It’s a one-word sermon. Well, ok, not one word but one key word, “belonging.” What does it mean to belong? People say, “I belong to Plymouth Church. I belong to Rotary. I belong to PEO and, in my neighborhood; I belong to the West Hills Association. I belong to a family.” A teenager with a smirk on her face may say, “These are my parents, I belong to them.” What does it mean to belong?
Remember that old song, the song that seemed perfect prior to the sixties revolution:
You belong to me.
You see the pyramids on the Nile.
You watch the sunrise on a tropic isle.
Just remember darling, all the while,
you belong to me.
Yes, that was in the days when it was still cool when the pastor would say to the bride’s father, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” As if this woman was transferred from one belonging to another belonging. Those were the days when we talked about being kept and we talked about being taken. We talked about days being held and roped in and corralled. Yes, belonging. Belonging is a word that is problematic, isn’t it? Umm, well maybe for Newt Gingrich, or at least his wives.
Problematic, belonging. We want to be somebody else’s belonging and yet, at the same time, we chafe at the idea of belonging to someone. Teenagers love their independence: “I don’t belong to anyone.” What does it mean to belong?
A pastor in a church was talking to somebody and he said, “Do you belong to the church?” The person said, “No, I don’t belong, I just attend.” And the pastor said, “Well, why don’t you come and join us? Why don’t you belong to our church?” Then the person said, “Well, I find I get more attention if I am just a prospective member.” (You’ve heard that before, Kay, haven’t you?)
Ah, what does it mean to belong? That image conjures up all kinds of thoughts in our minds. The secret handshake, the tests you have to memorize at Rotary and the pledge that you sign on the dotted line. What does it mean to belong?
Jesus, coming along the shoreline, sees Peter and Andrew. There were no four-way tests. There was no secret handshake. There was no intake interview. There was no search committee process. Jesus simply said to Peter and Andrew, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” And they dropped their nets and they followed Jesus.
A little later as Jesus comes along he sees James and John, sons of Zebedee. They are sitting in the boat mending the nets, along with the hired help. In those days, for a father to lose both of his sons in the family business would be devastating. So what happens? James and John get up, they leave their father and the hired help in the boat, and they come and follow Jesus. Poor Dad!
What does it mean to just pick up and follow? We like to be more thoughtful about our choices in life. We like to look before we leap. We like to get all our ducks lined up in a row. We are a little bit reticent about something so spontaneous, something so impulsive, like plunging in, as it were.
Anne Lamott was ready to be baptized in her congregation but she started to get cold feet. On Sunday morning at 8 o’clock she began to chicken out and she called her pastor and said, “I don’t think I’m ready for this yet. I’m not ready for this yet because my heart is good but my insides are still bad.” The pastor said to Anne Lamott, “Honey, you got the cart before the horse, come on down.” So Anne did and she was baptized that Sunday morning.
The problem for many of us when it comes to belonging, in terms of the tradition of the Christian faith, is that we equate belonging to thinking that you have to believe certain things in order to belong. So that becomes a stumbling block for many of us. It becomes an intellectual hurdle for us because we feel we have to believe all these things before we can belong. Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin? Do you believe in the miracles—that Jesus walked on water? Do you believe in the bodily resurrection? All these questions about belief. It stymie’s our ability to make a decision about belonging.
And yet, I tell you, if the disciples had gotten into an argument with Jesus at the moment he came to them when they were fishing in the sea—well, what is this going to cost me and who are you really? Are you really the son of God?—they would be arguing to this day and the hungry would be unfed, and the lame would be unhealed. The blind would never receive their sight. The poor would never hear good news preached to them. And the gospel and the good news wouldn’t be spread to the ends of the earth.
It’s a good thing that the disciples weren’t blocked by what they believed, they simply got up and followed.
You see, I believe we make too much of a fuss over what we believe and it stymies our ability to belong. We get all caught up in what we believe and do we believe the right thing? All too often beliefs get codified into doctrine and dogma and then create ways that keep some people out and other people in. We draw lines in the sand and say, “Well if you believe this you can come join us, but if you don’t, you must know you are outside of us.”
That sense of what you believe has created so much division in Christianity, created hatred and war and enmity. But friends, I tell you this, belief when it comes to our faith is way overrated. We have put far too much emphasis upon what you believe as opposed to the deeper reality of belonging. The fact that belonging is deeper than believing is proven in the testimonial in Plymouth Congregational Church. I know that we don’t all believe alike. We believe in different things in different ways and many of us have questions about believing at all. Yet, never underestimate the power of our sense of belonging in the life of this community. It doesn’t have to do with what we believe. There’s something deeper that ties us together. This deep wonderful sense of belonging.
