This sermon was preached on August 6, 2016 at the Church Women United Leadership Conference.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
— Genesis 1:26-31
Can’t you just see God’s Spirit moving across the formless void and the darkness that covered the deep? Thinking to God’s self, “What shall I create from this nothingness?” I shall create a world full of life and love, a world full of diversity and difference. And so God started with some day and night, with some sky, with some earth and sea, with some vegetation, and with some night light and some day light, with some living creatures—birds and sea monsters and every living creature that moves, living creatures of every kind—creeping things and wild animals. Five days gone in this ecstasy of divine energy.
And then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image according to our likeness.” Saving the best for last, of course. Now friends, the God who spent so much time creating all those different flowers and trees, insects and animals, sources of light and sources of water, would not skimp at the end of the week. If God spent time on the diversity of animal life and vegetation that a glance in your backyard can confirm, then why would God tone it down here at the end of the week?
No friends, God would crank it up. We’re making humans now. Let’s make them all different colors. Let’s give them different hair: black, brown, blond, red, straight, curly, kinky. Let’s give them different eyes: blue, brown, black, gray, green, hazel. Let’s give them different skin—Oh, the skin we can create. Not just black and white, but hues and shades, tones and colors. Some will be dark, some will be light. Some will be delicate and some will be hardy. Some will be freckled and some will shine. Oh, how many skins can we make? And God set to work making all those colors, loving them all equally.
This year, already more than 500 people have been shot and killed by police. Studies show that, even though White Americans outnumber Black Americans five-fold, Black people are three times more likely than White people to be killed when they encounter the police in the US, and Black teenagers are far likelier to be killed by police than White teenagers.
5 times as many white folks are using illegal drugs as black folks, yet black folks are sent to prison for drug offenses 10 times the rate of white folks. I can’t even do the math to figure out how out of proportion that number is, but I do know dark skin people are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of light skinned people. If dark people were incarcerated at the same rate as white people, the prison population would be cut in half.
The median income for whites is almost double the median income for blacks, roughly $60,000 v. $35,000. Why do white people make more money than black people? Do they work harder—doubt it. Are they better educated—probably. So, why is that?
A third of the schools with high percentages of black students do not offer Algebra II. A third of them do not offer chemistry. You have to take Algebra II before you take Calculus and you have to know a little chemistry to make it through college, never mind all the well paying jobs that have math and science as building blocks. So, a worker can work as hard as a worker can work, but if the worker can’t get a higher paying job because the worker didn’t get the right math class in high school, what is the worker to do?
And then there is health; that thing we treasure even more than money. Infant mortality is twice as high for African Americans; for babies that become adults, life expectancy for whites is almost four years longer than for African Americans. Some of this is directly related to diet. Pregnant women need to eat well so they can birth healthy babies. All people—pregnant or not—should take better care of themselves. Exercise more, eat less; eat healthy foods when you do eat.
So, about that healthy food, 31% of white people live within a mile of a grocery store—so they could walk there if they didn’t have transportation, but of course they do have transportation, often multiple forms of transportation. I have 4 cars and 5 bikes at my house—I’m not bragging, I’m just saying… But only 8% of black people have a supermarket a mile away from home, so it takes a very long time to walk to the store to get to that healthy food. Never mind how expensive healthy food is if you ever get to the grocery store; remember that median income number. And we can see how all of this ties together…
If God created all this diversity for humanity, why would we establish a hierarchy of color? Why would we use our skin color as the bases for legal rulings, social contracts, and economic frameworks? Why would we use skin color to decide where to build a grocery store? I can’t think of anything more absurd, and yet it is how our nation is structured. I have shared with you some of the statistics to show this sin in action. Of course, we all know there are a lot of deep seated reasons for these numbers, reasons that have built up over the centuries in this country and created these glaring discrepancies. Most of us are so overwhelmed by it, we hardly know where to start to fix it.
But I didn’t come here today to dole out guilt. I learned long ago from my preaching mentor that judgment and moralizing soon wear thin and wear us out. We know we don’t get everything right when measured against God’s righteousness. Nothing can be more frustrating than to have somebody constantly reminding us of all the things we get wrong. When parents do that we call it scolding; when spouses do it we call it nagging. And nothing can be more tiring than a never-ending religious to-do list, a list that seduces us into thinking we have if we just do the things on the list, we’ll make it to heaven; which, of course, is not how it works.
