Sermon: Almost Angels

At one point in the movie “Pretty Woman,” beautiful street hooker, Vivian (played by Julia Roberts) and multi-millionaire Edward (played by Richard Gere), upon discovering that they might be in love, are sharing an intimate moment during which Vivian reveals her heart to Edward by sharing with him how she got into prostitution in the first place.

“First guy I ever loved,” she begins, “was a total nothing. Second was worse. My mom called me a `bum magnet’. If there was a bum within a mile radius, I was completely attracted to him. That’s how I ended up here.  I followed bum number three. . . So here I was: no money, no friends, no bum.”

“And you chose this as your profession?” asks Edward.

Reasons Vivian, “I worked at a couple of fast food places, parked cars at wrestling. And I couldn’t make the rent. I was too ashamed to go home. That’s when I met Kit. She was a hooker and made it sound so great. So one day I did it. I cried the whole time. But then I got some regulars and, you know – It’s not like anybody plans this: it’s not your childhood dream.”

“You could be so much more,” Edward says.

“People put you down enough,” Vivian counters, “you start to believe it.”

“I think you are a very bright, very special woman,” Edward tells her.

Replies Vivian: “The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?”

Why is that? Why is it so hard to believe the best about ourselves?

The Psalmist expresses that same struggle, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? [Yet] You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor.” (Ps. 8:4 – 5, nkjv) We’ve been created in the very image of God, Genesis 1 affirms.

So, why is that so hard to buy into?

Why does it seem that the bad stuff is such an easier sell?

“If man is not a divinity,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “then man is a disease. Either he is the image of God or else he is the one animal which has gone mad.”

Determining which one to believe – how to answer the question – is an essential matter of faith.

One could suggest that there is apparently much evidence which seems to assert that the latter is more feasible that the former.

Last year’s general election quickly became `a race to the bottom,’ as they put it. This year we see the apparent fruit of that campaign season.

It is a politics of cynicism, the pundits suggest, which seems to pander, and mobilize, the very worst aspects of what it means to be a human being.

Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison, had some harsh things to say about such politics. He described the cynic as one who claims to tell the truth in all places, and at all times, and to every person, but in reality he is just a consistent liar. The cynic wears a halo as “a zealot for truth” but he ends up destroying reality. Writes Bonhoeffer, the cynic “desecrates the mystery, breaks trust, betrays the community in which he lives, and smiles arrogantly over the havoc he has wrought and over the human weakness that `can’t bear the truth.’”

“Cynics,” Bonhoeffer concluded, “feed on hatred against the real—against the world created and loved by God” (Works, 16:604 – 605).

Cornell West calls it nihilism, “a disease of the soul. It can never be completely cured,” he says. But then Professor West offers us a hopeful alternative.

“But there is always a chance for conversion—a chance for people to believe that there is hope for the future and a meaning to the struggle . . . Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or self-analysis: it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth—an affirmation fueled by the concern of others. A love ethic must be at the center of the politics of conversion.” (Race Matters)

Even Christianity has generally been better at describing our limitations and failures than our potential and God’s high view of us and high hopes [for] us.

Says John Buchanan, “Our prayers of confession, while playing an important role in the liturgy of public worship, in addition to acknowledging the distance between God and ourselves, sometimes leave a feeling of hopelessness with their dismal view of human nature and potential.

“[Yet] It is not entirely true that “there is no health in us” as the old General Confession put it. We do not always think too highly of ourselves, with an inflated idea of our importance. [But] Sometimes we don’t think highly enough; sometimes we do not acknowledge our own importance. . .

“The Bible says we have the image of God in us. Furthermore, God is pleased with us, so pleased that God has made us partners, put us in charge of the garden, made us responsible for the creation and for our own lives” (A God Who Hopes and Expects, Oct. 24, 2010).

The basic assumption of Western Civilization – the basis for our civil order – is that every individual is to be valued, honored, respected; that each individual has both rights and responsibilities, rights based on the God-given sanctity of each one, each one created in the divine image. Bad things happen,” says Buchanan, “when we forget that: human slavery, for instance, persecution, bigotry” (ibid.).

Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s Speaking of Faith, tells of an interview she had with military chaplain John Morris, who sat in her studio in full battle camouflage after his second tour of duty in Iraq. He described one of the most awful days of his service in Fallujah. He stood before the charred bodies of four American contractors hanging from a bridge across the Euphrates. Fury consumed him, along with the certainty that the people who did this did not deserve to live. They were animals. Therefore, he (John Morris) would now become the agent of God, the wrath of God. But, as that conviction seized him, he understood that he was at an abyss that would render him capable of the very actions he hated.

“God help me and have mercy on me,” he prayed. “Save me from becoming a debased, immoral human being, save my soldiers as well.”

After the interview, Krista Tippett reflected, “Prayers like this, theology like this, belong in our common life.”

As Christians, we are not to be governed by a politics of cynicism, either within or without the church; we are not called into community based on the lowest common human denominators of fear, hate, bigotry, suspicion, pessimism.

Rather, we are called to be joined in a covenant community which is led by our higher angels – guided by that spark of light placed inside each one of us, which represents the love of life, creativity, generativity, compassion, hope; those qualities that we have identified as being divine, or divinely inspired, and which have been most fully articulated and expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. The One whom we, indeed, as his witnesses, have followed into this very place today.

In his book, Quantum Spirituality, William O’Malley affirms, “We are the only species whose choices are not branded into the fibers of our natures. We must choose to be who we are. But first we must discern what human beings are for. And we have only two backgrounds against which to measure our worth. Our lives are either speckles of light against infinite darkness or smudges of gray within infinite Light. We are here to discover our shining.”

Vivian began to believe the best about herself when she started to see herself through Edward’s eyes. Vivian found her higher angels when she discovered that she could be truly valued and fully loved by another human being.

“Some people ask, “Who am I?” and expect the answer to come from their accomplishments. Other people as “Who am I?” and expect the answer to come from what other people think about them. A person who dares to make and keep promises discovers who she is by the promises she has made and kept to other people” (Tom Long/Cornelius Plantinga, A Chorus of Witnesses, Eerdmans, 1994).

We come together as a covenant community in Christ Jesus to discover the light of God’s love shining within and among us in his name.

That is who we are created to be. That is what draws us to this place and these people. That is what we are called to discover together as the church.

You know, the truth is that you cannot spend any significant time in any meaningful relationship that seeks to accomplish anything of any real importance, without experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly in that other person.

But we can bear witness to God’s Light, as the church, as we continue to honor the promise to love one another in Christ; as we continue to strive – even in the midst of great diversity and acute differences and persistent difficulties – to hold each other as immeasurably valuable, created in God’s image; treat each other with genuine respect; and engage in God’s work with harmony and civility.

Over the past few years we have struggled – you and I – with that question the Psalmist has asked: Who are we, O God, that you would even consider us?

Who are we – with all our frailties, failings and foibles – that you might bless us with your presence, your guidance, your wisdom? Who are we that you might actually accomplish your work through us; fulfill your will in our lives; love and heal the world through us? Our answer today is clear:

“For You have created us only a little less than angels, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have intended for us to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under our feet.” (Ps. 8:5 – 6)

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth!”