The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE FAMILY ALBUM

Delivered 5/7/2000
Text: I John 3:1-7
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"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are..." Children of God. Familiar phrase. Have you ever thought much about it? I confess I have not; I just took it more or less for granted. You too?

Actually, I think I probably took it a bit too much for granted. John says the world does not know us. I wonder whether WE know us. Perhaps we would do well to dig out the family album and look at the pictures we find there.

Here is one. Recent. From the paper just the other day. It is of an ornately dressed gentleman, bespectacled, smiling broadly, with a red skull cap perched on the back of his head. His name is John Cardinal O'Conner, the spiritual leader of more than two-million Roman Catholics in the New York Archdiocese, until his death this week at 80 years of age.(1) On hearing of the Cardinal's passing Billy Graham said, "The Church has lost a great warrior and the country has lost a great patriot who will long be remembered. He was a bold and courageous man who stood firmly for what he believed."

A man of strong convictions and deep faith, the archbishop held tightly to the teachings of the Catholic Church. He marched against abortion and criticized any Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights. But he also vigorously denounced violence. He went on the Internet in 1995 to field questions about clinic bombings and said, "If anyone has an urge to kill anybody at an abortion clinic, he should kill me instead."

The Cardinal opposed homosexuality and objected to gay Catholics marching in New York's annual St. Patrick's Day parade. But in his homily one Sunday when a Gay Pride Parade was to pass in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, he warned the congregation, "Please do not believe for a moment that you would be defending the Church or advancing Church teachings by expressions of hatred."

Although O'Connor was adamant in equating gay and lesbian lifestyles with biblical sin, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once said of him, "No place in the country are they working more aggressively to help AIDS patients than in the archdiocese. The cardinal is not getting the credit for this, and he should."

O'Connor campaigned against the death penalty. He was a prominent advocate for disabled people and those living in poverty. He personally intervened to help settle industrial disputes by pressing for workers' rights. He once told friend and biographer Nat Hentoff, "If I were simply saying Mass and going through the ordinary Catholic rituals and that's all I did, I shouldn't be here." The church, he said, should be part of everyday life.

Just a few weeks ago President Clinton signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the ailing cardinal for his service to the nation. "For more than 50 years, Cardinal O'Connor has served the Catholic Church and our nation with consistency and commitment," the President said. "Whether it was the soldier on the battlefield or the patient dying of AIDS, Cardinal O'Connor has ministered with a gentle spirit and a loving heart. Through it all, he has stood strong as an advocate for the poor, a champion for workers and an inspiration for millions."

John Cardinal O'Conner. Child of God. Obvious, right? Not to everyone. As the controversy around Governor Bush's visit to Bob Jones University a few weeks ago reminded us, there are still some Christians who refuse to recognize any branch of the family other than their own. Sad.

But before we jump too hard on our ultra-conservative cousins, perhaps we should turn the page in the family album. Here is another recent photo. It was on the front page of Monday's paper. It shows a familiar face, but with hair somewhat thinner than we remember. In earlier days his photographs showed him as a bit boyish, a smile that always seemed too wide for his face, and accompanied by a poster girl for Max Factor, Esteé Lauder, and Revlon all rolled into one. It is Jim Bakker, the disgraced former televangelist who went to jail for bilking his PTL faithful out of millions.

Few names have inspired more snickers in or out of the church in recent years than Jim Bakker. In his hey-day, he elicited equal parts commendation and condemnation. His health and wealth theology was the good news that many wanted to believe, and thousands loved him for teaching it. But those of us who had to hear about it from starry-eyed parishioners were regularly distressed at having to explain (and ever so gently) how unbiblical such a gospel really was. When this modern-day Elmer Gantry got his come-up-ance, more than a few of us (including me) said an inward hallelujah.

So saying, few people got any pleasure out of the public wrangling over which pious promoter would get control of the PTL empire after Jim's downfall - that made all Christians look foolish. Nor did we feel any joy seeing the TV film of a weeping, half-crazed shell of a man being led off to jail in shackles. He deserved to pay a penalty for what he had done, but the 45-year sentence originally handed down was excessive - he eventually only spent five years behind bars. It was all very sad.

Since his release from prison in 1994, Jim has kept a lower profile than in his pre-conviction days. He turns down 99-percent of the speaking invitations he gets, he says, but last Sunday, as a favor to a former PTL singer who is now the minister of music just down the road at Christ Covenant Church, he came to town. "I decided I would never step into public life again, but God had another plan for me," said Bakker during his 90-minute sermon. His message: God is the God of second chances, and Jim himself is living proof.(2)

Still, there is lingering cynicism about Jim Bakker. I admit some persists in me. Then our text jumps out at me - "children of God." That means Jim Bakker and I are brothers. And then another text from I John comes popping into my mind: "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen."(3)

Jim Bakker. Child of God. God bless you, Brother. And forgive me for taking so long to acknowledge that you and I are family.

