Scripture: Genesis 1:26–31
“How are you doing?”
This is the simple question asked by the pollsters at Gallup to gauge public health and happiness. They have a new study coming out, and just the publicity for it is a tad overwhelming.
This kind of information feels global and massive and not necessarily connected to our reality, except that I know it is. Talking to you all within the last months, I know all of these to be true:
- 3.3 billion people want a great job, but only 300 million have one.
I’ve heard your stories of struggling with your job expectations and co-workers and bosses. Call it the Great Rethink or the Great Resignation or whatever, but it is personal and hard.
- 2 billion people are struggling on their current income.
I’ve heard your stories of struggling with bills and prices and medical costs, and it started way before the pandemic.
- Over 1 billion people are so dissatisfied with their community that they want to leave it forever.
I’ve heard your frustration about living in a gerrymandered country, where a minority political party can stack the Supreme Court in unethical and immoral ways…and living in a gerrymandered state, where apparently we live in western Kansas now.
- In 2020, three in ten people worldwide experienced food insecurity.
Yesterday, in the 110-degree heat, 140 families showed up to the Harvesters [mobile food] pantry, because this one is absolutely true.
- Over 300 million people don’t have a single friend.
I’ve heard your stories about loneliness and isolation, hard before the pandemic, but all the more soul-crushing now.
The folks at Gallup give evidence to the experiences that we already know, personally and painfully. They report that people are naming a higher level of “stress, sadness, physical pain, worry and anger than at any point in the history of Gallup’s tracking.” And this started long before COVID.
“How are you doing?”
Not great. And when it feels like I don’t matter to my boss, and I don’t matter to my country, and I don’t matter to my family, and I don’t matter to my friends, all this stuff piles into this big and scary and existential question:
“Do I even matter to…God?”
That last one really gets a lot of us. It becomes this existential thing. An ontological anxiety that makes us wonder if we really do matter at a most basic level of identity. “Am I a person who matters?” Now, as good Christians we know what we are supposed to say: “Yes, of course, I matter to God.” Everyone say it with me: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Our head knows this, but for some of us, there is something deeper that wonders if this is true.
The folks at the Two-Way [sermon discussion group] didn’t mince words. They think that part of the blame goes to the language of the Church. They named a frustration with this theological concept that seems to suggest that we don’t really matter. This concept is sometimes called original sin, or total depravity, or something equally uplifting. And it was developed by theologians in part as a reaction to the humanism of the Enlightenment. It suggests that Adam—and let’s be honest, really Eve—fundamentally broke the nature of humanity for the rest of human history. They point to Genesis Chapter Three, Adam and Eve’s choice, as the story of how we all became a depraved people, who cannot do anything but sin. Every single thing that we do is sinful. That’s simply who we are. Broken. Depraved.
And when we look at a list like the one from Gallup, and ask, “do I really matter to God? Do I matter?” the answer that depravity theory more or less gives us is “kinda….” “There is nothing inherently valuable about you, but if you get out of your own way enough, and let God do what God does, and if you don’t keep messing up too bad, then yes, you kind of matter.” I remember growing up kind of adjacent to this theology. There were a ton of guilt and shame messages associated with it. I remember one kid who got baptized like 4 times…kept going up and telling the preacher that she felt like it didn’t take the last 3 times. Because she had internalized this message that she never was good enough. Regardless of what Jesus did, that depravity was total.
But that isn’t the only way to look at the book of Genesis. I would suggest that we are not first and foremost a Genesis Three people. Our story starts in Genesis One, where I read this morning. And there is this Genesis One theology, much older than total depravity theory, which is sometimes referred to as Imago Dei, or Image of God. It ties to the language that I read a few moments ago, where God says “let us make humanity in our image….so male and female, he created them.” And the passage ends with the declaration “and God said it was good.” We begin in the beginning, in Chapter One.
Shifting the starting point, from Genesis Three to Genesis One, gives us a new way to look at humanity. Instead of depravity, Imago Dei defines us. Do you even matter to God? Genesis One says absolutely! It says that you are someone that God has created with gifts. And talents. And creativity. And curiosity. And beauty. And God says that all of that is good. Just like Grace Byers suggests… “like the sun, you’re here to shine. Like the voice, you’re here to sing. Like the bird, you’re here to fly and soar high over everything.” You are not created in the image of depravity. You are created in the image of divinity. You were made in the image of the Holy.
But it also gives us a new way to look at divinity! Total depravity theory suggests that Jesus became human…kind of. You have to hedge your bets a little, because if humans are completely depraved, and cannot do anything without sinning, then you have to kind of cheat to call Jesus human. Jesus came to make us less human. But in Imago Dei theology, God became human on purpose. John 3:16 doesn’t say that God was so disappointed in the world that he had to come clean it up. It says God so loved the world. Loved these people that he had called good. God became human as a way to suggest that humanness is what God had in mind from the beginning. Jesus lived and died and lived again as a human in order to help us see ourselves through Genesis One eyes. To show us what it means to be human. To remind us you absolutely matter. You are absolutely created in God’s image. You are absolutely enough. And when you fall short of that creation, there is grace, and there is restoration, and there is forgiveness.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we ignore Genesis Three. There is still sin. There is still depravity. It may not be total, but it is real. Adam sinned. Eve sinned. I sin. You sin. We all participate in brokenness in this world. Breaking covenant and breaking relationship with God and with others is destructive to our Imago Dei. I read a poignant essay this week by a Hebrew scholar named Yehiel E. Poupko about the Buffalo grocery store shooting. If you remember, the shooter was a white man who had heard all this cable news garbage about “replacement theory,” that people with dark skin are here to steal our jobs, and here to steal our women and children, and here to steal our country. So he got in his car and drove 200 miles to a largely African-American neighborhood and killed ten people and wounded three more. That is depravity. And Poupko writes that it is failure to see the image of God in one another. Genesis Three is real. But Genesis Three does not define us. Genesis One defines us. We are created in the image of divinity! We are created in the image of the Holy.
It’s the story that Sue Mosteller put into action. Mosteller was called to become a part of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Catholic order that creates and maintains hospitals and care facilities to care for both physical and spiritual needs. Eventually, she found herself drawn toward ministry with the L’Arche Daybreak community. L’Arche is a community that began in France, that cares for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These are folks that the world often finds disposable. Or annoying. Or too much trouble. Or depraved. But Mosteller found herself drawn to L’Arche because their primary theological commitment is that these folks were created in the image of God. That they are not here to receive our pity or babysitting. They are here to teach the rest of us what it means to be human. To rely on others. To be truthful and honest and vulnerable. To teach us what real love looks like.
Mosteller began living and working in the community, and eventually became one of its international leaders, helping to form similar communities around the world. She made it her mission to proclaim the truth of “you are enough. You are valued. You matter.” Scholar and writer Henri Nouwen credits her as one of the most significant influences on his theology, helping him to learn what Imago Dei is really about.
She says it this way: “So many times I interpreted the scripture that says ‘Blessed are the poor’ to mean, ‘Okay, I’m strong. I should go help those poor people.’ The continuous learning from being at L’Arche has been that the blessedness of the poor is that they have a gift for us. I might have certain strengths today that mean I can help them to grow, but I can tell you a hundred stories about what people with disabilities have taught me about love and life, and about vulnerability and accepting that. It has been such a revelation to me that, rather than going with all my strengths to help the poor, I need to rather open myself to receive the gift of the poor—which is for my salvation! Vulnerable people know how to trust, and how to love, and how to help me. They’re not shy to say what they feel.”
That’s Imago Dei. A reminder that we are each valued. That we each matter. One last reminder from Byers:
“And in the end, we are right here
to live a life of love, not fear
To help each other when it’s tough,
to say together: I am enough.”