Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sermon: “Imago Dei: In the Image of God’s Community”, Genesis 1:24-31, 2:1-3/Luke 2:8-20 (December 22, 2019)

(Week 4 in our Advent series on how we reflect God's Image--
previous weeks' sermons can be found here, here, and here)

By now, most of you are aware of my fondness for musical theatre. What you may NOT know is that I played bassoon for many years during middle and high school. How do these two fun facts relate? Well, for years, all I wanted was to be in the pit orchestra of a musical production. I firmly believed (and still do) that there are some messages and emotions that can only be conveyed properly through music, and although I was too shy at the time to get up on stage, I could definitely play in the pit orchestra. I was delighted at the prospect of helping tell a story through music. I was eager to do my part.

My high school only produced musicals every other year, so my long wait finally came to an end as a sophomore, when I discovered we’d be doing “The Music Man”. This was perfect because (for those of you not in the know) “The Music Man” has a substantial bassoon part. I was thrilled! Of course, I signed up, and I had a wonderful time. It felt so good to help tell this story of love, faith, and forgiveness. So when I entered Senior year, I was looking forward to repeating the experience. What a way to cap my high school career!

It was when I found out we were doing “42nd Street” that I got the bad news: there’s no bassoon part in the “42nd Street”. My senior year, the apex of my teenage experience, would be forever marred by my inability to participate in the one thing that I had looked forward to since I first picked up a bassoon. A tragic story, if I ever heard one. And all because the score had limited instrumentation.

I’ve thought about that a lot in the ensuing years. How a “full orchestra” has the potential to convey any emotion imaginable to the audience because of the rich variety of sounds, with at least 90 musicians contributing to the effect. And yet in musical theatre, a medium arguably even more invested in the emotions of its audience, the pit orchestra is limited to such a small number of instruments and musicians (usually by logistics) that poor high school students like myself get left out in the cold. Now, I understand that for many reasons, this is often the best or only option. But I honestly believe that almost everything turns out better when done collaboratively, with as many voices as possible taking part. The more participation, the fuller and more beautiful the outcome.

Take creation, for example. We know that in the beginning, the earth was formless and void, and God hovered over the waters. It sure sounds like God is alone and creation is a solo act. But as God works, a curious thing begins to happen. On the first couple of days, God speaks creation into existence by saying, “Let there be…” Let there be light, let there be a dome to separate the waters from the waters, let there be dry land. But by the third day, God begins to share creation duties: “Let the earth put forth vegetation”, “Let the waters bring forth swarms”, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”. All this leads up to the sixth day, when God puts all the cards on the table and makes it clear that this is a cooperative effort: “Let US make humanity in OUR image.”

God is eager to collaborate from the very beginning because God is communal by God’s very nature. God is one, omniscient and omnipotent, and yet somehow, God does all things in cooperation. This is why the mystery of the Trinity is such an important Church doctrine—it helps us to understand, just a little bit, the dynamic of a single deity that embodies community even within itself.

So when we talk about being created in God’s image, this is a central part of what that means. Just as God is somehow three and yet one at the same time, just as our own mind, body, and spirit come together to create a single, dissoluble being, God has created us as an indivisible, intertwined humanity, individual and yet utterly inseparable. We can’t properly reflect God on our own; we need each other.

Our Advent Project: Community
God is like a beautifully composed symphony written for a 7.5 billion piece orchestra, utterly complete in its complex harmonies and the rich fullness of every note working together. Being created in God’s image means that we’re like the individual instruments, each contributing a piece of the whole, each one necessary to communicate the full impact of the composition. If even one is missing, then we can’t effectively convey the emotions, the texture, and the depth of the piece. The concert—the expression of God—falls flat. And we can’t cut back the number of instruments we use, because the full message is too important to communicate partway. There will be no “42nd Street” situation here. Logistics be darned; EVERYONE will be a part of THIS production. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.

Now, God was serious about making us in God’s collective image, and God is still holding us accountable to that standard. Even though we constantly try to make reflecting the divine a solo act, God keeps pushing us together, reminding us that it’s only in community with one another that we can make the mysterious, complex, life-changing music that God has called us to make. Every time we pull away, God pushes us back, reminding us that this is who we were created to be. That we can’t reflect God unless we live in a way that reflects God’s collaborative, community-oriented identity.

