For most of my years growing up I was the youngest of six in my family. (I say “most of my years” intentionally as my parents were only two years away from an empty next when they adopted two kindergarten-aged sisters deciding to share more of their love with them.) While there are the blessings of being the youngest—older siblings had worn off the rough edges of haphazard parenting long before I arrived—one of the difficulties I faced was longing to do things my brothers and sisters participated in but couldn’t because I wasn’t old enough. After this happened a number of times, I felt like I didn’t belong.
I’m certain I am not alone in this feeling; it’s a story many of us know well. Not making the team when all your friends did. Being a different religion or denomination from everyone else in your town. Liking Barry Manilow. It’s happened to me as an adult when I wandered out with a tray of food at a week long conference and staring into a sea of long tables and other people engaged in animated conversation and I didn’t know a soul. Normally we bury these memories deep within. Who wants to recall what it felt like to be alone? Who would want to focus on not belonging?
A sermon based on Romans 8:14-17.
According to Scripture the Israelites lived for some 400 years in Egypt far from the place they had once called home. They came to Egypt in order to be saved from a famine, and they soon settled in to the area and stayed. But the Egyptians over time began to see these foreigners as a threat—the Bible tells us the Israelites had substantially grown in number over the years—and so the Egyptians took advantage of the outsiders. They enslaved them and forcing them hard labor every day of the week. Those Israelites couldn’t leave if they wanted, and the Egyptians made life excruciatingly horrible for them. The Israelites clearly did not belong.
You know the story of the Exodus or likely have seen the movies, so I’ll give just the Cliff Notes version: Moses, an Israelite baby, is born at a time when baby boys were no longer allowed, and through the hand of God in his life becomes the step-grandchild of the Pharaoh. After a crisis of identity, he spends time away in the wilderness, and then under the direction of God comes back to demand the release of the Israelites. Ten plagues later, Pharaoh relents and the Israelites who had been held in slavery are led by God out of Egypt through the Red Sea and toward the Promised Land. There’s much more to the story—and it is the defining story of our Jewish friends—but this abbreviated synopsis will do in a pinch.
I’m reminding you of the Exodus because it’s lingering there in the background just out of sight in our reading from Romans. The words and images have been chosen intentionally by Paul. He writes, “For all who have been led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Notice the first verb: led. You may recall that in the Exodus God travels before the huge caravan of people and animals as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. God leads the people out of bondage into freedom. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God,” Paul begins, signaling that story of Exodus, “all who are led by the Spirit are children of God.”
The imagery grows from there. “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The specific reference to slavery should be sending up flares in your mind; he’s talking about the Exodus! When the Israelites lived as slaves under the oppression of the Egyptians, they lived in constant fear. They didn’t know if they’d make it back home when they kissed their kids goodbye before sunrise. The guards could have decided to harm them just for the sport of it, or an accident in unsafe working conditions could befall them, or worse. Fear was constant, so Paul tells these new believers of the Way of Jesus living in Rome that when they are led by the Spirit of God they will not be led to a place of oppression and fear. Rather, he tells them, they become the very children of God through adoption.
The word adoption in the Greek literally means “son-making.” Theologian Jane Lancaster Patterson expounds on the choice of that word in her commentary of this passage. She writes, “Adoption in Greco-Roman culture was not pursued primarily as a way for childless couples to experience the love of children, but for families without a male heir to ensure that the work that sustained the family could continue.” “Son-making” or adoption in order to have adult heirs to continue the work. Which makes the next verses so much more meaningful: After receiving that spirit of adoption, “we cry ‘Abba, Father!’ [and] it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” You and I have been adopted as the very children of God in order to continue on in the work of Christ, we are the very heirs of God tasked with sharing love with the world.
Today we’ll be baptizing Emily and Joey and Sam and Theodore, adding three more sons and a daughter to God’s brood. We’ll hear the language of the Exodus story come up again at the font, of how the people of Israel traversed the water of the Red Sea, of how the waters of baptism free us from the bondage of sin. We’ll assure them that they are now members of the household of God, and not just partially so, but sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. For all time, no matter what.
Far too often we forget that. We imagine that God is fickle, or that we’ve done something that God disapproves of and so our adoption status has been revoked. We become afraid. We feel alone. Like we don’t belong.
When those times arise, we would do well to remember the blessing Nadia Bolz-Weber includes in her book, Accidental Saints. She writes, “Blessed are those whom no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. … [T]he night-shift street sweepers. The closeted….Blessed are the meek. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”
Friends, on this Day of Pentecost we remember that Jesus didn’t leave us alone but sent the Spirit to fill us and guide us assuring us that we do in fact belong. That the ever living God see us as members of God’s family and call us beloved. So as we go down to the waters of baptism today, recall your own baptism—or if you were too young, reflect on the love and devotion your own parents embodied when they stood before a similar font years ago. I invite you to take time during this service to dip your fingers into the water and make the sign of the cross over your body so that you may remember who you are. A beloved daughter, a beloved son of the everliving God—heirs of the promise that all will be well—and those who have been entrusted with proclaiming the unfathomable joy of the Good News. Jesus came bringing redemption and grace and mercy and love, and now as co-heirs with him it’s our great joy to continue that work. Let us journey forward as daughters and sons to work in the family business.
And know beyond a shadow of a doubt that even when it may feel otherwise in this world, that you always belong. That no matter where you have been, or the thoughts that have raced through your head, or the things you have done or that have been done to you, that nothing in all of creation can every break that bond of adoption that God has with you. You are a child of God and you are a co-heir with Jesus himself. Live as a daughter and son of the Creator of the Universe, as one surrounded by God’s love and desire for a fullness of life, because the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will bring us life too both now and always.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!