It's Not How You Believe; It's How You Belong
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28 and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown
Hello beloved ones, thank you for being here for our worship this morning. In these times, our worship together feels lifesaving and giving to me, even as imperfect as it may be. Today is a special celebration as we welcome new members into our congregation, yay!
As you are so moved I invite you to take a deep breath and to let yourself arrive. Join me in a spirit of prayer.
God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
She was a college student and even though she was younger than most by far, she loved the church and felt at home. It had become for her like some kind of family. But she hesitated when trying to describe what it was she believed in exactly. “I don’t know what to say…when they ask what I believe…” She went on, “I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to quilt and singing hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being Christian?”
This is just one of many vignettes captured in the 2012 book by Diana Butler Bass called, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. When it first came out, I was relieved that not just church nerds like me, but scholars with status and clout were beginning to articulate what many of us had been experiencing personally and professionally for a while.
Even with the sense of a steadfast comfort offered by the church of my childhood, at a certain point, tensions arose about all that I didn’t believe. Like many Churches, we regularly said the Nicene Creed. And despite the fact that it was written centuries after Jesus lived, it came to be seen as a kind of litmus test for the Christian faith.
As I came of age, navigating it, became a regular feat of mental gymnastics.
From the first line: We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.
Right there, you have nearly lost me because, God is not a boy’s name.
And then there’s this, “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made human.”
Does this mean Jesus has two dads, if God is his Father and so is Joseph?
And there is so much more!
At nearly every turn, it felt like the stories on their own weren’t seen as enough and Jesus as he was, wasn’t enough. He had to be made into a superhero figure morphed from the archetype of a sea goddess, born of someone like Santa?
Diana Butler Bass calls this the “belief gap” and in her book she describes it this way, “What once made sense no longer did. It was not a case of rejecting everything; rather, it was more like seeing from some angle you never imagined. Like slipping off a wet rock and finding yourself in the river rather than above it.”
This is just right because for me it was the difference between talking about something or trying to understand something and experiencing, embodying something.
In 2012, the same year that Butler Bass wrote her important work, another scholar Phyllis Tickle wrote a book called, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. She placed this period of time with other “greats” in history. The Great Schism, the Great Reformation… And she writes that, “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. She went on to say that we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.”
The Christian Church and what it means to be a Christian and a person of faith, especially in this country is experiencing nothing less than a dramatic shift and I am overjoyed to be alive for it!
Rummages sales are chaotic and dusty, but they are also a place to find treasures, to uncover them and reclaim them. As someone who loves thrift shopping and used bookstores and shacks by the side of the road calling themselves Antique Stores, the idea that Christianity is engaged in a historic sort excites me beyond measure. But I have learned that for others this is frightening and a bit chaotic. There is a worry that this means anything goes, as if without creeds we have nothing left to draw on. But instead, this means that gone are the days when we are bound by what a small group of likely mostly privileged men decided what it means to be the Church. We are free to choose doing over doctrine and belonging to a covenant over being bound by beliefs. From my point of view, without the creeds, we are freed! We are free to go right to the Source, without force, we are free to question, to read for ourselves, to learn our history, to listen to the wisdom of our living elders, to craft our own spiritual journeys. It means we are grounded in the Great Commandment to love and that we are steeped in bigger stories, soaked in songs and hymns, rooted in prayer and scriptures, guided by memory and wisdom…
In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox wrote that what he thought this moment in Christianity means is that “people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding.”
I love that. Give me the Sacred without having to walk through or under some wobbly man-made construction project!
Phyllis Tickle contended that “The general tendency in Emergence Christian theology is to question with real vigor and precision whether or not the connection between faith and doctrinal precision is essential to the soul’s salvation. Dogma, yes, but doctrine, not so much. That is, do one’s brainwaves and verbal utterances actually make one’s faith?” She goes on, “Emergence Christians can often take this even a step further and reference those places of spiritual primacy where Jesus taught (as in his judgment of the nations as told in the Gospel of Matthew, for example) that a life is what constitutes and demonstrates a disciple, rather than a mind-set.”
A life is what makes a disciple.
What if this is a time in history that we get to let go of the Empire infused, militarized, individualized, patriarchal, corporatized, transaction-based, believe like us, bow down like us, judge like us, think like us and you will feel superior like us kind of Christianity? What if we are a part of recovering the treasures gifted to us from the start?
What if this shift, this shuffling, this rummage sale is moving us from a community of belief, to a community of belonging? Because it is belonging that changes us and the world.
As Brene Brown says in her book Daring Greatly, belonging can change everything. Belonging means that we are seen fully, even in the presence of a culture that insists on forcing us to fit in. As you heard, she writes, “In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging…Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” What if this is what Jesus intended all along? Because as you heard from the story in the Gospel of Matthew, even he challenges his own beliefs. Even Jesus widens his sense of who should be welcome. A woman with no status, no male relative with her. And when she reaches his feet, as an outcast, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." It is not fair to feed the dogs- that’s what he says, as if to say, “You are not one of us.” But he was being moved and I think maybe we are being too. Instead of memorizing answers, our call is diving in on the search of being fully who we are alongside others.
Diana Butler Bass wrote, “If we think of belonging only as membership in a club, organization, or church, we miss the point. Belonging is the risk to move beyond the world we know, to venture out on pilgrimage, to accept exile. And it is the risk of being with companions on that journey, God, a spouse, friends, children, mentors, teachers, people who came from the same place we did, people who came from entirely different places, saints and sinners of all sorts, those known to us and those unknown...”
We get to be alive and a part of this beautiful and dramatic shift and a congregation like ours is uniquely suited for this rummage sale. We are already ushering in an era where Church will be known as the place of bold belonging.
We are now free- to challenge even our own way of thinking, to choose doing over doctrine, covenant over creed; being over beliefs, movement over mindset- we are free to question, to read for ourselves, to learn our history, to listen to the wisdom of our living elders, to craft our own spiritual journeys.
After a conversation about the difference of being a community about belonging instead of belief, one of our own John Bennet wrote of what it means to be a part of this congregation,
“We are a fellowship of living faith. We hold faith in God, and faith in one another. Our faith values individual conscience and discernment over creed. We recognize and celebrate the many ways in which faith manifests itself in each of us. We are a fellowship of unqualified welcome. No matter who we are, where we are from, what we look like, how we identify, what we believe, or where we are on life’s journey, we are welcome here.”
As we invite new members into our covenant today, we give thanks that we are alive for a moment like this. No longer must some of us live in a belief gap! We can say out loud that we aren’t sure about most things or what will happen beyond this thing, but we are sure about showing up as we are, to grow in love. We can call ourselves Christians or not, agnostics, independents, people of conscience- We belong together.
We give thanks today that when we join this community, it is our call to dive in on the search of being fully who we are alongside one another. It is a risk to be seen, but it is glorious to be a part of something where we all belong. Whoever you are, may you find welcome as you are. This is what it means to be the Church. May it be so.