Focusing Our Lives – Part 6 of 6: The Claim Department
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, June 11th, 2017
I’m not one to publicly embarrass people but I want to start today. I don’t know if you know and don’t tell them if you see them because they’ll get the big head. I don’t know if you know how awesome our staff is here. Did you hear the theological reflection in the hymn that Adam picked for today? How can I keep from singing? No storm can shake my inmost calm. That Pastor’s prayer was off the cuff: inspired by that hymn, inspired by the theological reflection of Adam. He grew up Lutheran; he’s recovering well. Yes, yes, keep up the good work. Theological reflection, he is very capable of it. Steve, that time with the children. You would almost think that’s the sermon and it kind of is; it is kind of where we are going. But where I want to start though before we get into the sermon is Steve and his ability to theologically reflect, he has this ability to think about how he thinks.
You didn’t come to church today for me to tell you what to believe. You didn’t come to church for me to tell you what to think. You came to church because you want to theologically reflect. I’m inviting you to ponder with me how you think about things. When I think about things, what pleases me is consistency and what drives me batty is inconsistency. And so I want to talk about consistency and inconsistency, kind of in a roundabout way. Steve hit it on the head today. Will you do what God has asked you to do? That’s a hard question. Where my brain started thinking about that this week though was I I’m been doing some cleaning — it’s summer time — trying to get stuff cleaned out of the office and now I don’t have to keep paper copies. I can scan everything and throw the paper copies away and then I can wait for it to digitally disappear; which happens too.
I ran across an article from 2004, it was re-copy, it was in the Arizona Daily Star. We lived in Tucson then; it was an op-ed piece out of the Washington Post. If you don’t recall April 30th give or take of 2004 — you might not have any memory of this — but I think if I tell you about it you’ll remember it. The editorial started with this phrase: the contest in which a human being is the prize is reprehensible. The editorial was heaping scorn on ABC’s 20-20 news program. It was the show that was titled: Be My Baby. It documented Jessica, a pregnant 16-year-old from Cleveland Ohio as she interviewed five couples desperately wanted to adopt her unborn child. While Jessica agreed to the adoption, she also said she wanted to maintain contact with both the child and the couple who adopted the baby in an increasingly popular arrangement called open adoption. The contempt poured on the show came from adoption professionals and many media sources. Many thought that before the program aired that the promotion by ABC turned this into a game show.
“20-20 cameras were there when the competition for Jessica’s baby began. As the finalists arrived at the agency, one by one, each couple would have less than one half hour to convince Jessica that they should be the parents to raise her unborn son.”
That does sound a whole lot like an obscene reality show where couples come to compete for a baby. One objector wrote: masquerading as a news program, 20-20 has taken a critical moment, laden with hope and heartbreak and a child’s future on the line and turned it into profit and a reality game show,
Mike Cassidy wrote for the Mercury News. He summed up the reaction saying there should be a call-in line. Remember that in 2004 we did not have cell phones. You young-ens might have forgotten that. They had a call-in show, and he suggested this number: 1-800 HOW-SICK. So loud was the outcry against this broadcast that before it even hit the air, Barbara Walters posted a letter on the ABC website blaming the furor on overly zealous promotion and marketing, admitting that the initial on-air promo promos were a little over the top; a little? According to Walters, then the problem was the use of the words compete and finalist used by the marketing people in promoting and describing the five couples who wanted to adopt this child. Walters went on to defend the program and of course ABC aired it; controversy makes for great ratings right? Walters, I think did a good job of describing the symptom. I don’t think anybody addressed the real problem.
The real problem as I see it is that when you inject competition and entertainment and profit angles into a process that is of great consequence to the entire life of a human being, that it diminishes the humanity of everyone involved. And if that show back in 2004 served any useful purpose, it is that the clamor enabled us to hear those objections and all of us could get together become offended and assertive in our commitment to honor the humanity of everyone, at least for a while, until we forgot, or until it was our money involved, or as long as it had to do with babies. We will come back to that.
