By Susan Sparks.
Arno Michaelis has a change of heart after being shown kindness.
Life’s difficulties can come in many forms: illness, loss, prejudice, pain . . . and assembling furniture from Ikea. Anyone who has attempted to put together anything from this wonderfully creative, yet maddening, merchant understands the frustration. The box arrives with a zillion pieces and, the best part, instructions in Swedish. After hours of deciphering the directions and gathering together the countless tiny parts, inevitably you discover that a piece is missing. Somewhere in the unpacking of the zillion elements, you have dropped a small part under the refrigerator or behind the radiator. And it’s never just a missing piece, it’s usually the missing piece: the key part that transforms the pile of random plastic into the one-of-a-kind, fabulous piece it was meant to be.
The Ikea experience is not so different from life. Each of us is a unique creation with intricate gifts and abilities. While we were given those gifts at birth (shipped with all the parts so to speak), in the living and unpacking of life, we tend to drop a key piece. And as with Ikea furniture, without it we can never live as we were meant to.
In our scripture this week, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, we are reminded of life’s key piece through the story of Jesus’ baptism. The moment Jesus emerges from the water, a voice descends from heaven and declares: “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” Such beautiful words. And yet, perhaps more powerful than the words themselves is their timing. The Spirit offered this blessing to Jesus before he had done anything: he hadn’t preached; he hadn’t performed any miracles; he hadn’t raised the dead, healed the blind, or even transformed the wedding wine at Cana. The words were bestowed on him not for what he had done, but for who he was: a beloved child of God.
Each of us gets this same unconditional blessing at birth. As Jeremiah 1:5 explains, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you.” The problem is that the farther we get from our birth, the more we tend to forget that blessing. Over the years, life beats us down with hurt, disappointment, grief, anger, each one breaking us down, tearing us down until those critical words, “You are my beloved,” are muffled out. Our greatest blessing—our critical piece—goes missing.
After that, it’s a slippery slope. Without the words of the blessing in our ears, all we hear are the negative, critical voices of the world. We start to believe that we are not beloved, but unloved. And when we feel unloved, we become fearful. We lash out, we judge, we harm. Worst of all, when we forget who we are, we forget our human connection. We begin to believe we are different, separate, better. It’s like the old saying: “If you don’t know who you are, you act like who you ain’t.”
We see it in the headlines every day. We deny opportunity, we judge and deride, we murder … because we’ve forgotten that notwithstanding the color of someone’s skin, we all have a common birth blessing. As the author Kelly Brown Douglas explained in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, if we asked Jesus, “’Lord, where did we see you dying and on the cross?’ Jesus would answer, ‘On a Florida sidewalk, at a Florida gas station, on a Michigan porch, on a street in North Carolina. As you did it to one of these young black bodies, you did it to me.’”
When we have a missing piece, we hold our “truth” in a death grip, we circle the wagons of tradition and sink into the comfortable bliss of ignorance. We do things like judge an entire religious tradition based on the actions of a few extremists. The New York Times has reported that hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques have tripled since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, including assaults on hijab-wearing students, a shooting of a Muslim cabdriver in Pittsburgh by a passenger who angrily questioned him about ISIS and mocked the Prophet Mohammad, and, in Anaheim, a bullet-ridden copy of the Koran left outside an Islamic clothing store. Our sense of human connection has deteriorated so badly that we not only unfairly harm our Muslim brothers and sisters; out of our ignorance, we erroneously lash out at other traditions that, thanks to a beard or a turban, we think are Muslim.
And many of these crimes are perpetrated by Christians. Perhaps we should all spend some time with Dave Burchett’s book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, especially chapter 3, entitled “WJSHTOT (Would Jesus Spend His Time on This?)” Christians do not hold the monopoly on truth, nor on the Golden Rule (which we obviously don’t follow so well). Consider the Muslim Hadith: “You will not enter Paradise until you believe and you will not believe until you love each other. Shall I show you something that, if you did, you would love each other? Spread peace between yourselves.” (Sahih Muslim 54)All of us—Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, black/white, gay/straight, Republican/Democrat—were born beloved children of God. As Genesis teaches: God created humankind in God’s image, and God declared everything “very good” (Genesis 1).
It is our greatest call as human beings to remind ourselves and each other that we are beloved children of God—ones in whom God is well pleased. It is whispered in our hearts before we are born into this life and it is whispered to us as we leave. We simply need to remember. We need to return to the source. We need to strive—every day of our lives—to find the missing piece.
Bible Study Questions
- Are you able to hear praise? Accept love? If the spirit spoke to you now and said, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased,” would you be able to hear it?
- Have you ever found yourself judging others because you are scared of them? Because you don’t understand them?
- Think of someone you have judged unfairly and identify three things you have in common. For example, what are their hopes and dreams? What are their worries? Do they have a family and or children? Do they find comfort in a connection to God?
For Further Reading
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God
Rev. Peter Wallace, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically
Reba Riley, “ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rebariley/2015/11/isis-is-to-islam-what-the-kkk-is-to-christianity/
A trial lawyer, turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit. Currently the Senior Pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City (and the first woman in its 165-year history), she is also a professional comedian touring nationally with a standup Rabbi and a Muslim comic in “Laugh in Peace.” Susan has been featured in the Oprah Magazine, the New York Times, USA Today, on CBS, CNN, and ABC. Her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace, was named one of the best spiritual books of 2010 and has sold over 15,000 copies. More information can be found at www.SusanSparks.com.
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