Belonging is primary for Christian theology. Belonging is primary for the Christian faith journey. The sense that we belong not to ourselves but we belong to God and, through God, we belong to one another as part of a community and we belong to a tradition—to a past. Our lives are inextricably bound up with a sense of belonging in God and in and through each other in a tradition.
The Gospel of John expresses beautifully that sense of belonging in the New Testament when Jesus in the 15th Chapter, as he is preparing to say good-bye to his friends the disciples, says, “Abide in me I in you..” Abiding is not just “let’s hang out together,” it’s belonging to one another in God. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
It is true that when we belong together in a congregation there is so much more fruit, there is so much more creativity, so much more life when we are committed and belong to one another in Christ.
We think that the stumbling block to belonging is believing. We have all these intellectual hurdles and problems and “I don’t know if I believe in Jesus walking on the water, or if I believe in this or believe in that,” but I don’t think that is the real issue. I think that is a red herring. The real issue that gets in the way between us and belonging is not our intellectual barriers, it is our ego. It is our independence. It is our love for autonomy. It is so hard for us to let go, and say, “God, I belong to you and you belong to me.” It is so difficult for us to do.
We have baptisms here quite often; next Sunday we will have another baptism. There’s that moment when we lift up the child and say, “you belong not only to the parents but you belong to God and through God you belong to all of us in this community.” Might we hear those words for ourselves and recognize that these words are spoken to each one of us that we belong to God and one another.
There are three things I want to share with you about what belonging means in our tradition in the United Church of Christ in a place like Plymouth Congregational Church. This is my understanding of what belonging means.
1. First and foremost, it means that belonging is being engaged in a conversation. There is a difference between conversation when it is just idle chatter between people and conversation when it is intentional and deliberate and the people in the conversation recognize that they have a stake in each other’s lives and are engaged with each other and that we, in fact, belong to each other. There is a level of depth and intensity and engagement in that kind of conversation that is absolutely innate. I would call the conversations that we have in the life of this community holy conversations. It is just as much sacrament as communion and baptism when we come together and engage one another in our faith and in our theology; that is a holy moment. And believe you me, God speaks to us through those moments of engagement that we have with one another.
2. Belonging means conversation not only with each other but conversation with our tradition. You think about it. Every Sunday we read from this ancient text as Christians have done for hundreds of years and our Jewish ancestors have done hundreds of years before Christ—reading out loud ancient texts in a public community. Why? Not because we slavishly agree to obey the text, but because the text is in conversation with us. It’s that interchange between the ancient text, between the tradition, and our lives today that the conversation takes place, because we belong to that text and that text belongs to us. It is who we are. The prophets in the good news of the Gospel and the great theologians like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are all voices of our tradition. They are our conversation partners and, through them, God speaks to us today in our world and in our time. You can like the text. You can dislike the text. You can like a theologian. You can dislike a theologian. But at the end of the day, they belong to us and we belong to them.
3. Belonging is not only a conversation with the past, not only a conversation with one another, it’s a conversation about the future. The central quality of our conversation in the life of Plymouth Church about our future is, I believe, this: It’s not a conversation about what we believe. It’s not a conversation about doctrine. It’s a conversation that agrees that we together are on a search for truth. We believe that God’s truth is still yet being revealed to us and we are on a conversation believing that truth is yet to be revealed to us, and even now, we get glimpses of God’s truth coming to us and being revealed to us in the moment.
We are completely Protestant to the core. Protestant in the true sense of the word that we protest any attempt to lift up some contingent reality and say that’s an absolute truth. No way! We constantly recognize a sense of humility before that search for God’s truth in our lives. We celebrate our commitment to walk in the ways of truth, to seek truth and celebrate the glimpses among us.
This morning I celebrate all the different ways that we come to awareness of our belonging in this community. Whether you start off by volunteering in the “English as a Second Language” class, or perhaps you are visiting with somebody who is a Stephen’s Minister or perhaps you are teaching Sunday School, or perhaps it is the amazing music, or perhaps through song or maybe through prayer, but one way or another that is what happens when people say to themselves or to one another, “I want to identify myself with this community of faith that seeks to follow in the path of Christ.”
The best news of all about belonging, and it is totally paradoxical, comes in those places in our lives where we are bound to one another and bound to God; when we have that sense that we belong not to ourselves, but we belong to God. It is in those moments when we experience in our lives that we are wondrously and marvelously free. So here is God speaking to us now, “You belong to me.” Amen.