Turn the page in the album. Here is another recent photo. The cover of the current issue of Newsweek. A group of teens with skirts too short, pants too low, and hair too weird pictured in front of school lockers for a special report dealing with "God, Sex, Race & the Future: What Teens Believe."(4) Interesting stuff. Listen:

The unsung story of today's teenagers may be how religious or spiritual they are. "We're witnessing a new revival of religion," says Conrad Cherry, director of the Center for Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University/Purdue University. Prayer circles and faith-based groups like True Love Waits or Fellowship of Christian Athletes have proliferated in high schools and college campuses like so many WWJD bracelets; Christian rock festivals and CDs rival their secular counterparts, bringing the message out of the pulpit and into the mosh pit and tattoo tent. Three decades after the rebels of the baby boom appeared to run away from organized religion, "a lot more teenagers are becoming more willing to say, 'Hey, I'm a Christian'," says 16-year-old Jacintha Bavaro, who sings in the choir of her Roman Catholic church in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Jacintha's mother, Laura, concurs. "They talk about it and seem a lot more into it than when I was a teenager," she says. "We used to pretend we were going to church and go to Dunkin' Donuts."
Well, kids still love Dunkin' Donuts (as you can learn most any Sunday by wandering into our Senior Hi Class), but they also love their church, and that is wonderful. True, the dress is different, the hair is different, the tattoos and pierced body parts are definitely different. Yes, this family album has some strange photographs. But they are family. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."

That is good to remember. We are an eclectic bunch. This family album has pictures of young and old, rich and poor, married and single, red and yellow, black and white. There are Democrats and Republicans, pro-life and pro-choice, gay and straight. There is the guy in dreadlocks and the guy with the flat top. There is the sweet young thing with a big school ring on her finger and the sweet young thing with little rings through her nose and navel. Can we deal with that? Before you quickly say YES, be aware that we do not have a good track record in dealing with our diversity. That is why we have no photographs of Cardinal O'Conner at Bob Jones University or Jim Bakker at a Presbyterian General Assembly. Christians who disagree are not in the habit of being particularly civil to each other. We need to do better.

So saying, that is NOT the point of this message. Actually, I would hope that could go without saying. Mark Twain said once that the church is a place where a nice respectable person stands in front of other nice, respectable people and urges them to be nicer and more respectable. I hope we offer more than that, and the "more" today is to encourage seeing all the diversity we have as a cause for celebration. The children of God were not made with a cookie cutter and there is no need for the church to try to remold them all in some more homogeneous image. In fact, what we are is going to change anyway. Our lesson says so: "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." We are in for a treat!

Years ago G. K. Chesterton observed, "The [person] who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world...The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us."(5) Just like a family.

Precisely! Given a choice, we associate with folks just like ourselves, even under the steeple, which is why 11:00 o'clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in America. We find a certain comfort in sharing the pews with people who generally look like, act like, dress like, worship like, live like us. And we especially feel more comfortable with people who sin like us.

But, remember that old dictum, you can pick your friends but not your relatives. God's children, your sister or brother, are not those who necessarily look like you, act like you, believe like you, worship like you. Your brother and sister may not be on the same side of the political fence as you, may not be in the same denomination as you, may not be interested in the same causes as you, and may not even understand God as you do.(6) Your brother or sister may challenge you. There are shortcomings on both sides. But that is the nature of a family. Sometimes dysfunctional, but still family.

This is God's wonderful gift. In Jesus Christ, we were not made friends (although many of us are), we were made family - children of God. Cardinal O'Conner, Bob Jones, Jim Bakker, our terrifying teens, you, and you, and you, and you. Even the occasional aging preacher. "Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in his sight."

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." Now, smile pretty. This picture is going in the family album.

Amen!


1. Biographical material from CNN online, http://www.cnn.com/2000/US/05/04/cardinal.oconnor.obit/index.html

2. Margaret Moffett Banks, "Bakker extols forgivess, pitches book-tape deal," Greensboro News & Record, 5/1/00, A1

3. 1 John 4:20

4. May 8, 2000, pp. 52-74

5. Quoted by Philip Yancey, "Why I Don't Go to a Megachurch," Christianity Today. 5/20/96, p. 80

6. "Radical Chick," Homiletics, May, 2000, p. 17

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