, we see that but we also see the child, we remember the child. I drive May to work mornings when she goes to her office. I’ve been doing it off and on since she was in high school. She picks the music and when Fall Out Boy comes on or Panic at the Disco or God help me Wake me up when September ends plays, I remember those days. I have—or had!—brown hair and brown eyes. So did my mother, father, and my brother Allan. Six years later, my brother David came along. He didn’t look like us; he had blue eyes and light colored hair. Everyone commented on how different he looked until my dad’s mother saw him. She took one look and said, “Oh my, little Elmer!” Elmer was my Dad’s older brother. She remembered her child and saw him continued in my brother. Scripture tells us God is ageless and changeless, so like a parent, no one goes away to God, not ever. There’s all there, just like Uncle Elmer was there for my grandmother.
There’s a second group God sees that we often forget: those who aren’t here yet. This is the thing all growing churches know. Growing churches constantly plan for people who aren’t here yet, people God will bring here. So they work on welcoming, they treat each visitor as someone special, sent for a purpose they can’t wait to understand. They don’t get bound up in brass chains. Do you know about these? Brass chains are when we let honoring the past hobble the future. It’s the point in the joke about how many Congregationalists it takes to change a light bulb. Change a light bulb? No way: my grandfather gave that light bulb. We make room for those not here yet s parents and grandparents. When we bought a house in Michigan, my daughter Amy and my son in law Nick had two children with a third on the way; Bridget was born a month or so after we got there.But even before Bridget appeared, Jacquelyn picked out a house with room for all and a crib for her. She saw the ones who weren’t there yet.
So God’s children includes those who aren’t present here any more; they’re still present to God. God’s children includes those who aren’t present here yet; they’re still present to God. I know you’ve noticed I left someone out.: those of us here now— that’s us! What about us? We’re children of God too, and God has in mind a way for us to be present to each other just as we’re present to God. Now if you have siblings like I do, I know a secret: that sometimes you’ve wondered or hoped your mom or dad liked you best. But if you ask a parent, they will always tell you the same thing: “I love all my children equally.” It’s the same with God.
That’s why Jesus gives the instructions we read in Matthew to his followers, to us. He lives in a rigidly hierarchical society. That means everyone is part of a pyramid. The emperor and kings are at the top, then there are officials, rulers, rich people and so on down the line to the peasants, which is what he is, and finally, the servants and slaves. In Jerusalem, there are religious authorities, called scribes and priests, who are high, there are Pharisees who are high and when you are high up on the pyramid you show it by, as he says, sitting in the high seats, making rules for others, having the place of honor at banquets. But to us, to all his followers, he says instead,
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. The greatest among you will be your servant.Matthew 23:8-11 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471233063
What he clearly has in mind is a radical equality among his followers. You demonstrate devotion to Jesus by serving others, not by having servants. It’s the image of a family gathered in love, equally sharing burdens and joys.
Let’s be honest: we haven’t always done this. Congregationalists started out with radical equality as a principle. They got rid of bishops, they functioned in Plymouth without a minister for decades. But we’ve back slid. In the United Church of Christ, we have Conference Ministers. We hear leaders in church talk about being in control.
But my mother in law, Marilyn Welling, had the right idea. She had five children. There were divorces and separations and remarriages and births and the family grew and grew. Some of them have never met; some aren’t that fun to be around. But to Marilyn, they were all family. She had a whole wall of pictures to remind her. Anne Lamott talks about this kind of wall.
There are pictures of the people in my family where we look like the most awkward and desperate folk you ever saw, poster children for the human condition. But I like that, when who we are shows. Everything is usually so masked or perfumed or disguised in the world, and it’s so touching when you get to see something real and human. I think that’s why most of us stay close to our families, son matter how neurotic the members, how deeply annoying or ill—because when people have been you at your worst, you don’t have to put on the mask so much. And that gives us license to try on that radical hat of liberation.Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 215
The radical hat of liberation is just what Jesus came to give, it’s why he wore the crown of thorns, it’s the purpose of the cross: to set us free from the high places and low places to be children together, children of God.
Now along with children of God, there’s another word for all of us. In the original language of the Bible, it’s often translated ‘elect’ and it means chosen. But it also is translated ‘Saints’. So this is who we are, God’s children, all the saints. You, me: those who came before, those who are coming later, all of us here now, all the saints. This is how God sees us: all my children, equally loved, equally called, whether past, future or present. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”