Thursday, June 21, 2012

Being Adopted

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Galatians 4:1-7:

Father’s day is a difficult day for some people because of their relationship with their father.  Not that some people don’t have issues with their mothers, but I have known more people to have issues with their fathers than with their mothers.  Some of this has to do with the expectations that we have for men and fathers in our society and which sometimes expresses itself in negative ways in some men’s lives.  Others have absolutely wonderful relationships with their father’s and love father’s day to either honor or remember their father’s presence in their lives.  Just like with mother’s day, father’s day owes its existence to a Methodist and a Methodist church.  The day really has two different origination points.

The first is with Sonora Smart Dodd, who in 1909 proposed to her minister, after she heard him deliver a sermon about Mother’s Day, that they should establish a similar holiday in honor of fathers.  Dodd’s mother had died when she was a child, and she and her five siblings were raised alone by her father, so she wanted to honor him and fathers everywhere.  But as Central Methodist Episcopal Church in Spokane, Washington observed its first recognition, Central Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Fairmont West Virginia, and yes both churches had the same name, were observing their third.  They had begun their observance in honor and memory of 360 men who had died in a mine explosion in 1907, which left 1000 children without fathers.

But unlike the observance in Spokane, the worship in West Virginia did not draw much press attention.  In addition, Sonora Smart Dodd, was truly smart, as she enlisted the help of certain trade organizations, such as the manufacturers of ties as well as tobacco products, and later the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers, who greatly helped promote and push for the observance of the holiday.  While Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother’s Day, might have bemoaned the commercialization of the day she founded, father’s day has always been linked to children buying unattractive ties for their fathers, so maybe we should also say that Methodists are to blame for that.

I found out that I was going to be a father two days after Linda’s father died very suddenly.  I told her at the time, and I still stand by it, that not only was it a tragedy because our daughter’s never got the chance to meet and know their grandfather, but even more because when we tell them stories about what he was like, they are never going to believe them.  Shortly after Linda and I began dating and it was clear that we were serious about each other, Linda’s father called me, and I don’t think even Linda knows this story, but he wanted to know what my career plans were.  I told him that my intention was to enter the ministry.  And he said, "Admirable, but what will you do to provide a nice house for my daughter to live in, as she's accustomed to?"  I told him that I would work hard, but trusted that God would provide for us.”  So then he wondered how I would be able to buy her a nice engagement ring, or help pay for a wedding, and I told him that I would work hard and would trust that God would provide for us.  “What about children?” he asked, how can you possibly support children on a minister’s salary, and again I told him that I would work hard and trust that God would provide.  After we were done talking, my now mother-in-law asked about the conversation and he said, "Well, he has no job and no plans, but the good news is he thinks I'm God."

On this day when we recognize and celebrate our fathers and the men who have been fathers  to us, I thought it might be appropriate, since we are looking at Paul, to understand how we become children of God.  If you were here in January when we looked at the meaning of baptism, you might remember that one of the things that happens when we are baptized is that we are adopted by God and become children of God, and that is what Paul is referencing in today’s passage and he is explaining to us how it works, although since we have a very different understanding of adoption today it might not make a lot of sense to us, but it is very important for Paul.

The Greek word used for adoption appears only five times in the Bible, and all of them are in letters attributed to Paul.  Last week I had planned on talking about letters that Paul actually wrote and those which are attributed to him, and how we differentiate between the two, but I changed that up, but hopefully we will get to cover that soon because it is very important in interpreting who Paul is for us.  But four of those mentions come in undisputed letters, that is ones everyone is in agreement that Paul wrote, and they include three mentions in Romans and once in today’s reading from Galatians. The fifth mention is in Ephesians, a letter which has been attributed to Paul, but which most scholars now agree was written by someone else.  Nowhere else in the bible is adoption mentioned, and yet for Paul it is crucial to his understanding of what Christ means for us and he we relate to God.

