Sunday, September 14, 2014

Defining part 2

Defining part 2
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 14, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 2: 18-23
Colossians 3: 9-11

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! [1]

 Last week I focused on the issues that we have when we seek to define God, when we seek to put limitations on what God can do, who God is, and what God means in our lives and in our world, that there is a great tendency within human nature to want a simple definition for God, a simple understanding, one that gives us comfort, and maybe even more importantly control, we can feel like we've got it all figured out, and there is always great danger with that, because when people tend to think they have it all figured out and under control, they aren't just happy with having control of information, but usually also seek to wield it over others and control them, wielding God, or at least their small, sold short version of God, the idol they have made, taking that idol and selling him, using him, and controlling others with him. We see it again and again around us throughout human history, and we see it around us constantly still, and no one group of people has a monopoly on such actions. It happens again and again, with anyone who is seeking to control, the first step is always to have a simple sellable version of the truth that consolidates your message and your power, and how often is a simple sellable version of God right there at the forefront. But never is that limited version of God real, instead it is always a counterfeited man-made version. . . instead God is infinite, and therefore, like love is, bigger than anything we can imagine.
But that was last week, and though I want you to keep it in your mind as we go through this week, because this morning's message is related to last week's, I want us to take a step forward, in a different direction. I want to look at what is a similar tendency within human nature, related in our tendency to simplify, to sell short, and to seek control, but this week instead of focusing on how we seek to define God, I'd like to take a look at how we seek to define each other, because we do, and like when we do the same for God, putting God in a box we can handle, we like to put the people around us in boxes, in categories we can handle, and it always sells them short. And in that reciprocity of this world, the flipside of the golden rule reigns, we will be treated in the way that we treat others, and I don't know about you, but I hate to be labeled, to be defined, to be sold short, to be boxed, to be caged. I can't stand it, because I know that I am more than any one thing, especially any one thing that someone who doesn't know me well would think
Some may say. . .oh well he is a pastor. . . and miss much when they come to know, because I am not a typical pastor
Some may say. . . oh well he is a football coach. . . and miss much because I'm not a typical football coach
Some may say. . . oh well he is an English teacher. . . and miss much because I'm not a typical English teacher
Some may say. . .oh well he's a conservative. . . and miss much because I'm not a typical conservative.. . . \
Some may say . . . oh he's a guitar player. . . . and miss much because I'm not a typical guitar player.
Some may say. . . oh he's a poet. . . and miss much because I'm not a typical poet.
He's white. . . he's a southerner. . . a Virginian, yet raised in Maryland. . . a public school kid. . . a Hampden-Sydney man, a private school teacher. . . . a Presbyterian. These may fill out a resume, fill a form, fill a statistic. . .. fit a type. . . but none of them on their own come close to who I am. . .
Typical. . . who needs typical. . . it's much too confining. It's awful, but yet we do it to people all the time, often even with good intentions.
I wonder why we do it. Why do we always seek simple categories for people. As I was thinking of this issue, this week, I was teaching the Genesis Creation story as a part of my unit on Creation Myths in my English Class. I was struck anew by a very common well known detail from that story, one that I had jumped over so many times before, but one that seemed to really scream out to me, "hey pay attention" this week. It was Adam naming the animals. How many times have I considered that detail of the story just a cute part of it, really tailor made for Sunday School, but easily ignored in sermons. . . but I was thinking this week, especially when considering how important names were for Hebrews. . . I mean they wouldn't even dare utter God's name for fear of idolatry. . . fearing to do exactly what I was warning about last week, the name becoming a controlling, confining, definition. . . so with that in mind think about Adam naming all the animals. . . There's a lion. . . and a lion is a big cat. . . with a mane. . . huge claws. . . likes to lie around in the shade when not hunting. . . often considered the king of all. . .  and there is a deer. . . antlers. . . spots on the sides of the young ones. . . long legs. . . good for jumping and maneuvering quickly during a speedy escape through the woods. These are the categories that we like. . . simple straightforward, predictable. How would we deal with a deer that started roaring and lying around in the shade? Not good right. So maybe categories. . . definitions. . . isn't only a part of our nature. . . but also closely related to what we were made for and what we were put in the garden to do, but how extensively do those things get impacted by the fall, when our vision, our understanding, our belief in the world as God made it becomes skewed, does our point of view on truth become limited in the error of our new sinful eyes? When Adam and Eve believe that lie in the garden, how much about the way we are to function becomes changed. We still do the naming, but are we missing something in what we see?
For how do we see people?. . .What categories do we use for other people? . . . What boxes are there? . . . How confining are they? . . . How binding are they? . . . How narrow are they? . . . and then lastly, How much damage are we doing by them?
