The Sunday Sermon: remember who you are made to be

Today we will bless the bees, so I thought it only fitting to start by telling the story from a movie about bees.

The Bee Movie was a kids movie from 2007, an animated movie about a bee named Barry. Bee life, according to this movie, was monotonous. Most of the bees loved it. It was very ordered and structured, you know all part of a hive mind. All the bees conformed. Barry, however, couldn’t quite fit in. He wanted to see what was outside the hive, he wanted something more.

In a complex series of events, Barry broke the rules, and all of bee-dom broke down. Barry succeeded in getting what he wanted by breaking the norms and getting his individual needs met. He did the unthinkable and talked to a human. In the process, he realized that humans were exploiting bees and taking their honey, and he shared that with all the other bees. Bees stopped working, and as a result, pollination did too. The world became a dreary place without having flowers and green living things to enliven human and bee existence.

Fear not, the movie wraps up with Barry realizing what has happened and recruits the bees to go and get the little remaining pollen in the world, which happens to be all at the Pasadena Rose Parade, and uses it to pollinate the world so that things can get back to normal with one difference: this time bees and humans work side by side respecting each other instead of bees being taken advantage of by the humans.

I have to say that the first time I saw that movie, I did not like its message.

It drew up for me the idea that an individual, if seeking to meet his or her own needs, must conform to some sort of community norm– because Barry the Bee kind of broke the whole world by not conforming to the bee’s hive mind. I am an old enough gay man to remember having to push through that kind of foolishness in order to peacefully exist in my own identity as who God made me instead of who the hive thinks I should be. I have served in African American parishes and heard the origin stories of how they were born out of the strife of fighting for acceptance in white communities that demanded conformity. I have watched as friends have been treated differently in the church because they are women, told they were not suitable to be clergy because they were not male. The only way that we have made any progress in the church and in the world is to stand up and be like Barry the Bee, and I have to say I resented the implication that doing that might break down the global ecosystem.

But as I reflect on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I think I might be understanding the point they were trying to make.

My advisor in seminary, who is now the dean there, told me once that the benefit of individualism was that we learned to value each person because of their differences. The downside is the breakdown of community because we all think we have been wronged if we do not get what we desire. (She probably said it much more eloquently than that.)

Consider that in today’s world we have “filter bubbles” set to our individual preference on our devices that keep us from interacting with people different than us. We have news channels that reinforce only what we want to hear. We have entertainment shows like Duck Dynasty or Big Bang Theory that reinforce our values so that even in entertainment we will not be assaulted by difference. And of course technology makes it easy to block that uncle who we disagree with on Facebook. An article in the Atlantic   on Friday argues that three important institutions that have held society together for the last 20 years are breaking down. Public schools used to be places where we learned how to behave in community, but we increasingly have choice in school so that individual families can avoid being with others who are different. The military has long been a place where people from any and all walks of life learn how to get along so that they can trust each other with their lives, but increasingly our defense is contracted to corporations, who hire to fit a corporate culture, homogenized to avoid having to do the messy work of teaching how to trust difference. Finally, the article argues that churches– yes, even us– have begun to reinforce personalization and individualism. And the breakdown of community, as we know, has lead to higher rates of mental illness, depression, feelings of isolation, and even violence. We have made a lot of progress towards breaking down the behemoth of the hive of 1950s suburban hegemony, but we have perhaps done it by building walls around each of us individually instead.

So in that context, I guess I can have a little more appreciation for the creators of the Bee Movie, because I think the way that movie develops, where the individual is so concerned with self that he undermines the whole, is what Paul is concerned about in this letter to Corinthians. The church in Corinth is falling apart because they aren’t able to work together, with each member most concerned that he is getting fed, or that his gifts are being used to the fullest.

In this opening of the letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians not only that they are one together, but that they are united into a much larger body in the whole church, and that they in turn are connected to the much larger church of all Christians- even connected to us here today.

It reminds me of his letter to the Galatians, where he wrote what would be used in the early church as the Baptismal formula. “Many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That is a reference to the diversity of the early church and it’s not figurative. In the first house churches of the 1sr century, the Jews and Greeks, the free and slave, the male and female were all treated in very different and hugely unfair and awful ways outside the church by the Roman Empire. But when they stepped into the church and literally donned their baptismal robes, that faded away and they would be connected in Christ Jesus and literally step into equality, being on an even playing field as one body in Jesus Christ, one body with many members, different people from different places, experiences and gifts- no longer in a hierarchy of oppression but a part of one beautiful and diverse living organism.

This is no uniform body of conformity. This is a tapestry woven of different threads, some old, some new; threads of different colors, lengths, and textures, all pulled together to make a beautiful image– and if we could get far enough back from this tapestry, we might see the picture forms an image of the face of God.

Because that is the job of the Church. At baptism, you go down into the water and die to that old self, and rise– not alone but a part of something bigger. You are called by name at baptism by the God that knew you before you were born, in your mother’s womb, the one who made you, and rise in baptism marked as Christ’s own to be a member of this larger body where you are loved, beloved, and a part of something important.

St. Pauls, we’ve got a beautiful building. But the church isn’t a building. It is this body of Christ– all of us, together, one in Christ, that is the Church. It isn’t a place. It isn’t even an idea. It’s us, together, across time and space. And you were called by name to be a part of it.

I tell people often in baptismal preparation– if you are baptized, prepare to be loved. And prepare to be hurt. Because this isn’t about you, even though it is. This is about you turning into something more. The church will hurt you. But it will also love you. But if you only focus on the hurt, you will never get to the love. If you only ask why the church doesn’t work with the efficiency of a business, you will never see the tenderness it offers to each one who lags behind– which may not matter to you until it is you. If you only focus on how you are the one left out, you may miss the opportunity to reach out and feel the hands around you wanting to pull you back in and offer compassion, even if it is offered not in the way you want it but in the way you need it. If you only pledge because you approve of the line items in the budget, you may miss what it means to connect your life and labor to the family of God around you and be swept up into a life of love with all that you have. And even when the church fails at any of these, I choose to believe as one who has been hurt by the church that its failures stem from the very human attempt of striving to be what it is, a family of love. And all of us can relate to that.

But St. Pauls, we got this. We got the love that allows us to be a close-knit body. We can be the hands that show up when the person next to us needs an extra pair, no matter how different the person is with the need. We had somebody in the hospital last week and another member was there. I’ve heard more than once how help was needed and somebody showed up at just the right time. I’ve been there when you show up because a loved one in the family has died. We are connected.

Being the church isn’t about what we get done, or how much money we can raise, or even how beautiful the worship is. Those are means to an end. Being the Church, being the body of Christ is remembering that each of us is important not just because of who we are, but because of who we are connected to. Like we did last week, just look around and it’s easier to remember.

On this Martin Luther King day, I want to leave you with some words from that great man, whose dream has grown and blossomed so much that some of the gendered words now sound jarring. Who knew that resistance and nonviolence was only possible in the context of unity among those who have the strength to live for each other. He said:

MLK – Remaining awake through a great revolution

“We are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

“Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

“John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.”

Be awake, St. Pauls. Come and see and remember who your God has made you to be.

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