a sermon on Psalm 84 and Acts 2:43-47
preached on July 10, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Alton Sterling, child of God.
Blane Salamoni, child of God.
Howie Lake II, child of God.
Philando Castile, child of God.
Jeronimo Yanez, child of God.
Brent Thompson, child of God.
Lorne Ahrens, child of God.
Michael Krol, child of God.
Michael J. Smith, child of God.
Patrick Zamarripa, child of God.
Micah Xavier Johnson, child of God.
These are but a few of the children of God in our world, but their names and stories have hung over our news and our lives this past week. Two of these children of God are black men who were killed at the hands of police officers this week, the troubling circumstances of their deaths recorded and shared widely, leaving many Americans wondering if some of us are more valued children of God than others because of the color of our skin. Three of these children of God are police officers, the public servants accused of these gruesome acts yet who should no more be defined by this act of violence than anyone else. Another five of these children of God were also police officers, murdered as they worked to make time and space safe for protestors who were raising their voices about the troubling actions of other police officers, shot by a sniper who “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.” And finally the last person named “child of God” in that list was none other than the sniper himself, the perpetrator of a cowardly ambush who yet somehow still must bear the name “child of God.”
The children of God of every sort—those who have been in the headlines this week and those who have stood a long way away from the headlines—stand at the forefront of the second Great End of the Church: “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” This second of six statements of the mission of the church first expressed by our Presbyterian forebears over 100 years ago seems particularly appropriate today, especially when you see the differently-hued hands representing all the children of God in the banner that celebrates this great end.
After a week like this past one, where so many of us have wondered about the presence of God in these times that are so divisive and divided, shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship all seem like incredibly important things—but first I think we have to be clear about exactly who is included in our definition of the children of God. It is so easy to put restrictions and exclusions on who can bear this label, limiting who is welcome in “the courts of the Lord,” according to the poet of our psalm this morning, controlling who can be a part of the beloved community described in our reading from Acts where “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” For too many centuries, we in the church made it our business to decide who is in and who is out, setting a strange example for our world that it is okay to exclude people from full personhood for whatever reason we might choose. But our ministry as God’s church will never bear the faith we are called to share—and our nation will never begin to heal from the wounds that keep driving us apart—so long as we limit those whom we are willing to embrace as children of God. Times columnist Charles M. Blow put it beautifully yesterday in his reflections on what he described as “a week from hell”:
The moment any person comes to accept as justifiable an act of violence upon another—whether physical, spiritual or otherwise—that person has already lost the moral battle, even if he is currently winning the somatic one. When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward. But we all need to start here and now, by doing this simple thing: Seeing every person as fully human, deserving every day to make it home to the people he loves.
In the face of our shared humanity, we can begin to live out the other parts of this call to offer shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship to God’s beloved children, setting a much-needed example for our nation and our world to follow.
When it comes to shelter, we can take our cues from the place of safety and hope described in Psalm 84. In the psalm, God’s lovely dwelling place is a place where all are welcome, where “even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young.” This dwelling place carries comfort, shelter, and peace for those who make it their home. And this sheltering place is filled with great joy and wonder, “for a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
So when we take up our mission of shelter for the children of God, we work to make this house—and all the world—a place where all can enjoy safety and comfort, peace and joy, wonder and hope. We offer shelter not just to those who come our way but to all who need a safe home, a restful nest, or a place to lay their young. And when we set out to offer shelter for the children of God, we cannot ignore those who are threatened for one reason or another, those who continue to suffer the effects of racism and violence, those for whom shelter is about safety from the dangers of this world and the strife of these days.
This call for the church to shelter the children of God, then, demands that we make this a place of broad and deep welcome, where no one leaves wondering if they qualify for God’s love, where we make amends for the ways we have turned people away from God’s embrace in our own lives and in the history of our church and world, where we commit ourselves not just to shelter the children of God we like or the children of God who do things like we want but to shelter all the children of God.
The nurture of all God’s children in and through the church is a similar challenge, and our reading from Acts describes how the early church responded to this call in their life together. The nurture of the children of God in the early church was a joint exercise. Everyone was concerned about the well-being of everyone else, so much so that they “had all things in common [and] would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. They spent time together in the temple, enjoying the wonder of God’s courts and learning together what it meant to live in this new way “with glad and generous hearts.” They shared thanksgiving and goodwill at every step of the way, nurturing the new and hopeful faith that had been planted in each of them through the death and resurrection of Jesus so that they might grow together into the joyful household of God.
The nurture demonstrated in this vision of the early church is still our call as God’s church today. We are invited to walk together in faith, bearing one another’s burdens, making space for trust in God and one another to grow. We are charged with helping those who join us on this way deepen their understanding of how God’s presence fills our lives, sharing the stories of the Bible and our lives with one another and making sure that everything we do embodies the all-encompassing grace of God. And we are called to nurture the seeds of faith everywhere, caring for our fellow travelers along the way as we draw attention to the bold and broad welcome of God in Jesus Christ.
All this shelter and nurture then culminate in what is described in the Great Ends of the Church as “spiritual fellowship.” The church is, then, a place where we come together to share the gifts of the journey of faith—the joys and the sorrows, the wonders and the challenges, the hopes and the uncertainties, the grace, the love, the mercy, the peace, all the things that make us human and yet holy. We are then united in a special spiritual way as the children of God—children who rejoice together and mourn together, children who seek to honor the image of God in one another, children who are unafraid to admit that they have strayed and need help getting back home, children who claim their acts of racism, violence, and privilege and act in repentance and transformation, children who do everything we can to remove the restrictions that we and our forebears have placed upon our friends in faith, children who work so that everyone can know and embrace the wonderful and hopeful gift of being named as children of God.
This spiritual fellowship does not excuse us from dealing with the challenges of this world as we journey together in faith, but it does mean that we do not face these challenges alone. We instead approach the difficult moments of our lives and the deep challenges of our world with other children of God by our side who are not afraid to walk this way with us—but most of all with the power and presence of God, who journeys every step of the way with all of us.
In our fractured world, offering “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” is not easy. It is easy to miss one of the four pieces of this, to leave out the shelter, the nurture, or the spiritual fellowship, or to intentionally or unintentionally limit the ways we live out the breadth of the children of God. Yet our religious institutions may be the only places that can offer this kind of space to our nation.
A couple weeks ago, our movie night featured the film Places in the Heart, a 1984 film set 50 years earlier in East Texas during the Great Depression. The film opens with the shooting of the town sheriff at the hands of a drunken black teenager, who is then promptly lynched and murdered by an angry mob. But that is not the end of the story. The last scene takes us to church, where we catch a glimpse of the congregation sharing communion. As the choir sings “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own,” we see the congregation sharing the Lord’s Supper: all the children of God—women and men, old and young, blind and sighted, black and white, living and dead, even murderer and victim—united across every imaginable division, lifted up to walk and talk and share with Christ himself, and empowered to share the peace of God for this world and the next.
So in these days when it is easy to get caught up in the anger, violence, and hatred of our world, may God open our eyes to see all those we meet today and every day as children of God, as siblings who join us in longing for an end to violence and hurt, as friends united across every imaginable division to work together for harmony and hope in our world, so that we as God’s church might be a place of shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship for all the children of God, today and every day. May it be so. Amen.