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Sunday, August 19, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.

You Belong to God

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 27:1, 4–9
Acts 18:1–4
1 Corinthians 1:10–18

It’s a very human desire to long for belonging. When you feel that you belong somewhere, isn’t it a great feeling? To feel seen and accepted and included. It’s actually a somewhat rare and precious thing.
Maybe today you feel like you belong here, or you belong in your family, or you belong in a certain group of friends. Or maybe today you are struggling and feeling alone and wondering where you belong or whether you belong anywhere.

If that is the case, then you especially know the longing to belong. All of us feel this sometimes. All of us have moments when we feel like outsiders. We all want to belong somewhere. We want to feel seen and known and accepted. This is a good, healthy, human longing.

When the members at the church in Corinth say, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” I feel like I kind of understand that impulse. It’s like they want to say, “I’m part of this group or that group. I have people—my people.”

In Corinth, the scripture seems to tell us, the followers might have been claiming that they belonged to a certain group based on who had baptized them. They were a community that was divided at that time. And maybe they are not just divided from each other. Maybe they are also divided from themselves. Let me tell you what I mean.

I’ve been studying the writings of Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and leader and teacher, who has a wonderful book called A Hidden Wholeness. He talks about how we become divided in our own selves when we begin to hide parts of ourselves from others and even hide parts of ourselves from ourselves!

We forget who we are at the deepest level, at the soul level. At the soul level, there is a hidden wholeness. In the deepest way, we are whole, and that’s the place where we belong to God and we know we belong to God. We remember that we were created in God’s image, and we seek to represent that which God has given us—to offer our gifts. There’s this hidden wholeness at the deep soul level of our existence.

In the course of life sometimes we begin to pretend we are one way, but inside we feel many other things. We begin to hide parts of ourselves from people because we are afraid that if they really knew us, they would reject us. Or they might not like us.

So we try to belong by acting a certain way, but that belonging is based on something that’s not quite true. It’s not quite solid, and deep inside we feel that we really don’t belong, that we’re really not good enough; we’re really not acceptable.

Parker Palmer says that we fall into this trap when, “instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas, and beliefs rather than about our lives.”

When we just talk about ideas and opinions but don’t talk about what is really happening in our lives and in our hearts, we get disconnected. We get disconnected even from what’s true for ourselves. But we get disconnected from each other too, because ideas aren’t strong enough to hold us together.

Ideas change. Our understandings change. Our interpretations of things change. Believing the same ideas won’t bond us deeply and truly to each other. But there are stronger bonds we can recognize.

Our shared humanity, our shared journey through life—that’s something that can create a very strong bond if we’re able to share that in a real and truthful way. The things we do and the life we lead together in community—that can create a much stronger bond.

When Jesus was standing before Pilate, being judged and cross-examined, Jesus said to Pilate, “What is truth?” He never answered that question. He just put it out there before Pilate, suggesting, I think, that there is not an easy answer to that question, that people disagree about what truth is.

If those in the church in Corinth who said they belonged to Cephas or to Apollos or to Paul were arguing about ideas and the right ways to understand things or the right ways to do things, they were arguing about truth, in a sense.

We can often get caught up in that as humans. What’s the truth? What is true? We might say, “My way is the right way; my understanding is the true understanding.” Communities and churches can fracture over claims like this. Cultures and societies can break down over things like this. We see it happening a bit in our society right now.

And we do need to wrestle with these questions, because we’re not just talking about an abstract concept of truth. We’re also talking about what is moral and ethical and right. We need to wrestle with those ideas. As a society we need to ask those questions and develop standards that will shape our life together.

But how will we wrestle with these ideas, and how will we hold ourselves together as a society? Lashing out at each other doesn’t help the situation, as it just makes us all get more entrenched in holding on to our group’s understanding. “I belong to Paul.” “I belong to Cephas.” “I belong to Apollos.”

So what is true? What is truth? Parker Palmer gives an image of truth that I think is very Presbyterian. I guess it must be Quaker, too, because that’s his tradition, and probably many other traditions teach it too, but it’s definitely good to lift it up now. He says that truth is like a tapestry that we are all weaving together through conversation.

Presbyterians have long believed that no one of us is capable of fully grasping the truth of God or the truth of the universe or anything that is ultimate. Each one of us is limited by our finite mind and our limited perspective, while the truth is so much bigger and beyond our scope of understanding.

That’s why we need each other—so we can talk together and hear each other and see things from different angles. We need other people to tell us about the things we’re forgetting or that we never even thought of in the first place.

That’s what our denomination is named after: the presbyters, the elders, the people who come together to be the church. We need each other to understand God, truth, righteousness.

