2 Corinthians 5:11-21
We Honor the Gifts
For the past year, I’ve been using a devotional book called Renew My Heart: Daily Wisdom from the Writings of John Wesley. I consider myself a bit of a John Wesley nerd, but I’m learning a lot about the nuances of Wesley’s prolific writing. I’m currently in a section that is reading through his sermon called “The More Excellent Way,” which I’m mostly finding challenging and inspiring. But I got frustrated with one particular section, because Wesley describes those who fail to embrace the “more excellent way” of discipleship as a “lower order of Christians.” And while he says that they are not “in the high road to hell” for failing to consistently choose the more excellent way, he does say that they will “not have so high a place in heaven” and they will have “fewer stars in their crown of glory” than if they’d chosen better. (1) Apparently, in Wesley’s mind, there will still be a hierarchy in heaven. That sounds kind of terrible, doesn’t it? Even in God’s eternal home, to be worried about who has the best place? Of course, thinking of hierarchies in heaven isn’t entirely an unknown concept even in the scripture. Remember when James and John want to make sure they get the best places - at Jesus’s side - in eternity? I can’t imagine the “confidence” needed to assume I’d get to be closest to Jesus. I’m thankful, though, that hierarchies and Jesus don’t seem to mesh well. Whenever we’re sure we’ve figured out who is best and who is worst, who is first and who is last, who should be exalted and glorified and who should be humbled and brought low, who should be served by others and who should be serving others, Jesus encourages us to flip our assumptions upside down. And he does, as always, by example. People - like we do too sometimes - wanted Jesus to be a king, a mighty ruler - but Jesus said he came to serve. People wanted Jesus to use his power and authority to fix everything - but Jesus showed instead the power of vulnerability, of pouring one’s self out for others.
And yet, even if we agree that we don’t want hierarchies in heaven, it is really hard not to have our society built around hierarchies. Everyone in their place. Maybe we’re content with not being the best, the top of the heap, but I think we’re more attached than we want to admit to making sure that there’s at least someone we’re better than. I think it’s hard for us to let go of the idea that the only way we can be good enough - for our own sense of self, to measure up for others, to be “successful,” to be good enough for God’s love - is by being better than someone else. We’re always trying to get ahead. But we forget to ask: Get ahead of what? Get ahead of whom? What happens to those we pass by? At what cost do we get ahead? We’re climbing the ladder, and it is exhausting, and harmful, and all for the ultimate quest of being good enough, even though God tells us repeatedly that God doesn’t measure the same way we do.
That’s our theme today. God chooses with different criteria than we do. God values differently than the world does. God has a point of view that is more than our limited human view. Too often, we try to fix this discrepancy - the difference between God’s point of view and ours - by putting God in a box and trying to make God perceive things and situations and people the way we perceive them. But our perspective is limited. Instead, the invitation to Christian discipleship is about learning to share God’s expansive, inclusive perspective, rather than limiting God to our narrow point of view.
That’s the message of our epistle reading from 2 Corinthians. Paul is writing to the church at Corinth again. His relationship with them has been both committed and contentious. The young church at Corinth has had a lot of conflicts, a lot of people vying for authority in their congregation, and they’ve laid a lot of accusations at Paul’s feet, unhappy with some of his leadership, questioning his motives. In response, Paul writes both to explain himself and his actions and to call the Corinthians to accountability for their actions, trying to communicate with them how transformative following Jesus has been for Paul and how transformative it could be for the Corinthians if they gave themselves more completely to discipleship. In our text for today, Paul is speaking on the theme of reconciliation. Because of the love of Christ, Paul says, because of the love of Christ, exhibited in Christ’s death, a pouring out of self in which we are all called to participate, we are meant to regard each other no longer with a human point of view, but instead with God’s point of view. If we’re really in Christ, we’re new creations. Everything old has passed away, everything has become new. And as new creations, we’re ambassadors for Christ, reconciled to God in spite of our sins, so that we might practice God’s ways of justice and righteousness.
So, how can we let go of our limited human point of view, and realize that God uses a different perspective, different criteria, different values than the ones we see lifted up in so many places, than the ones we fall back on ourselves? I’ve been thinking about how hierarchies go hand in hand with categories and categorizing. If you’ve been through the conference’s Imagine No Racism training, you probably learned a lot about implicit bias. Implicit bias is the unconscious way our brains group things together in our heads, so that we can think and process and react quickly. Implicit bias is usually hidden to us - we’re not aware, moment to moment, of the associations our brains make. It is automatic. And we can’t really function without putting things into categories. We need to, to process the enormous amounts of information that come at us every day.