“When the fullness of time had come,”  Paul says, “God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” This is an eschatological claim being made by Paul here.  Eschatology it one of those big church words that means it is dealing with the end of times, and it is one we clergy like to use because it helps us justify the thousands of dollars we spent on our seminary education in order to learn these big words, and eschatology, or the end of times, is also very important for Paul.  This is an eschatological passage because for Paul, the birth of Christ represents the end of one age and the beginning of another.  A time which is already here, but also not quite yet here.  It represents, what is called the inbreaking of Christ into our world.  The fullness of time also represents another issue we have dealt with, the difference between God’s time, kairos, and our time, chronos.

Christ is born of a woman and he is born under the law.  These are important statements for Paul because they emphasize the humanity of Christ and the Jewishness of Christ.  Much as we say only Nixon could go to China, Paul is telling us that only someone born like us could free us from the slavery of sin and death, and only a person born under the law can radically change and altar the law and free us from that law.  But then Paul makes an interesting jump of how this works for us, because of Christ, the son of God, he says, we are given adoption by God as children, and because we are adopted we enter a special relationship with God and become heirs.  Even though this passage is only a couple of verses long, it is incredibly dense, and one which we could spend a long time discussing, but because we do deal in chronos, unfortunately we don’t have time [plus I have to make up for running so long last week].

Tommy Tenney recounts a time in which he was in a department store, and he had a little girl walk up to him with a toy in her hand and boldly declared, “Mister, buy this for me.”  A little taken aback he replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know you and I don’t know about….”  But she interrupted him midsentence and said “Mister.  I want it.  Buy this for me.”  Deciding that things were getting out of hand, he started backing up and asking “where is your mommy?”  I don’t know she replied, well” he said, still backing up, “where’s your daddy?” Over there she said, well go ask him, Tenney said, “But mister, I want you to buy this for me.”  The girl would not give up.  Tenney was able to finally extract himself from the situation, and in thinking back on the situation he said while the girl had the persistence to try and get what she wanted, what she was missing, he said, was “one all-important ingredient: she lacked the power of position.”  If it had been one of his daughter’s he would have approached the situation much differently, and while he still might not have bought her the toy, she would have at least gotten a fair hearing.  “It is one thing to make your petition with passion and persistence,” he says.  “It is another thing to make your petition from the right position.”  And that is what Paul is trying to tell us in this passage.  Through Christ we are given the right position with God because we become children of God

Now the fact that the term adoption does not appear in the scriptures outside of Paul does not mean that they did take care of orphaned or other children in need of care, they did, but they did not adopt the child the way we think of it.  Adoption did take place in Greek and Roman culture, but it had nothing to do with making sure that children were taken care of.  Instead it had everything to do with inheritance.  If a family did not have a male heir to inherit then the father of the family, the paterfamilias, could adopt a male from outside in order to become the heir.  This son would then leave their own family behind, take on the name of the family which adopted them and become the rightful heir to the family fortune.  In almost all cases the person being adopted was not a young child, but instead an older teenager or an even adults.

There were many reasons why these adoptions took place.  One we see often was for power purposes.  Often the Roman emperor would adopt an adult male as his son, who would then become the emperor upon his death.  So for example, Julius Caesar adopted Augustus.  But more common adoption was used to protect a family fortune by making sure it would continue through just one person if there was not a male heir.  For the man being adopted it could also serve to help protect a family fortune.  If there were too many sons in a family, then one or more sons might be given up to adoption in order to make sure the inheritance was divided among fewer people.  The other reason for a son to be given up for adoption would be to protect them from debt.  When the adoption took place any debt that the son carried over from his prior family was released.  Let me say that again, when a son was adopted any debt they had in their prior existence was eliminated because they became a new person through the adoption process.  They literally took on a new identity, and were, as we might say, reborn.

Now there were some legal restrictions regarding adoptions.  In the Greek world, women could not inherit; they were part of the property of the estate.  Under Roman laws, male and females could inherit equally, and women could own property, but only a male could be adopted.  That means that women could only be the heirs to their own families inheritance, and they could not change their fate if they family had fallen on hard times, as their brothers could.  If a family ran into debt there was no way for a daughter to escape that debt, but her brothers might be able to if they found the right situation and were adopted by another family.  This reality is significant because of the language that Paul uses in this passage.  Normally I prefer the New Revised Standard translation because of its more inclusive language in that it typically changes masculine pronouns into gender neutral or both male and female pronouns when appropriate, which they did in today’s passage.  But by changing the language here it diminishes the radicalness of what Paul is saying, which is better reflected in some other translations like the New International Version.