In our retelling of the Christmas story every year, we hear about a lot of individual experiences—Mary’s, Joseph’s, Herod’s, even the Magi function more as a unit than as separate people. These stories are important for helping us understand our faith history, but they don’t give a full picture of what God is doing in the world through us. When it comes to reflecting God, we can’t forget about the experience of the shepherds.

Based on my (admittedly limited) knowledge of biblical shepherds’ lives, it seems like shepherding would have been a relatively individualistic job back then. We know that most of the time, the youngest son was given the job of shepherd to the family flock. They probably kept their sheep on their own land to avoid ownership confusion and resource guarding. We also know, based on biblical stories and metaphors, that shepherds knew each of their sheep well and even loved them individually. It wasn’t an industrial farming model; it was a personal and intimate duty. Both of these facts lead me to believe there wouldn’t have been a lot of collegiality among shepherds. They took care of their own sheep, for the sake of themselves and their family. It certainly doesn’t seem like there would have been any sense of a larger shepherding community among them.

And yet, when the angel of the Lord comes to them, all that changes in an instant. The angel speaks to them collectively—“I bring good news to YOU ALL [plural]; joyous news for ALL PEOPLE.” Whether or not the shepherds were a community before, they are now, by virtue of this Good News being entrusted to all of them together. Clearly, God’s intention was for this to be a group event, a shared experience, one that brought them all together. Just as it was for God in creation.

And…it worked. Scripture tells us, “When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, ‘Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened.’” The shepherds recognized that, no matter who they’d been before, they’d been called to join together in pursuing this newborn king, in telling of their experience, and ultimately in praising God. This was not a job that could be done alone. The symphony that had started simply, with Jesus’ melody and Mary and Joseph’s harmonies, was expanding to include counter-melodies from the shepherds, and would soon include descants and rhythms and added refrains as the Good News from the shepherds spread to others. As the number of people sharing the Word grew, so, too, was the reflection of God’s image able to expand. And it all started with a group of shepherds deciding to become a community.

Fortunately for us, following the shepherds’ example isn’t very difficult (which is good news, because we’re running out of time to prepare for the coming Messiah). The way to reflect this aspect of imago dei is simple: when you find your part in God’s masterpiece, play it. Don’t be shy and don’t hold back. When others discover THEIR part, welcome them to the song. Celebrate the unique richness that they add to the overall effect. And if anyone is left out, invite them to join the orchestra. Help them figure out the part that God is calling THEM to reflect. Only then, when EVERYONE is involved and engaged and playing their hearts out, can we listen to what we’re creating together and hear the full symphony of God. This is the way, the only way, that we can welcome our new king—together. Because he’s coming to take part in this same image of God that we reflect; the greatest gift that we can offer is to show him that we understand our responsibility and are ready to join his song.

For those of you who are still concerned for my teenage self, the situation with 42nd Street all worked out in the end. My saintly band teacher helped me figure out how to transpose the saxophone part, so while my specific talents weren’t required, strictly speaking, I was still able to take part in the musical that year. (Apparently, my band teacher was an unintentional theologian who ALSO believed that full participation was important.) Since high school, I’ve become less shy and more willing to take part in theatre by stepping on stage. But I’ll never forget the feeling of being left out of the pit orchestra. I’ll never forget how it felt to hear the message that my particular talent was expendable and the unique tone that I could contribute wasn’t important.

Thank goodness my band director knew that making space for more voices in the community is more important than streamlining the orchestra. Because “together” is the way that we express completeness; “together” is the best way to share important messages and good news; “together” is how we reflect God’s image. Don’t try to go it alone. You’re just one part of the bigger picture, and we need each and every part to reflect God’s symphony faithfully: yours, your neighbor’s, your enemy’s, that person that you don’t understand—everyone. Listen for the parts that are missing. Look for the seats that are empty. The composer won’t be satisfied until every single one of the 7.5 billion parts has been given a voice—until everyone is welcome at Christ’s table. May it be so, that we might reflect God together as one. Amen.

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