I was on retreat this past week at Techny Towers, up in Northbrook, at an event held by The Center for Courage and Renewal titled “Habits of the Heart for Healthy Congregations: Risking the Call to Belong.” I’ve been to Courage and Renewal retreats before, which are based on the work of Parker Palmer, who also happened to be there with us for part of the event. On Tuesday night I got to be part of a panel discussion on “the changing shape of belonging” during which I was asked to share to what, or whom, I am committed. Here’s what I said:
“At the risk of being trite, when it comes to belonging to a community of faith my first commitment is to Jesus. I offer this in, I hope, as non-chauvinist a way as possible. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus is the only name by which we encounter the divine, but it is the name I have been given to rely on for health and healing. I also don’t mean to say that I am committed to Jesus because of the cultural inheritance he represents or because I get something out of the relationship — though both are true as well. What I do mean is that as I have lived in community with Jesus, I have grown in my capacity to see the people Jesus saw, like the widow with her mite; to touch the people that Jesus touched, like the leper living at the edge of community longing to go home; to love the people that Jesus loved, like the young man of privilege who wanted to be part of God’s movement without giving up what he already had. In other words, I am committed to Jesus because I belong in his company, along with people who are very much like me, and people who are very much unlike me.”
When I got done talking I felt pretty good about myself. I’d managed to say what I wanted to say, and to do it while sitting directly next to someone I kind of idolize. I’d given my testimony about who Jesus is to me, and why I am committed to living my life in his company. I claimed my place at Jesus’ side as one who belongs to him.
But Jesus does not belong to me.
At least, that’s what I hear loud and clear in this story from the gospel of John. After feeding the five thousand and calming the storm, Jesus begins to teach the crowds that follow him with words that challenge them. Words that challenge them — not because they don’t understand, but because they think they understand too well. After referencing the story of the Exodus and God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” And because he says this, the Jews begin to complain about him.
Now, can we just stop for a minute and get real about who the Jews in this story were? They were his people, his countrymen. They were his neighbors. They even say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” As the crowd struggles to makes sense of and accept what Jesus is saying, the stumbling block isn’t their Jewishness (as two thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism have too often implied), but the fact that they thought they already knew everything they needed to know about him! The stumbling block isn’t their religious background or their ethnic background, it’s their shared background. Who is this guy, that he compares himself to the bread that gave life to our ancestors in the wilderness? We’ve known this guy since we were kids, since he was a kid. He belongs to us!
It’s easy to feel that way about Jesus, especially if you love him. The crowds must have loved him, he’d just met their most basic need in the most extraordinary way, taking what little they had and transforming it into enough to send them to sleep stuffed with leftovers to spare. I love him, because he sees me giving my all, as little as that may be; because he touched me even when I was aching at the margins of society; because he loves me, even when I am more attached to my comfort and my wealth than I am to his revolution. You love him in ways you already know how to share, and ways that are still searching for words. You love him because he is your inheritance, because he is your hope, because he is your teacher, because he is your struggle, because he is your shepherd, because he is your savior, because he is your Lord, because he is your God.
Because you belong to him, though he does not belong to you.
I was down at the seminary last night for the opening convocation of this year’s LVC orientation. All of the new volunteers, who will be placed in settings across the country, are gathered this week in Chicago for training and community building. All of the speakers were fantastic but one snippet from Kim Bobo, the founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, stuck out at me. Speaking to a crowd made up mostly of recent college graduates she said,
“I would far rather work with someone who will do something than someone who knows something. The problem with college is that it spends four years training you that the most important thing is knowing the right answer. Then you get sent out into the world and you feel like the most important contribution you can make to an organization is to have the answers. I’m running the copier, making coffee, and taking out the trash, and my interns want to do something that ‘matters.’”
