A Place to Belong

Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
August 20, 2023

Scripture: Ephesians 2:17–22

Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through Christ we all have access in one Spirit to our God. So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are included in God’s holy people and are members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the capstone; in Jesus the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in our God, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.

I always knew when I did not fit in.

Standing on the field at my elementary school while the two most popular boys in class chose teams for kickball, I would just stare at my feet and wish I could disappear into the earth. These mandatory games were a part of our physical education class, which was its own added strain on my uncoordinated body. I did not fit in.

Being a 22 year old seminary student during which the median age of student was 42, and being told by classmates and professors that I was simply too young to know much of anything, that my life experience was infantile and that whatever I tried to bring to discussion groups – large or small – was insignificant, because frankly, I was young and therefore, inconsequential. I did not fit in.

Sitting outside the dance studio with the other parents while my daughters took class, I strove to be personable and friendly yet it became quite obvious that I did not have the right perspective or the correct look or the dramatic enthusiasm necessary to be a dance mom. For years I sat in the same hallway, sometimes up to three times a week feeling like I did on that kickball field. I did not fit in.

Earlier in my career I served a congregation on the edge of the metro area. Most of the time I felt beloved and appreciated, my leadership understood and welcomed. Except for one time every week: coffee fellowship following Sunday services. I would enter that space and feel like an outlier, everyone already huddled together with their closest friends, circles closed with no invitations -blatant or subtle – in which to enter in. I took to standing near the door, a quiet observer, grateful to engage a newcomer if one happened to attend. I did not fit in.

While obviously, those experiences are etched in my memory – and not in a positive way, they are thankfully countered by the extraordinary times in my life I had a place to belong, a community, space in which I could be my full self and know love, acceptance and an appreciation for the person I am. While not exclusively, so many of those periods revolve around my involvement in theater – a passion I discovered as a teenager that turned in to my college degree and followed me long into adulthood. In high school my people were the singers and the actors, we were proud to claim ourselves as theatre geeks and admittedly did our fair share to draw attention to ourselves. This was the community that brought out the best of me, while also challenging me to better my craft, to take risks, to step out of my comfort zone – all in the midst of mutual love and adoration. In college I spent more time in the theatre building than my dorm room, and gave up many a night’s sleep to memorize lines, work on an accent (I am terrible at accents!) or simply hang out with people who really “got” me. In several communities where I lived and served churches, my acceptance into the community theatres forged lifelong friendships, allowed me to return to my heart’s passion while also living in to my calling to ministry, and never ever have I had a negative experience while rehearsing and performing a show, no matter where I was living or how long I might stay. The theater has always offered me a place to belong, a loving community, people who could make me laugh until I cried or stood with me in life’s difficulties off stage. How blessed am I, time and time again, to have a place to fit in.

The short biblical book of Ephesians is a call to unity and harmony within the church. If we read through a contemporary lens, we might recognize that the author is talking to us, members of a church, with the invitation being an intentional look at our success around inclusion of whoever we name as the “other”. In the time in which this book was written, the author directed the message towards the reconciling communities between the Jews and the Gentiles making one new humanity united through God. The central message of this epistle is that true discipleship entails leaving behind the practices of alienation and hostility taught by the world and instead embodying the vision of reconciliation, peace and human unity that comes through a common grounding and belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the church is to be a place of belonging where no one is left to feel as if they do not fit in. How are we doing in that, Plymouth?

