September 1, 2019

“Belong”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Romans 14.1-8

Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

September 1, 2019

Rev. Karen Oliveto, a minister in the United Methodist Church, wrote in her book Together at the Table about a fifteen-year-old boy. Todd, the teenager, ran away and was absent for nearly a month. The congregation noticed he wasn’t there, contacted people, searched high and low, and did their best to locate Todd. Eventually, he walked into the church, looking disheveled. Oliveto greeted him immediately and expressed how much she missed him. He looked at her quizzically and said, “You missed me? No one ever noticed when I was gone, ever.”[1] Todd was missed because he was part of that church community. He belonged there, and others noticed when he was present, and when he was absent.

At the Summer Institute for Theology and Disability Conference I attended there was a worship service that focused on the meaning of belonging. Someone said: “To be included is to be noticed when you are present. To belong is to be missed when you are gone.” I think that is a powerful statement. We have had conversations about inclusion and how we can be a more inclusive church. Yet, we know that doing so does not mean just welcoming people who walk into our doors, but to take it a step further.

I think we can see this step-ladder of acceptance. At the most basic, welcoming people in can be tolerance. Tolerance means they might annoy us or disagree with us, but we say hi and are cordial. Inclusivity is the next step in the ladder, where we go out of our way to initiate conversation and invitation. Belonging is intentionally creating a space for someone. I’ll use children as an example. Tolerance means allowing them in the sanctuary and ignoring their noises. Inclusion means asking them to participate in worship once in a while. Belonging means having space or activities planned out for them, so they can participate in the church, and that we notice when they aren’t here. This doesn’t just go for children – but for all children of God.

The scripture passages we read today deal with belonging and Christian communal living. The first word we read is “welcome.” We hear about hospitality. Paul tells the Roman Christians that they should not be judging. This is really fascinating, because Paul writes about the “weak in faith,” which sounds like a judgment to me.[2] It appears to be a judgment of saying who is weak in faith, and who is strong in faith.

The Christian group in Rome is arguing over what is acceptable in the Christian faith. This refers specifically to food and wine. There is a judgment made about what is sinful and what is not. Christians still do this today. You’ve probably heard “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Part of the difficulty in this is that the people who are clumped into the “sinful” category are being judged, as well as identified by sin.[3] This is problematic because, first of all, we all sin, and second, we are not the sum total of our sins.

Judgment isn’t our place. A story is told about a man in the town square of a city, with a large overcoat on. As people approached him, he opened the coat to show different colored squares of fabric. The squares were quilted together inside. When asked, he would point to one of the squares and say, “This represents your sin.” Many were humiliated, and left the town square. As this strange man left, they noticed a giant dark spot on the back of the coat. Someone asked out loud what it was for, and another answered, “That represents his own sin, for he is willing to point out the shortcomings of others, and yet fails to see his own.”[4]

Sin is not the only thing that separates us. We can allow differences to tear us apart if they are misunderstood. Race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and political beliefs can polarize people. Misunderstandings of race and culture can create assumptions and prejudices. Yet, we are all connected to one another.

The Romans passage reminds us that we belong to God, and therefore, connected to God, we belong to one another. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God. We are connected. When we truly understand this, our perspective changes. When we see people as belonging to God, and that we belong to them as human kin, we see people as children of God, and not the sum total of their sins, or beliefs, or disabilities, or gender stereotypes. We also remember that in all that we do, we are to do it for God. Since we belong to God, we have a responsibility to act kindly to one another.

Belonging is circular, and we belong to God, so we belong to one another. Love is reciprocal, or at least it can be. In the Hebrews passage we read about “mutual love.” This is not tolerance, this is love. The author suggests that we should show hospitality because we just don’t know when we host “angels.”

Lanny Peters, who was a Baptist pastor, wrote about his experience driving on a long trip one time. He saw someone asking for a ride, took a chance, and drove the person as far as he could before he had to turn the opposite way of the hitchhiker. They talked for many miles and when they approached the town where they would part, the hitchhiker started talking about a tasty restaurant in town. Peters assumed he would be paying for the meal. Instead, the hitchhiker offered to pay for both, as a thank you for the ride. Peters called him an “angel” and wondered how many times he had hosted angels and didn’t even realize it.[5]

Have you ever had an experience like this? What sort of angels have you known in the world? We welcome people, not because we need more money in the church or more butts in pews. We welcome people not because we need an extra set of hands or volunteers. We welcome people because we are called to hospitality. We are called to welcome people and include them, and make space for them. We are called to be together because God gave us different gifts, and we are better when we are united and work in cooperation with one another.

As I mentioned the step ladder of belonging, from tolerating to inclusion to belonging, we might consider that belonging is the most complicated, more intense, but more rewarding. It means intentionality before and after a relationship. It means planning ahead, and asking ourselves, “Who do we want to welcome? How can we make them feel welcome?” It also means following up and doing whatever that task is, and connecting with that person, staying in touch, and noticing when they aren’t present.

Where do you feel you most belong? What gives you that feeling? How can we help people feel they belong? We give thanks to God that in life and in death, and all that we do, we belong to God. Thank God for these blessed connections. Amen.

 

[1] Melissa Earley, “Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” in Christian Century, August 28, 2019, Vol. 136, No. 18, p. 19.

[2] William Greenway, “Romans 14.1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 62.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Gilberto Collazo, “Romans 14.1-12” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 62.

[5] Lanny Peters, “Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 16.