Sermon for January 24, 2016: The Law of Love

Listen to audio version here:


Carl Jung said that the way we interact with the world around us is a function of our personality style.  According to Jung, introverts are people who are focused on what’s going on inside of them; they are thoughtful, reflective and imaginative.  Extroverts are interested in what is going on outside of them; they tend to prefer action to reflection and are less subjective in the way they make judgments.  Isabel Briggs-Meyers and her mother developed a tool that used Jung’s ideas as a basis for assessing personality styles.  Many of you have probably taken it at one time or another.

One of the sections of the Myers-Briggs looks at how we act when we are being extroverted – when we are acting in the world.  According to Briggs, “perceivers” are more spontaneous and flexible.  These people prefer to adjust to circumstances rather than organize them.  “Judgers” prefer to have things organized and settled.  They like to know the rules.  So it probably comes as no surprise to you to find out that religious people are more likely to be “judgers.”  Of course, this finding is not so simple – an individual’s personality style is made up of a lot more than how each of us prefers to act in the world.  And even when it’s boiled down to these two traits – perceiving versus judging – it varies widely by religious preference.  But still, on the whole most of us churchgoers prefer our spiritual lives to have a little order to them.

So did the Israelites we heard about today in our reading from Nehemiah.  Nehemiah’s people were living in a time of uncertainty and anxiety.  On the one hand, they were being allowed to return “home” after a long period of exile.  On the other, “home” didn’t look the same to them.  Things had changed.  Things were confusing.  And they didn’t like it.  They wanted someone to tell them what was right and what was wrong.  They wanted to know who should be allowed “in” and who should be kept “out.”  They wanted some simple, straightforward laws to live by – maybe to die by.

In his recent book, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that religious violence has nothing to do with religion; it has to do with people and our need to separate ourselves into groups – into “us” and “them.”  According to Sacks, organizing ourselves into groups and then dehumanizing those that are outside of our own circle allows us to treat others with hostility and hatred.  And the stricter the rules are about what it means to be “us” and what it means to be “them,” the more likely we are to decide that anyone who doesn’t think exactly like us is probably a “them.”  And for people living in a rapidly-changing world – a world that is filled with information that comes at us too quickly to understand – a world filled with potential threats –  a world like that of the Israelites – a world like our own -knowing the rules seems imperative.  Knowing the rules is the way we categorize our place in the world.  Knowing the rules tells us what to do.  No wonder Ezra’s audience was so attentive to the reading of the book of the law.  No wonder they wept when they heard it.  No wonder they cried out in agreement, “Amen! Amen!”

Except there was more to it than that.  Because Nehemiah tells us that they didn’t just read the book: they also interpreted it.  “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”  The people weren’t happy simply because they were hearing words that they may have thought were lost to them – words that comforted and inspired them – they were relieved because those words showed them how to make sense of who they were.  For the Israelites, Ezra’s reading helped them to remember their story, as well as understand its place in a new world.  He wasn’t inviting them to live in the past; he was showing them how to live in the future.  They did not read the law as a prescription for who and what they were.  They read it to remind themselves that God was with them.  The viewed God’s law as a living thing – a guide to help them look at the world through God’s eyes – to learn how to be compassionate – to learn how to live together in peace and joy.  The Israelites weren’t happy because they were told how to serve the law.  They were grateful because they had the law to serve them.  That’s how the law is supposed to work.

But it can only work that way when it is interpreted in relationship.  Ezra’s reading didn’t happen behind closed doors; it happened as God’s people gathered together.  No one person can make the rules – and no one person can interpret them.  Nehemiah is clear: the strength of the word of God is how it is received and acted upon in community. 

St. Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth carries it one step further.  He says that we can’t even function without one another.  What good is having only an eye when you need to hear?  What good is it to be able to hear when you need to smell?  What good is it if you are the tallest person in the room if you need to reach under the pew?  We need each other.  We are useless without each other.  And, even more importantly, every single one of us is needed – even those who seem “inferior.”  In fact, those who seem to have the least to contribute may be the most important people in the room.  We must, Paul tells us, be very careful about making assumptions based on appearances.  That’s what the people in Nazareth did when the local carpenter’s son told them that he was the messiah they had been waiting for.

I’m sure it was hard for them to believe.  Just as it’s difficult to for us to imagine that we can obtain wisdom from those without education, or receive gifts from people who have nothing, or learn compassion from individuals we think of as our enemies.  But that’s exactly what being Christian is about – it’s about being willing to do things that make us feel uncomfortable.  It’s about being willing to go places that make us feel vulnerable.  It’s about being willing to see God in anyone – slave or free, Jew or Muslim – old or young – male or female – gay or straight.  It’s about being willing to love people who are not us. 

We may prefer to pray in a church or with a prayer book.  We may prefer to interact with people who see things the same way we do.  We may prefer to deal with the world in neat, prescribed ways, but Jesus tells us that we can’t always do that – because we do not live alone.  We live in community – in relationship.

That’s a countercultural idea.  Americans are taught about the value of rugged individualism and personal power.  And there are many things we can do on our own – but being Christian is not one of them.  Because it is in relationship that we come to know our authentic selves.  Being part of a community helps us to know who we are – not by separating us into “Us” and “Them,” but by allowing us to explore and share our gifts as individuals within one body.   That is the reason we have the law – so that we can live in relationship – all of us with purpose – all of us with honor – all of us beloved.

Carl Jung thought that our interactions with other people were dependent on our personality style, but I think the opposite is true.  It is our relationships with other people that make us who we are.  And living with others is never neat and organized – but we know how to do it.  We have the law of God to guide us.  And the law of God is just.  The law of God is true.  The law of God is love.  That is the word of the law that should make us weep – that should make us shout “amen” – that should make us rejoice.  We are one body– and we are the handiwork of God.  To love another person is to see the face of God – so look, love – and be fulfilled.  AMEN.