So, none of that today, even while we call attention to the truth about our lives at this moment in history.
- The truth is, God has created amazing diversity.
- The truth is, God has filled creation with abundance enough for all to prosper.
- The truth is, God already sees us as those who respect diversity and are flourishing into it.
- The truth is, we don’t see ourselves that way, so we don’t act that way.
It’s this last truth that I want to highlight today. Why don’t we see ourselves the way God sees us? The answers are all around us: on TV, at the mall, even in our churches. Culture and society define the norms and we internalize what the world tells us about ourselves even when the evidence is not there and the Gospel tells us a different truth.
Let me give you an example: If we tell ourselves often enough that men are stronger than women, whites work harder than blacks, straight people have healthier marriages than gay people, after awhile we’ll start to believe it’s true. Most men are stronger than most women, if we’re considering muscle mass. People who only see strength in terms of bench pressing will only have one definition of strength and after awhile that becomes the only definition of strength. The strong people tell us what strength is and they show us their strength while they’re telling us all about it. After awhile, even people who have other strengths start to believe in the singular definition of strong and soon see themselves as weak.
In other words, we become what we think we are. And we often think we are what other people have told us we are. So, women are weak. The truth is, I can bench press as much as a lot of the men in the gym where I work out, but that’s not what makes me strong. If so, I would only be using the definition that someone else gave me for strength and I think there’s so much more to being strong than bench pressing. But you see my point. Not only do the strong people think they’re stronger, but the strong people tell us what strength is.
Let’s shift this mind set to skin color. You may have heard, “Black people are lazy.” I can assure you black people did not come up with this description. Black people who know anything about their ancestors in this country know that their ancestors were the hardest working people on the face of the earth. Even if they didn’t want to be hard working, in the early days of their time in this country, working hard was a matter of life and death. White farm owners don’t bother to feed lazy farm workers. There were no lazy farm workers…
So, the farm owners define the work and they say who is lazy. Pretty soon, work becomes only one thing and those who are not able to do that work are labeled lazy. Never mind that there are varieties of work and varieties of people who are skilled at varieties of work. If work is digging sweet potatoes and you can’t get to the field, you are lazy. Never mind that if you do get to the sweet potato field and work a ten-hour day, you won’t earn a living wage, but you will work a whole lot harder than a lot of folks making more money—that is if we continue to use only a singular definition of work. I get paid to write sermons and I never break a sweat. Could be said, I’m lazy…
We have groups of people defined by the categories assigned to them by other groups of people. All of us do this, not just the folks at the top of the power pyramid. Most of us self select into groups that are familiar, whether that’s familiar faces, familiar habits, familiar conversations, or familiar experiences, and that familiarity reinforces for us that what we’re thinking, saying, and doing is the best way to think, talk, and act. We get so used to each other that when we meet other people who think, talk, and act differently, we think different is wrong. Sometimes, we believe this before we even meet them, we only have to hear about something different to form an unfavorable opinion.
This is where we are in history, right now, my friends. But God is not in this place. Think back to what I said about creation and God’s delight in all the different ways that God has created us. I remember reading somewhere along the way that the statistical probability for any one of us being here is so small that we should stay in a constant state of dazzlement. Each person is one in over 5 billion, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin or even special fragrances. That’s our gift from God. It’s always been this way. We only need to live into the truth that God already knows. Every single one of us is beloved by God. We must internalize this truth about ourselves and we must believe this truth about everyone else.
So, let’s start a new way of seeing each other right here today. Take a moment to look around you. Note the details of some of the people nearest to you. See if you can make out some of the features that make each of us one in over 5 billion. Marvel at the hues of skin, the texture of hair, the variety of shapes, the wonder of a smile. Now stare at one person, maybe not even someone who is staring back, but that’s fine too. Come to know that particular face. Grow to love that particular face. Imagine God’s delight in that face. Imagine God’s love for that face.
When the ones we love are hurt by the systems and laws around us—that’s personal. Of course, when we are hurt, it’s personal. But it must become just as personal for the ones we love and the ones who are loved by God. When it starts to get personal, we are beginning to see each other the way God has always seen us, delightfully different, especially lovely. Thanks be to God for making it personal. Amen.