Sunday, 23 February 2014

Second Sunday before Lent: Made in God's image

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” says the author of the Book of Genesis. He says it twice in case we missed the point. It’s fundamental to the message of the Bible, right there at the first appearance of humanity; people are made in God’s image. It’s an astounding claim, and it is all the more astounding, because it applies to everyone according to the Bible; male and female, the whole of humanity, every race and nation – made in God’s image.

People sometimes get very worked up over the creation story, or more properly stories, since there is a slightly different version following this in Genesis 2. Fundamentalist Christians insist that these accounts are factually true, and go through all sorts of mental contortions to try to prove it. It isn’t a common or mainstream position in the UK, but there are people who believe it, and because of that Creationism has become a convenient “straw man” for those opposed to Christian faith; they assume that every Christian takes the Bible literally and they set up a conflict between science and religion that isn’t there for most of us. Both viewpoints, it seems to me, miss the point.

Whoever wrote this story, probably developing it from oral tales told during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, knew nothing of geology or the fossil records. He wasn’t writing science. He wasn’t writing history in our modern sense of the word either. He was writing something which was far more important. He was writing hope for people who felt hopeless. He was writing justice for those who had been treated unjustly. He wrote about creation because he knew how badly people needed re-creation, a new start, a new vision of themselves and of those around them. And what was most important in that new vision was that they should know that each and every one of them mattered, that each and every one of them was made in God’s image.

The people of Israel, like many other people at the time, and many since, had often suffered at the hands of powers beyond their control. Their little nation was overrun again and again, enslaved, exiled, ordered around and oppressed by every great empire that came along. They were far too small to mount any realistic defence, like gnats to an elephant, so time and time again they were conquered and treated like rubbish by their conquerors.  Of course for many in those conquering nations life wasn’t much better. Many of them would have been regarded as disposable as well– too poor, too insignificant, too weak to count.

Many ancient cultures would never have questioned the rightness of that assumption that might was right, of “winner takes all”. Their creation stories would never have challenged it either. The people of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome didn’t think their gods were interested in people for themselves, but just as tools for them to use. The stories they told of the gods reflected their own belief that your value depended on your usefulness, and your usefulness depended on your power, wealth, or physical prowess. The result was, for example, that disabled children were often abandoned at birth; it was simply irresponsible to let them live, a waste of resources. The poor or weak were often left to fend for themselves; to starve or to sell themselves and their families into slavery to survive.

Of course people can be mean-minded and heartless now, but at least we think we ought to treat people as if everyone matters and should be cared for. Our human rights legislation, our universal education system , our National Health Service are all based on that assumption.

It’s an assumption that is rooted in this creation story from the book of Genesis, the one originally told and treasured by the Jewish people. Its message is radically different from other ancient myths.  Your worth, it says, comes from the simple fact that you are here, God’s own making, God’s own idea, created in his own image, like him in some way, reflecting his glory and his love. Every human being, it proclaims, is intrinsically worthwhile, not because of what they have done or could do, but simply because they are. Everyone is made, blessed and loved by God and he looks at his creation and declares it to be “very good”.

Imagine how that message might have felt to someone who was living as a slave in Babylon, or someone who was disabled, orphaned or widowed anywhere in the ancient world. To others you might seem just a nameless face in a needy crowd, but to God, it proclaimed, you were precious, one of a kind, part of his family, made in his image. That’s why I said that whoever wrote this was writing hope for the hopeless, justice for those who had none.

I have taken some time to spell all this out because I think we sometimes take this message for granted. The idea that all people are created equal is something that is deeply woven into our modern, Western world views. We might not live up to the ideal, but we assume it is self-evidently true. That’s a dangerous assumption, because even a cursory view of recent history and current events should warn us that just beneath the surface of our supposed civilisation lurk far older, darker attitudes. Fascism, Communism, Apartheid, the kind of crude Capitalism which proclaims that greed is good and those who can’t keep up in the rat race deserve to fail; these are all ways of thinking which run counter to the message of Genesis 1.  They often emerge in tough times when our own security feels threatened, and they reveal how easily we can all fall back into the idea that some people are intrinsically worth more than others, have more right to be heard, more right to be cared for and consulted than others.

This week an assortment of Bishops and other Christian leaders signed a letter expressing concern about the rapid growth in real hunger and hardship in our society. They were aware of this because they were seeing it on the ground in the shape of increasing numbers of people being referred to food banks – often run by churches - like the Loaves and Fishes food bank we have here in Sevenoaks. Many of the people seeking help were working, but in low paid jobs. Others were disabled or unable to find work. Often the crisis that had brought them to the food bank was triggered by delays in paying benefits, or sudden changes to the system, or sanctions which had left them with no money and no food for weeks at a time.

The newspapers reported this letter widely and, as usual, invited comments on their websites. I made what was probably the mistake of reading some of those comments , and I have to say that it wasn’t very a very edifying experience, to say the least. It was amazing how many people seemed to think that anyone in receipt of benefits must be a scrounger, hell-bent on defrauding the system. It was amazing how many people seriously seemed to think that it really didn’t matter whether those in need and their families went hungry, who suggested in fact that it would do them good. And it was equally amazing that it never seemed to occur to them that this was something that could happen to anyone, to them, or to someone they knew. “Are there no workhouses?” said Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Well, no, there aren’t now, thank God, but there seem to be quite a lot of people who think there ought to be, so long as they don’t end up in them themselves, of course.

Of course there is a real and serious debate to be had about how we support people in times of crisis, and how we administer our benefits system fairly, but if we start from the position that some people are worth less than others, that their suffering matters less than our own would , it is a sure sign that the message of Genesis 1 has been forgotten. And when that happens we are in deep trouble as a society. We can forget all the obscure theological doctrines, the fancy prayers and rituals, but if we forget that God makes us all in his image, we will soon come to regret it.

Today’s Gospel reading might sounds as if it has nothing much to do with all of this. In fact we might wonder what on earth Jesus is thinking of. “Don’t worry” he says to his followers, “about what you are to eat or to wear…” Huh? Of course they are going to worry about these things. Is he suggesting that we should just blithely assume that God will magically fill our larders when they are empty?  But it’s important to realise that Jesus doesn’t just say “Don’t worry”. He also says that we are to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, and that changes his meaning completely.

The kingdom of God is a place, or perhaps more accurately a way of being, where we are acting in line with God’s will, where we are living as the people he means us to be. And what does that involve? It involves loving the God who made us, and loving our neighbours whom he also made, loving them as our equals, loving them just as much as we love ourselves. It means living in a way that values God’s creation – humanity included - as much as he valued it when he proclaimed it to be “very good”. Strive for that kind of kingdom, that kind of attitude, says Jesus, and you won’t need to worry about food and clothing, because if you do fall on hard times – and he doesn’t promise we won’t – you’ll find you have built a world where there are people ready to catch you and support you, people who believe you matter, that you are worth helping when you can’t help yourself.

Our collect today puts it all in a nutshell. “Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth, and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children.”
May it be so.

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