Somebody says there isn’t much to people. If you want to look at it that way, that is the truth. We do not live long. Certain dumb animals, I am told, live longer. We are subject to change in our loyalties and are often not too reliable in an emergency. If you want to say there isn’t much to people, you can make out a pretty good case. We are excitable and are likely to go plunging off behind the cheap and sensational. We are not very smart, we humans. Phineas T. Barnum made millions off our gullibility and the ease with which we are taken. He said, “A sucker is born every minute.” That would account for a lot of foolish, stupid things we all have done. To sum it up—we are so often unreliable.
Our lives are short and sometimes nasty and brutish. We are in heart and mind gullible and stupid, easily taken by slick deals and the absurd notion that we can get something for nothing. That’s one side of the picture. You can’t laugh or sneer people out of their greatness and goodness on the other side. There is more than what is low and sleazy and cheap in us. There is something august and splendid and like God. I find much in common, ordinary people that is great and heroic.
Robert Louis Stevenson pictures man as a tiny animal, perched dangerously and briefly on a little island, from which he is quickly and unceremoniously evicted by his irate landlord, death. In spite of his plight, with his frail heart and huge difficulties, man defiantly and gallantly keeps his flag flying, maintaining some kind of decency and honor, and finding time to be kind to others. So we may look at each other with a kind of admiring amazement. There is a great deal of honest friendliness and decency in people around us. They tell the truth more than they lie. They are honest more often than dishonest. They are more often kind than they are mean. There is some of God in each of us.
Langston Hughes has written a novel called Tambourines to Glory. Much of it is a caricature of what is cheapest and ugliest in the ghetto, and the main theme of the novel is the description of how people are victimized by racketeers in religion with their pray-for-pay principles, and too much of it is true, though revolting. There is, however, a high peak in the book, where a partner in a new cult in Harlem, touched with the awe and holy aspect of religion, says, “Religion has got no business being made into a gyp game. Whatever part of God is in anybody is not to be played with, and everybody has got a part of God in them.”
That’s strong language, saying that all people have some God in them, and yet it is exactly what the Bible says. It says that we humans are not just entities that happened, strange characters not in the script of creation’s purpose, who just happened to wander on stage. God purposed you in his heart, so that you are not impromptu, something gotten up on the spur of the moment. Something in God ached for your creation and cried out that you and I, and those like us, would come to pass. In the counsels of God’s reflection, behind history and before time, God spoke to himself, the Bible suggests, and said, “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.” That should make you stand up a little straighter.
You have wandered off and should take a new direction upon hearing that. We are likely to feel we are so far removed from God that he finds it hard dealing with us, doesn’t know how to manage us, can’t understand us. Don’t ever feel that way. There is in us some of God, no matter how far down we’ve pushed it, how we’ve tried to hide it all behind the bed or to sweep it beneath the rug, so to speak. And God still knows about us, no matter how far we’ve wandered.
There is a striking word in the parable of the prodigal son. You will remember that the boy leaves home, journeys far from the father’s house, goes down and down until he is ragged and disheveled. You can almost see the picture of what this princeling has become. A bum in the bowery of Babylon. His clothes are dirty, his hair is long and uncut, his face is dirty and unshaved, his fingernails are unkept, and his skin is filthy and vermin crawl on his body. Not a very pretty picture.
But do you remember what Jesus says? He speaks of the day when that boy, now dirty and disfigured and with the scent of the pig trough in his clothes, started back toward home. When he was a long way off, a tiny speck against the horizon, nothing but a moving mite in the distance, the father saw him and had compassion and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. The father spoke of this forlorn figure saying, “This is my son!” He recognized him a long way off. This is the gospel, no matter what we have done or where we have wandered.
This was the faith of Jesus. He believed that there resided enough of God in us so that what he had to say could reach us. Not that he closed his eyes to what was harsh and base and intractable in us. He knew what was in humanity, the gospel says. He was not fooled into the faith that he had only to start dealing with us and all would come right. He knew the stubborn depths of evil in us, and yet he knew that down beneath the dirt and grime, the crust of hard and great evil, there resided a basic image, the likeness of God. “He came unto his own,” the Bible says. There was disappointment, yes, because the God in us is so often submerged beneath so much else. But the power to respond was there. “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God.”
We despair sometimes in this land that the basic best will ever come out in our society. There are things that cut the spirit of all who would be democratic. But the likeness of God is still in us, still in our American society. In Atlanta, during a time of great tension about race, 312 clergymen spoke out for freedom. Catholic bishops and Methodist bishops have stood up to be counted on the side of the angels. The image of God may be marred in our society, but heaven be praised, it is carved deep in the thought and heart of America. There is God in you and me.
Essie in Tambourines to Glory was right. There is something of the image of God in all of us. There are strange stirrings and a pull toward the stars in me and in you. There is a part of us we cannot understand, something within us, if only we would listen, that raises up our heads and lifts up our hearts. We are God’s own children made in his likeness. This is our birthright, and we shall find peace only when we claim it and live by its terms. So seeing and so setting ourselves, the presence of God becomes our desired climate, and we live our days in his sight as if all he bids us see and seek is the fullness of the stature of Christ.