For too long, too much of Christianity has been about trying to prove we know something. Over the course of two thousand years we have divided the body of Christ again and again with dispute after violent dispute over what “matters,” our ideas about what we must believe about God in order to belong to God. It’s not hard to see where it comes from, we get it in this morning’s passage as well,
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:44-47)
Ironically, whenever we get too self-satisfied with our answers about what it means to belong to God, we take our role in the story being played out between Jesus and the Jews, those who thought they knew him best, his friends and neighbors. In our insistence on right beliefs we hear echoes of their insistence that they also knew how God would save them, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness…” (6:30-31) Time and time again we confuse our belonging to God with God belonging to us.
And each branch of the Christian family tree has their own particular way of doing this, none of us are exempt. Lutherans are extraordinarily proud of our theology. We stand behind Martin Luther’s recovery of the apostle Paul’s assurance that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) So, we get nervous whenever anyone talks about doing anything, because we worry that someone will get the wrong idea and understand us to be saying that we have to do something to merit God’s favor. That our belonging depends on our doing instead of what God has already done. The problem is, there are things that need doing — not in order that you might finally one day be worthy of belonging to God, but because you already belong to God.
You already belong to God, and so does everyone else, despite all that the world does to deform our sense of self so that some of us are taught to believe that the world exists for our benefit and others are taught to believe that the world is permanently set against us. Most of us, in fact, experience the world to be a place of both privilege and pain, which creates in us a sense of anxious confusion as we try to maximize our privilege and minimize our pain.
The world operates on the logic of what Martin Luther might have called “works righteousness,” except that instead of offering us the old trade — our righteous works for the promise of heaven — it has shrunk the horizon of belonging down to earth and demanded our righteous works — in the form of obedience to a political and economic pyramid scheme that benefits a few by oppressing a great many — in return for the promise of acceptability here and now. It has lied to us and told us that the only way we can know if our lives have any worth or meaning is if they look like the lives led by happy, comfortable, well-fed, able-bodied, White, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, married, home-owning families. Except, guess what, I’ve checked 9 out of 10 boxes on that list — and they have nothing to do with what gives my life meaning or purpose or value! If anything, being able to check those boxes leaves me constantly aware of a nagging complicity with a system that was organized before I was born and without my consent to create separation and mistrust between me and and so many other groups of people who are like and unlike me. God’s own people, who are my sisters and brothers.
What gives my life purpose and value is that I belong to God, whose answer to my anxious confusion is not to maximize my privilege and minimize my pain as so much prosperity-promising religion suggests, but to do the exact opposite. In Jesus, God has shown us a way of loving that gives up privilege and stands with those in pain. In Jesus I see a way of godly living that Paul commends in his letter to the Ephesians,
“So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another … Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:25;5:1-2)
The world is filled with people giving it their all, aching at the margins, clinging to their privilege — people like you and me, and people so very different from us — and if we are going to be part of God’s healing and redemptive purpose we will have to give up so many illusions about God and about ourselves. We will have to dismantle the machinery of capitalism, which treats people like objects and objects like people. We will have to deconstruct myths of White superiority, which pretend that White people’s successes and People of Color’s sufferings are both deserved and disconnected. We will have to disavow nationalism, which teaches us to accept the bondage and humiliation of other people as long as it happens away from our view. We will have to confess that our ideas about God are so much smaller than God’s own self, and be ready to release not only those elements of our Christian heritage that seem peripheral, but even those which may feel essential, in order to participate in the expansive welcome God has in store for all of us.
I don’t think that’s actually so different from what Jesus said to his friends, his neighbors, his people, the Jews — who are also our friends, and our neighbors, and our people as well, along with every other person on the face of the earth, Muslims and Bahá’í, Hindus and Jains, Buddhists and Atheists, Indigenous and Colonizers, Asian and Latino, Black and White, and all the rest of God’s richly diverse creation — I will be who I will be, I will become what I am becoming. I am not confined to your memory, I am laboring alongside and within you to give you a future with life. I will support you. I will sustain you. I will feed you. I will be your bread, and you will be my people. You belong to me. All of you.