Sam Laurent: Sermon from July 10, 2016

People of the Advocate, my sisters and brothers, we are, on average, roughly 90% chimpanzee and 10% honeybee. At least in terms of evolution. Those are estimates. You may be a slightly different mixture of the two, on any given day. But roughly speaking, mostly chimp. A little bit bee.*

That is to say, according to recent moral psychological research, human nature is a lot like that of the chimpanzee, which is formed by interaction and competition with members of its own group. So human competition for resources, for power, for all of the ways in which we might think that we “win” in society, is a dominant force in shaping human nature. Over the generations, much of our inherited psychological make-up has been determined by this social selection; we are descended from those who managed to thrive in society, at least enough to pass their genes on.

This does not feel like Good News. The part of us which is like the chimp is the part that is ambitious, perhaps ruthless, and competitive. It is prideful and insecure, but it’s not necessarily bad. Like the chimp our competition amongst ourselves has, over time, made us more effective in our world, which is generally good. But it also is a side of us that scares us. Unchecked, it might lead us to rob someone else and discard them, as happened in the beginning of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

But the Good News, or at least the beginning of it, is that we are 10% honeybee. Though we are formed in large part by individual competition, we are also social animals. We have learned, like honeybees, that we can do better when we pool our resources and look out for each other. We might even be willing to do something for someone without it meaning they’ll do something for us, because we think of ourselves as part of a group, as a hive, if you will.

Evolutionary theory tells us that our chimp side and honeybee side both serve us well, but differently. Within a group, the ambitious and competitive individuals tend to win out, so the chimp side is selected. You’d think this would result in us being entirely chimp, but when we look at selection among groups instead of within them, we find that groups that are more altruistic, that take better care of one another, will win out. So being nice isn’t for suckers. It has real evolutionary value. We know this intuitively. It’s why we promote healthy work environments. They work better. The better care we take of one another, the better we all end up doing. So among individuals, the chimp gets selected, but among groups, you need some honeybees around to win out. Not entirely Good News, but a little better, no?

Bearing this in mind, look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer speaking with Jesus knows that the law commands him to love his neighbor as himself, but he wants to know who the neighbor is. He wanted a definition, and he got a parable.

The first person to come upon the man who had been robbed and beaten is a priest, a good member of polite society, and he crosses the street to avoid the man. The second is a Levite, a member of one of the tribe of Israel closely associated with the temple. A man well placed among God’s chosen. He too crosses over to avoid the man who has been left for dead. Who knows what their thought process was. Maybe they feared being set upon by the same robbers and incurring personal harm themselves. Maybe they didn’t recognize the man and so assumed he wasn’t part of their group, their hive. Whatever the case, they deemed it advantageous to avoid the situation.

Along comes the Samaritan. Samaritans are decidedly not part of the Jerusalem squad. Rather than worshipping at the temple, they take a mountain as their primary holy site. So in terms of adhering to the law and temple worship, those ways in which the temple Jews marked themselves as part of a group, he’s an outsider. The Samaritan stops, helps the man and pays for his shelter. He gives of his own resources to help him. We never find out if the robbery victim was a Jew or a member of some other group. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter to Jesus.

In telling the story, Jesus is appealing to our honeybee side, but he’s doing it in a way that calls on us to question how we define our group, our community, our tribe, our nation, our hive. And that’s the really Good News. The honeybee side sounds good, but it all depends on how we define our hive. Tribalism, nationalism, sectarianism, racism… these are attempts to delineate a hive, to designate some people as our precious neighbors, and others as outsiders whose lives and welfare matter less. And Jesus constantly challenges that instinct.

