Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
I know that Christmas isn’t just about the gifts. But isn’t it fun to ask each other, “Did you get anything exciting for Christmas?” Sometimes, we ask with the motivation of wanting to be asked back because we are the one who got something really cool. Sometimes, we know what another person got and it’s exciting to see the look on their face when they tell us. Sometimes, it’s just fun because it’s small talk that goes above and beyond the same old, “How about this rain?”
I wonder what people would say if we answered “What did you get for Christmas?” with “I was adopted!” Just picture the looks on their faces!
I love Broadway musicals and one of my favorite musicals has always been Annie. As a musician, it’s not the most interesting, musically speaking, but the story is wonderful and when it’s done well, it’s one of those shows that transports you far away. I’m pretty sure my sister and I wore out at least one VHS copy of the movie version of it when we were growing up. I haven’t seen the new movie version yet that’s out in the theaters, but I’m sure I’ll either love it like crazy or hate it completely because it’s such a favorite of mine.
Little Orphan Annie’s hope that she’ll one day have a family makes me think a little bit about Advent and the hope that the sun will come out tomorrow. That little kid has more hope and determination and faith than just about anyone I can think of. She just knows that there is something better for her, that her life is not meant to be a life holed up in a crummy orphanage under the rule of a nasty, weird woman who really doesn’t care about her charges. Somewhere out there is someone who will love her and care for her and provide for her.
I think the story of Annie resonates with so many people because we all can sympathize with her longing to fit in somewhere – her desire to be a part of something bigger than herself.
In the early church, people sensed that this Christianity thing was about being a part of something bigger. If you ask people even today who are searching for some sort of spiritual experience or religion, they will tell you they are looking because they want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. There seems to be a drive to figure out how to be a part of this thing.
Rites of passage to enter into spiritual communities are very important. Just look at how many we celebrate in our faith: we baptize the very new to the community, we confirm the older kids after they spend time learning about the theology and practices of our denomination, we welcome new members by asking them to profess their faith before the community, we ordain elders and deacons into leadership positions. These are all good things, as long as we remember why we do these things. The trouble in our passage in Galatians is that there were mixed ideas in the church in Galatia about what being a Christian means and how much importance should be given to certain rites and practices.
In Galatians, Paul is writing to a church from mixed backgrounds. In the early days of Christianity, there were two types of Christians: there were the Jewish Christians who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and a continuation of their Jewish faith and customs, and there were the gentile Christians – those who had converted from other religions – primarily the pagan Greek and Roman religions. The Jewish Christians continued to follow the practices of circumcision and other Jewish laws and customs, and they insisted that in order to worship with them, the gentile Christians had to do the same. They demanded that they must be converted to Judaism fully, as well as to Christianity.
Paul spends a great deal of time in his letters scolding the churches for this sort of thing. “It’s not about the law,” he says. Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf is like the moment when a minor is no longer subject to the law overseeing their trust or inheritance. We’ve been adopted by God. And since Jesus came, we’re full family, and we’re not under the oversight of the law anymore. That doesn’t mean we can be frivolous and do whatever we want, but it means that our inheritance is not based on our ability to follow the law.
We aren’t slaves anymore, Paul writes. We’re not just freed people. We are children of God. He’s not being overly sentimental, either. He really means it. To say we were simply freed from slavery is a big deal, but it’s an even bigger deal than that. We were freed from slavery and we are now fully part of God’s family – we have been adopted.
It’s not about the circumcision and the law, or how the person comes to the Christian community. That’s not what our salvation hinges on. It’s about the fact that we are all adopted and are therefore brothers and sisters in Christ with all our diversity and quirks and differences – all of our cultural and social backgrounds – Jew, Gentile, Greek, Roman, whatever. Brothers and sisters in Christ by adoption into sonship of the Almighty God who saved us out of slavery through Jesus Christ the Son.
We had a foster son for a few years. He’s all grown up now, but you’ll still occasionally see him with us and in family pictures from holidays and such. We often get funny looks when we’re out together as a whole family because Brandon looks quite a bit different than any of the rest of us. His nickname in my phone is “Giant Son” because he’s easily twice my size. He’s also African American. We have a great picture of Brandon and Gloria walking down the street into the sunset on her 3rd birthday, hand in hand. His hand is stretched about as far down as it goes and her hand is stretched up about as goes. The sun is gleaming off her fair, blond curls and she’s wearing a tutu. Brandon’s long dreadlocks touch his back and he’s wearing all dark colors next to Gloria’s flamboyant princess outfit. The sun setting at the end of the road silhouettes them perfectly.
I love that picture. It’s one of my favorite family photos of all time and hangs in a prominent place in our living room as a reminder that family isn’t about sameness, it’s about unity. It wasn’t always easy fostering a teenaged boy who came from a very different background than any of us. But in that moment, I looked at Gloria and Brandon, hand in hand walking down the street and they were brother and sister – family. No matter how many funny looks we get when we show people pictures of all of our kids together, or how many people say, “Oh, good for you” like my giant, dreadlocked son is more charity than family member, he’s part of our family. He was never legally adopted because he was so old already when he came to live with us, but in our hearts, he’s one of us. It doesn’t matter than Gloria kicked my intestines for 9 months or that Brandon came to us via court order. The fact of the matter is that they are both just as much loved and part of the family.
We come from all over the place. Both in this congregation and in the Church as a whole. But wherever we come from, we are part of the family and sometimes that means we wind up walking down the street into the sunset, hand in hand with a very unexpected person. Sometimes that means getting funny looks from people because we’re working side by side with someone nobody would expect to see us with.
When we see those around us as adopted, we see them differently. It changes the way we interact with one another. There is a song called, “Christ as a Light” and I listen to it nearly every morning as a reminder of this. It’s a prayer that Christ would be the light and guide of the whole day. My favorite line is, “Christ in the heart of those to whom I speak, Christ in the mouth of those who speak unto me.” In other words, let all the things I say and do around other people be filled with Jesus. I have yet to finish a day and think, “Yeah! I really nailed that today!” but there are plenty of moments in which that very purposeful way of approaching other people as beloved by Jesus stops me from saying things I’ll probably regret. Seeing people in light of their relationship to God who loves them changes the game.
When we accept this adoption, we interact with God differently too - we pray differently. Our prayers change when we realize that we have hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters around the globe. We pray differently when we realize we are talking not to some distant, cold deity off in space, but rather to a loving God who has adopted us and given us full inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our prayers can tell us a great deal about how truly we believe that we are adopted by God our loving Father.
When we know we are adopted – really know it – we even see ourselves differently. There is a confidence that comes with knowing that we are accepted by God, flaws and all, no matter where we come from. There is a freedom in knowing that you don’t have to have all your ducks in a row.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t watch the closing scene of Annie without dancing a little bit and singing along loudly. There is such joy in that scene! Little Orphan Annie – no longer an orphan – and Daddy Warbucks dance side by side and sing, “Together at last! Together forever!” Everyone in Annie’s life knows that she’s been adopted! She’s no longer an orphan. No longer does Annie take her identity from being parentless and trapped in a lousy orphanage. She’s a beloved child of someone who loves her endlessly.
So as you dig your homes out of piles of wrapping paper and play with all the fun new toys you got for Christmas, remember that those are just a tiny, blurry, shaky image of the way God gives. God gave Jesus and in giving Jesus, God gave us adoption. We are God’s beloved children because of Jesus Christ.