“The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein…”
May I speak to you in the name of the [+] G-d from whom all things come, in whom all things exist and to whom all things return. AMEN.
[To hear the sermon, you can go to the Youtube recording of the service at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yny6Uq8MCt8 The sermon begins at 34:25]
It is not often that I focus on the thinking of St. Paul in my sermons. I suspect I am like many of you in that I have a conflicted relationship on a good day with this man whose thought is found in letters and writings attributed to him which make up 14 of the 27 books of what we Christians call our New Testament.
Not All Pauls are Alike…
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. (I Cor. 13:4-6)
There is a reason that this passage is often used in weddings. This is Paul at his best. He is lyrical, his spirit is generous, his words evidencing a universalizing level of consciousness well beyond the bounds of the tribal values of his time.
Then there is the thinking of Paul from the very same book which seems at odds with some of the other egalitarian language we hear from Paul as well as the practice of the early Jesus movement which abounded with women’s leadership. Here Paul says:
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man….. [W]omen should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
(I Cor. 11:4-7, 14:34-35)
Here is Paul at his worst, echoing and thus legitimating the values of his honor/shame patriarchal culture: Women should keep their heads covered and their mouths shut. If you have any questions, ask your husbands. If you are like me, I find little to admire in this. My guess is that many of you have a similar reaction.
Mural: Ephesus church, Paul and Thecla
Then there is the Paul who appears in today’s epistle to the Ephesians. Here he makes the argument that the followers of this sect of Judaism that is rapidly developing into a new religion of its own that will come to be called Christianity were somehow destined - if not predestined, as Augustine and his followers will argue - to become adopted children of G_d. I want to say up front that this is an incredibly problematic assertion that I find completely lacking in any compelling reason. But before we consider that, we need a bit of context to understand this passage.
Paul states that his letter here is addressed to the community of Jesus followers who are at Ephesus. A city on the coast of what is now Turkey near the legendary site of the city of Troy, Ephesus is the largest city and the main port in the heart of the Aegean Sea cultural and trading region. It’s hardly surprising that Jesus following Jews would be found in Ephesus. This city has had a good-sized Jewish population for six centuries prior to the time of Paul. The synagogues are well established there and, given the tensions in the Roman Empire around the Jewish tradition reverberating out of the ongoing uprisings of zealots in Judea, the leaders of these synagogues are not interested in any kind of behaviors that would draw the attention of imperial Rome.
Adoption by G-d – Good News for Outcasts
It is telling that the references to becoming adopted children of G-d only appear in the writings of St. Paul, specifically the letters to the Romans, the Galatians and the Ephesians from which today’s epistle is taken. In each of these places, the Jews of those synagogues were making it increasingly clear that Jesus following Jews and the so-called God fearers among the Gentiles who attended their synagogues were not true Jews. Eventually, this internal conflict will prompt those deemed less than fully Jewish to form their own religious bodies which in time would develop into the stream of traditions we today call Christianity.
But, if you are one of the outsiders in these first century communities, challenged by your coreligionists, it is hardly surprising that you would want reassurance from the leader of your movement about the validity of your religious path. And that is what we hear in the words of Paul this morning. The Jews may have been the original chosen people, the children of G_d, but you have been adopted into that tradition by your faith, a path for which you were always destined. You are now the new children of G-d.
In that context, the thought of Paul makes perfect sense. But the problem is, it doesn’t stay there. And in the end, that will have serious ramifications for those outside the Christian tradition.
To get a sense of how pervasive this adoption text taken out of context can be, I found that there are six references to being adopted children of G_d in our Book of Common Prayer. Two of them appear in collects, one for Christmas Eve, the other for Easter Vigil. There is a reference to becoming adopted children of G-d in our Baptismal rite. And there are two references to adoption in our Catechism and one in the 39 Articles of our historical documents at the end of our prayer book.
So What’s the Problem?
So, what’s the problem with that? Clearly it’s one way of seeing our relationship with G-d. There is a sense of chosenness in being adopted by G_d. And for most of us, adoption of human children is a good thing. In my family I have four adopted cousins whom I love dearly. But when it comes to our faith tradition, it is more problematic.
The first problem with this concept is that it runs counter to the dominant understanding of our relationship to G-d that results from Creation. In Genesis, that relationship is clear. From the moment of our creation, all living beings - assessed as “very good” by their Creator - bear the image of G_d and hold the capacity to grow ever more into the divine likeness. That understanding is reflected in today’s Psalm: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” Everything that lives has come from our Creator G-d.
We come into being as G-d’s children. Thus, there is no need for us to be adopted.
Image: “I Am a Child of God,” Howard Lyon
The second problem with this concept is that it simply runs counter to the teaching of Jesus. He never talks about adoption. He is clear that everyone is a child of a G-d from the outset, a G-d who makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Jesus’ call to his followers is not that they should become children of G_d but rather that they should live into their calling as children of G_d:
“You are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth!” Who? All of you!
If there was ever a time Jesus could have driven down on notions of adoption of those outside the Hebrew tradition, it would have been in his parable of the Good Samaritan. There he addresses the question of who one’s neighbor is and what duties are owed them. In the end, he cleverly asserts that tribal boundaries and the prejudices that attend them must be transcended if one is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In short, these folks don’t need to be adopted into our tribe to become G_d’s children. We are called to recognize them as fellow children of G_d now and treat them accordingly.
The Ones That Aren’t Saved
So what happens when self-serving theologies of adoption dominate our understandings of our faith and those outside it? I think the recent news out of Canada may offer us some insights. And they are troubling.
Beginning in the 1870s, the churches of Canada were given the task of teaching First Nation children there how to function in the Eurocentric culture of Canada’s European settlers. These children were rounded up from their tribal homes and brought by force to schools across Canada. The churches who were authorized and funded by the Canadian government to operate these schools were charged with two primary objectives: one, to civilize these indigenous children, a goal which essentially meant stripping them of their native languages and cultures and replacing them with Eurocentric values; and two, to Christianize the children.
No doubt there were religious leaders at these schools who operated out of the highest of intentions. But at a very basic level, the indigenous people understood this interaction in a much different way. As Colorado State professor Ward Churchill would describe it, from the perspective of the indigenous people, the ultimate goal was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Sadly, many of the children involved in this presumptuous process were not saved. Recent forensic findings at several residential schools in Canada have found the evidence of mass graves containing the bodies of hundreds of Indian children. Bear in mind, if the one who understands themselves to be a child of G_d but presumes up front that the other they are encountering is not, the duties they owe to the Other are minimal on a good day. This is a pernicious pattern that repeats itself in history. Indeed, the first examinations of American reservation schools, some of them led by our own Episcopal tradition, are just beginning. Stay tuned.
Theologies of adoption may be incredibly self-satisfying for those who presume they are, in fact, those who have been adopted. But I find such theologies to be profoundly misguided and woefully in need of reconsideration. Perhaps, more importantly, to those outside the bounds of the tribe, these theologies can readily prove deeply destructive.
How we see ourselves, how we see others and our relationship to the G-d who created us makes a decided difference in the ways we behave. This day our lectionary presents us with two very different choices of how to view our world and those within it. We can opt for an ongoing acontextual, self-serving reading of Paul’s notion of adoption or we can affirm the words of the Psalmist who reminds us the world and everything and everyone within it belong to G-d from the moment of our creation. And from that common beginning point flow our duties to ourselves, to all others, to our created world and to the G-d who both pervades but is not confined to that world.
I think this is not a difficult choice. But don’t take my word for it. I present it to you for your consideration this morning. And I hope you will take it seriously. Our collect points us in that direction so I close with it. Let us pray:
O G-d, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.