No Mere Mortals

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I’ve preached this sermon several times this year in keeping with my 2020 Commitment to Peace. It’s amazing how its message only seems to get more relevant as this year unfolds. 

My most recent opportunity to preach this message was last month in the parking lot of Saluda UMC under the refreshing shade of a beautiful old oak. It was the first in-person worship service I’ve attended since the pandemic began. And despite living in western North Carolina for ten years, it was the first time I’ve ever been to Saluda. Beautiful place! 

 

Not long ago I heard a young father telling this story on “This American Life”:

This young father said it was Christmas time, and his daughter was four years old, and for the first time, she asked him, “What does this holiday mean?” And the father explained that Christmas is celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about that. So the father went out and bought a kid’s Bible, and every night they would read about Jesus, and the daughter loved that—she wanted to learn all about Jesus.

And she would ask her dad, “Now, what was that phrase? What was that thing Jesus said?” And the dad would say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about that famous saying of Jesus and what it meant.

And then one day they were driving past a big church, and there was an enormous crucifix out front, and the little four-year-old girl said, “Dad, who is that?” And the Dad realized he’d never told that part of the story, so he said, “Yeah, well, that’s Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.”

Well, about a month later they’d gone through Christmas, and they’d gone through New Year’s, and it’s Martin Luther King Day, and the little girl has the day off from preschool. So the Dad decided he would take the day off, and they would spend the day together. And he took his little girl out to lunch. And on the table where they sat, there was as newspaper, and there was a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr.

And the little girl says, “Who’s that?” And the father said, “Well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life.”

And the girl said, “So who was he?” And the father said, “Well, he was a preacher.” And the little girl looks up and says, “For Jesus?” And Dad says, “Yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.”

And the little girl said, “What was his message?” And the father’s thinking, How do I explain this to a four-year-old? So he finally said this: “Martin Luther King’s message was that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.” And the little girl thought about that for a minute, and she said, “Well, that’s what Jesus said.”

And the dad said, “Yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. That is sort of like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

And the little girl thought for a minute more, and she looked at her father and said, “Did they kill him, too?”

 

Two simple ideas.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

“Treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.”

Two simple ideas. So simple a child could understand. So profound they changed the world. And yet so radical that they got people killed.

Today I want to share another SIMPLE IDEA. So simple a child could understand. So profound it could change your life. And yet so radical that if you take it seriously it might get you in trouble.

This simple idea comes from Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 New Revised Standard Version)

Psalm 139 makes outrageous claims about God! Think about this for a minute:

  • God knows when you sit down and when you rise up
  • God knows your thoughts
  • God knows what you’re going to say before you say it

At Christmas time we sing, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…”  I don’t know if Santa Claus can really do that, but according to Psalm 139, God can!

  • God has searched you and known you.
  • God hems you in behind and before.

Try to wrap your mind around this staggering thought: There are 7 Billion people on planet earth, and God’s eye is on YOU!

  • Before you were formed in the womb, God knew you.
  • Before you were born, God had a plan for you.

These are amazing statements about God – but they’re also amazing statements about YOU!

Verse 13 says that God “knit you together in your mother’s womb.” Think about that image of knitting. Knitting is a loving, caring, hands-on, pains-taking process.

This is an old gray T-shirt I pulled out of a drawer at home.

It’s cheap. It was mass produced. There are a probably a million of these in the world today.

And this–this is a hand-knit a sweater that was made specifically for me by a woman in Norway.

This sweater was knit together by hand out of sturdy Norwegian wool. It is beautiful. It is unique. There is no other sweater in the world like this one.

You are like this sweater. You are not like the T-shirt. You are like the sweater—hand-knit, carefully constructed, beautiful, and unique.

And then look at verse 14:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;that I know very well.     

My brother, my sister, my friend—You are fearfully and wonderfully made!

  • Turn to the person beside you and say, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
  • Turn to the person on the other side and say, “God don’t make no junk.”

Now listen to this: Those of us who live in western North Carolina live in one of the most beautiful places on earth . The majestic mountains, the stately old trees, the crystal clear rivers and streams. We are surrounded by the glory of God’s creation.

But consider: As a human being, you are the pinnacle of God’s creation!

  • Genesis 1 says you are created in the image of God.
  • Psalm 8 says you are crowned with glory and honor, just a little lower than the angels.
  • Ephesians 2 says you are God’s handiwork, and the Greek word for handiwork could be translated “masterpiece.”

You are a masterpiece!

And you want to know what Jesus says about you?

Maybe sometimes you feel worthless, like you’re just not worth much. But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, says you’re worth dying for!

That’s how valuable you are!

That’s how deeply loved you are!

I don’t remember where I heard this, but I love this illustration:

I have here a piece of paper, US legal tender, and it’s got the number “20” on it.

So, how much is this worth?  (20 dollars.)

But what if I do this? [crumple up]

Now, how much is it worth?  (20 dollars.)

What if I do this?  [step on it]

Now, how much is it worth? (20 dollars.)

What if I told you I found this in a casino…in the men’s room … floating in the toilet?

Now, how much would it be worth?  (20 dollars.)

You see, the value of this piece of paper is not based on what it looks like, where it’s been, what it’s done, or what’s happened to it.