So our text today is from the birth narrative of Jesus and adoption is the conversation. In the text there is the literal sense of adoption; Matthew’s account where the angel tells Joseph you’re going to adopt this child. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She will bear a son; you are to name him Jesus. Dr. Eugene Boring from Brite Divinity Schools says the meaning of this text is adoption. You Joseph shall take this child as your own. That’s the text, you will adopt him into the Davidic line and he will be an authentic son of David; that’s the intention. Joseph obeyed and Jesus became as far as anyone else in Bethlehem knew, Joseph’s son. That’s the literal sense of adoption. There’s also the metaphorical sense of adoption. that God sent Jesus, so that we might adopt him. Now we say it that way and it sounds strange to our ears because our cultural religion has talked about it in a different way. It all makes it sound like it’s up to us; we have to adopt Jesus. There is one message in the birth story is that it’s all up to God. God is the actor.
It also helps to understand that in the first century in Aramaic and Greek, the word belief is pisti. The subordinate word of faith is pestis. To believe in someone means that what is important to them becomes important to you. Jesus said, believe in me and keep my commandments; believe in me, and this is what’s important to me. So to receive Jesus, to adopt Jesus, to believe in Jesus means what is important to Jesus becomes important to us. So now our mind begins filing through what we remember that Jesus told us to do about how we treat neighbors and friends and enemies. That becomes difficult because it’s not what we want to do; but it is obedience and that’s what it means to adopt Jesus. Receiving Jesus conveys the sense of making Christ welcome in our lives; making our lives a representation of the way of Christ.
This is also important in adoptive relationships. If you’ve ever known someone or maybe you adopted and raised a child, you have to make the home welcome. It has to become their home, their stuff, their place. The divine sense of adoption is also embodied in this text. John tells us that Jesus came to arrange for our adoption as well. Jesus said it this way: you did not choose me. I chose you. Paul too uses the image of adoption to speak about our relationship with God. To the folks at Ephesus he writes: God chose us in Christ, destined us for adoption as his children. Paul says to the Romans, that adoption leads to being heirs of God and joint heirs in God with Christ. So far in this conversation we got three things happening right now. I guess this is about preserving our humanity; our receiving Jesus, our adopting Jesus; claiming his way as our way. Making Jesus welcome in our lives; what is important to him becomes important us; and God’s adoption of us and our need to reflect the ways of the Father.
So I have a couple things for us to ponder as we are talking about consistency. One of the TV networks in Tucson back in 2004 ran a corresponding story about the adoption situation in Arizona and America. One of the points that they made was that one of the reasons that these five couples were willing to go through the humiliation of competing on national television for Jessica’s baby is because the child was newborn, healthy and white. They made very clear and I checked it remains true to this day: children available for adoption that meet those three criteria are in short supply. But there are a lot of children awaiting adoption that don’t meet all of those criteria. Some of them are older, some of them are not white and some of them have special needs and there is no show competing for them; there is no competition. Some of them will remain in the custody of Children Services until they turn 18.
I’m not suggesting that you run out this week and adopt a child because you feel guilty. Good things do not come out of guilt — take my word for that — we don’t do good out of guilt or shame. I say this because I want to acknowledge that I do not suspect that any of us are racist; I suspect all of us are, in ways that we don’t always understand. Let me give you an example; I happen to be in a family where one member of the family is adopted and is not the same color as the rest of us. Now I said that wrong, it is pretty racist, huh? It was amazing to me and when I grew up and my brother Tim and I we would be with my parents and people would come up to us and with the best intention would thank my parents for adopting a black child and say: oh it’s so neat of you to raise him; he’s different. My parents were just aghast at this; they would look at folks and go: these are our sons; what are you talking about? There is that way we become racially insensitive when we open our mouth. And I don’t want you to feel guilty about it; this is one of those things which we all have to address and become aware. I say this because last week we discovered that the Holy Spirit did not come to the congregation in Jerusalem until they were all together in one room; people from all different tribes, all different places, all different colors, speaking all different languages and everyone who came heard a message of welcome.
