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You Belong - We Belong to Each Other - Sermon #04

You Belong - We Belong to Each Other - Sermon #04

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • October 8, 2017 • Anna Hillaker, Formation and Care Pastor

Welcome & Vision

We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space this morning. As we gather together as a church, we do so in the active presence of God through our worship, community, and engagement with scripture, which we hope will lead to transformational growth in our everyday life. As a congregation we want to experience belonging, cultivate tangible joy, activate hope, and know comfort as we learn to trust Jesus more and more, enabling us to reflect the welcome and peace of Jesus to those closest to us. We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you've been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. We’ve been sharing short videos from a variety of members of our community over the course of this sermon series, and I really enjoyed this one from Mark.

I. We Long for True Belonging

I came across an article this week by Vivek Murthy, who is a former U.S. Surgeon General who writes, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that of obesity," It’s no wonder that our search for belonging, both individually and corporately is so pressing.

I remember very clearly one of my first experiences with spiritual direction, a practice which has been very influential in shaping my faith and growth. I was 21, and serving in a church in Canada as a part of a fellowship program through my college. We were on a silent retreat at convent in the middle of the city— my first silent retreat, my first experiences with a spiritual director, serving a new church in a different city— there was a lot on my mind. At one point in our conversation, my spiritual director casually mentioned something he’d noticed about me— something that I have always felt was really central to who I am. I can’t even remember exactly what it was anymore, but I do remember how shocked I felt. I paused and said “Really, you can see that in me?” and he said “Anna, I can see that a thousand miles away.” Now on the surface, that might not seem like a big deal. But let me tell you some things about myself. It took me a long time in my life to believe that other people could understand me. I mean really, truly get me. So for years, I took to trying to prove myself, trying to explain myself, trying to forge understanding and belonging where I didn’t feel it. I feared being vulnerable, worried that if I was, no one would understand me. I didn’t feel recognizable, if that makes sense. I thought I had to explain who I was to people in some elaborate way in order to maybe be understood. I had by that point come a long way in my journey towards experiencing belonging, but it still took me aback, stopped me in surprise to simply be seen. And that is that kind of belonging we crave, isn’t it? To be really known, to be really recognized for who we are and loved. As Brené Brown argues in her new book Braving the Wilderness, we don’t just want to fit it. We want to be loved.

II. Real Belonging is Hard

But here’s the deal. Belonging like that is really difficult. I think we so often have a bit of a fantasy about what community and belonging are like. Sure, there are those important and beautiful moments of belonging and love like the one I just told you about, and they are important. But they are only a very small piece of a much more difficult and complex reality. Have you ever found yourself thinking, especially when you’ve been hurt, or feel misunderstood, or alone-in-a-crowd, that if you just found “your people” everything would be so much easier? That if there were just the right magical concoction of people in the room, with just the right perspective, just the right experience, just the right education, just the right politics, that belonging to one another would be smooth sailing? When relationships get tough, don’t you ever find yourself feeling a little restless and wondering if maybe there’s an easier church, a more satisfying group of friends, a more meaningful work environment, an easier marriage? We so easily escape to a dream of community, which can stop us from rolling up our sleeves and wading into the difficult task of seeing each other, knowing each other, and loving each other. And even when we stumble into those moments of natural belonging, as vital and real and significant as they are, we begin to realize that even that doesn’t make love and belonging easy. So what do we do? How do we even begin? How do we seek messy, wonderful, complicated, meaningful belonging with each other?

III. Good News/Bad News— In Christ we Belong to Each Other

Well, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that we don’t have to fight to create belonging, doing the hardscrabble work of cobbling something together out of nothing. We already do belong to each other. The bad news is, we belong to ALL of each other, like it or not. You see, our belonging is not of our own creation. Our belonging is in something much more beautiful, much more stable, much more all-encompassing, much more difficult than we usually envision.

Let’s look at Ephesians 2, starting at v.12 :

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The plain reality is that we do belong to each other. It’s definitely true that we don’t always act like it, but belong we do. We are fellow citizens, Spirit bearers, being built together into the dwelling of God. And our belonging is a pure gift. Like the mercy, the love, the grace of God, we are given each other in fellowship. There is a new reality, a new creation. One commentator whose work I really valued while writing this sermon was Lynn Cohick, who wrote,

“The world calls for domination, selfishness, and independence from others and from God, but God’s grace given without respect of person (to Jew, Gentile, free, slave, male, female, and any other division humanity can think up) decisively ends all conversation. In and with Christ, the church, the two being one, stands a a testimony to God’s love and power over against the social and political divisions that characterize our world.” p.62

If I’m honest, all of this feels beautiful and inspiring, but can sometimes ring false. Most days, I’m not sure that the church does stand as a testimony to God’s love. On most days, I’d settle for not being completely embarrassed by our failures to love each other. But underneath it all, there is a foundation for our belonging and love for one another that we cannot shake. Something much more powerful, strange and beautiful than our own determination unites us. It is so much easier, isn’t it, when we get to decide who we belong to, what the rules are for belonging. We would so much rather find “our people.” But here’s the thing— the dividing wall has been broken down. Our compartmentalized, self-selecting, divided world has been confronted with a new reality, the earth shattering beginnings of a new creation.

