For today’s sermon I will be using the passage we read from Acts, in which Paul goes to Athens and talks to the Athenians about their statue of an unknown God. The title of my sermon is Profiles of God.
It’s been three and a half months since I’ve posted a picture on my Instagram account; three and a half months since I scrolled through my feed; three and a half months since the app has been present on my phone. This is the longest that has happened since I made my account in the fifth grade. Now I know what you may be thinking, and I want to stop you right there. No, it is not because I don’t have any “Insta-worthy pics” to post, or because I’m at a loss for the technological resources to obtain those. It’s because of me.
I’ve always considered social media a sizable part of my life, ever since I was 9. It was the way I kept in touch with my friends; the way I could make myself into who I wanted to be rather than who I actually am. The way I could flaunt the parts of myself I was proud of and strategically conceal my insecurities. I didn’t realize this as much when I was younger but as I got older and I started to view the world in my own way all I found was a game.
The more skin you show or the cooler you make yourself come across as, the more likes, the more praise, and the more attention you’ll receive. It’s a game of picking and choosing. Whichever photo you think you look the best in is the one that gets posted and viewed, while the ones where the camera might have captured an unwanted insecurity of yours gets thrown away, diminishing anything about you that’s raw. You could scroll through someone’s feed with only a few swipes of your thumb and think they’re the coolest person in the world, even though those photos will in no way ever be an accurate representation of a person and who they actually are.
And the thing is, just like we create these personas of ourselves that never capture the whole picture, the real picture, we tend to do the same thing for God. We create a profile of God that looks the best to us, which usually means that we create a profile that looks like us. And, as things go in this world, the profile created by the people with the most power, with the most likes, is the profile that takes hold and then has power. At least in the environment I’ve grown up in, I learned to depict God as an old, white, straight man with a long beard and a robe; it is in fact what’s on the front of all the youth Bibles in my house for me and all my siblings. Though that is in no way the whole truth of who God is. Since we know we are created in God’s image, we know God encompasses all identities, every race, sex, and ethnicity that there is.
One of the most memorable things I did with Confirmation was to go to a mosque to get to know an interfaith partner and see how others in this world worship and believe. We learned a lot about Islam and why Muslims believe what they believe. The sheikh who was talking to us, though, used some of the time to talk about his beliefs that women are inferior and that the LGBTQ community is sinful, and that these two groups are responsible for all that is wrong with the world. I left having learned great things about religion and horrible things about how religion can be used. Then, I had to start thinking about how Christians are guilty of the same thing. A lot of churches around the world are just as patriarchal and homophobic. I understand this has even been true for the Presbyterian church in our history. The reason this happens in our religions is because, just like I created an Instagram profile that only showed certain sides of who I am, we create a limited profile of God. Usually this profile matches what the most powerful people in our society look like, the profile on the front of my family’s children’s Bibles: male, white and straight.
When we do this, when we try to create God in our image, we make it as if God is only in our favor and only agrees with our own beliefs. And then we take this profile of God that we have created and give it power. We say that if God looks like us, then your identity must be wrong or sinful. In essence, we bully people by claiming God is like us and, therefore, that God is on our side. Think of all the ways we do this! This is how so many religions and religious people think it is somehow okay to control women’s bodies. They say, “Well if God is a man, then men are superior to women.” As a result, the realities of very few women in leadership positions, unequal pay, and slut-shaming are allowed to continue. And then we try to change and show ourselves in a way that fits what we are told we must be, just like I used to do with my Instagram pictures. The same things are done based on race, class, sexuality, and on and on.
I think we can learn something from Paul in today’s passage. We learn in other parts of Acts and in Paul’s writing that he is figuring out how to teach other people about God. There is this big debate over whether or not new followers of God have to take on a Jewish identity, since the Jews were considered the people of God. Paul ends up deciding that other people don’t have to become Jews in order to be children of God. He then takes the leap of logic to say that if people can have identities that don’t match his own and still be created in God’s image, then God can be described in different ways than had ever been done before. So, he didn’t go to this unfamiliar place and say, “God looks like me, and I have all of the truth. You must be wrong. You must be sinful.” He does not judge them because of who they are or what they look like or what they believe. Instead, he finds something that is valuable to them and explains that they also have some of the truth. They have this statue to an unknown god, and Paul sees that his God can appear to them in this way. Paul gets it. God is bigger than one single profile. He says, “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” When we start to question other identities in comparison to our own with the basis of faith, we cannot use God’s identity to justify our harmful prejudices. God encompasses them all and loves them all.
And the beauty is, when God became human he showed this radical, inclusive love. Instead of slut-shaming, he became close friends with sex workers. Instead of accepting the ways society cast people to the outside, he spent time with lepers, Samaritans, the poor, and the hungry. He loved all of the people, and all of us, so much that he gave his life. He loves us, even knowing our insecurities and the things we try to hide. And this is the good news of Jesus Christ today, that we can be so much more than those limited images our online profiles show. We can be our full selves.
We are humans, children of God, living and breathing with a fullness that no single picture can capture. And that is how we must approach others also. As the passage states, we are God’s offspring—all of us—God includes us, and shows us the beauty in everyone, who they are both online and offline. And, just like someone’s online profile whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, or anything of the sort, cannot tell you who they are and what they truly look like, we must not limit God to the profiles we create.
Right now at school, I’m acting in a play written by my classmate called Hell Hath No Fury, and guess who is playing God. ME. Instead of that old white straight man with the beard and robe, God is written in as a strong, independent woman. This doesn’t mean that God can’t also look like that man. It means that God’s full identity also includes mine. Just as God’s full identity includes yours. This is the message Paul was giving to the Athenians when he said, “He who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands.” God cannot be contained by the temples and shrines, the statues and yes, the profiles, we make. God is bigger than all that. God’s love is bigger than all that. Thanks be to God. Amen.