I am surrounded by it all the time at school because we have teenage boys there, and they are all seeking their identities. . . and within that is the pull of many labels. . . many groups. . . many narrow definitions. School are notorious for putting kids in groups. . . It makes it easier to deal with. . . It makes it more expedient. . . to package to sell. . . to get funding. . . to create an education system designed to get results. . . but what happens is education becomes too narrow, to conformity oriented. . . too results based and not tied to real learning, missing the child for the category. . . whether it is race. . .or aptitude. . . or test score. . . or what sport and activity they do. . . what learning difference category we can put them in. . . what label of help they need. . . it is dangerous because some of these labels do not stop with the expedience of organization, but go beyond to really define and limit the child's concept of who they are. . . good intentions, but really scary consequences. . . and it doesn't work.
At Blue Ridge we try to do better, our mission says that we seek to do better, but we even fall into it at times. Another way we do it is the positive side of group identity. . . We often celebrate "diversity" at school. But every time we do I get the feeling that we are selling our diversity way too short. Because we typically say, that "when I look out at the crowd here assembled ,I'm amazed at the diversity." As if we could see it. . . right. As if the diversity were visible. . . And there is visible diversity at the school. We have students from all over the world. . . Chinese, Korean, African, European, Americans from many different states, white student's and black students. . . so I get and am also very proud of it, but I also can't help but think that our diversity goes beyond those mere categories, those simple categories, and is in fact each individual, each unique creature of God, uniquely made, and solely distinct. Because to me the categories are arbitrary and artificial, created by us based on how our brains work, putting people into compartments, just like Adam named the animals. . . it simplifies it all these categories. . . but for human beings the real isn't what fits but what breaks through. Real relationship will destroy these outward visible groupings that we have, for when you truly get to know someone the definitions that you had for them, the category you put them in always pales in comparison to the real person. The categories sell short.
And this is a problem that has been a human one for years, forever, because it is a major theme in all of literature. There are countless stories of diamonds in the rough, people that were sold short, and then proved to be of great value. The biggest example is probably Cinderella. . . look at her name, named for the ashes that covered her clothes. . . defined by her servant status. . . but when given the chance to break free, to show her true self, she shined brighter than anyone else at that royal ball, certainly more than any of her keepers and definers. Pretty Woman was on TV while I was working on this sermon. . . another perfect example. Julia Roberts is a prostitute. . . people see her that way. . .they sell her short. . . at the store when she wants to buy clothes. . . they don't see how much money she has to spend, they just see he outward appearance. . . the lawyer. . . who the actor ends up becoming famous for being George Costanza on Seinfeld, he treats her poorly because he has preconceived notions about who she is. . .but is certainly wrong. This theme transcends time. . . there are so many great examples, I could go on and on. The Brave Little Tailor. . . the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. . .dare I say Mary Magdelene. . . maybe those fisherman disciples. Each and every one of us has a uniqueness a glorious individual quality that is different that defies defining, that seeks to break free from being placed in such a confining box, but again we keep doing it to other people.
I've always been drawn to the passage from Colossians, and there is a similar one in Galatians. . . but it says that the distinctions of the past must go away. . . that they disappear in the world saved by Jesus Christ. "there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!"[2] All those categories go away because they pale in comparison to our new status as saved by Christ. . . but also because they are too narrow, they cannot describe the infinite, the infinite value and uniqueness of each human life.
Think about Psalm 139 in this light. . . the care of God's creation for each human life.
1     O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2     You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3     You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4     Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
5     You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6     Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7     Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8     If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9     If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10     even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11     If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12     even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13     For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14     I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16     Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17     How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18     I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end —I am still with you. [3]

Imagine if we started our definitions for others there. . . wonderfully fearfully made, known by God. . . may we seek to know each other the way that God knows us. . .not placing us in a box, but made wonderful, wonderfully in the image of the one true infinite God who is. . . .
So when we are faced with categories. . . checklist approaches to human identity. . . forms that limit us to our race. . . or our nation of origin. . . or our political leanings. . . or our religion. . . or our state. .  . our accent. . . our medical diagnoses. . . our hair color. . . skin color. . .outward appearance. . . the grades we make in school. . . what job we have. . . our tax bracket. . . the statistics of our lives. . . whatever they may be. . . let us not define others by these things. . . and also never allow these things to be the source of our defining ourselves. . . but instead let us look to the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who knows our inmost parts. . . whose thoughts of us are more numerous than the hairs on our head, or the grains of sand on the beach. . . and despite the ease and expedience of our categories, let us be able to break through them to see each other as we are. . . .all to the glory of God. . . Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Col 3:9-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Col 3:9-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ps 139:1-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.