This week we kickoff a season of stewardship called, “Blessed to Belong.” You will be receiving packets of information as you leave today from our Stewardship Committee and you have also all been invited to a Stewardship party. Several of those parties are coming up, but a few of us have already attended parties, and the conversations about belonging have been rich and engaging. We are sharing stories of how we found a sense of belonging in this community, the ways in which our belonging here has blessed our lives, and the dreams we have to deepen those ties of belonging. The conversations have already been life-giving to me, and I am looking forward to having those conversations with the rest of you.
But as I read our gospel text this week in preparation for today, I realized the text is pushing us a step further. You see, when most of us talk about belonging to Hickory Neck, we often share our stories of personal belonging: how we were welcomed, how we were cared for, and how our lives have become more blessed by this place. That work is especially important as we think about our financial giving, because our sense of belonging impacts our giving. We support the ministry of Hickory Neck because Hickory Neck is an important part of our lives. We give generously because we have been generously blessed. We increase our giving because we want that sense of belonging, identity, and purpose to continue for ourselves and generations to come. We give out of a sense of personal investment, commitment, and benefit.
But our gospel lesson today challenges us to think about belonging in a way that is even bigger than us. Often times, when we talk about our faith or our spiritual journey, we talk about our personal connection to Hickory Neck or to God: how God has changed our lives, how Jesus has journeyed with us, how the Holy Spirit has led us out of dark places. But our spiritual journey is not just about us – about our own personal walk with God. Certainly our gospel lesson last week was about that. Jesus called out the disciples for arguing about who was the best among them. Our work this past week was about checking ourselves, making sure we do not become so self-focused that we forget what Jesus is trying to do through us. Our work this past week has been about examining the self.
But this week, as the disciples journey on with Jesus, we realize the disciples have shifted from a self-centered mentality, to a group-centered mentality. The disciples have basically shifted from wondering who among them will be the greatest disciple of all time, to how they as a group are the greatest community of disciples of all time. The disciples discover an outsider casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John proudly boasts to Jesus, “Don’t worry Jesus, we tried to stop him because he is not following us.” In other words, this demon-caster did not belong to the inside group, or even follow behind the inside group, so he certainly could not proclaim to do anything in the name of Jesus. He needs to belong to believe and to become.
I moved around a lot as a kid, and one of the things that I learned pretty quickly is that there are distinct groups, and belonging to one of them is a tricky endeavor. There are the cool kids, whose belonging standards seem to be about fashion, looks, and behavior. There are the smart kids, who are rarely confused as being fashionable, but whose knowledge can be intimidating. There are the athletes, who have played more and with better teams than you can imagine. There are the alternative kids, who seem define themselves as being the anti-all-the-other-groups group. The list goes on and on. What typically defines these groups is who is out: who is not cool enough, smart enough, athletic enough, or anti-establishment enough.
The disciples are doing the exact same thing. In a quest to gain importance, and in the face of Jesus’ rebuke last week, the disciples do more of the same. They shift from arguing about who among them is the best to who outside of them should not be let inside the group. The difference is subtle: they are superficially following Jesus’ instruction to not compete for individual advancement, but they are totally disregarding Jesus’ point by seeking group superiority in the same way they were seeking individual superiority.
Jesus sighs deeply (or at least I imagine him doing so) and he tells them something simple, “whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, the disciples belong to Jesus and have incredible value. But they are not the only ones who belong. Even the guy who has no idea what he is doing but knows there is something special about this Jesus – so special he tries invoking his name – even that guy belongs to Jesus. Jesus’ standards are pretty low – if you aren’t against him, you are for him. Jesus casts a pretty wide net for belonging. In fact, if we keep reading, we come to find out that even those who are against Jesus can be redeemed. Look at Paul’s life and you can hear that old hymn coming back to you, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea…” In Jesus’ eyes, there are few barriers to belonging – and even those can be broken down in time.
So what does this all mean for Hickory Neck and those warm, fuzzy feelings we have for this wonderful place and these beautiful people? A few things. The sense of belonging we feel here happens because generations of people have espoused Jesus’ words, “whoever is not against us is for us.” This amazing community is amazing because people who belong here do not hoard their belonging or use their belonging as a weapon. Instead, people give belonging away freely because they experienced belonging freely. Just ask Bill Teale, and he will tell you how within weeks of joining Hickory Neck, he was considered “belonging” enough that he was given the position of chair of the Fall Festival – an event he had never attended!
The sense of belonging we feel is because we have adopted certain standards of behavior. We are a community who will not get in your way because you do not have the right credentials; we know we may not have had the right credentials once upon a time, and we would rather hang that millstone around our necks that get in your way and in the way of something amazing God is going to do through you. We are also a community that is working so hard on ourselves that we do not really judge your work; the hands, and eyes, and salt reserves we need to tend to ourselves teach us not to judge the challenges of your hands, eyes, or salt. But instead of stopping at humility, we go the next step, and offer you a hand as you struggle with your own stuff.
The sense of belonging you feel here is because members of this community give generously from their abundance to ensure that this community continues to be a place of belonging to all those who are making their way to Jesus. That is what today’s gospel lesson is really trying to teach us. The wideness of God’s mercy and the broadness of God’s love are what inspire us to make this amazing community a community of belonging, believing, and becoming. We invest our resources here because we learn here what that wideness and broadness feels like, and we want to be agents of expansion. We want to step out of our tendencies to become self-centered or in-group-centered,[i] and create a community that is so wide that all feel a loving embrace when they walk through our doors.
In the coming weeks, I encourage you to pray about your own experiences in blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your own financial giving reflects that blessing. I invite you to meditate on moments of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and consider how your financial giving can create more of those moments. I challenge you to talk to your Hickory Neck friends about their journey of blessing and belonging at Hickory Neck, and how your collective financial giving might grow that blessing. This is our opportunity to widen the net of belonging, and grow Hickory Neck’s gifts to one another and the world. Amen.
[i] Harry B. Adams, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 116.