Its value is based on WHAT IT IS.

And in the same way – your value as a human being is not based on

  • What you look like,
  • What you’ve done
  • Where you’ve been
  • Or what’s happened to you.
Your value is based on WHO YOU ARE.

And who you are is a masterpiece:

  • Created in the image of God
  • Crowned with glory and honor
  • Fearfully and wonderfully made

Who you are is somebody so valuable and deeply loved that Jesus says you’re worth dying for.

But let me ask you a question: If that’s true of you, what about that person over there?

-Is he created in the image of God?

-Is she fearfully and wonderfully made?

  • What if he’s poor?
  • What if she’s homeless?
  • What if he’s an alcoholic?
  • What if she’s a meth addict?

What if he’s Hispanic?

What if she’s Asian?

What if he’s black?

What if she’s white?

–Are “those people” valuable in the eyes of God?

If your answer to that question is no, then go ahead and turn your back on those people:

Go ahead and insult them, call them names, stereotype them and give them labels.

If you honestly believe that Psalm 139 only applies to you, then go ahead and dehumanize whoever you want.

A professor named David Livingstone Smith wrote a book called Less Than Human. He found that throughout history, in all the war crimes and atrocities and genocides there was one common ingredient. One common ingredient—the perpetrators dehumanized the victims:

–       The Nazis referred to the Jews as rats

–       The Hutus in Rwanda referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches

–       The Japanese who invaded China referred to the Chinese as insects

–       Europeans in Australia referred to the Aborigines as “feral jungle creatures”

–       White people who massacred Native Americans referred to them as “savage beasts.”

And what you need to understand is that if you choose to label people and call people names based on their background, you are heading down the same road!

You say, “Claude, you’re going overboard here.” Well, I know another preacher who went overboard on stuff like this.

His name was Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” 

(Matthew 5:21-22 NRSV)

Jesus says that anger and name-calling are just as bad as murder.

Why? Because human beings are created in the image of God – and murder is an attack on the image of God

But GUESS WHAT:

  • Looking down on someone is an attack on the image of God.
  • Insulting someone is an attack on the image of God.
  • Racial prejudice is an attack on the image of God.
  • Anger and bitterness and holding a grudge are attacks on the image of God.

EVERY TIME WE DENY THE DIGNITY AND VALUE AND WORTH OF ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, we’ve taken the first step on the road to MURDER.

And if you honestly believe that Psalm 139 only applies to you – then go ahead and do that.

But if you believe that Psalm 139 talks about every human being on the planet, then you have to take a different approach.

If you believe the Bible, then every person you see is made in the image of God, crowned with glory and honor, fearfully and wonderfully made, just a little lower than the angels.

If you believe the Bible, then you have to see other people, no matter who they are, as persons of infinite value who are worthy of your care, your compassion, your attention, and your respect.

–       No matter how different

–       No matter how dirty

–       No matter how undeserving

–       No matter how bad their choices.

I love this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship …

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

There are no mere mortals.

Every person you see is made in the image of God.

Every person you see is fearfully and wonderfully made.

Every person you see is crowned with glory and honor, just a little lower than the angels.

There are no mere mortals. 

Speaking of no mere mortals–who besides me like superheroes?

Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, the Avengers…and then my personal favorite: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN!

Right now, superhero movies are the most popular, most profitable, most widely seen movies in the world. Why do we love superheroes? Because they use their superpowers to change the world.

What if I told you that YOU HAVE A SUPERPOWER that can change the world?

What if I told you that in these days of anger and division and polarization, you have a superpower that can change things?

What if I told you that in a time when it seems like people really don’t treat each other like they’re made in the image of God, you have a superpower that can make people feel valuable, respected, and loved?

This superpower (that you have) can overcome division.

It can overcome anger.

It can build bridges.

It can heal relationships.

And it can transform you into an INSTRUMENT OF PEACE.

This amazing superpower, that you have, is called …

LISTENING.

Listening has power. Listening changes things. It is a superpower that can change the world. It may not change the whole world, but it can certainly change your world.

Please understand that when I say listening, I don’t mean waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can make your point. I mean real listening – deep listening – the kind of listening you would do if you believe the other person is created in the image of God.

The kind of listening Stephen Covey was talking about when he said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

When’s the last time you did that? When’s the last time you sat down with somebody and just listened?

I know I’m not a teacher, and I’m not even your pastor, but I want to give you a homework assignment. Sometime between now and next Sunday, I want you to get together with somebody who’s different from you.

(Normally I would say take them to lunch or buy them a cup of coffee, but in these days of COVID-19, you might have to do this over the phone. Or by Zoom.)

Get together with someone who is different from you. It might be someone of a different background, of a different race … it might be somebody whose political beliefs are different from yours … it might be somebody with whom you’ve been in conflict.

It might even be a member of your own family!

Get together with somebody who’s different from you and listen. JUST LISTEN. Don’t try to convert them. Don’t try to change them.

Just listen and see what happens.

I think you’ll be amazed.

Listening has power.  Listening changes things.

Think of somebody who’s different from you, that you need to listen to.

Picture that person in your mind while we pray this prayer together:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(Prayer of Saint Francis, United Methodist Hymnal #481)

AMEN.