Sermon for Trinity 8
Sunday 14 August 2011
We all need a sense of identity. How do you identify yourself? Well I’ll go first. My starting point is in the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi who said, “I believe in one race, the human race.” So I would say that my first identity is as a human being. Then I would identify myself as a member of my family. Then I would call myself a Christian. Next a European, then British, English and an adopted Weymouthian, though I still have some sense of being a Midlander as that is where I originated. The list could go on. Your list might be quite different from mine. But the basic point I am making is that all of us have multiple identities. No one thing identifies anyone. Nevertheless many of us feel very strongly about one or two of our identities and this may affect our behaviour and attitudes. A football fan, for example, gains a very strong sense of identity from the team he supports and from his or her fellow supporters. Gangs sometimes have a similar strong sense of identity. Despite the fact that Oscar Wilde said that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” many people gain a strong sense of identity from their nationality.
Having a sense of identity is vital to us. It is tied up with a feeling of belonging. It may be that some of the riots we saw last week on the streets of our cities arose from people having little sense of belonging. A lot of young people do not identify with the society in which they are set. They feel a sense of alienation. So gaining a sense of identity is vital to social cohesion and community well-being. Unless people have a stake in their society they will feel estranged from it and if enough feel that way the results can be catastrophic. So the causation question that our political leaders should be asking at this time is how to engender a sense of belonging, a sense of identity with their locality and their country. My daughter has been doing research recently on the importance of teaching citizenship in schools. It is vitally important that we educate young people so that they understand that they are a part of civic society. It is also important that we value them as such.
However, having a strong sense of identity isn’t all good. It depends on the way it is used. People use their identities in various ways, some good, some bad. Despite my love for the Bible I have to admit that the community of ancient Israel often used their extremely strong sense of identity in a bad way. They used it over and against other nations and peoples. Even Jesus was affected by this as we heard in today’s gospel. Because there was such a strong tradition of God being first and foremost the God for Israel, he saw his primary task as being to undertake a mission “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the nature of Jesus reflected the true nature of God and God’s love and mercy cannot be contained by any human identities. That is why even during his ministry the barriers stated to come down and afterwards they were thrown down altogether. The separate identity of Jew and Gentile was overcome.
Nevertheless, frail and fallen beings that we are, we still need our identities. The crucial thing is not to use your identity in a way that belittles or disparages others. I can be a Christian without running down Muslims or Hindus or people of other faiths or none. I can be British without ridiculing the French, the Germans or the Irish. I can enjoy being a Weymouth person without being rude about Portlanders. I can even support Wolverhampton Wanderers without hating West Bromwich Albion. Because of our fallibilities having an identity is important to us but one of the greatest causes of conflict in the history of the world is a sense of identity which represents people who are unlike us as strange, unusual, fearful. Hostility is so often borne of fear of ‘the other’, the person, the group, the nation, the colour, the creed, the sexuality that is different to ours. As a result of Christ’s life, death and resurrection there can no longer be ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only us. In his impassioned words in Romans 11 Paul speaks of the mercy of God reaching out to all humanity. This wonderful divine inclusiveness must be reflected in the life of the Church as we welcome all God’s children to the table of his love.
Trinity 8 | Sunday 14 August 2011