I tell you this today for your theological reflection because we make decisions every day: what we talk about, the positions we defend, the posture we take, the jokes we chuckle at, the radio and TV shows we tune in, the way we treat people around us, the way we roll our eyes at the folks who serve us, all of which reveal our receiving Jesus. Have we adopted him, claiming his way is our way? Have we made Christ welcome in our lives? What is important to him comes important to us; God’s adoption of us and our need to reflect the way of the Father.
I got one more. It’s been almost 50 years, my favorite blogger Seth Godin is a business writer reminded me of this. Milton Friedman published a little article that altered the way we think about corporate responsibility in society. In his article fifty years ago, Friedman wrote, there is one and only one responsibility of business, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits. Friedman said that business has no corporate responsibility beyond; has no responsibility to an ethical society; it has no responsibility to improve the lives of customers, employees, or neighbors; unless these actions coincidentally increase profit.
In my mind I am remembering in the last month or two, the chairman of the board of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the nation has been telling patients who need an EpiPen and the FDA: you just have to live with my profit margin. I’m going to pay my CEO $95 million and there’s nothing you can do about that; because he can. Like a whole lot of folks who lucked into jobs of big companies, the excuse becomes simple; my job is to make money; we do that; I’m just doing my job; even if that practice leads to the erosion of any social concern and the deaths of kids whose biggest crime was getting stung by bees. The simplicity of that argument is stunning; no need to worry about nuance; no need to wonder about right decisions; no need to lose sleep over difficult choices; no potential consequences to ponder; just make more money; do what it takes to make more money. It is a simple equation that absolves any responsibility for anything complicated or nuanced or unintended.
In his article, Seth Godin pointed out that the official rules of baseball now are two-hundred and fifty pages long. Because working the system, cutting corners and winning at all costs has replaced playing in the spirit of the game. Since the baseball league can’t count on players or coaches to act always in the interest of sportsmanship; they have had to create more rules to keep the system in check. You take that kind of problem and you put it in a free market, and it gets a whole lot worse. When human beings stop acting like humans and instead indicate that they have no choice but to always seek shortcuts, cut every corner, no longer possible to help our employees; trust just evaporated. Not only that, but when part of the job of business is lobbying to have eternally fewer rules because working the refs is good business; because everyone is doing it; because I have no choice but to do it.
Profits I think are fine. Capitalism is not the problem. Profits enable investment that we need to introduce and produce value. But almost nothing benefits from profit being the only thing that is sought. The pursuit of profit at the expense of our humanity is too high a price to pay. Jesus said something about this. He said what is it if we profit and we gain the whole world and lose our soul? To inject competition and entertainment and profit angles into a process that is of great consequence to human beings diminishes humanity. Or does that only apply to babies? I think we need to be mindful of the decisions that we make and clear about whose instructions we are following. Are we following Jesus or do we worship Milton Friedman? When we work for, or partner with, or buy stock in a company that signs on to Milton Friedman’s ruthless reasoning; we are rewarding people and we risk becoming people who long ago have stopped being people and long ago lost their souls.
Now, I don’t think it’s difficult to see the alternative, and a whole lot of you work for companies, you have a company, you run a company, you manage a company, you do business at a company that fits that alternative. The alternative is something like this: a business, a corporation is an association of human beings combining capital and labor to produce something. That business has precisely the same responsibilities as the individuals that work there; the responsibility to play fair, to seek the long-term implications of their actions and be responsible for them, to create value for everyone with whom they associate. I tell you this because we all make decisions every day. What we talk about, the position we take, the way we invest our resources, the way we work our job, the jokes we laugh at, the positions we defend, the radio and TV shows we tune in, the way we treat people who serve us; decisions that reveal our receiving Jesus, adopting him, claiming his way is our way, making Christ welcome in our lives. What is important to him becoming important to us and God’s adoption of us and our need to reflect the way of the Father. I want to invite you to do some theological reflection. I don’t want to tell you what to believe; I want to invite you to think about what you believe. Have you truly adopted Jesus?