BELIEVING AND BELONGING
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
April 17, 2016; 4th Sunday of Easter, Year C
Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

“The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
John 10:25-26

“Let me be clear. I do not want, nor will I accept, the nomination of our party.” Those words were spoken this past week by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He went on to emphasize: “If no candidate has the majority on the first ballot, I believe you should only choose from a person who has participated in the primary. Count me out.”

Now isn’t this a Presidential campaign for the history books (in both parties)! Brokered conventions… Shadow candidates who aren’t running… Talk of “dark horses” and “white knights” to rescue the nomination process from itself… What a way to choose the next leader for the free world!

If you’re distressed by all the nail-biting uncertainty, it may be some comfort to know this sort of political maneuvering is nothing new. We just heard about something like this in our New Testament Lesson.

Now, you may not have heard it as political on the first go-round, but believe me: it is. A dark horse candidate has popped up in Jerusalem, and the political power-brokers want to find out from him, once and for all, what his true intentions are.

That dark horse candidate is Jesus: and the job for which some movers and shakers clearly want him to interview is Messiah.

“Tell us, Rabbi Jesus” — wink, wink, nudge, nudge — “are you in it to win it, or do you prefer to play hard-to-get?”

This could be Jesus’ Paul Ryan moment. When those prominent politicians take him aside and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you’re the Messiah, tell us plainly!”, Jesus could have done one of two things. He could have said, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” or he could have said, “No way, no how is that the job for me!”

Jesus does neither. In fact, what he’s getting at, when he says what he says, is none too clear. He seems, as much as anything, to be dodging the question.

“Look, you’ve seen what I can do. You’ve heard the teachings, you’ve seen the healings. Can’t you put 2 and 2 together?” (He dances right up to the line, but never steps over.)

“But then,” he goes on to say, a little sarcastically, “I don’t suppose you can. You people really aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer.”

(How NOT To Win Friends and Influence People, 1st Century edition.)

“You’re not one of my sheep, are you?” is what he says next. “Only my sheep understand who I truly am.”

Now, the reference to sheep can also be understood as political. Remember who the greatest King of Israel was? David. What was his job, before the Prophet Samuel took him aside and anointed him, in a semi-secret ceremony? Shepherd. (That was David’s psalm we heard, a few moments ago: Psalm 23, the shepherd psalm.)

I’m not sure Jesus is engaging in political posturing, though (as much as others may be wanting him to). I don’t think he’s playing hard to get, as a candidate for high office — however much it may appear otherwise. The point he’s making has to do with religious faith.

*****

Let’s zero in on this most telling line in the whole exchange, part of Jesus’ brush-off to the political leaders: “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

You and I, my friends, are living in a secular age. There was a time, just a generation or two ago, when practicing religious faith was universally regarded as a mark of good citizenship. Going to church on a regular basis was as American as apple pie. Lots of people did it: to build their resumes, to make a good impression on their neighbors.

But no longer. The personnel directors are no longer looking for that as they scan a resume, and the neighbors couldn’t care less. There is no longer any social advantage connected with being a church member.

But you know this already. If, in fact, you do make it a habit to engage in public worship on a regular basis, you’re not likely doing it for any of those incidental reasons. You’re not doing it to be seen.

You’re here out of spiritual commitment — or, at least, as a spiritual seeker — and that’s a great thing. You’re to be commended for that. You’re bucking the trend of a highly secular society. You’re here because you want to be, not because someone else has told you that you ought to be.

Jesus dismissed those political opportunists by saying, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Let’s turn that statement around. Let’s word it more positively, as something Jesus might have said to his most faithful disciple: “You believe, because you belong to my sheep.”

Believing and belonging: two things Jesus clearly says ought to go together.

*****

I’ve put something on the bulletin cover today to help us explore a little more deeply what it means to believe and to belong. It’s not our typical cover art. Take out your bulletin cover and have a look at the graphic that’s printed on the very first page.

BelieveBelongIt’s really more of a graph than a graphic. It’s a matrix — and no, I’m not talking about the series of sci-fi movies. A matrix is a type of chart you often see in social-science or business-management literature.

Take a look at it. You’ll see a zero in the lower left-hand corner, and a one-hundred at the end of each of two scales that emanate out from there. One points upwards, the other goes off to the right. The one that goes upward, let’s call “believing.” The one that goes off to the right, let’s call “belonging.”

Imagine if you could somehow quantify believing and belonging. (You can’t, but let’s imagine you can.) Someone who had a very strong faith would be at the upper left-hand corner. Someone who had a strong commitment to belonging — living in community with others — would be off to the lower right. Combine the two, and you end up somewhere in between. That’s how a matrix works.

Where do you suppose you fit in?

*****

Let’s start with the lower left-hand box, the one labeled, “Neither believing nor belonging.” The score is low on both the believing and belonging scales.

I seriously doubt if there’s anyone here today who fits into this category. Why would those who have little or no faith come to church at all? And why would those who have no desire for affiliation, either — no cravings for deeper community — show up in something as communal as a worship service? There are plenty of people out there in the world at large who fit very nicely into that box, but we just don’t see them here very often. So that’s all we need to say about “Neither believing nor belonging.”

It’s the next two boxes that get more interesting — especially because there probably are some people here today who fit into one or the other.