Paul says that through Christ, we are adopted and we become sons of the father and therefore heirs.  I know it doesn’t sound like it, but this is a radically inclusive statement.  Paul is not just talking about the male Christians here.  Paul is claiming that through Christ everyone becomes a son to god.  I know that to our modern ears this still doesn’t sound very good, but imagine what this sounded like to the women of the church at Paul’s time.  Paul is claiming that through Christ, we all, each and every one of us become sons of God, and therefore heirs, and because we are heirs not only do we inherit but our debts are also forgiven.  And to highlight the radicalness of this statement, just before today’s passage chapter 3 verse 28, Paul also wrote “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  This not Paul saying that in order to be welcomed into the kingdom of God, or in order to be truly valued by God that women must become male, that is not what Paul is saying.  Instead he is taking a societal standard that everyone at the time would have understood and is instead applying it not just to males, who were the only ones entitled to be adopted, but is applying it everyone.

One other legal restriction worth mentioning is that if there was a legitimate legal heir then an adoption could not take place because that would impact the inheritance due to the son.  But that is not what Paul says. Paul tells us that because of Jesus, who is the son of God, we are able to be adopted.  It is because of the legitimate heir that we have the ability to become heirs ourselves, to become children of God.  Not only is Paul turning the understanding of gender on its head, but he is turning the entire understanding of how adoption was practiced by the Romans on its head as well.  It is because of the son of the father that we are given adoption because of the debts we hold that need to be freed through adoption.  It is through the actions of Christ on our behalf, that we can become children of God and have the spirit enter our hearts and cry out “Abba! Father!”  Through the spirit of adoption, through the actions of Christ we become children of God and the debts which had been hanging over our heads have been erased.

Fred Craddock tells the story of a young boy growing up in Tennessee in the 20’s who was born illegitimate.  As he was growing up he would be taunted by the other children, and the adults around him where constantly trying to guess who his father might be.  This only got worse as the boy got older, and his appearance came closer to what his father might have looked like.  One day as a young teenager, as the boy was leaving church, the minister stopped him at the door, and said “let me take a look at you,” then looked him up and down and continued “you know I’d never really seen it before, but now I do, the resemblance is striking, you must be the son of…” and then the minister paused.  The boy braced expecting the pain of his birth to appear again, and then the minister continued.  “Yep, no doubt about it, I see the family resemblance now.  You are a child of God.”  With that he patted the young man on the back, and said “you’ve got a great inheritance.  Go and claim it.”  And with that, the young boy claimed a new identity and family.

Erma Bombeck said “there’s nothing sadder in this world than to awake on Christmas morning and not be a child.”  And on this day, like on mother’s day, it is also a time in which some of us lament the fact that our fathers, and our mothers, are no longer with us or were never present for us.  But let us also remember, and celebrate the fact, that we are all children, all sons and daughters, of God, that we have been adopted and made one in the family of God, and because of that adoption our debts are wiped clean and this happens because of the son who makes it all possible.

Many of us come here today with many burdens on our shoulders, thinking that we are not worthy, not only of God’s love, but of others love as well.  We know that we have not lived into the life that God has called us to be, that we have not been the parents we could be, just as our parents often did not live into their roles, we have all failed, but we are all loved, and we are all forgiven.  Paul reminds us that because of Christ that we have been offered forgiveness, but in turn we must also forgive, not only those who have wronged us, which sometimes includes our fathers, but we must also learn to forgive ourselves.

So today, on the day in which we remember our fathers, let us also honor God the father who has adopted us and by doing so has redeemed from the debt hanging over our head, and made us heirs to the kingdom.  So my brothers and sisters and Christ, let us remember our fathers, both the good and the bad, give thanks to God, Abba, Father, for the redemption from sin and the adoption as children.  Amen.

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