Last week at the 9:00 am service I had the honor of baptizing 8 year old Hannah Azad. Hannah has been known to us since she was born, and this summer requested her own baptism. Hannah told me it is because she wanted to be closer to God, and become “officially” a part of the church family. As I read the opening words of the liturgy, with the hints of this sermon already on my mind, my voice cracked with emotion: “Through baptism we partner with God to say in a united voice – this child is loved and welcome in our midst. Here they will always have a place to belong.” Naming and claiming Hannah as a beloved child of God is the core of the baptismal rite, but alongside the beauty of the sacrament is a commitment made in community that the one baptized will always know a sense of belonging within the congregation witnessing the baptism. Therefore baptism is not only a personal commemoration but a communal commitment. Likewise in our new member litany of reception, the words from our Ephesians text this morning are echoed as a blessing upon those choosing to join the church: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are equally citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” In other words, we promise that here in this space one is received with love and with grace, with full equality and with honor for the gifts they bring to community. There is always to be one more chair, one more space in the pew, one more story to behold, one more person to welcome in. In a world where too many are left out, where walls are built around race and ability and wealth and power the church is to be the beacon of hope in which doors are flung wide open and people can come as they are with all their hopes and dreams, their faith and their flaws, to be real together in community without having to conform to the community as it exists. The church is where all of God’s beloved have a place to belong. This is where we fit in. So I ask again, how are we doing in this regard, Plymouth?

Hear again the last two verses of our reading today: “in Jesus the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in our God, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit.” When we unite ourselves around Jesus’ purposes and ministry, something happens within community. We recognize the presence of God in our midst and that is the core of radical and necessary change. Where there is God, there is love. And love is the key in a community of belonging, a place where everyone fits. “As the embodiment of God’s reconciling love, the church is sacred and living space, within which God dwells. The church is not defined by or limited to buildings, programs, or offices, but exists wherever people of faith give witness to God’s reconciling presence in human experience. God creates this space – this household of God, a holy temple – by means of transformed relationships, relationships that might otherwise be inconceivable in the worldly ordering of space.” (Discipleship Bible, footnote) To quote DeWayne from a long ago sermon… it’s different in here. We must be willing to be counter cultural and not adhere to all the demoralizing messages the world proclaims: there is no “other” in this place. One is not superior here because of the color of their skin or because of the person whom they love or because of their gender or because of the amount of money in their bank account. Instead, we read in Ephesians that the church is not a place for us to gather, but instead the household in which God chooses to live. And if this is God’s home then all must be welcomed in. This kind of radical welcome invites a sense of belonging. Because the only way to know belonging is to trust that our worth matches that of the others in the room. And above any other place in the world, the church – OUR CHURCH – should be where this is not only modeled but lived out in every moment.

I want to believe that you are here today, or any day, because you feel like you belong here. And I know this is not a universal truth. Some of you who are long time members have experienced periods of loss, disorientation, frustration when something has happened in this place that seems contrary to the church as you know it: a minister leaves, a friend dies, a decision is made. I am grateful for those who give this community a second chance, or maybe many chances to be a place of reconciliation and peace. I know some of you who are newer to Plymouth are still discerning whether you feel like you fit in here. I pray that it will be so. That you will feel a welcome and inclusion so wide and so great that this is the space in which you experience a God who loves without condition and continues to bind us together in beloved community. Every week I rejoice when I meet someone for the first time – coming to a new church and entering an established community takes courage, hope, expectation. With every returning I rejoice, trusting that the Spirit of inclusion is at work. And still, there are many who tentatively enter this sanctuary, unsure of what they will experience here. And then they do not come back. I believe we need to start paying better attention to that.

While the theatre has always been my respite, my place of belonging, this has nothing to do with any amount of talent I might possess. It also has nothing to do with the actual theatrical structures… I have attended rehearsals in church basements, office spaces and even outside. I have performed on rickety stages and in glamourous venues. Belonging occurs only through human connection, blessed by divine intervention. Fitting in was all about the wild, wacky, wonderful people who embraced me as an unknown, scooted over so I would have a place at the table, listened to my story and invited me into theirs.

Our scripture lesson this morning calls its hearers to remember their own story from the perspective of God’s welcoming grace. Those once considered “other” – knowing hostility, exclusion and deprivation have been enveloped in welcome, reconciliation and God’s overflowing grace. The ones already present realizing who was missing all along. And in this place God dwells, forming us into the humanity that God desires.

This is the church as it is meant to be. This is the Plymouth I pray for.

May it be so.


9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service