(A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost July 12, 2009 Ephesians 1:3-14)
On the news last Tuesday night a short piece of video played over and over, a little girl saying how much she loved her father, her voice breaking as she began to sob.
“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just want to say I love him so much.”
In the midst of a dubious spectacle, the memorial for a weirdly private yet thoroughly public man, an event featuring people who had never even met him, love broke through in the form of an eleven-year-old who identified herself as his child, who knew Michael Jackson as “Daddy.”
This girl and her brothers are only at the beginning of what will be a complicated life. We can imagine the struggle that lies ahead over their custody and their father’s estate. And we probably cannot help but wonder how or whether they are actually related to him and to each other. In this era of DNA tests and scientific proof, we want to understand the connections. We wonder what prompted this man to have or acquire these children, and we hope for the best yet fear the worst, and we feel both relieved and surprised to see three fairly normal looking kids dressed appropriately for a funeral standing in the midst of a family they seem joined to by bonds of love.
Were they his biological children, or his adopted children?
And does it matter, as long as they knew him to be their daddy?
Once upon a time, when I was trying desperately to uncover the meaning of my life, I went to see an astrologer. My chart was drawn out beautifully by hand, a picture of the sky at the moment I was born. It was the one thing about my birth that seemed certain. I didn’t know the names of my birthmother or my birthfather. I had many questions. Were they like Romeo and Juliet, with families that kept them apart? What was the reason I was given away?
The astrologer said, “The parents who raised you are the parents you were meant to have.”
From anyone else, I might have taken that as a platitude. But because I knew she took a cosmic view, it sounded different coming from her.
In this passage from Ephesians, a similar cosmic claim is being made for all of us. We are destined to be adopted by our Heavenly Parent, through Jesus Christ. It’s an immense concept that suggests a well-executed plan from before the dawn of time. But not everything can be expressed in a spreadsheet or a file folder, and sometimes we feel inklings and urgings we cannot explain.
At 24, I had a son. When he was placed in my arms for the first time, he didn’t cry, but looked solemnly into my eyes as if he had done it a thousand times before. I felt with him a bond older than the Earth, newer than the morning, deep as the center of all things.
I could not help wondering about the woman who had given birth to me.
I discovered that it was possible to read the Social Services file about my adoption. A copy was made from microfiche; then the identifying information was removed, literally cut off the page. It told me my birthmother’s age, that she had come from another state, and that she liked to read. I learned that my birth father had been in the army.
It wasn’t enough. I had to know more. I contacted the Social Services department and asked if contact could be made. My file was still there. On the folder was a hand-written phone number.
I learned later that in the final months of her pregnancy, my birthmother moved in with an aunt and uncle, in the city where my adoptive parents lived. The phone number had been theirs in 1961; it was still theirs in 1986. They agreed to call her, and a week later, I was talking to my birthmother on the telephone.
There was another person who helped my birthmother at the end of her pregnancy, a social worker named Elizabeth. This woman wrote the file I read 25 years later, and I learned from my birthmother that Elizabeth visited her in the hospital the day after I was born, telling her she had the right to give me a name.
And so, although I would not keep the name very long, my birthmother named me Elizabeth.
In that same town, a year earlier, the people who would be my father and my mother sat together at their breakfast table. They had been married for ten years. He was a lawyer. She had begun a career as a social worker but given it up to be his wife, to be the mother of his children. There had been years of tests, prehistoric infertility treatments and hospitalizations for endometriosis. He would soon turn 40. That morning he said to her, “Why don’t you go down to your old office and see if they can get us a baby?”
When I told my mother the story about Elizabeth, she drew her breath in sharply. You see, she knew Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been her co-worker and her friend.
Elizabeth was the hinge between my two mothers, just as Jesus is the hinge between each of us and God. We are destined for adoption, destined to be God’s, as surely as I was destined to be held for just a moment by one mother and passed by Elizabeth to the care of a new mother and father. We read in Ephesians that God intended to adopt us even before Creation occurred, and perhaps because of my own story, I do believe this. I believe that whatever the circumstances of our lives, God’s care for us began before the beginning.
We have a place in God’s family; it is God’s pleasure to make a place for us.
At the time this letter was written to the church at Ephesus, adoption had a common meaning different from the assumptions we might make about it. In 20th century America it became a means of rearranging the fates of children whose biological parents were unmarried, and to place them confidentially with unrelated families. In more recent years, we’ve reinvented adoption to incorporate more openness and communication, and we’ve widened our scope to include international adoptions.
But in the 1st century, people understood adoption differently. In the dominant Roman culture, adoption served a dual purpose. The Pater Familias stood at the top of the pyramid of power, the Father of the Family, able to define and redefine his family and who might be part of it. If a family lacked an heir, the Pater Familias would seek a child to elevate into the family. The child’s family could gain the advantage of having their child become part of another, while this served the needs of the richer or more important family by providing an heir.
This is the way the Ephesians would hear the claim being made on their behalf. The Heavenly Pater Familias, the Cosmic Head of Household, wanted them to be part of the Ultimate Extended Family, with all the rights and privileges and inheritances of a natural Child of God.
What an immense assurance of God’s love for us!
1:5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,
1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
The trouble with this passage is the way it has been used to limit who is in the family. Some interpreters use it to say that only a select few are adopted by God, but I would argue that such a limited definition fails to take Jesus into account. This whole passage hinges on the Christ who existed with God before it all began, but we meet him in Jesus, the teacher who left behind an assortment of lessons in his parables and in his healings and in his choices in this life. Our Savior sat down to dinner with lepers and tax collectors, protected working girls, was no respecter of human authority for its own sake and sent his disciples out to bring the Good News to the whole world.
Whether or not we want to accept the evidence of the astrologer in my case, and I realize that telling the story may make me sound as quirky as Michael J
ackson himself, there was a morning the man who would become my Daddy spoke up at the breakfast table and suggested adoption. He wasn’t a person who put feelings into words easily, but I gather that he had a feeling they ought to do this thing, a feeling that they had a lot to give and a lot to gain from making room in their lives for children.
He took an expansive view, my Daddy. When he learned that I wanted to find out more about my origins, he helped make it possible. Although he had adopted me at a time when it was common to blame the birthparents for the flaws in a child, he told me, in his deep and gentle drawl, “I’d like to think I’m willing to take credit not just for your good qualities, but for your bad ones, too.”
Maybe this is why Paris Jackson’s words have so much resonance for me: “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just want to say I love him so much.”
On the day my father died, when I had to tell my young children, we sat right down on the kitchen floor together in a little huddle and cried.
We are all adopted by a loving Parent, who wants us to find a new identity as God’s children, no matter where we came from, no matter who we are. It’s the most inclusive idea ever, really, because this Pater Familias has the resources available to elevate everyone into his family. This Mother Eternal has the arms wide enough to embrace every kind of person, the patience to accept us with our flaws, the heart of healing love we all need so deeply. It is very good news, for all of us: we are adopted by God. Amen.