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1 John: We Are All Now Children Of God

April 20, 2015

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter – Beginning of Earth Week, April 19, 2015

 1 John 3:1-6

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.

With the advent of truly warm weather this week, I leapt at the chance to be outdoors. On Monday August and I took our first father-son hike of the season at Taxter Ridge above Irvington. You’ve all seen Taxter Ridge. If you are heading West on I287 toward the Tappan Zee Bridge, just at the point where the ramp for I87 rises up and turns south, that’s Taxter Ridge in front of you – 182 acres of woods, rock and stream with 2.5 miles of blazed tails and magnificent views of the River. It is one of our newer parks and has been hailed by Walkable Westchester as an example of how effective concerned citizens can be in rallying to protect open space, which is a precious commodity in southern Westchester.

It turns out that one of those concerned citizens is Dorothy Beach, our interim music director. Besides being a gifted musician with a warm and generous sense of humor, she is an environmentalist – and more than a decade ago she was instrumental in preserving this tract of land from development. I discovered this about Dorothy a few months ago when I preached a sermon about mountain hiking and Dorothy came to me afterward to share her history of organizing to preserve this land, its creatures, and habitats from being developed into ridiculously sized mansions. Dorothy herself lives right at the trailhead in a lovely little house with hand-hewn floorboards and wooden rafters and books and music everywhere. In fact, she’s hosting a party for the choir there in a couple of weeks. So on that really beautiful day at the beginning of the week, the kind of day that held the promise of summer-to-come, August and I headed up to Dorothy’s house after school and she and her dog Jamie led us into the woods and onto the ridge, August and Jamie racing ahead at their own speed, and Dorothy and I walking and talking. It amused August to no end that were hiking with “Dorothy, and her little dog too!”

Dorothy has embodied the GreenFaith Pledge you can find in your bulletin today: “I pledge to make my life a blessing for the earth.” Thank you Dorothy.

The author of first John says See what love the Father has for us that might be called children of God, and calls us to embody this love in our lives in such a way that our lives may be of service to those we love (John 15:13).[1] We are all God’s children now; though what we will be has not yet been revealed. Who knows what paths such love might lead us down, and how we might be transformed in the process. But wouldn’t you like to find out? Wouldn’t you like to see what love can do and dare when it is God’s love at work in us?

It is important that we distinguish what the author of 1st John is telling us from other notions of being God’s children.

The ancient Greek poet Cleanthes praises the god Zeus as the father of humanity; and Plato had described Zeus as the generative father of human beings. This language is echoed in Philo’s discussion of God as the creator of humanity. God is “the husband and father of the universe, supplying, as He does, the germs of life.”[2]

The stoics believed that prior to distinctions of country, class or culture, we share a common humanity because shared origin is divine. But John doesn’t call us children of God in order to encourage us with some notion of universal divine parenthood or shared humanity. Rather, for the author of 1st John, we become children of God through purification of our lives, abiding in (and identifying with) Christ, practicing justice in our relationships and loving others in practical, tangible, visible ways. If we are not doing this, we are not children of God. Period. We are known as Christ’s people because we are in the process of becoming Christ-like; we are adopted as children of God because we are striving to be more God-like. It is a very specific relationship that shapes us in a particular way: What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like Christ.

I’ve thought a lot about this notion of adoption and where our identity comes from this week. My sister gave me a book a few weeks ago called Orphan Train that has been on the New York Times bestseller list now for 86 weeks. She gave it to me because I have been doing work on our family genealogy and struggling with a wall in my research. I can trace almost all of my family lines back to the point of immigration; all but the one I am most interested in right now – my Geary lineage. I have submitted my DNA to ancestry.com, written to numerous county clerks and historical societies, and even contacted fourth cousins through the Internet searching for clues, but so far to no avail: I can go back no further than 1850 when my great great great grandfather Robert Geary was an 11 year old farmhand working for a family in Shelby County, Indiana.

My sister recommended the book because she thought the little known history of orphan trains might hold a clue to where Robert came from. You see, in 1850, the first year Robert appears in the census, there were an estimated 30,000 abandoned children, mostly Irish catholic, living on the streets of New York, making their way anyway they could. The Rev. Charles Loring Brace, a thirty year old congregational minister, believed that “hard work, education, and compassionate Christian childrearing – not to mention Midwestern Christian family values – were the only way to save these children,” and so he created the Children’s Aid Society to transfer them to new homes out west. Between 1854 and 1929 so-called orphan trains transported more than 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, and homeless children from the East Coast to the Midwest. At best, the result was “adoption” into good Christian homes, albeit Protestant ones. At its worst, it meant indentured servitude.[3]

My three times great Irish grandfather Robert claimed to have been born in Ohio, and his position on an Indiana farm in 1850 makes him too early to have been part of the orphan trains; nevertheless it set me thinking about my own family in a new way.

