Sermon Preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI on Sunday October 22nd 2017

The Reverend Alan Neale     “Checking for the Divine Image”


Church treasurers were having ‘time out’ during a hectic conference; they talked about the process of dealing with the Sunday offertory.

“Oh we look carefully at the budget for the month and given the inevitable shortfall we make rational decisions about the allocation of monies.”

“Oh, we’re more spiritual than that… we gather round the offertory plates, spend hours in prayer and then, given the inevitable shortfall, make inspired decisions about the allocation of monies.”

“Well, we’re more even spiritual than that… the minister gathers the monies into one plate… with an enormous thrust, projects the contents towards the ceiling.”

“But how is that more spiritual?” the chorus cried. “Oh, as he does it the minister says, ‘Lord, what you want you keep and what comes back is ours.”

It has never been easy for the church collective and it’s definitely not easy for the Christian individual to decide what belongs to God or (in the words of today’s Gospel from Matthew 22) “what is marked with the divine image” and is rightly returned to God.

Deciding what, whom is marked with the image of God is at best a constant struggle for the spiritually aware; at worst the process is deemed redundant and inappropriate.

Clearly we cannot assume that simply because something or someone has the stamp of religiosity that therefore it carries the divine image. The Pharisees, examplars of institutional religion, clearly do not carry the image of God simply because of their dress, their language. They seem constantly to thwart divine purposes and do everything they can to “entrap Jesus” and reduce His influence in the lives of others.

And, clearly we cannot assume that simply because sweet and deferential language is spoken then it necessarily carries the divine image. Surely you can hear the insincerity drip from their lips as they offer fatuous and vacuous compliments to Jesus… “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God with truth… and show no partiality.” To address someone as “Sir” in an accentuated British accent does not help calm down potential confrontation… yes, I know.

The Episcopal Church has constantly been in struggle and turmoil as it has affirmed the divine image marked indelibly upon those otherwise dismissed, abused, ignored because of race or sex, marital status or religious faith. We sympathize with Puerto Ricans who sense their status as American citizens is being dismissed, abused or ignored. And whether such sensibilities are justified or not, we do our best to affirm that they are marked not only with the honor of American citizenship but also marked by the divine image.

The people of God, the people of Israel, found it unfathomable that God would choose such a heathen as Cyrus to do his work and yet (Isaiah 45): “Cyrus is the Lord’s anointed” and to Cyrus the Lord says, “I call you by your name… I arm you, though you do not know me.” In our struggle to define who, what bears the divine image we must be ready to be surprised, even stunned, to learn that a “Cyrus” is an instrument carrying to us the work and the word of the Lord.

The people of Thessalonica (I Thessalonians 1) doubtless felt some antagonism that St. Paul would deem persecution as the crucible in which their lives would be enriched with joy, as the crucible by which they became inspiration to congregations and Christians far beyond their own land. Hear me, I do not believe that persecution, trials, horrendous experiences are sent by God as to improve our lives and complete our witness but I do believe that in the hands of our mighty Lord even the most wretched passages of our lives can come to be indelibly stamped by the divine image.

Perhaps this in part defines the Christian’s journey – the constant struggle or (on a good day) the joyful labor of deciding upon whom, upon what is set the divine image.
Upon this we must agree – that which is created by God inevitably will carry, must carry, the divine image and any argument to the contrary is specious and dangerous and offensive.

This week we have observed a veritable explosion as women (and men) have stepped forward to state “me too”. There has been an avalanche of witnesses to the way in which the divine image has been besmirched by the flagrant misuse of power to achieve sexual satisfaction. Please God, churches and other faith communities do their best to offer sanctuaries of safety, harbors of honor and refuges of respect.

Today is Stewardship Sunday; a day when members of Trinity Church are asked to look honestly and prayerfully at their resources and decide… where is the divine image and what should properly, and joyfully, be given back to God.

More important, far more fundamental, is for each of us to accept with resolution that we, each of us, we are each made in the image of God; it is ourselves, far more than our possessions, that the Lord looks for us to give back to him.

In parishes until now, I have always been involved with “All-Age Family Eucharists” (called variously Together at Ten, or Joyful Noise) – a standby chorus, with words and actions easy to learn, has always been “He’s got the whole wide world in His hands.”

Friends, this is a profound truth but a truth that needs to be ever re-affirmed despite energy to the contrary. Today, this week, affirm the divine image in yourself and in others and resist any voice, every energy to the contrary.