Paula Northwood September 9, 2018
Scripture Ephesians 2:17–3:6
“You are no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. God’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what God is building. God used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now God is using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”
—Ephesians 2:19–22 (The Message, adapted)
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“You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone.” That sentence from our text really grabbed me. “You belong here” are such heartwarming words . . . if you feel they are true. We will come back to that. But the second part of this sentence would indicate that even in nascent Christianity, there was confusion about what it meant. Here we are 2,000 years later, and we still have a great deal of confusion on what it means to be a Christian. And yet, we persist. We want to make sense of it, because the life of Jesus changed the world. Throughout Christendom’s history, we have argued and even killed each other over it trying to figure it out. Even though, unfortunately, that’s still happening in some parts of the world, we find it difficult to imagine because, for many of us, Jesus’s teachings have lost relevance or we think he must have been kidding. Jesus could not have possibly meant we are to love our enemies—to hold others in our hearts, even those who hurt us. We have trouble loving our own families. And when barriers were created, Jesus drew the circle wider. This compelling mystery of Jesus grabs us by the back of the neck and won’t let go. And then Jesus says, no matter where you are in this search or struggle, you belong.
I have heard people say that there are moments when they felt like they didn’t belong anywhere—not in their family, not in this culture, not with their peers and not even in their body. I am sure each of us can think of a time when we did not feel like we belonged. It’s painful.
Airports are a good place to study belonging. A father and small child were going through customs security and the agent asked the little girl, “Is this your father?” She said, “No.” The father looked mortified. The agent asked again, “That’s not your father?” “Nope,” she answered, shaking her head. Her wide-eyed father whispered, “Honey, I am your father.” She said, “No, you’re not. You’re my daddy.” With big sighs of relief, everyone relaxed. She belonged to him. Or when you have travelled to another country to visit friends and after you claim your luggage, you see your friends are there to claim you. It feels good to belong.
As a first-year student at a small liberal arts college in southern Michigan, I signed up for Psychology 101. It was a fascinating class with an exceptionally interesting professor. We spent a lot of time studying Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—especially the second level of human needs. Right after food, clothing, shelter and safety—if you have studied this, you will remember—is belonging. We learned that belonging is primal and essential to our sense of happiness, health and well-being. Some of the students, including me, were starting in a new place where we knew no one. Aside from a week at summer camp, I had never been away from home before. I was lonely and didn’t think I fit in. As first-year students, we were vulnerable and deeply trying to figure out where we belonged. We know the possible consequences of not belonging: loneliness, alienation, depression and hopelessness. The professor created small groups and assigned experiments like making us into a human ball of knots that we had to unravel without letting go. The professor knew that a sense of belonging would help us have a successful college experience. It’s so important to belong.
No letter in the New Testament puts as much stress on belonging as does Ephesians . . . not only on belonging but also, further beyond our reading today, on how to engage with the powers of separation, the opposite of belonging. Our busy lives seem to conspire against belonging. Technology gives us the illusion of connectedness. We are more connected than we have ever been. We now know what our cousin twice removed is doing, but we don’t really know them. We spend more time on our electronic devices and less in real human contact. We are more mobile; living in other countries, moving to new cities or small towns, juggling families and careers—all these factors contribute to making it harder for us to find the time to connect with others. When my daughter was a young teenager, she was not happy that we were moving from the state of Kansas to Minnesota. We were visiting my parents, and my mother had a needlepoint plaque that read, “For I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) My daughter looked at me and said, “See, Mom, we are supposed to content in the state we are in.” Moving away, we left behind friends and our support network, both difficult to replace. As we age, it is easy to become isolated in our homes because we don’t have the same opportunities for meeting new people and establishing friendships. Modern life can make it challenging to feel like you belong or that you have time to belong.
That’s why it’s so great to see everyone today. It is great to reconnect. As a staff, we love welcoming you back after the summer holidays and to the beginning of a new church year. We often have great attendance on this Rally Sunday and then attendance starts to taper off. It raises the question for me: What makes you feel like you belong? Or if you don’t feel it, what would it take for you to feel like you belong? What does belonging look like?
I know what it looks like at the 9 o’clock service. I see children come into the chapel and make themselves comfortable with cushions and crayons by the communion table. Some kids kick off their shoes and settle in. I see them being greeted by name. I see the children eager to collect the offering, to read scripture, to sing or to play the piano. Generations are interacting. People seem to feel at home, and they look like they are having fun! Our 11 o’clock service is more formal, so what does belonging look like here? Is it being greeted by name? It is a friend saving your seat? Sharing a hymnal? Is it singing together? Or being sung to? Is it an inspiring word of scripture, a poem or the sermon? Is it serving the Third Sunday meal? Is it volunteering? Is it participating in our social justice work? Is it being a part of a fellowship group? What makes you feel at home? And if you don’t feel at home, what can we do and what can you do to change that? This is a home that we co-create: What’s your part in it? I would love to hear from you.
Coming together, as we do, is an expression of our desire to be together, to belong to something bigger than any of us. Here, we do not need to think alike to belong. We are free to follow our search for truth and meaning in the company of others who provide encouragement and support. That’s the promise we make to each other with our covenant. Our behavior with each other matters more than our beliefs together. We come as we are—without pretense or pretext. Once here, we only ask each other to be kind and trustworthy spiritual companions.
Together we build a home. We don’t always get it right, and there are times when the notion of belonging to each other seems beyond reach or possibly even our sanity. But we don’t give up. We are like the prodigal son’s parent: We welcome you home, no matter where you have been or how long you have been gone. We don’t give up, because this is where you find true belonging—a belonging that connects or reconnects us with the web of life and the divine spirit. We don’t give up, because we believe that together we have the best chance for being and becoming the people we have always aspired to be and the people God calls us to be.
In her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes that the special courage to truly belong today is about “breaking down the walls, [it’s about] abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt. We’re going to need,” she says, “to intentionally be with people who are different from us. . . . We’re going to have to learn how to listen, [how to] have hard conversations, [how to] look for joy, share pain and be more curious than defensive, all while seeking moments of togetherness.” That’s what we will aspire to this year.
At the end of the letter to the Ephesians, we read that as children of God we are to engage in a battle with the “powers” of separation. It can be challenging to live in a different way than our culture. It’s challenging to live from the heart, but it’s the only way to find our way home.
One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most compelling visions is that of a Beloved Community (it’s a heart community)—a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. Dr. King knew that we cannot rest until we have bridged the divides of prejudice and mistrust that lie within the human head and heart. We belong together and we must learn to truly welcome the other. The home we build must welcome all people. This is what it means to live from the heart. This is what it means to be hospitable and to create a house of belonging. In the coming weeks, we will explore what radical hospitality means in this place at this time.
The Mary Oliver poem read earlier (“Why I Wake Early”) indicates we have a home on this earth. Every morning the sun rises to welcome us whether we see it or not. The day greets us with “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning.” And when we die we find we truly belong to this earth and to the God who loves us.
But in the meantime, in this world that tries to separate and alienate, let us find comfort and meaning here. For those who don’t feel at home in their body, find a home here while you figure it out. For those who have lost the home you thought you had, find your home here. For those searching for a spiritual home, explore this house. Take off your shoes and find out what it takes to make you comfortable. This is a home where we want to know you. We claim you. You belong here. Together let’s make this a house of belonging. May it be so. Amen.