Robert Geary was exactly the kind of kid that was being shipped east on the orphan trains: young and strong; an orphan at least in the sense that he did much of his growing up without parents to care for him. Typical for a kid away from home, he caused trouble and was briefly jailed at the age of 15 for possession of an unlawful firearm, though he was later acquitted. He then moved to another farm nearly 30 miles away, whether by choice or not we don’t know, where he was again recorded in the census. In 1861 he volunteered to fight in the Civil War on the side of the North with the 27th Indiana Infantry, known as the “giants” because these Midwest-bred farm boys were the tallest regiment in the war. (Yes, including my ancestor). Robert lost an arm after the Battle of Antietam, but he survived and returned home to marry Catherine Scripture and have five children.

But Catherine died within a year of giving birth to their youngest child, and Robert followed her to the grave two years later. My great great grandfather William David, the oldest, was only 10 when his mother died, and 12 when he and his siblings were orphaned. The five children were appointed a guardian, but that didn’t work out and the children were subsequently separated and disbursed to different families. Some were never seen again. All had to learn to make do and make their own way.

In an NPR interview about her book, Christina Baker Kline notes that as they grew up orphan-train riders were typically determined to forget their past; they embraced a typically protestant work-ethic and sought to distinguished themselves through achievement and with uncanny consistency adopted what she calls “redemption narratives” in which the hardships of their lives were redeemed, if possible, by finding the love of their life and establishing new, strong families, all of which would not have been possible but for their circumstances and the trains.[4]

My two-times great grandfather William moved north to Jasper County, Indiana, and in one of those moves that makes me love my ancestors, married a woman whose husband had abandoned her – and William adopted her newborn son. It seems Sarah Cooper’s first husband had been accused by neighbors of horse theft; and it appears he was guilty because he left.

I wonder sometimes about where our impulses for compassion come from. And while the answer to that question is no doubt large and complex, I know at least part of it arises from our own stories and experiences. I think of William, an orphan and possibly the son of an orphan, adopting infant and embracing his mother, and I say, “but of course.”

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[left: William and Sarah, with Ray (standing), Clarence and Beulah]

William and Sarah had five children together, two boys and three girls, my great-grandfather Clarence being the oldest. In 1914 Clarence married the love of his life, Lily May, and they had one child: my grandfather, Albert. But Lily died in the 1918 flu pandemic which swept the country in the last year of the war and killed 500 million worldwide. Clarence’s singular grief unhinged him and he began a downward spiral into alcohol. Before long he moved away, never to return; he cleaned himself up and later remarried. But he abandoned my grandfather, leaving him behind during his formative years to be raised by his grandparents, William and Sarah, but mostly and by his three aunts and his uncle August (known as Gus). I told you a few weeks ago about the kind of husband Albert grew up to be when I described to you his determination to marry my one-armed grandmother despite the strong objections of his family who were convinced he would ruin his life by marrying a “needy person.”

Albert died when my dad was just 32. My own dad died when I was 35. Too soon.

generations

[I am the infant in the arms of my father Alan, who is standing beside his father Albert, who is standing beside his father Clarence – the year before he died. Though Clarence would not attend his son’s wedding, the two later reconciled.]

I thought about all of these stories this week as I meditated on becoming a child of God.

  • I thought about the six generations of abandonment, early loss, and grief that run through just this one line of my own story.
  • I thought about the generations of orphan-train riders who despite their own loss were determined to make an awful experience into a blessing by nurturing new families of their own.
  • I thought of the community to which the author of 1st John wrote for whom becoming children of God was so important that they defined love as putting one’s life at the disposal of those one loves (John 15:13).
  • I thought about the very different and complicated forms all our families take as we try to make our way in this world.

The families and communities of which we are a part, whether by inheritance or choice, shape who we are, and they are worth exploring. They give rise to our hopes and fears, our dreams and deepest desires, for good or ill. But the author of 1st John reminds us that at least part of our identity is divine, and that we may participate in what he calls the word of life, the light of the world, a divine family with siblings everywhere, by striving to love one another. Out of the many and varied stories that shape our lives, we are summoned to nothing less than a divine way of life in the world, to being the children of God by loving God and loving our neighbor and loving the earth itself; to pledge our lives to being a blessing for others and the earth itself. What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will have become like Christ.

* * * * * * *

© 2015, The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

White Plains Presbyterian Church

[1] Allen Dwight Callahan, A Love Supreme: A History of the Johannine Tradition. (Fortress Press, 2015). My reflections on 1st John during this Easter season have been inspired by Prof. Callahan’s entirely convincing reconstruction of the early Johannine community. Callahan is Visiting Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of New Testament at Seminário Theológico Batista do Nordeste (Brazil).

[2] Callahan, A Love Supreme. p. 30.

[3] Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train. (William Morrow, 2013). There is a brief history of the movement included at the back of this book.

[4] http://www.npr.org/2013/04/14/176920218/after-tragedy-young-girl-shipped-west-on-orphan-train

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