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Sermon: “The Circle of Belonging”, Pastor Julie, 6/23/15


The sermon recording did not turn out this week, so here is the written version:rev_belonging


Does anybody remember Jr. High? It was in many ways for me an experience superior to my high school experience. There were times it could be brutal. Getting jumped (that means attacked by gang members) after school was no picnic. Enduring the pushes and shoves of thugs in the hall kept me outdoors if at all possible and certainly out of the bathrooms. The daily fights on campus, while at first very disconcerting, too soon became almost comical. For those of you who are acquainted with my husband’s stories of growing up in Lee Vining, let’s just say, mine was not a Lee Vining experience.


And yet, the three years at Henry T. Gage Jr. High, where my father also attended as a budding adolescent, provide me some of my most treasured memories of school days. One reason had to do with a sense of belonging. Like other adolescents there were times I felt on the outside and excluded. But for the most part, I was part of many circles of belonging.


One of those circles was 7th grade math class, held in a portable on the far side of campus after lunch. The portable was more like a dilapidated wooden shed that smelled very, very odd. Most of us were in other classes together, but Ms. Hopkins math class was special. Ms. Hopkins might of stood 4 feet 10 inches and weighed maybe 90 pounds, but she was a power to be reckoned with. Her presence pulled us together, in the heat of Sept. and what could be cold in winter. She created a safe place, a sanctuary in what was a hell hole, in which we grew confident in our capacity to do math: no small feat.


How do you know you belong? When do you know you’ve moved from “I’m a visitor, a guest, an acquaintance” to “I’m a regular, a member, a friend.” Most of the time, it happens over time. We realize one day, “I belong”. We look back and see experiences that contributed to it, this sense of belonging. There may not be a single event we can point to, but there may be a myriad of snap shots that come to mind which are like stepping stones we’ve traversed without even knowing how far we’ve come.


The experience of the Samaritan woman at the well is unusual in so many ways. I think it’s unusual for someone to experience so immediately and so fully that she belongs. The story paints her as such an outside, belonging nowhere, with no one. Not even the man with whom she currently resides is her husband, so her societal position is tenuous.


It’s not safe for her to go to the well when the other women are there. It’s not safe to go alone. She lacks a place of security, any circle of belonging. Her story, remembered by the early Christians, is seminal to our understanding and experience of Jesus. We understand Jesus to be welcoming; he welcomed children, , sick people, people of questionable moral rightness, people who collaborated with the enemy. Jesus was not very discerning when it came to including people in his circle.


The disciples seem annoyed that Jesus is talking to this woman, but Jesus is undeterred as always. She is so secure in the circle of Jesus’ belonging that she takes courageous action. She goes back to the people who shunned and shamed her so she can tell them about Jesus, so they can hear the good news.


There are so many people who still feel they do not belong, or they don’t feel welcomed. They may feel that other people believe they should not belong, that they should be excluded from circles of belonging.


On Thursday I called Pastor Betty Hanna Witherspoon who is the pastor at Primm Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal church in Pomona. Their Deacon Board has for the last 6 or more years held their fundraiser in our Fellowship Hall. When I was listening to the news out of Charleston, I thought of Pastor Betty and what she and her community are facing and feeling, so I called her.


She thanked me for our prayers. She said “we talk about diversity and wanting to be more diverse so when a white person walks in for a prayer meeting or Bible study we are welcoming.” Then we all know what happened; a man with hate in his heart and confusion in his mind pulled out a gun and said, I came to kill Black people.


A church opened its doors as a place of sanctuary, a circle of belonging and was violently assaulted. It is risky to be a circle of belonging that is open to the world, that is permeable and flexible to welcome in the other. It is also an immeasurable tragedy rooted in the insidious ways of racism.


There are churches that still preach and teach hate. These are not circles of belonging but twisted contortions of isolation instituted in fear of the other, the person who is different. In this country, the legacy of slavery is not over. When the Confederate Battle flag still flies over the state capital of South Carolina, what does that communicate to the people who did not belong then and in too many ways do not belong still.


African Americans in this country bear a particular alienation from fully belonging. Other groups certainly experience exclusion, but African Americans face exclusion, profiling and more in greater frequency and greater violence that any other group. It is sinful, blasphemous when the body of Christ is used as a place to encourage the continued hateful speech that alienates people from each other.


This congregation has been bold to proclaim itself open and affirming of all people. We are learning how to live that out more concretely. And let’s not kid ourselves that it’s all a kumbaya moment. It’s hard work, creating circles of true belonging, beyond the surface niceties. It takes courage to listen to the pain of our brothers and sisters without being defensive. It takes courage to then actually DO something that makes the world a little less mean, by speaking out ourselves, those of us whose skin color affords us a privilege of place we don’t often recognize because we take it for granted.


The hate speech isn’t limited to race. Every month, sometimes every week, I hear stories of people who sit in churches where hate is preached. Hostility for people who are Gay or Lesbian is expressed weekly. Seriously, what are people so afraid of that it’s the only thing they seem to be concerned about: obsessed with even.


When Paul wrote the Corinthians he described the church as the body of Christ. Each part of the body has a gift and a purpose to share: gifts of healing, teaching prophesy, administration. Yes, administration is a spiritual gift. At the end of this list of gifts he writes this: And I will show you a still more excellent way. (I Cor. 12:31b) Then comes the famous love chapter; love is patient and kind, it isn’t arrogant, it does not insist on its own way. More than all the gifts we may have and share, love out strips them all.


It is risky to love. It is far more likely for people to circle the wagons when we are afraid than it is for us to open up our circles of belonging.



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