The first is the upper left-hand box: “Believing but not belonging.” It’s an increasingly popular lifestyle option in contemporary culture. It’s so popular, it’s even got its own acronymn: SBNR.

Maybe you’ve heard that before, and know what it means. SBNR stands for “spiritual but not religious.” There are plenty of people who have pretty much given up on the institutional church, but still believe passionately that they can make a connection with God in other, more individual ways. Some of them do make it into church from time to time — because they appreciate what they can learn in a sermon, or how the music may move their hearts — but they’re not likely to step forward and say “I want to become one of you.”

Sometimes there’s a sense of woundedness that accompanies this way of believing. Sometimes the church is at fault for things that happened a long time ago that caused certain negative experiences. Maybe there was someone else in this church or some other who was harshly judgmental, or angry, or hypocritical, and this put the other person off.

These are all understandable reasons for keeping one’s distance, for being cautious about affiliating. Yet, the more time goes by after the original incident, the less they sound like good reasons.

There’s an old story from the Eastern Orthodox tradition about a man who asked a priest: “If God is everywhere, then what do I go to church for?”

The priest had an answer to that. He replied:

“The whole atmosphere is filled with water; but when you want to drink you have to go to a fountain or a well.”

I’ve heard a similar version of that story that says the church is like a water-glass. It’s hard to kneel down at a stream and drink, but if you have a glass, it’s so much easier. There’s much about the church — any church — that’s flawed and weak and all-too-human, but the simple truth is, it’s a lot harder to maintain a robust faith unless you belong to a community of religious practice.

I think that’s what Jesus means when he says, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

*****

So that’s the upper left-hand box in our matrix, which I find very interesting indeed. Let’s move now to the lower right: “Belonging, not believing.”

Is it possible that someone could “belong to my sheep” — to use Jesus’ term — but not actually believe?

It’s not something people talk about very freely, but the answer is, “Yes.” It may not be true in an absolute sense, because there are all sorts of degrees of believing. Remember that, with any matrix, you can plot a location somewhere in the area of one of those boxes, without being parked completely on one scale or the other. No faith is completely free of doubt; and the contrast is also true: no doubt is completely free of any vestige of faith.

There are benefits to being part of a religious community that can accrue to us as individuals, quite apart from the intensity of our personal beliefs. Many lifelong friendships have been forged in the church. There is much rewarding volunteer work to be done: both within these walls, and as we venture forth into the larger world to serve others. Worship can be a joy from a purely aesthetic standpoint — especially when there’s a choir like ours, or an organist like Sara — even during an individual’s season of spiritual drought.

There are few communities left in our culture that are quite like the church, when it comes to the diversity of God’s people. Sure, it’s possible to criticize many churches, including our own, for its sameness in some respects — Martin Luther King, Jr. was embarrassingly accurate when he said “11:00 on Sunday morning is the most racist hour in American life” — but there are many ways a church like ours brings people together, from across different social categories and age groups, like no other organization in society.

Many of our older members and friends, for example, value the opportunity to see and interact with children. Their own children, if they have kids, have long since grown up and left the nest; and if there are grandchildren, maybe they live too far away to see very often. But here, on Sunday morning, there’s the opportunity to eavesdrop on a children’s sermon, or listen to the Dove Choir sing. The kids of the church, for their part, get a whole lot of grandparents, if they want them. Such are the benefits of belonging: the simple joys of community.

*****

Finally, there’s that fourth quadrant: “Both believing and belonging.” It’s the aspirational ideal.

The two enhance each other. The deeper any of us delve into Christian faith, we come to realize something: how much Jesus’ teachings propel us into community. You can only meditate so long on “Love your neighbor as yourself” before you have to get out and start doing it. By the same token, a great many Christians have found solace and strength for their own lives, during certain seasons of trouble or suffering, by connecting with the prayers and worship of their fellow believers.

I’ve told you before of the woman who had recently lost her husband of many years, who came to worship after the funeral but just couldn’t bring herself to sing the hymns. It was just too emotional. A friend of hers noticed her standing there, just staring at the page, and said to her, “I know you can’t sing the hymns right now. But don’t worry: the rest of us will sing them for you. Let our voices become yours. The day will come — you can count on it — when you will join us in singing once again.” And so she did.

Believing and belonging. Head and heart. Ideas and emotions. Our Creator has not made us for just one or the other. Our human nature unites the disparate parts to some degree, but we need a greater unity, sometimes, than we can come up with on our own.

Our faith has, at its very center, a man named Jesus. In his very being he brought together the human and the divine, fusing them into one. Neither you nor I could ever aspire to such perfect unity, but fortunately we don’t have to. For he will be our shepherd, if we let him. We have but to trust him, implicitly, and follow as he leads us along the paths of righteousness, across green pastures, beside still waters, to the blessed place where he restores our souls.

It’s the journey of a lifetime, but the good news is, we don’t make the journey alone. He goes with us, to be sure, but we also accompany one another — the best of traveling companions.

Let us pray:
In matters of believing and belonging, O Lord,
We know we are often weak and ill-equipped
to live this human life
in all the fullness you intended.
Save us from our tendency
to live in fragmented ways:
to mistakenly sunder head and heart,
body and spirit,
faith and works.
Keep us ever faithful to you,
and keep us ever committed to living joyfully with one another,
that we may continue to become the sort of disciples
who make you proud. Amen.

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.