When I was in college, my dad began to re-explore the faith of his upbringing. One night over the phone, he told me that he thought he was a Christian. I responded, “But you don’t go to church. You don’t have a community of faith.” He said, “I don’t need one to be a Christian.” This was foreign to me – me, a child of the church, who only knew the sweetness of a community of faith. I retorted in full on theological sass, “Yes you do. You can’t be a Christian alone. You need people with you.”
Thank God I was talking to my dad, who knows that the fullness of my vigor comes from the fullness of my heart even if it translates poorly. It wasn’t that I thought my dad wasn’t a follower of Jesus but I wanted my dad to know what I knew deeply: we belong to the Good Shepherd and we know this most intimately when we belong to the whole of Christ’s flock – when we have a place and a people to whom we belong. In the chaos of my youth, the good shepherds of Harvey Browne Memorial Presbyterian Church showed me what belonging looked like – it looked like teaching me in Sunday School and giving space for my plentiful questions; it looked like inviting me into the lectern because they saw me come alive when I led worship; it looked like chaperoning mission trips and doing energizers with me at Montreat. It looked like Jesus: tending to me, gathering me back up when I strayed, knowing me personally out of our entire flock.
I am the first to say that this sheep-keeping business – this belonging business – is hard and messy work. Being part of the Good Shepherd’s flock bears a responsibility to live out our claim, our belonging-ness to all those within God’s generous fold. And it is deeper than a feeling of welcome or inclusion. Scottish theologian John Swinton helps me to understand it. He studies and teaches on how the church can respond to dementia and disability but his work casts a broad vision for what belonging looks like.
“The problem we have with society is a real emphasis — and a quite right emphasis — on inclusion. I think at one level that’s fine. However, inclusion is simply not enough. To include people in society is just to have them there. All we have to do is make the church accessible, have the right political structures, make sure people have a cup of tea at the end of the service or whatever. There is a big difference between inclusion and belonging. To belong, you have to be missed. There’s something really, really important about that. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you.”
Here is what I know: Every week, we say together: “We are a community, a covenant people.” Those are not meant to be hollow words but hallowed words – sacred words that remind us we belong together, not scattered but hemmed in behind and before by the Shepherd’s keeping. We are called to be a people of belonging – to long for one another and look for one another when it feels we have pulled apart by fear and frustration and isolation. This is the work of the people, of us. This is what it means to be church. We belong to one another.
When I find that labor of love to be more than my hands and heart can hold, I am reminded of the Good News: In our Creator’s care for us, we were made this way – “wired for belonging.” In her book, Braving the Wilderness, social scientist Brene Brown lifts up her research and that of neuroscientist John Cacioppo who have both found that our behavior and biology point to a deep need for connection. Brown and Cacioppo explain it this way: “As members of a social species, we don’t derive strength from our rugged individualism, but rather from our collective ability to plan, communicate, and work together. Our neural, hormonal, and genetic makeup support interdependence over independence…’To grow to adulthood as a social species, including humans, is not to become autonomous and solitary, it’s to become the one on whom others can depend. Whether we know it or not, our brain and biology have been shaped to favor this outcome.’” (page 53) One of Brown’s most significant claims is that we are all connected – inextricably connected she says – unable to separate ourselves from one another, bound by a blessed tie that is higher and holier than us. We were made this way – to be bound in community and bound to God, interdependent, shaped to be one.
See, in our Creator’s hope for us, we were made this way – wired for belonging and therefore, wired to seek after the one to whom we belong, to seek after God. Think about it this way: when God breathed life into humankind at creation, Adam and Eve’s lungs were filled with God’s own being, God’s very breath. Scripture over and over again tells us how were are created in God’s image, in God’s likeness, and therefore, bear an imprint, a memory of true belonging. Our life is one that continually seeks after this memory; we are a people who collectively and individually possess innate desire to fill the God-shaped hole that lives within us.
Wired for belonging and therefore, made to seek God continually.
This is the Good News, my friends: In our Creator’s love for us, we were made this way – that while we spend our life seeking after God, we would be given the Shepherd who seeks after us – the One who comes alongside us to lead us through the breadth of life – from the darkest valleys to the greenest pastures and everywhere in between. God sent God’s only Son to live among us that we might know what love looks like when it is embodied, fulfilled, perfected, and lived out, that we might know that we belong and that this grace is for every single one in Christ’s gracious fold.
Hear our Gospel reading again, where we are drawn into the very heartbeat of this love. Christ proclaims, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
No one – not one thing – can separate us from this Good News. Not anger or politics or carelessness or the ways we try to pull ourselves apart. This – this – Christ says – is where you belong. With me. In my care and in my keeping. I know you and you will know me. And in this fold, I will show you that you belong, that you have a place here, that you are not alone, that you are missed when you are absent, that you will be nurtured by care, that you will not be forsaken or abandoned or ignored. But – you must listen to my voice, he says. You must pay attention so you can hear me and follow me – you can’t go at it alone. In my love for you, I will show you how we do this hard and messy work of belonging.
And here’s the Good News – in our Creator’s faith in us, we were made this way – to be a place of belonging. Look at today – we have gathered together to proclaim that we are sheep – in the best sense of the word. That we have heard Jesus’ sweet and welcoming voice that says to us, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” We made that proclamation in Grace’s baptism when we promised to show her what belonging to Christ’s fold looks like – to tend to her in her faith, teaching her about God as she grows, gathering her back up if she goes astray. We will make that proclamation in our commitments to the capital campaign when we promise to follow Christ’s hope for us in making room for his flock to expand and have space to move around and be and feel like they belong. We are sent to make that proclamation when we leave this place, paying attention to those who are here and those who are not and asking ourselves: are we a place of belonging? Yes and also not yet.
In our Creator’s trust in us, we were made this way – to have the choice to proclaim this belonging with hope and joy or to lay it aside. Today, let us choose to remember that we belong – we belong to one another, we belong to God, we belong to the Good Shepherd who claims us in all that we are, gathering us in and holding us fast. You are not alone, my friends. You belong. May that be so for the whole of Christ’s sheep. Amen.