We all have access to the same Spirit. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:4-6).” So look around. We belong to each other. And if you find yourself here this morning, and you’re thinking, “well, I’m not in Christ. What about me? Do I belong?” then I simply want to say this. There is space for you. There is today and always an open invitation to meet Jesus, to be filled with the Spirit, to become a part of the people of God. [Invitation to prayer station, surrender cards, etc.]

IV. Don’t Create, Participate!

Ok, so we belong. The whole earth is the Lord’s, and the people of God are drawn together by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. We belong in a way that we can’t ever destroy, in a way that we can’t ever fully opt out of. So why do we still feel so lonely? Why do we still feel “far off”? I think it is because we alienate ourselves from the reality of our collective belovedness. We become so afraid of what it will cost us that we hold ourselves apart from real belonging, we hold ourselves apart from each other, dreaming of the day when our idealized community will saunter into our lives and make everything easy. Last week Pastor Donnell spent some time with Colossians 3:12-14, which honestly stole my thunder just a little, because I was thinking of using this passage for this sermon. But I think it bears revisiting.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Isn’t it interesting that right on the heels of all that lovely ‘chosen, holy, and dearly loved’ stuff we are asked to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient? It’s almost like the author knew that we would need compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience as God’s chosen people. Almost as if it wouldn’t be easy or straightforward or something.

It is impossible to be “in Christ” and not be connected in a profound and mysterious way to the body of Christ. One theologian talked about this connection in a way that was really helpful for me. Our intimacy with Jesus, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, puts us in an automatic connection with others who are also connected in the same way. The word he uses is actually solidarity. As we are in relationship to Jesus, we are brought inherently into solidarity with everyone else who is a part of the body of Christ. We don’t choose with whom we share this gift. We don’t choose who we are brought into fellowship and solidarity with. They are given to us. And the reason it is so difficult is that we all get to bring our whole selves— with all our diversity of culture, perspective, education, experience, and identity— into this space of true belonging, where we are all brought into solidarity with each other whether we want to be or not. This isn’t a belonging of sameness, a belonging of erasure, where we all learn the proper codes of behavior so that we can all get along. Rather, our deeper connectedness gives us the freedom to truly learn from one another, to see each other, to love each other. And Colossians is sure right. We need all the compassion, kindness, honesty, humility, forgiveness, gentleness, and love that we can muster for that project. [Story]

The good news is that all of these virtues, these dispositions toward each other, are things that we can get better at. We can learn to listen to each other well. We can grow in empathy and kindness. We can be trained in humility. We can learn to forgive. We can practice loving each other. And we as a church community try to provide opportunities for each of us to grow in these areas, and for us as a whole to improve in our capacity to love each other. And just as it is the Spirit of God that unites us, it is that same Spirit that empowers us as we seek to grow in our faith, hope, and love. We have a prayer station available off to my left, and if you need an encounter with God this morning, an experience of how loved you are, how deeply you belong, how profoundly you are loved, I would encourage you to seek prayer this morning. And if you are wondering how you can grow in your listening skills, your empathy, your ability to care and support those around you, you’re in luck! Starting this coming Wednesday evening, I will be teaching our CARE class. This is a super practical and hands on way to develop some of your community building skills, and it is one of the ways that we at the Vineyard are hoping to cultivate a deeper atmosphere of care and support in our church community.

To feel loved, to experience the reality of your belonging takes a fair bit of courage and hard work. It takes the painful denial of our fantasized communities in favor of the one right in front of you. It takes being willing to see belonging to each other as a sheer gift of grace and mercy. And it takes a heck of a lot of trust that Jesus really knows what he’s doing.

V. Belonging for a Purpose

We at the Vineyard hope and pray to be this kind of community. A community where we all belong. Where we stand in loving and compassionate solidarity with those who are different from us. Where we receive with gratitude the real, messy, flesh-and-blood fellowship that we have been given. Over the past few months we have been focused on the practice of gratitude. We have been encouraging each other to be relentless in our pursuit of gratitude, to hunt high and low for the blessings of God and to treasure them, especially through the practice of writing them down in a gratitude journal. One of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor prays, “Lord, you’re feeding me, and what I’m praying for is an appetite.” [Story of Addie and the thankful rock] Friends, we have been given each other. And we need each other. We need each other all the more when we have not chosen each other. My prayer for our community is that we may become increasingly aware of the incredible ways that God has chosen to bless us and provide for us. My prayer is that we feel an increasing awareness of belonging in the midst of our very real community. My prayer is that we all become hungrier for the provision that God is offering to us each and every day.

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