The parable of the Good Samaritan appeals to our consciousness, to that part of us that can make choices and examine assumptions, because we are not simply bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts powerless to control ourselves. We are bundles of chimp and honeybee instincts with some free will attached. And in lifting up the Samaritan as the one who truly loved his neighbor, Jesus gives us the tool to define our group in a radical way. Everybody is always in. It matters that the hero is a Samaritan, because he’s the one Jesus implies will receive eternal life. He’s not part of the dominant group, is not, in our terms, white. And he is as fully loved by God as anyone else in the story. This represents a minor scandal in the context of the Gospel. Jesus is knocking down a social construct that, left intact, dehumanizes people and somehow makes their violent death tolerable.

Martin Luther King preached on this parable the night before he was shot. This parable is about a kind of mercy that seems risky to our inner chimp and our inner honeybee. Mercy to the “other.” Mercy across social norms. Everyone is worthy of it, and everyone can extend it to someone else. In a land riven by religious and racial divisions, equality before God is particularly revealed in this story precisely because it assumes not only that a Samaritan life matters, but that it earns eternal life. I don’t think I need to preach the rest of this sermon about #blacklivesmatter for you to get the point.

So I beg your forgiveness as I veer away from the political here, not out of apathy for the tragic loss of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarippa, Brent Thompson, and Lorne Ahrens to dehumanizing violence this week, but out of a need for a spiritual grounding to my outrage. Outrage alone will never lead to mercy. My energy to name and confront dehumanization in the world, somewhat counterintuitively, has to be rooted in a patient hope and joy, or else I slide into the dehumanizing spiral myself. There is a beautiful layer to this parable, a sacred space within it, and that’s where I find the energy to contenance the horrors of the world.

I feel the chimp-like individual drive within myself, and also the honeybee’s desire to ensure the success of my community, but today’s Gospel story cracks those mental structures open and calls me to honor people simply because they are people. This is not super-complicated theology, but rather one of those truths that never loses its cutting edge, and I believe this is the call and the power of the sacred. By displaying power in compassion, or as Paul said, “power made perfect in weakness,” Jesus shows us that risky mercy is the ultimate power. It brings eternal life. Other powers in this world can cause death, but mercy transcends it, and, in the twist that unfortunately never stops sounding radical, everyone deserves mercy.

Here then, is where my energy comes from. It’s very simple. If everyone deserves mercy by virtue of being a person, then I do and you do too. To sit with that truth—you do not need to perform any particular identity to be worthy of ultimate love—is to accept grace. Sitting with that grace, we open our being up wider, from our narrow chimpy self-interest to our helpful- but-faulty honeybee notions of our group, to this grace of being worthy of God’s love simply because we exist. And my awareness of that grace, when I center in it, strips away a lot of the noise and anxiety of the world, quiets my inner chimp and honeybee, and connects me with that joy that energizes me. As an aside, this point of realizing that my ultimate value comes in my creatureliness and not in my social position is also where I can most honestly confront my white privilege.

For me, this recognition of grace is the foundational moment of faith. All the other stuff, like baptism or communion or diocesan conventions, comes way, way later. It is shamelessly kind of selfish, but insecurity will also not lead to mercy. When the work of sharing mercy is connected with the grace of accepting it, we are giving from an abundance. So, even as this parable calls you to relational work, it also opens up a space where you can truly relax in your own skin, because the operating principle, the engine that drives it, is that the grace of God’s mercy overflows every wall this world tries to build. Welcome to church. This is where we start. This is where the energy comes from.

So, mostly chimp, a little bit honeybee, but always also beloved creatures of God. Mercy calls us to participate in a community that paradoxically breaks its own boundaries, that remembers that our “hives” are our ideas, not God’s. That makes this room at this moment a pretty remarkable space, a community that tries to point beyond itself because we exult in the spiritual truth that every single person, here and elsewhere, is loved by God and is worthy of our compassion. Everything comes from there. You are loved simply because you’re here, and that’s all you have to be. That’s all anyone has to be.

Amen.

*The chimpanzee/honeybee metaphor appears in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. All other insights into evolutionary theory in this sermon are owed to Does Altruism Exist?: Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others by David Sloan Wilson.