A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on April 17, 2016 (Easter 4, Year C)
How do you cultivate a sense of belonging? For many of us, we become joiners. We join political parties; fraternal groups like the Masons; professional organizations like the Rotary Club; volunteer societies like the Junior League; service organizations like the VFW. If you think about the number of clubs or groups you’ve belonged to over the years, it’s probably a long list. And much of our personal identity comes from such organizations.
Now, part of me can’t help but think of these traditional societies or associations as obituary filler. And maybe that’s not fair but if you’re a reader of obits, like I am — it’s a professional hazard — these are the things that end up in there. “Bob was active in the Republican Party, a member of the Moose Lodge, and served as past-president of the Kiwanis Club. The funeral will be held at St. Peter’s by-the-Turnpike, where he served on the Vestry.”
That’s not to minimize or make light of causes or institutions which we care about, but rather to highlight how much we all crave a sense of belonging. It’s human nature to seek connection and acceptance and value; and political, religious, social, and professional organizations often help fill that deep yearning.
Now, usually when it comes to joining an organization, the process is fairly straightforward. In some cases you either qualify or you don’t. As a veteran I could join the American Legion but as someone who drives a Honda I would not be welcome in the Ferrari Club of America. But once the basic qualifications are met and you have established a common affinity, you typically sign up, pay your membership fee, and you’re in. You often quite literally become a card-carrying member.
Religious denominations have certain guidelines as well. Some are more rigid than others — but often you have to adhere to a particular set of beliefs or give a particular percentage of your annual income or maybe undergo a formal rite. Or perhaps it’s less structured. Just come occasionally, give what you can, and try your best not to break any Commandments — at least the big ones.
That’s how it works, right?
Well actually, no. That’s not how it works. At all. At least according to Jesus. Jesus says that you already belong. That you belong to Jesus simply because you exist. There’s nothing to sign, no hidden fees, no hoops to jump through, no catch. Your belonging doesn’t depend on what you believe or what you say or what other people think. Your belonging doesn’t take into account your socioeconomic class, your gender, your sexual orientation, or your level of education. Your belonging doesn’t hinge on whether or not you’ve experienced doubts or what you’ve done or left undone. Your belonging has nothing to do with past or future accomplishments or how hard you’ve worked.
Your belonging, in fact doesn’t depend upon you at all. You belong because Jesus has chosen you, not because you have chosen Jesus. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, tells us “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” That’s it. You’re in. You belong. You are part of the flock.
And at one level, isn’t this so freeing? You belong to Jesus just as you are; even despite who you are. You are loved, included, invited into the green pastures and still waters of the Good Shepherd.
Yet this can also be a hard message to accept. Because if we belong, everybody belongs. If we belong, that annoying neighbor who mows his lawn before 7:00 am on Saturday mornings also belongs. If we belong, our meddling sister-in-law also belongs. If we belong, the guy at work who’s always stealing our ideas and passing them off as his, also belongs. For better or worse, everybody means everybody.
You know, it should come as no surprise that religious groups are some of the worst offenders of seeking to create belonging by less-than-gracious means. The worst of human nature often means inclusion at the expense of others. Creating group identity by excluding others. This invites the notion that in order to create a sense of belonging you must intentionally keep others out. “It’s us against the world!” It’s a dangerous and, I’d argue un-Christian, model around which to build community. And there’s not too much of a leap from the in-group/out-group paradigm to David Koresh and the debacle in Waco or anti-Muslim fervor in our present day. Belonging at the expense of others is not the kind of belonging into which Jesus beckons us. His is a belonging without walls; an inclusion without barriers; an invitation without limits.
But it’s also an invitation not devoid of identity. Because as we crave a sense of belonging, it’s important to remember that our identity is wrapped up in Jesus’ identity as God’s son.
You’ll note in this passage from John’s gospel that those seeking straight talk about Jesus’ identity are not his followers. Those who have tracked him down at the Temple to demand information about who he really is, are the religious authorities, the same ones whose rigid standards of belonging are being subverted. And Jesus says two things: ‘First, I’ve already told you who I am and you don’t believe me so why should I waste my time and second, the works that I’ve been doing all along in God’s name — teaching and healing and preaching — already speak to my identity.’
You see, Jesus understands our profound need to belong. He recognizes this yearning that stands at the very depth of our souls. It’s why he called the first disciples into community, into a group. He could have saved himself a whole lot of heartache if he’d just gone around the countryside by himself, rather than with a bunch of devoted, if often misguided, disciples.
But he understood the human need for connection; the human need to stave off crushing feelings of isolation and loneliness. We crave connection and relationship and when we feel it slipping away we can easily become depressed and fall into despair. Wardens — and in this case I’m talking about prison wardens, not church wardens — are well aware that one of the most dehumanizing things you can do to a person is put them into solitary confinement; to take away their sense of belonging.
Jesus is calling out your name. Not to artificially create in you a sense of belonging, but because you already belong. We, like sheep, can and do go astray. There’s no doubt about that. We wander off, we get lost, we encounter danger. But the Good Shepherd continually, lovingly, gently calls upon you to return; not because you don’t belong, but precisely because you do.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck