July 19 – Pentecost 8

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: July 21, 2015

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 19, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays

On my first youth group retreat, when I was a high school freshman, one of the retreat leaders made us play a game. He asked us to take a step forward or back depending on our answers to a series of questions about our preferences. At the end of each round, he asked us to remember one of two letters, based on whether we were in front of or behind the starting line. After the fourth round, he explained that the four letters each of us had just been assigned designated our “personality type” in the scientific-sounding Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. We were all duly impressed, and then we were all duly flattered when we heard the official description of our “type” — even the jerks. Then I went to college and took Introduction to Psychology where I learned that not just the Myers-Briggs, but the whole concept of personality types, had been conclusively disproven by decades of rigorous peer-reviewed research. Instead, it has been proven, personality is properly understood as a series of traits, not types but spectrums that allow for infinite degrees of difference. So you can make well-founded comparisons, but any attempt at categorizing people is always going to be an exercise in drawing arbitrary lines.
Why then are we so compelled to classify ourselves and others? Classifying people into a few discrete types should be just a children’s game, but instead it’s a multi-million dollar business. The Myers-Briggs alone is a self-contained industry, and then you have the Enneagram, Type A/Type B, the Five Temperaments, the four Interaction Styles, and the granddaddy of them all, astrology. I think these systems have an enduring appeal not just because they are simple, and promise to make sense of the endlessly confusing human experience, but also because they play to our ancient need for security, which human beings first achieved in societies of tribes and clans, where the most important thing about anyone was whether they were in your tribe, an allied tribe, or a rival tribe. So a human faculty that once protected us has been holding us back ever since we grew beyond the hunter-gather life. I wonder if God could possibly have devised a solution to this problem.
We know that God established a special relationship with the people of Israel, but God made it clear, again and again, that this relationship was not just for the benefit of Israel, but for the whole of humanity. God reminded Israel that they were being held to a higher standard, but this was so they would be “a light to enlighten the nations,” and God reminded them that their greatness and glory and distinctiveness were things God had done for them, and that was why they should be humble. And Israel wrestled with God, in many ways, for centuries, but the framework of that struggle was clear enough. But after Christianity grew up within Judaism, and then started attracting converts from outside of Judaism, from the pagan world, the old human drive to classify reared its ugly head.
Saint Paul had to remind Christians that they were Christians, regardless of where they came from. He reminds us that being a Christian is not a trait, it is our whole identity, that Jesus has created in himself “one new humanity” and therefore there can be no divisions, no types, no separations, in the body of Christ, for through [Jesus Christ] all Christians have access in one Spirit to God. We see this again and again in the ministry and the person of Jesus, who attracted vast crowds, which symbolize all humanity. He taught all, he fed all, he healed all, for it was his mission to save all. Incidentally, this is how we know that God never does harm to anyone; it wouldn’t make much sense for God to go to such extraordinary lengths to redeem us and then turn around and start hurting us. God can, and does, do things for our own good which we don’t like, but that’s another story for another sermon.
The categories we set up among people don’t really mean anything, and so Jesus is quite happy to flatten those flimsy walls in the course of accomplishing his mission. The only distinction that matters, the only one that will endure, is the distinction between creator and creation, and even that line will be blurred as every human soul becomes a holy temple in which God is pleased to dwell. The people who met Jesus, even his enemies, recognized that he was authentically, and categorically, different from the world. Most people were like the people of Gennesaret, who rushed to be with Jesus because they recognized him as a man of God, truly of God, a trustworthy source of justice and righteousness and true compassion. They saw he was distinct from and better than the state and the society and the demons and the diseases that claimed authority over them. They saw that Jesus was a good shepherd, more worthy of their allegiance. And so they reached out, beyond themselves, reached out to touch Jesus, and in him they found what they had always sought.
So it breaks my heart when the church turns its back on its relationship with Jesus, the relationship we love to describe as being like a marriage, and prefers to play the secular world’s games. I was glad when the Episcopal Church voted in favor of same-sex marriage, but I was bitterly disappointed when some of the delegates who did so explained that they wanted to follow the Supreme Court. This attitude was not just disrespectful of the decades of theology, biblical scholarship and exegesis, prayer, discernment, and dialogue, the good work of thousands of faithful Episcopalians, that laid the groundwork for the decision. Their attitude was in effect giving up the greater thing for the lesser, the Holy Spirit for a human consensus, an attitude as tragic as it is unnecessary.
The world is inherently more limited than the Church, and the Church takes on the world’s limitations when she takes on its categories and other patterns of thought. The world can do good and right and just things, but the Church should do more, much more, than jump on the world’s bandwagon. If this is all the Church is willing to do, we have already abandoned the mission of Jesus Christ. No; the Church should always be bringing the eternally radical love and grace of Jesus Christ, in their authentic fullness, to challenge the world, to change it by pushing far beyond its boundaries.
Since we are one in Christ, no individual Christian bears sole responsibility for overwhelming the world. In our mystical being, we are members of the Body of Christ; in our practical being, we are members of a movement comprised of followers of Jesus Christ. Each of us is responsible for carrying Christian values and ways of thinking out into the world, for each of us has encountered Jesus; we have seen him, heard him, touched him and accepted him as our good shepherd. As his followers, we are called to approach the world, its problems and choices, as Christians, applying the Gospel in the same spirit of transforming love in which we received it. We carry the love of Jesus Christ out into the world, an uncreated light to enlighten the nations.

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