You can see implicit bias at work by doing a simple test of something called the Stroop Effect, which demonstrates how our reaction times can be slowed when our brains are confronted with information that doesn’t belong together in our minds. You can find this test online if you want to try it yourself. In a Stroop test, you see first a column of block letters of all different colors, spelling out different colors. So you see some red block letters that spell RED, or the word BLUE made up of blue letters. Our brains can process that very quickly. It makes sense to us. But it doesn’t take much to confuse our minds. The next column also shows colors spelled out, but now the word and color don’t match. So you might see the word RED but the letters are colored white. Or the word BLUE is spelled out, but filled in with green coloring. If you ask people to say aloud what color these words are, not what the word spells, most people hesitate. We can do it, we can see the letters that spell RED but are colored white and eventually say WHITE, but we can’t do it as quickly as we can when the colors and words match. Our brain has associated the color and the word and we just can’t undo that association as quickly as we can do it when they’re paired together. This is implicit bias at work. We need it for our brains to function as quickly as they do.
The trouble with our rapid categorizing comes when our brains slap together value-laden messages for us along with our categories. In Implicit Bias tests developed by social psychologists at Harvard, results of thousands of participants over time show that many people who have no explicit bias - that is, they express that they do not have feelings of racial bias - still have implicit bias. When shown images of black faces and white faces, for example, test participants more quickly and more consistently are able to match white faces and positive words like good and beautiful. Conversely, participants are speedier at matching black faces and negative words like bad, ugly, or weapon. These aren’t always explicit feelings. They don’t represent what we think we believe. But they represent how our brain has learned to group things together. Our brain does that because of messages we receive from culture, from news, from experiences, from stereotypes - all of these things that gel together in our brains. And these biases can sometimes make a difference in how we behave, even when we don’t realize why we’re behaving that way. It can make us more likely to feel afraid when we meet someone on the street whose skin color is different than ours. It can make us more likely to give a second chance to someone whose skin color our mind has paired with the idea of “good.” It can make us more likely or less likely to see someone as professional and competent at our work, without even realizing why. It can make us more likely to interrupt people if our brain has sent us the message that their words are less important than our own. It can make a police officer quicker to respond with violence rather than reconciliation when encountering black and brown faces.
The good news is that we can have an impact on our implicit bias. We’re not just stuck with it. And we don’t just get to say we can’t help ourselves, either! We can. It turns out that the more we come into contact with people that “don’t fit” the associations that our brains tell us go together, the less power those associations have for us over time. Our implicit biases change when we are exposed to stereotype-busting images and experiences. And we don’t have to be passive in hoping we encounter things that fly in the face of the subtle messages we get elsewhere. We can mean to expose ourselves to other perspectives. We can be intentional. We can pay attention and be purposeful about not discounting voices and experiences and lessons that will help us expand our way of thinking. We can be intentional about seeking out voices and perspectives - in the books we read, in films and TV that we watch, in the relationships we build - that are different from our own, that go against what our brain is telling us to group together.
This past year, my dear friend and roommate Hunter has been wrestling with their gender identity, and they’ve begun using they/them pronouns. After growing up in a conservative, evangelical church tradition in Oklahoma, being in the progressive setting of Drew Theological School has been both hard and liberating. I’ve found myself struggling sometimes - it’s hard to learn to see outside of the gender binary of male and female. My mind has had lots of years of seeing gender in a certain way. I stumble with my language, sometimes using the wrong pronouns. And I’m not always good at speaking up when I hear others using the wrong pronouns. But I know my struggle to adapt is nothing compared with Hunter’s own struggle to be fully themselves. And I know that the more I practice, the more I learn, the more I commit to supporting and advocating, the more I will be able to retrain my brain to perceive in a new way. I like to think that this retraining of my brain is learning to see Hunter from God’s point of view instead of my own, limited human point of view.
God doesn’t have implicit bias, unless in this case we’re talking about a bias of love. God’s way of looking is to encounter us and immediately encounter us in our fullness, our whole person, and then categorize us as beloved, as belonging to God, as God’s children, as of sacred worth. No hierarchy necessary, no ranking us best to worst. Jesus flips our categories inside out and our hierarchies upside down. We can resist, stubbornly insisting on finding our place in the world by figuring out what rung of the ladder we’re on and who we need to move out of the way to get to the next one. We can keep trying to put ourselves and each other and God into boxes that are uncomfortable, too small, and suffocating the life right out of us. Or we can embrace the good news that God wants to share with us a different point of view. What will we do?
We honor the gifts that each treasure holds, make room for the light of the collective soul. Hierarchy dissolves. (2) Categories melt away. Our being in Christ remains. New creations. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Russie, Alice, compiler. Renew My Heart: Daily Wisdom from the Writings of John Wesley, Barbour Publishing Inc., 2002, p. 165.
These words are drawn from the theme song for the day, "We Will Walk" by Elisa Sciscioli Keeler.