Together we discern how God might be at work in the world, and together we try to understand what God might be calling us to do.

How we do that discernment together is very important. Parker Palmer describes an ideal method of discernment when he describes something he calls a circle of trust. A circle of trust is a group of people who have decided that they are going to try to be with each other in a way that makes a safe space to discover a deeper truth. Parker says,

In a circle of trust, we can dwell in the truth by dwelling in the conversation. In such a circle, our differences are not ignored, but neither are they confronted in combat. Instead, they are laid out clearly and respectfully alongside each other. In such a circle, we speak and hear diverse truths in ways that keep us from ignoring each other and [that keep us] from getting into verbal shootouts—[we listen in] ways that allow us to grow together toward a larger, emergent truth that reveals how much we hold in common. How does that larger truth emerge in a circle of trust, and how do we grow toward it? It happens as together we create a "tapestry of truth," a complex fabric of experience and interpretation woven from the diverse threads of insight that each of us brings to the circle. (Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an Undivided Life)

Doing this successfully requires that we practice doing it and learning how to do it. In this process not only are we learning to listen to each other, but we are also learning to listen to our deepest self.

In creating safe, respectful places, we also take responsibility for ourselves and responsibility for listening for the wisdom that is deep in our soul. In the Quaker tradition this is called the Inner Teacher. I think of it as the still, small voice that the prophet Elijah hears when he approaches God just outside the cave.

This inner wisdom is real, but to remember our Presbyterian roots, we also remember that the inner wisdom inside us has to be checked out and cross-referenced and put into relationship with the inner wisdom that is coming up in other people too! Parker Palmer puts it this way:

Truth . . . resides neither in some immutable external authority nor in the momentary convictions of each individual. It resides between us, in the tension of the eternal conversation, where the voice of truth we think we are hearing from within can be checked and balanced by the voices of truth others think they are hearing. (A Hidden Wholeness)

Our differences are so important in this process, just as the differences between the different factions in the church in Corinth were so important. Notice that Paul didn’t say, “OK, you two groups, you get out. You’re not part of this church anymore.” Instead he tried to turn their attention toward what actually connected them to each other.

What I’m thinking is that below our ideas and our opinions is this deeper point of connection. As human beings we are connected. Our souls connect us. Parker describes the process of getting in touch with the inner teacher, the inner wisdom, as getting in touch with our souls. He describes the soul this way:

The soul is generous: it takes in the needs of the world. The soul is wise: it suffers without shutting down. The soul is hopeful: it engages the world in ways that keep opening our hearts. The soul is creative: it finds a path between realities that might defeat us and fantasies that are mere escapes. All we need to do is to bring down the wall that separates us from our own souls and deprives the world of the soul’s regenerative powers. (A Hidden Wholeness)

If we can reconnect to our souls we will remember and realize that the soul already belongs to God. When Paul talks about baptism, he’s basically saying that it doesn’t matter who says the words or who performs the baptism. The one we belong to is God.

Our baptismal liturgy has a line in it that says, “Child of the Covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We belong to Christ. We don’t belong to the person who said these words to us. We belong to God. The process of getting in touch with our soul is a process of remembering that God created us and God loves us. In this we are drawing closer to God.

Paul goes on to say that he is sent to proclaim the gospel, the good news, not with eloquent words but, as he says elsewhere, by letting Christ live in him. He proclaims the gospel through his life and the way he lives it.

If he was proclaiming the gospel just with eloquent wisdom, just with fancy words, the cross might be emptied of its power, he says.

When we say "the cross of Christ" we have to think about what that means. On one level, the cross on which Jesus died was very much like thousands of crosses that were used by the empire, at that time the Roman Empire, to torture and kill anyone who opposed its power and its unjust concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few.

But on another level, when we talk about the cross of Christ, we are talking about the empty cross. We are talking not about the death of Christ at the hands of the empire, but we are talking about the resurrection of Christ in spite of evil and torture and injustice.

Christ rose again from the dead. Christ is alive, even now, in all the fullness of his ever-present wisdom and power and grace.

Christ is, in fact, alive in you! So I encourage you to allow that. To relax into that realization. Let hope and renewal and courage live in you, too. Let justice and kindness live in you.

And when you feel lost and afraid and uncertain, or when you feel angry and overwhelmed and tempted to hate, turn again toward the brilliant light of Christ. Open your heart to the healing love of God through Christ. Lean on that power that is greater than you, that created you, that placed your soul at the core of your being. Vast is God’s presence, and vast is God’s power that can pull life out of death and hope out of despair.

You belong to God, not to any worldly leader. And this world belongs to God, not to any worldly leader.

Our task, as Christians, is to follow God in the way that Jesus did. So, go, and do likewise. Amen.